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and Madmen films, but actually Robinson is unironically good—beautifully shot, well acted, smart (if scientifically outdated) ideas underlying the whole thing—at least the first half, anyway.)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!


Anonymous said...

This was a really great design. One of my favourites of recent Criterion covers.

Fat Punk Studio said...

Awesome! Thanks for sharing this, its always really cool to see the process you went through to arrive at the final cover. Does Bill work by hand or is the final image a digital illustration? laters


Ed Howard said...

Nice, that's great to see. Sienkiewicz is a remarkable artist, and this is one of the best of the comic-artist covers you've commissioned (and there's some stiff competition!). How did he produce the original sketches? Looks like computer cut and paste, right?

I love the wild spacefaring font on his first design, though I haven't seen the film yet so maybe that doesn't fit as well as the final type does.

Blogfoot said...

Thanks for this post. Great cover, great DVD. Criterion once again lays waste to all those who churn out DVD's that are naught but poor transfers with bad photoshopped covers.

Anonymous said...

This cover perfectly captures the general style and feel of covers from paperback sci-fi books of that era. Beautiful and perfect.

Unknown said...

Wow. Would there be any way to get the final design in a larger size? It'd make a great desktop.

Anonymous said...

Robinson Crusoe on Mars was one of my two favourite films as a kid, my second being The Wizard of Oz. I remember enjoying Bill Sienkiewicz's art in the 1980s, Batman I think it was.

Just so you know that the chicks are happy too.

Anonymous said...

This movie is definitely one of my favorites, and man, the last few are PERFECT. The change in type is absolutely dead on for the era, I really can't say you could have done ANY better for this film. I'm heartened to see such a classic piece of cinema getting respect in every detail, the respect it deserves. I can't wait to buy a copy.

MacGuffin said...

I love the production still and his resultant art from it. Very amusing! It's interesting to see how that ended up influencing the final layout of the piece.

doug l said...

Excellent view into a fascinating process.
Having worked in graphic design before I was intrigued at the aesthetic decision making process which resulted in the specific design chosen. One wonders if another earlier typeface had been used would anyone be the wiser...I personally doubt it...and am glad that graphic design decisions are made by those with an infinite ability to convince themselves that aesthetics have some bearing on objectivity at that level..and not me.

Unknown said...

Wonderful covers! Please tell us about Fanny and Alexander. I think it is the most beautiful dvd-package.

j_ay said...

Does Bill work by hand or is the final image a digital illustration?

The mock-ups are digital based (quicker than working out not-too-rough pieces, more than likely) and the final is by hand. Possibly but not necessarily painting over some digital.
A recent Washington Post interview with Bill states that he’s relying less and less on the computer, which I think is fantastic. The computer should be a tool, but not the *only* tool.
Thanks for the step by step, Sienkiewicz is tops and it great to see him 1) back in comic books and 2) getting some great exposure.

Eric Skillman said...

Thanks for the response, all! I've been trying to be better about responding to comments, but I'm a bit belated on this one. Let's see...

floatingpoint, ed howard, J_ay— I'm not sure who "J_ay" is, but he's pretty much correct about the media as far as I know, although there are some hand-drawn bits in the sketches (notably the figures), and I believe there was just a little bit of digital tweaking to the illustration once it was painted.

macguffin— I liked that joke, too, but for the record, I don't think it's fair to say that "influenced" the sketches that followed—Bill had already been working on that background, he happened to send me the joke figures before the "real" sketches.

dogu4— Thanks... I think? I guess it's fair to say I do think these kinds of decisions "matter," whether or not they translate directly to DVD sales, if I'm understanding your point correctly. They "matter" in that I want to do work that I and everyone involved can be proud of, that does justice to the great films we get to work on...

antti— I'm glad you like Fanny and Alexander; that was my first big digipak package, and I remember being very proud of how it came out. Unfortunately, I don't think I saved any of my sketches for that set, so it would be a pretty dry blog... Thanks, though!

Everyone— you're right, Bill Sienkiewicz does rock.

MacGuffin said...

Ah. Yeah, it occured to me after I made that comment/assumption that the illustration was too well developed to be purely part of a lark. But then again, I'm a big, longtime fan but I have no idea how fast Sienkiewicz works.

Anonymous said...

Nice design, kind of looks like a Heinlein paperback cover. I never would have thought to put Mona front and center like that.