Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Silkscreening 2: The Randy Bandits

I'm a big fan of a lot of the concert poster designers working today—Heads of State, Aesthetic Apparatus, Patent Pending, Small Stakes, Ames Bros, the list goes on—so when I signed up for my silkscreen class one of the things I most wanted to try was good old fashioned rock show posters. To that end, I sent an email out to a number of friends of mine who are in bands, to see if anyone could use a few free posters. I got plenty of responses—it turns out bands in NYC know better than to turn down free promotional stuff. Since it was fresh in my brain, I decided to start with a poster for The Randy Bandits.

As I think I mentioned in the last blog, part of my motivation in choosing the style of the Live at Otto's CD cover was that I wanted to have something fun to silkscreen. Unfortunately, that didn't necessarily translate to "easy to silkscreen." I adjusted the design for the new size (the final poster is 14" x 17"), and changed the text so that they could use the poster for any show anywhere. Rather than just make an acetate directly from the original files, I decided to redraw the separations onto vellum, just to give it that much more of a handmade look—the bottom line of type wound up looking a little sloppier than I originally intended, but I kind of liked the look, so I left it that way. Here's a scan of the final poster:

The colors are a lot brighter than the original CD cover, so I can't quite get them to display properly onscreen, but I think you can get the basic idea. I clearly still have a way to go with my printing technique—the registration is sloppy throughout, the ink coverage is uneven, a couple posters were totally ruined by excess ink bleeding out around the edges, and the yellow screen in particular broke down quite a bit while printing, so a lot of the white areas have specks of yellow in them—I'm glad I didn't try to charge anything for these! But, as a first crack at a new medium, I'm not unhappy with the results.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Randy Bandits: Live at Otto's Shrunken Head

I've been working on some music design recently, and having a blast with it. I find myself exercising very different design muscles than what I do with DVD or book design. With DVD design, in particular, I'm very much bound to the details of the film, and, as regular readers of this blog will know, I tend to over-intelllectualize that process. With music design, I'm finding that it's much more important to capture a mood or vibe, and actually, anything that's too direct a reference (to lyrical content or band name or whatever) feels wrong somehow. It's a more intuitive than the way I usually work (which could mean it's less interesting to read about, I suppose—if that's the case, sorry!). Plus, it's giving me an opportunity to do more illustration and handmade design, which has been great.

Kicking off my recent spate of music-related design, the Randy Bandits (whose bass player is a friend of mine) asked me to design their upcoming live CD, Live at Otto's Shrunken Head. As they described it to me, they considered it a sort of between-albums recording for more die hard fans, so their idea was to package it in just a simple single envelope, no bells or whistles. Their initial design concept was to do something along the lines of Live at Leeds or those Pearl Jam "bootleg" CDs that were coming out a few years back, to emphasize some of the raw quality of this particular recording. So I did two versions of that—the first, in the vein of some other stuff I've done, like Olivier's Shakespeare or the more recent Lexicon of Labor:

And then a one-color variation, based on the possibility that we might be able to print these as letterpress on actual brown kraft stock (which turned out to be cost-prohibitive):

And those are competent enough, sure, but nothing particularly special. I wanted to give them another option, something a bit more fun.

The first idea that stuck in my head was that "bandits" for some reason made me think of pirates—which doesn't make a whole lot of sense, upon reflection. "Bandits" usually implies Old West, doesn't it? (Now that I think of it, their last album was called "Redbeard," that may be where I got the idea.) Anyway, I had this idea of a big goofy smile with a couple of gold pirate teeth, but I was never able to execute it in any way that said "pirate"—the gold teeth seemed more hip hop than I intended, and the whole thing just didn't really work. I never even sent this one to them, actually—this is the first time it's seen the light of day. (For good reason, really.)

After abandoning that, I sat down and re-listened to a bunch of their songs for inspiration. One song in particular that stuck with me was called "I Will Fight the Hungry Lions," which got me thinking of lion tamers and a kind of circus vibe reminiscent of The Basement Tapes or something, which seemed to capture something of the Bandits vibe. As it turns out, I was listening to the wrong live recording, and that song isn't even on this particular CD‚ but actually I think that made it work better. Like I mentioned before, when the references get too specific, you lose some of that ineffable rock n' roll cool.

So I did a quick google search for some visual reference for lions, and put pen to paper. Here's the initial drawing I came up with:

Then I set to work photoshopping it to death, adding color and layers of schmutz. (Part of my inspiration was the silkscreen class I've been taking, so I had in the back of my mind the whole time that I might want to convert this into a poster as well as a CD cover. But I didn't think the pure flat colors would carry enough weight in standard 4-color printing: thus the schmutz.) Here's where I wound up:

Luckily, they liked it! All that remained was to finish up the envelope and create a disc label, which you can see below:

For more info on The Randy Bandits, check out their website at www.randybandits.com

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Both producer Curtis Tsui and I are huge fans of Bill Sienkiewicz, and have been trying to find an excuse to work with him for some time. When Robinson Crusoe on Mars hit the schedule, we finally had the right project, one we knew he'd be perfect for. The next step was convincing him to take the gig.

I sent a note to his agent, Eric Knight, explaining the project and what we'd be looking for. I tried to sell the movie a little, as I assumed they wouldn't have heard of it, and the title alone makes it sound a bit cheesier than it is. (I certainly had prejudged it a bit before I watched it—I was expecting something more along the lines of the Monsters and Madmen films, but actually Robinson is unironically good—beautifully shot, well acted, smart (if scientifically outdated) ideas underlying the whole thing—at least the first half, anyway.)

A few days later, I got a call from Eric, who told me this story: apparently, Robinson is one of Eric Knight's favorite movies from childhood, and as soon as he received my email he began thinking of ways to convince Bill to take the project. Once he'd worked up a whole spiel in his head, he called Bill to sell him on it—"Listen, Bill, you've been offered this project, and when I tell you the name you're going to think it sounds silly, but don't judge it until you've heard me out.... it's called Robinson Crusoe on Mars"—at which point Bill enthusiastically interrupted him, saying how much he has loved that movie since he was a kid! How's that for serendipity?

Once he was onboard, I sent him the following note outlining our thinking on the film:


Enclosed please find a DVD screener of the film, and a CD containing some reference photos. (The photos aren’t great—the film is obviously going to be your best reference.) I also threw in some Criterion DVDs just so you can get an idea of how all the parts will fit together—Eric mentioned you’re already familiar with our company, but I figure you might still enjoy the DVDs.

So here’s what we’re thinking about for Robinson Crusoe on Mars. We were thrilled to find out that you knew and loved this film, so if you have any additional ideas, we’re absolutely open to them, but hopefully the following will give you an idea of where we’re coming from in our interpretation of the film.

We’d like to focus on the first half of the film—the “struggling to survive alone in a harsh alien environment” part—rather than the later, “on the run from alien slavers” part. From our perspective, the alien slavers of the second half are both less visually interesting and less central to the film than the isolation of the first half, so we’d just as soon stay away from Friday and the alien ships on the cover.

We’d love to highlight the beautiful cinematography of the Martian landscape, and the “one man alone on a Great Adventure” isolation of Draper. And one of the strongest visuals, in my opinion, is Mona the monkey in her astronaut suit—it immediately gives you a sense of the period and some of the somewhat over-the-top flavor of the film.

(I keep visualizing a beautiful red-sky Maritan landscape (maybe in watercolors?), with Draper barely visible in the far distance, struggling to cross the expanse, and Mona the monkey in her astronaut suit in the foreground. But that’s just a rough idea, so don’t feel constrained by that.)

Another thing worth mentioning is that we’d like to make sure that some of the optimistic flavor of the sci-fi of this period comes through in the art. That is to say, this film is definitely born of a very positive vision of space travel, and of the future generally—none of the dystopian undertones of later sci-fi films have crept in yet. For all the danger in the film, it still has a pretty upbeat, “man conquers all” mindset—as the producer of this DVD, Curtis Tsui, put it, this is the era when “rocketships can still bring great adventures rather than toast your ass in space.”

So hopefully that helps give you a sense of where we’re coming from. Give me a call when you’ve had a chance to re-watch the film and we can discuss it further. It’s a thrill to have this opportunity to work with you, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

—Eric Skillman

Bill took all that to heart, and sent us his first sketch:

Bill captured the mood we were looking for right off, but there were a couple technical problems, from our perspective. First, the big black mountain on the left is awesome, but given how much text and such we have to put on the back of our wraps, would likely be completely obscured, which would be a shame. Also, we felt like the composition worked better horizontal than just the cover by itself, which is really the primary thing people will see. I passed all this on to Bill and he sent back these sketches:

That first one is really close—awesome landscape, just the right sense of isolation. But we had the nagging worry that we weren't giving the viewer quite enough information: without seeing more of Draper and Mona, we don't get the details which give us the sense of period and context—meaning, mostly, the space suits. (Otherwise, the "Robinson Crusoe" in question could be a native Martian, or some 51st Century space cowboy or something, rather than a dawn-of-the-space-era-style astronaut.) But since we didn't want to lose the sense of isolation, the tiny man against the huge Martian landscape thing, I suggested separating Draper and foregrounding Mona. Also around this time Curtis found a particularly hilarious production still from the film, which I sent to Bill as a joke:

...and he responded in kind with this sketch, reproduced here for your entertainment:

Once that was out of everyone's systems, Bill sent us actual sketches, and we finally had an approved cover:

That second one was exactly what we were looking for. Draper's hunched over posture really gives the sense of struggle against overwhelming odds, and how can you not love Mona in the foreground? Since the jagged peak in the center was going to be pretty much obliterated by the branding and spine title treatment anyway, we figured we may as well lose it, and since Mona was already in her space suit, no need to keep Draper in his helmet. So we gave Bill the go-ahead to start painting the final illustration. Meanwhile, I decided to tweak the type a little bit, and eventually wound up here, which captured just a little bit more of the period look we were aiming for:

Then Bill's final illustration arrived, and can I just say, wow? He absolutely captures the period vibe we were looking for without looking at all dated, and it's absolutely gorgeous to boot. Everything we wanted and more:

And with the final type:

This job has given me plenty of opportunities to work with people whose work I've long admired, and almost without fail the experiences have been even better than I had hoped, and this was no exception—Bill was fantastic to work with, and I think the final package speaks for itself. Thanks again, Bill!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Silkscreening 1

So I've been taking this silkscreening class recently, and it's been a great impetus to bring more hand-made elements into my design work. (Particularly on a couple projects I'll hopefully be blogging about soon.) Here's a look at my first (arguably) successful print:

This is a four-color silkscreen—the lighter orange is made by overprinting the transparent yellow on top of the darker orange, which I was particularly proud of. (Hey, I'm still a beginner at this!) The actual thing is approx. 6" square. I'm still working out the kinks—this is the best-looking print of the lot, and even it has some registration problems. It's an interesting process—it's kind of simpler than I expected, but more exacting and detail-oriented, too. But it's definitely been a blast to learn a whole new skill. I'll post more as I finish them.

If you're wondering about the drawing itself, that bird is something I did for the booklet cover of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Here's a peek at what it looks like in it's original incarnation: