Thursday, January 10, 2008

Berlin Alexanderplatz, Part II

Sorry all, for the long delay between posts here—the holidays (and pre-holiday deadlines) just caught up with me... But, perversely, I'm back with the biggest blog yet—a topic so big it takes two blogs to contain it! So, if you haven't yet, check out Part I over the Criterion Current.

(I'll probably get around to cross-posting it here so, just to have it in the archives, but at the moment I don't feel like uploading all those images over again...)

So... a little backstory on the drawing style used on the Berlin Alexanderplatz cover: this was a style a started drawing in back in college, and haven't really used much since. The idea, originally, was that I would draw just the highlights of a face, then fill in the blacks around that. Here's a couple examples of the earlier incarnation, from my college literary magazine, The Minetta Review:

Listen, there's a reason they call it juvenilia, all right?

But that was a very fun, free form way to draw (or, paint, actually—those are watercolors), mostly initiated by just drawing a shape at random and then deciding if it was a nose or eyebrow or whatever and building a face around it. I'd been thinking about that style around the time I was working on Berlin, because I knew I wanted to try to start hand-drawing some things for the silkscreening class I'd started. Something about the heavy lines and vaguely woodcut-y feel felt like it could work for Berlin, but obviously drawing shapes at random wasn't going to give me any recognizable likenesses, which I knew I would need.

So I cheated a little. I found an image of Franz that I thought might work (a framegrab from episode 1):

Then I adjusted the levels in photoshop and printed it out as a very light yellow, and drew over the top of that in pencil, which helped assure that I got the proportions of Franz's face correct, then filled it in with Sharpie:

There was a lot I didn't like about that drawing, (the hat, the right cheek, the eyes, etc, etc), so after I scanned it in I messed around with it quite a bit. Then I incorporated it into the existing title treatment, like so:

Next came the colors, which were achieved by doing a layer of flat color, then adding a couple layers of watercolor texture and schmutz overtop. Here's what the layers of color look like without the lines:

And then the whole thing came together:

(The weird little gap above the "F" is to accommodate the branding tab, if you were wondering.)

Once that was approved, I wanted to flesh out the rest of the package with drawings in the same style. Since this style is best suited to portraiture, I figured the best way to do that was to focus on other members of the cast. First up was Reinhold, who came very easily and is definitely my favorite of the bunch:

I knew I needed Meize and Eva, two of the most important characters in the film, but it quickly became apparent that this style wasn't as well suited to attractive women—too many thick lines made their faces look misshapen, too few and they didn't match the rest of the drawings. I got away with Meize by showing her in profile and putting the emphasis on her hat, which I think worked, even if many of the stylistic quirks that define the Franz and Reinhold drawings aren't exactly present here:

Eva turned out to be a bigger problem. I tried a few variations before hitting on a pose I liked:

But y'know, "all women wear hats" is a pretty lame cheat. And even once I found that I couldn't quite nail it down—this first take had too much detail in the hair and not enough in the face:

But after much photoshop work I got it to a place that I liked:

I did a drawing I quite liked of Lüders, but grudingly had to admit that he wasn't an important enough character to merit a spot in the packaging:

Poor Mekt, on the other hand, is a very prominent character in the film, but almost everyone who saw the final packaging layout asked me who he was, and when I said "Mekt," the response was almost invariably, "who?" Maybe that's more a reflection on my likeness of him, but I think it works alright...

One of the angels from the epilogue, Franz's canary, and Fassbinder himself rounded out the portraits, and we had ourselves a finished package, and one that I'm really quite proud of.


Fat Punk Studio said...

Awesome stuff Eric.....these would make sweet limited edition prints! Hope you had a great Christmas and New Year?

Anonymous said...

Hey Eric,

Found your blog through your post over at Criterion's blog. This is a really fascinating insight - and I second "fat punk studio"'s suggestion to print these drawings. Love the last one of Fassbinder!

Keep up the outstanding work!

Best regards,

Ed Howard said...

Yup, this is great stuff. I've got Berlin Alexanderplatz so much on the brain these days anyway, and this is only contributing further to the fascination. It's always interesting to see how much thought you put into each of these designs.

Eric Skillman said...

Thanks all!

I actually did a screen print of one of those (the bird) as part of my silkscreen class a little while back. It's here if you're curious:

I thought about doing some more but most of the rest of them would need to be 7-8 colors or more, and given the difficulties I was having registering three colors properly, I figured I should hold off on that until I got a bit more practice with the process. Maybe I'll try again at some point...

Disco:Very said...

I found the whole design process you detailed on the Criterion sight quite fascinating. Thanks for sharing it with us. Now I just have to save up to buy the actual "Berlin" DVD set itself.

Anonymous said...

Very nice, sir.

Eric Skillman said...

Thanks, India—did you notice the shout-out to you in part I?

Anonymous said...

Indeed, I did; I check my stats page obsessively, if you must know. Don't encourage me.

Nuno said...

This is a beautiful job, Eric. Congratulations.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing this. Your work and certainly the fact the company cares so much, is part of the reason Criterion is the pinnacle of home video packaging.

Anonymous said...

Terrible! I liked the First, Second, and Twelfth cover down for 'Berlin Alexanderplatz' on "On Five: The Criterion Collection Blog." The "approved cover" (at least by your standards) is too Americana-esk (read:ugly) and is in many ways predictable and uninspiring!

I kept reading how you had great ideas, but gave into others expectations, underestimated your art, and ended with nothing but trash! Why did you doubt yourself? How could you censor your art!?

No, you betrayed yourself. Don't do it again!

Anonymous said...

Eric, please tell me that "David" is a friend of yours who's just yanking your chain. Ha, ha.

In case he's not . . .

David: Design is not art. What's the difference? In design, you don't always get to do whatever the hell you want.

A designer who can't accommodate his clients' wishes or requirements will very soon be a designer who's out of a job. I suppose that would give Eric more time to make lovely art, but it might make eating and paying rent a bit more challenging.

Fortunately, the back-and-forth process of revising your work to incorporate your clients' suggestions sometimes results in a stronger design. I—and obviously a lot of other people on this comment thread—feel that that's what happened here.

Eric Skillman said...

I don't think I do know David, but of course he's entitled to his opinion. That said, thank you for jumping to my defense, India! I second everything you said about the design process.

This is really a bizarre design to get that comment on, in my opinion, in that it started off in a workmanlike but uninspired place (from my perspective), and ended up expressing something much closer to a "personal vision" than almost anything I've worked on recently. (In this case my "personal vision" of an interpretation of Fassbinder's film, so your mileage on the word "personal" there may vary.)

Also, that cover might be many things, but that's the first time I've heard "predictable"—it's certainly a significant break from any way that film has been presented in the past. Oh, well—maybe the next one will be more to David's taste...

Sam's Myth said...

Found this through On Five... I am always so happy when there's a design post, and it was great to read more about your design process. Being a designer at Criterion is such a dream of mine, so it's fun to live vicariously :)

Sam Smith

Unknown said...

Incredibly inspirational once again. Just picked up the monsters and madmen box. gorgeous - wondering if you'll talk up the process of art directing this "old" relic from over a year ago? heh. The illustrations and type style on this are perfect. I love old sci-fi paperbacks this i believe were the inspiration.

Neil MacLean said...

Not familiar with the film, though I will add it to my list of films to watch, but I appreciate you taking the time to detail your process and the various directions this project took before the final design. Really great stuff.

elgringo said...

Hey there. First time reader.
This is incredible. Incredible.
I love the style and now appreciate the mount of work that goes behind these artwork pieces.


Eliot said...

I absolutely LOVE what you accomplished with the Berlin Alexanderplatz box art. Decided to google it, found your article on Criterion's page, then this blog. I've always been a fan of German Expressionist woodcuts and Egon Schiele, and just that whole era of early 20th century European art, and you pull off the look so convincingly and faithfully. Thank you for sharing not only your final pieces but the lengthy process that went into creating them. Criterion has the best box art, in my opinion, and it's been fun taking a look behind the scenes.