Monday, May 21, 2007


Today, one of my favorite projects ever, Amarcord, in honor of the newest addition to Mariel's and my art wall, just back from the framer:

When we do a re-release at Criterion, we have that much extra motivation to blow the doors off the original release, so we knew we wanted this design to be something special. We knew we didn't want to use the image on the original Criterion DVD, from the original poster. We kicked around the idea of using some of Fellini's drawings in the design, but (a) there were rights issues, and (b) none of them really worked as a cover; no one drawing could represent the whole film. And no one photograph was ever going to capture it. So we started talking illustration.

The incredibly talented painter Caitlin Kuhwald had done one project for us before, the very fun Heaven Can Wait. That project came out great, but I always felt a bit like we were asking her to fight against some of her more creative instincts in aiming for something with a little more of that old Hollywood vibe. But for this, everything that she might have had to tone down for Lubitsch could be given free reign—exaggerated figures, bright splashy colors, creative use of flattened, artificial perspectives... if that doesn't scream "Fellini" I don't know what does! Clearly, she was a perfect choice.

So now we knew who we wanted to paint it, we just needed to figure out what we wanted her to paint. We knew we didn't just want to do a group portrait of all the funny characters, like the previous poster, but the movie contains so much that it's almost impossible to capture it in one image. In fact, I'd argue that the sheer volume of characters and storylines, and the chaos associated with that, is central to the film. We knew this was going to be a two-disc set and we knew it had a big book associated with it, so it was going to be a digipak in a slipcase. I thought about the idea of the film being overfull of so many different characters and situations and came up with the idea of a cover that spilled out onto the whole gatefold digipak, and it's organization as four seasons of one year splits pretty perfectly into four quadrants of a gatefold. Many long hours of conversation between myself and the producer later, we came up with the following brief, which I reproduce here verbatim to really give you a sense of what Caitlin was up against...


So... Amarcord:

As I briefly mentioned on the phone, this is going to be a pretty elaborate illustration, and somewhat complicated to explain what we're going for, so forgive me if I ramble a bit, and don't hesitate to ask me to clarify if there's anything in here that's unclear. And we should definitely have a phone conversation once you've had a chance to watch the film. Also, please feel free to suggest any changes that you think would improve the piece.

Basically we need one big illustration that will cover a 4-panel gatefold digipak, the 3rd panel of which is going to need to be strong enough to stand on its own as a cover when it's folded together. The attached jpeg [which was a digipak template] should give you a sense of the dimensions of the pieces and how they'll fit together; I've also included a sample digipak in the package I'm sending to you (along with plenty of photo reference and a copy of the film.)

Over these four panels, we want an assortment of characters and situations. Amarcord is made up of lots of little stories, and we want to represent as many little vignettes as possible over the course of this illustration--think of a high-minded "Where's Waldo," where anywhere your eye lands tells a new story. The unifying factor will be that the whole thing comes together as one big town scene, with essentially the entire town running around the town square.

There a number of scenes and characters that we see as essential, and a basic flow of events that we'd like to preserve, but you should feel free to fill in whatever gaps you see with other characters and scenarios from the film--there's so much in there that I doubt you'll be lost for inspiration. Generally speaking, there should be four main foci of the illustration as your eye travels across the four panels.

Here's how we see it breaking down:

[Panel 1] The spring bonfire scene from the beginning of the film. The townspeople (basically whoever's not being used anywhere else) gather around the fire, puffballs floating above it all. This crowd of people should merge into...

[Panel 2] ...the big summer fascist rally scene, with some fascists and "Mussellini Youth" milling about the big creepy portrait of Mussellini. Over to the side, we see Titta's father, whose comically angry glare leads us across the spine area, to...

[Panel 3] ...Titta (midground), who oogles the unaware Gradisca (foreground), while Titta is being oogled in turn by the well-endowed tobacconist (background), possibly leaning out of her window. Gradisca's gaze, meanwhile, is directed at the iconic ship that we can see docking in the distance, at the top of the frame. This is obviously the most important panel, the one that needs to be able to stand alone. Gradisca's red hat and dress, the ship, and the tobacconists comically large breasts are probably the three most recognizable images from Amarcord, and Titta is the character who (sort of) represents Fellini as a young man, so that's why we most want to see those elements on the cover section of the image. (This is also the section we're going to need to lay the title over somewhere, so that should be taken into account, too, though don't stress about that too much. Also attached to this email is a jpeg of the classic title treatment that we're maybe going to use in some form.) Anyway, to the right of this tableau, we find...

[Panel 4] which we discover that the first winter snow has started to fall, and we see people frolicking in the snow around the incongruous peacock, as in the scene toward the end of the film.

(Just to clarify, I'm breaking it down into panels, but the whole thing should be one complete picture; we don't want to see any hard breaks from scene to scene, the whole thing should feel like a bunch of little vignettes happening in one location, all interconnected.)

I'm picturing the whole thing having a general flow from left (the bonfire) down to right (the peacock). As the eye travels from left to right, the plot of the film advances and the seasons change. So where on the left you have the bonfire that signifies the beginning of spring, when you get to the right side you'll have the first winter snow falling. Summer and Fall will probably be pretty subtle (we shouldn't see leaves changing color or anything, since it is Italy--the only real difference should be that we see people wearing coats in panel 3 and more informal in panel 2 (except the fascists, of course.)) We were thinking also that the "puffballs" that float around the bonfire at the beginning could be an element that subtly carries across the whole thing, becoming the snow at the end. (Just another possible way to tie the whole thing together.)

Other characters/situations that could pop up somewhere in there include:
--Titta's hair-netted uncle (probably in a crowd scene somewhere)
--Uncle Tio, possibly with his midget nun friend (again, probably in a crowd)
--Volpina, the crazy town tramp (maybe on the beach in front on the ship, off in the distance)?
--the harem girls in their crazy headdresses (possibly we could see them in the tiny portholes on the ship?
--the lawyer character who occasionally narrates (probably in one of the crowd scenes)
--the rest of Titta's family (crowd)
--more of the kids and teenagers from the school scenes (again: crowd)
--maybe the baron's palace, if you need to fill up a background somewhere
--maybe the tree that Uncle Tio climbs up into, if you need another background image
--there should be at least some suggestion of beach in there somewhere, probably in front of the ship is enough but if you want the beach horizon line to extend in the background that wouldn't be inappropriate.
--and whoever/whatever else you see fit. There are so many crazy characters in this film, you should be able to find enough reference for every person who shows up in a crowd to be recognizable to someone who really knows the film, and the more personality you infuse the characters with, the better.

(I'll also include a guide to who's who amongst the characters in the package I'm sending out, so don't worry if you can't remember their names.)

And, as will be obvious when you watch the film, everything should be represented in the beautifully bright colors you do so well. And while we do obviously want to get recognizable likenesses, don't be afraid to let the characters get kooky and distorted... that shouldn't be a problem, considering these characters are pretty distorted to begin with!

So... yeah. I know, this is CRAZY complicated and convoluted, (I'm getting tired just writing it up--I don't envy you having to paint the damn thing!), but it also has the potential to be incredibly fun and cool if done right. And I have no doubt you'll do it up right. So think through all of the above for a bit and we'll talk in the next couple days, and you can tell me exactly how crazy I am to expect all of this to work...

I look forward to working with you again,


So... holy crap, right? I wrote the thing and I can barely make heads or tails of what I'm asking for. But Caitlin was not fazed, and in due course came back with her first rough sketch of the concept:

It's a loose sketch, but the basic ideas and forms are already there. We talked it over and agreed that the main panel (#3) wasn't quite working yet—Titta feels a little aimless, and a bit young, and Gradiska isnt quite there yet, although there's definitely something fun about her pose. I knew from the start that the third panel was going to be the hardest to pin down, because it's both the most important (being the cover) and necessarily the least specific—all the other panels can represent just their little section of the film, but the third panel needs to be general enough to represent the film as a whole. A tall order.

Caitlin took our comments to heart and did another, tighter sketch:

With this one we can really see the first two panels come together. Panel 4's not half bad, either, but feels maybe just a bit too disconnected from the rest of the piece. Gradiska's likeness is a lot closer, but the straight-ahead shot has lost some of her flirtiness. Titta's looking a lot better, if a little lonely; I suggested maybe some of his friends could connect him a bit more to the parade in the previous panel, thereby giving both him and Gradiska a reason for just standing out on the street. We also needed to make sure we had some space for the spine. Cut to sketch #3:

Here Caitlin's tightened up the first two panels just a bit more, and they're pretty much done. Gradiska may have overshot "flirty" by a bit, and something about the perspective on the fourth panel makes Volpina look like a midget, but we're getting very close. Just one more sketch to find the happy medium between #2 and #3:

And there we had it! I should say, compared to some of the previous "art direction" posts on this blog, that might look like a lot of sketches, but honestly, getting an illustration that complicated settled in only four sketches is a borderline miracle. So with Caitlin working on the final painting, I started to work up title treatments. We knew we had to keep the iconic Amarcord title typography, but I had to figure out how best to incorporate it into the illustration.

Originally I imagined we would only put the title on the slipcase, and the digipak could be pure art, so I designed some title treatments that covered up quite a bit of the painting, with the idea that we'd uncover what was covered inside. Once it became clear that, because of how the new branding system was shaping up, (this was one of the first titles with the new look), we were going to need the branding on the digipak, it felt silly to have the branding without the title, so I tried some smaller treatments. Unfortunately, I don't have any of those saved, so you'll have to take my word for it. Anyway, It wound up being too difficult to really make the decision until we saw the finished artwork, so we tabled that conversation for a bit.

Next, the menus. Given how many other pieces were going into this set, I knew we'd never be able to stretch one illustration (even one as action-packed as this) over so many menus and pages of the booklet, etc. So I used the title treatment as a bridge and created the menus and booklet using still framegrabs from the film. Here's a sampling of how the menus came together, which I was always pretty happy with. I think it's a testament to how perfect Caitlin's illustration is for the film that unadorned images from the film work so seamlessly in the same design. This was also one of the first Criterion discs to do anamorphic 16x9 menus, so it was exciting to get to play with the new wider size.

Finally, after a few weeks of anticipation, Caitlin finished the illustration. And... wow. I and everyone else at the Criterion offices went gaga for it. It was everything we could have hoped for. Every panel works really well by itself, and the whole is even better than the sum of its parts.

(It's worth noting that, as you can probably tell from the very first picture way up at the top there, Caitlin did this on two boards and then joined them digitally, something I didn't even realize until I saw the actual artwork many months later.)

And here's the final cover, with type and everything in place:

So, like I say, one of my favorite projects ever, and an absolute joy to work on. I still can hardly believe we pulled it off: Caitlin, you're my hero!

Eddie Campbell blogs cover design

Here's an on-topic link: over at his always readable blog, Eddie Campbell has started blogging his cover-making process, from sketch to final painted cover. Well worth a look.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Vengeance is Mine

Vengeance is Mine—which, if my schedule is to be believed, hits stores today—was a difficult project to wrap my head around, because everyone involved with the design brief seemed to have a slightly different take on the film. Some wanted to focus on the randomness in Imammura’s style, some on the idea of Iwao as a sort of super smooth anti-James Bond protagonist. There was talk of focusing on the police procedural framework, or on Imammura’s “objective,” non-judgmental perspective. And of course, all of these conflicting ideas are present in the film, but very difficult to reconcile into one cover design.

There were also the, frankly, bizarre promotional photos that had been used in many previous posters and ad campaigns for the film—staged shots of Iwao and the numerous female characters in various states of undress—but we all agreed that they didn’t accurately represent the film.

Left to my own devices, I watched the film again, and did a little reading. One thing that stuck in my head was the idea that at the most violent points in the film, the scenes where many modern filmmakers might switch to a “shaky cam” to highlight the disorientation, Imammura’s camera becomes very still and orderly. It’s a prime visual example of the “objective” viewpoint Imammura employs throughout; he doesn’t allow you to identify with Iwao, but neither does he condemn him. By enforcing an ordered perspective on chaotic events, the film makes the violence less visceral but more real. This makes it somehow even more random and less understandable. But obviously, the idea of the camera being still is difficult to convey in print, where everything is necessarily static. So how to represent this idea of order imposed on chaos?

The other ingredient in my thinking was a bit of free association. When watching the film the first time through, I took note of the text that appears onscreen during the investigation scenes. It’s phrased as though it’s a form being filled out (“Suicide or homicide: homicide”), and there’s a slightly surreal quality to how it interacts with the images—for example, there’s an wide aerial shot of a crowd gathering around a yellow truck, and the text overtop reads “Cause of death: Stabbed left side of face, neck, forehead and chest.” All of that got me thinking about a much more extreme example of a similar effect in an untitled short comics story by Kevin Huizenga—recently reprinted in his fantastic book Curses—that takes the text of some adoption paperwork describing the baby’s parents and lays that over seemingly unrelated images of landscape. This got me thinking about comics panel structures, and the imposition of order inherent in a grid structure. (See how it’s all coming together?)

So here’s what I wound up submitting. They might seem somewhat straightforward after all that high-minded interpretive investigation, but well, sometimes you take the long road.

The first one was the clear favorite, but we were initially a little worried that viewers unfamiliar with the film might mistake it for something like a Yakuza film. (There’s something about that suit/sunglasses combo.) The third comp—the more domestic scene—certainly didn’t have that problem, and had a certain sexual connotation to the violence that wasn’t inappropriate to the film, but ultimately, we decided that the image was too confusing and just not compelling enough. And the last option just didn’t quite feel like a cover—a booklet cover, maybe. I tweaked number two for a bit, but ultimately we all decided the first one was immediately compelling enough to work, so we went with that.

All of that overthinking didn’t go to waste, though. Hopefully you can see from the menus and the rest of the packaging that many of those ideas got carried through and helped make the package as a whole really come together. Here's a sampling of the package:

Monday, May 7, 2007

Three War Films by Andrej Wajda

NOTE: It's come to my attention that some people are having trouble viewing the animated gifs in this post—if you can't see the pictures flashing, try clicking the images to open them in a new window.

The Wajda box was kind of a backwards project. Normally with projects like this, we work on the cover first. We get that just the way we want it, and use the look established there to dictate how to ripple out the rest of the packaging. But on this project, we did the opposite. For reasons not worth getting into here, the rest of the design had to be completed before the covers. So I had to build a design that was open enough to work with a cover that didn't yet exist, but still dynamic and interesting, since these are very emotional, dramatic films.

For the menus I decided that, contrary to how I normally design box sets, each film would have its own design scheme that connected to the other two films only through a matching font set (FF Scala, if you're curious), and color scheme. I've been down on the black-white-and-red color scheme in the past, and it is a little over-used, but it was really the only scheme that made sense for these. Every historical entity that had any resonance with these films is represented by those colors: Nazis, red and black. Soviets, red. Poland, red and white. It just made too much sense to ignore.

(Completely arbitrary digression: Anyone ever notice how the enemies in most of the major conflicts in American history has been associated with the color red? The Communists in the Cold War, the Nazis and the Japanese in WWII, even the British, who I wouldn't normally associate with red particularly, were the "redcoats" during the Revolutionary War. Kinda puts a whole new spin on the red state/blue state divide, huh? But I digress...)

For A Generation, I'll admit I never had a particularly great high concept--it's basically just full frame images with straightforward type centered overtop. I could try to justify it by saying that A Generation was Wajda's first film and as such is a little more of a blunt instrument than the other films, without the subtlety of his later work, but honestly I just liked the imagery I had and figured I could get away with just showing it full screen.

For Kanal I built the menus around a two-tiered idea that was meant to suggest the above ground/underground dynamic of the film.

For Ashes and Diamonds, I got a little more specific to the film. There's a scene towards the end of the film when one of the characters (I won't say who to avoid spoiling it) is fleeing for his life. He stumbles through a yard in which someone's laundry--a field of sheets--is being hung out to dry. It's a particularly memorable and beautiful sequence, one that evokes much of the tragedy of the film, so I decided to use that my entry point. I built the menus around loose drawings of sheets, with images from the film poking out from behind and the menu text laying on top of the white sheets.

Then came the covers, and since the menus and the packaging were half-finished, the covers pretty much had to be built to match the insides. I wasn't having much luck with purely photographic treatments (and I didn't even save any of the photo-based comps, so they must have been pretty bad), so I began leaning towards doing something a little more graphic with these covers. I started off with a high-contrast look reminiscent of the Night and the City style, but we'd done that look before, and anyway, something about these films seemed to want a rougher, more handmade look.

So I developed a faux-handmade style for the covers. I say "faux"-handmade because it was all done in photoshop--unfortunately years of desk-jockeying have atrophied any actual drawing muscles I might have once had. The method I used for these is, as far as I know, unique to me. And rightly so, because it is both needlessly labor-intensive and absolutely backward. It worked like this: since I didn't have anything like a tablet pen at the time, I drew a thick black line with my mouse, then erased around the sides of the line until I reached something approaching a contour line. I thought of it not unlike chiseling out the negative space around a line to make a woodcut, only digital, and sloppier. Here's a quick animated gif to demonstrate how any particular line might be made:

There's no particular reason the results should look like anything other than a train wreck, but there's something about them that kinda works... or at least, I like to think so.

For A Generation, I found a particular framegrab from the film that I wanted to represent, so it was a simple matter of tracing directly over the image. As demonstrated in this animated gif:

For Kanal, I used the same basic technique, but the image itself was something of a collage of different elements; the barbed wires and the hand and the grenade all came from different moments in that same scene. I composited them, did my little tracing thing, and had the cover. It was pretty important that the grenade on the cover be that particular kind of German WWII grenade, but when I drew it, it came out looking more like a microphone than a grenade. (I remember thinking if I couldn't get it approved for this cover, I should save it and try to use it for 8 Mile 2: Grab the Mike or something.) So I found some reference online for the that kind of grenade and found the German equivalent of "front towards enemy" was written on them, so incorporating that text helped clarify the image. Here's another animation to demonstate:

For the last film (Ashes and Diamonds), I was having trouble coming up with anything that really captured the flavor of the film. I originally tried representing an old German poster that we've got hanging up in the Criterion offices, in the style I'd used for the other two covers. So this:

became this:

Except no one was really crazy about it in the new style. I personally was really proud of that drawing of the gun, but overall it's a little flat, and definitely not an improvement on the original. So I tried a couple other compositions that just didn't work at all; here's the only one I'm not completely embarrassed to show (you can just imagine how bad the others were):

I eventually realized there wasn't quite any image that really did what I wanted it to. I thought about what it was that really stood out in my memory about Ashes and Diamonds, especially contrasted with the other two films, and found it was really the somewhat incongruous sense of cool in the midst of tragedy we get from Maciek, that James Dean, sunglasses-at-night thing he's got going on. So I tried just a straight-up portrait, not traced from any particular picture, and came up with this:

Check out that Kirby-tastic chin squiggle! Frankly, I'm still a little surprised this got approved, but I guess there's something appealing amateurish about it. I still liked the gun from the first version enough that I used it for the booklet cover.

All that left was the slipcase cover, which is the biggest challenge in any multiple film box set. You have to avoid favoring any one film over the others, which tends to eliminate photos right away. For Criterion box sets, the theme that connects the film is seldom as simple as "the Connery Bond movies," where you can easily stick Sean Connery on the front and bam, you're done. No, for Criterion box sets the connection is usually the director (and a picture of the director is never a good way to sell a film), and/or something abstract and thematic, i.e. "life as theatre," or "the absence of God in modern life." Which on the one hand makes it harder to conceptualize slipcase covers, and on the other makes successfully executing them that much more satisfying.

For this box, the connecting thread was obviously "war"--the Second World War, in particular, and the history of Poland during that period. The bittersweet "victory" in which they were freed from Nazi control only to be yolked by the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.

My mind wandered back to the clothesline scene in Ashes and Diamonds. There's a moment when the character is concealed behind a sheet on a line, and he's bleeding out onto the sheet. So the sheet becomes half soaked in blood, i.e. half-red, half-white, like the Polish flag. I can't remember if that idea was put into my head by some article I read, or by producer Iza Muchlinski, or if I came up with it myself, but wherever it came from, it stuck with me. It seemed to hit the major themes: the violence of war, the birth of the new Polish national identity, etc. Okay, yes, the image technically related to one film more than the other two, but it was still abstract enough to stand for all three. And luckily, in this particular box, Ashes and Diamonds was clearly the marquee film of the set, so if we were going to highlight one film more than the others, that was the one to call out.

The drawing on the slipcase cover wound up veering in something of a Saul Bass direction, only sloppier. I go back and forth on whether it's successful or not. I know I like it more as a 3-dimensional object than I do onscreen. I recall there was quite a bit of back and forth over exactly where the title should go; here's a couple options:

We finally settled on keeping the type away from the drawing as much as possible. So, all together, here's the final covers for all four pieces:

Friday, May 4, 2007

Designs I Love: Hard Case Crime

Here's a whole publisher I'm very fond of: Hard Case Crime. Their whole schtick—new and vintage pulp paperbacks with newly illustrated, retro-looking covers--is just plain fun, and it's been executed superbly. And the books are pretty good, too!

In the credit where-it's-due department, the above cover illustration is by Chuck Pyle, and the credits for the rest are here. I'm not sure who's responsible for the series as a whole--the website credits Steve Cooley with "cover design after 2006," but it's not clear who originated the look. Whoever it is, they did a hell of a job. Here's a few more of my favorites: