Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Night of the Hunter

I'd like not to have to begin every post here with an apology for not having posted for a month, but, well... I suppose to do that, I'd have to actually post with some regularity. Luckily, I've built up a little mini-cache of posts at the moment, so at least for the next couple weeks I'll be able to keep this blog on something approaching a weekly schedule. Here's a nice juicy one to start us off; there are at least four covers below that I personally would have been very happy to have gone with, so lots of eye candy here...

The Night of the Hunter is a film that a lot of people L-O-V-E, and which has been unavailable for a long time, so it was a daunting design assignment. The hardest thing was to capture the correct tone--storybook but sinister and threatening, melodramatic without being tongue-in-cheek, theatrical and stagey at times, seemingly slapdash but all about the details, over-the-top but deadly serious… Laughton throws so many different stylistic flourishes into the mix it's a wonder the film works at all, let alone that it works so well.

Obviously the big icon of the film is Robert Mitchum as the evil preacher. We wanted to stay away from his "LOVE" and "HATE" hand tattoos, now parodied and homaged so often as to be cliche, but the idea of finding a new kind of iconic image of Mitchum was appealing, so that was where I started off. This was the early favorite:

I still like it a lot, I think it does a fine job of getting at the weird staginess of the film, plus the creepy religious elements (a serial-killing preacher, after all!), while keeping the focus squarely on Mitchum. Not everyone liked the handwritten type but I'm still quite fond of it. The biggest problem with it, though, was that it failed to capture anything of the children who are so central to the film. It's not that we felt the children themselves had to be on there, necessarily, but somehow that childlike perspective needed to be present.

This next one gets the right basic elements in--the kids, Mitchum being threatening, nature, etc--but winds up being a bit too bookish and boring for such a big release.

These next two, pulling back on that kooky Mitchum pose, have a similar problem with bookishness:

The last of the first round of comps was this one, which I sent along with the note: "this one is probably a joke, unless you all like it, in which case I'm totally serious."

The image here is actually a completely unaltered production still, that twisted Norman Rockwell quality is inherent in the image, which was just too weird not to do something with. But while the obvious Saturday Evening Post riff doesn't have too much meaning relative to the film, there's something about the kind of twisted storybook quality that works, and it certainly gets the idea of the children's perspective in there. Ultimately it's a bit too funny for a film that isn't really, but I still thought there was something to it...

There developed a sense that the first image was maybe the right way to go--simple and bold, create a new icon for the film, etc--but people weren't totally sold on the handwritten type and thought it was maybe a bit hard to parse the image. I did a subtle variation, trying to accentuate the ramrod-straight posture:

…followed by some more drastic variations on the same image:

…a few misguided tweaks on the Norman Rockwell image:

…and just for good measure, some totally new directions that didn't really quite work:

None of those quite clicked, so it was back to the drawing board again. This moment of the boy looking out at Mitchum on the horizon* was suggested, but I think it reads a bit too "Western" out of context:

This was my attempt to get some more "storybook" qualities into the cover, but it got pretty "Watership Down" pretty quick.

With nothing else quite working, some variation on that very first comp was still the front runner, even if there was some hesitation about it. At this point we received some legal requirements from the studio (that had unfortunately been delayed up to this point), which required that the names of Robert Mitchum and Shelly Winters both appear above the title at (if I remember correctly) no less than 25% of the height of the largest letter in the title treatment. So, take a look at the size of the "N" in "Night" in that first comp and you'll see how that would totally throw off that whole design. So I tried a few variations on that image with new type treatments…

But by this point everyone was getting a little bored with that cover. (And I certainly liked it a lot less without the energy of the handwritten type, myself.) I tried a drastic move toward something more high-concept, trying to capture the predator/prey theme of the film in a single striking image:

It's not Robert Mitchum, obviously, but it kind of is, if you know what I mean… Probably a bit too extreme of a departure for such a well-loved film, but I kinda like it. (I didn't want to push too hard for this direction, though, since I had no idea how to carry it forward without doing 300 new drawings, which… ack!)

Some photographic representations of the same idea were much less successful:

Getting a little desperate now, I went back to the Norman Rockwell image again, and found a solution that I thought actually solved the reference problem pretty well, making the "storybook" thing much more explicit by referencing Little Golden books:

For the record, if we had gone in this direction I would have redrawn the spine graphics so as not to literally steal them from Golden Books. Since "storybook" was a descriptor we'd kept coming back to, I thought that reference had resonance with the film in a way the Saturday Evening Post didn't… I was, apparently, the only one who thought this was an improvement, however.

Finally, we were getting down to the wire. (You might notice all the rest of these comps use the same title treatments: that was because I had already committed to that type in the menus, which were already finished and couldn't be changed without delaying the release… that's how behind schedule we were at this point!) I just abandoned all the previous imagery and went back to the archives to find some new imagery. This first one is nothing special:

This next, referencing a scene in the film where the girl innocently makes paper dolls out of the stolen money that is the (ostensible) reason Mitchum's character is chasing them in the first place, is kind of a neat idea but in practice it looks too much like a heist movie or something… the money is never really the point of the film.

But this next one I liked:

I thought this image had some of the same Norman Rockwell qualities of the other image, but keeping the background black felt more in keeping with the film. The only problem was, it lacked Robert Mitchum, the big movie star.

Which led to the final option.... Frankly I was a little worried that it implied that Mitchum's character was a slightly different kind of predator, but no one else seemed to share my concern: the character does spend the film murdering women and children, after all, it's not like this qualifies as character assassination even if it is slightly misinterpreted. And it definitely captures all the main qualities we were looking for: Mitchum, ominous threat, childlike perspective, staginess, the idea of Mitchum pretending to be a good guy while in fact being a predator… there's even a nice bit of plot in there for those already familiar with the film, with the doll between the two characters and Mitchum oblivious to what's inside. So, lots of good work being done by this image, which is why it was our final choice for the cover:

*(Funny story: that's not actually Mitchum: the soundstage they were shooting on was too small to get that shot, so Laughton put a midget on a pony! See what you can learn from watching the special features?)


Anonymous said...

were you inspired by the original Bunny Lake is Missing poster when you designed the paper dolls one?

Eric Skillman said...

Not consciously inspired, no... and if it was subconscious, it was probably through some intermediary, since I don't recall ever having seen that poster before. But I googled it when I saw your comment, and hey, that's one hell of a nice poster: much nicer than my paper doll comp!

Ryan MCFC said...

I think I might have plotzed if I walked into a store and saw the Saturday Evening Post version. I think that one brings a brilliant new spin on a lot of the emotions in this film. It's also striking because it's so damn sinister yet bright, which I don't think any cover for this movie has ever been (for obvious reasons).
Anyway, I love this movie and I think that all the versions do it justice. And since I don't like plotzing in public it is probably for the best that you went with the one you did.

Óscar Palmer said...

Fascinating process, as ever. I kinda love the one with the owl!

bza said...

I love the cover they went with, but my vote is def for the first one. It's really great. The second one looks like a hardy boys cover!

Peter said...

Great post!
I never really knew the creative process for these covers and it's quite reassuring to see something like this go through so many revisions before finalization since that's what happens to me and I just assume I'm doing something wrong.

But the revisions certainly show improvement. The first design is really great but if the cover is supposed to represent the film in a single image, then the final design definitely does it the best. The first shows the staginess of the film, but that's about it. The final touches on all sorts of elements of the movie.

I also liked the horse on the horizon one because it was such a great shot in the film, I suppose it would be "too western" but it still looks great.

Anonymous said...

i hope the people over at criterion forum, who know little to nothing about design read this.

most people do not get that most work comes with at least some stipulations from the client, and that the process can be quite a lengthly, and certainly thoughtful one. much more thoughtful than those so quick to criticize.

funny too, how some of the most reviled criterion covers, become such big favorites when the actual package comes to the door ("mishima" & "last year at marienbad").

thanks for taking us through the process, it is truly an education! oh, and keep up the good work!

Calvin V said...

There are so many great covers here. I have yet to see the film, but this post made me want to see it.
I really do love the hand drawn owl one, I can see why it wasn't chosen but it's really a cool cover.
I love the Rockwell one, it's just awesome.
I also really like the one with the two kids on the boat and the giant Mitchum head, but I think it would have looked really great if it was just the raft shot and the bottom in all black.
The final is perfect though, it's just super cool to see all the work that goes into these covers, and to see all the great covers that could have been.

Sam's Myth said...

Thanks for a great process post. I really, really love a few of these -- the Rockwellesque one, the hand-drawn owl, and especially the one showing the kids in the boat with the bunnies and the moon... I wonder if you ever tried putting the original Mitchum image you liked into this one, like in the sky for example? The final cover is great too. Thanks again...

Covey said...

Unbelievable number of great comps on this one, Eric. Unbelievable...

Zümrüt Çavuşoğlu said...

hello, I just saw the film last night and really liked it. And your poster/covers go great along with it. I really like the first and final one, but the final choosen one was a good choice I guess, as I really like the little girl in the film and think she is really interesting, especially her face and expresions.. she is also a little bit in love with him which is really funny ofcourse , and the cover has that:) thanks for this blog too, its great you share the process of these great designs. Thank you. Zümrüt

BJMe said...

And yet, the size, shape and layout of the film title is, to me, the strongest feature of the cover.

Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating read, and I love the final cover you went with. Just out of curiosity, what is the name of the font you used for the final cover?

Eric Skillman said...


Sorry your comment got caught in the spam filter for a couple days, but on the off chance you check back for a response, that font is Bodoni Poster Compressed. Glad you enjoyed the post, hope to have more up soon!