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!


MacGuffin said...

Gorgeous illustration and very nice display as well. Is that a Paul Pope under the Chester Brown? Thank God for D&Q.

Eric Skillman said...


Well spotted. That's a Paul Pope print that I actually got from the Top Shelf booth at the last NYCC; I'm not clear on the connection, as I don't think Pope's done any books for them, but it sure is an attractive print!

Anonymous said...

The Amarcord art is beautiful. I can't wait to see what's in store for Andrei Rublev (what a perfect title to "blow the doors off" with great art.)

Anonymous said...

"Holy crap" is right, Eric. You should have that e-mail framed, too. (Would you recommend your framer, by the way? I have a bunch of stuff I was going to take to Squid, but my mom says they're way backed up right now).

Eric Skillman said...

I used 7th Avenue framing in Park Slope. For what it's worth, they did a very nice job, but they seemed a little pricey to me--not that I really did much comparison shopping. They're just the closest place to my apartment and convenience won out over frugality.

Unknown said...

Great post. Coincidentally I JUST watched this film for the first time last night. (Yes, I purchased the new Criterion Edition)

Nuno said...

I just love this blog. I appreciate very much the Criterion and it is so interesting to understand how the covers are designed.
I bought this edition of "Amarcord" for a friend of mine :)

Andrea said...

I just discovered your blog thanks to, um, a flog over at Flog! And it's a delight. It's wonderful to hear the stories behind those delicious Criterion covers. Thanks for sharing them with us.