I’m pleased to share this poster I designed for Qui Sheng’s enigmatic Suburban Birds. This is Sheng’s debut feature and it’s a crazy-wonderful puzzle box movie. Two, three?, stories braided into one. Perhaps two or three genres even. A special thank you to the folks at Cinema Guild, particularly Peter Kelly, for inviting me on the project.
King of Jazz is crazy pants. It’s a two-strip Technicolor fantasia directed by John Murray Anderson that’s been lovingly restored in all its lurid, can’t-look-away glory and presented in the highest quality by the Criterion Collection. If you know anything about music of the 1930s then you may question the movie’s assertions concerning jazz royalty. Such questions would be grounded in reason. You may need to put reason aside for this one in exchange for the unfolding spectacle. Giant pianos! Showgirls that tower over the streets of Manhattan! Oswald the Lucky Rabbit! All singing, all dancing, King of Jazz just about has it all and it’s brought to you through the strange magic of the two-strip Technicolor process. Red and green may not fully render the color spectrum but what color it does render is glorious.
The risque cover to this edition is a repurposed, vintage Film Daily advertisement that likely promoted the picture to exhibitors. It required some work to make the art camera-ready for the package. Art Director, Eric Skillman, provided it with the ad copy already removed. It was then up to me to recreate the lettering along the bottom in order to accommodate the director’s name. We also wanted to remix the color so that it drew from the two-strip palette and integrate better with the film imagery used throughout.
The name of the game with King of Jazz is variety. The structure of the movie owes more to vaudeville than the conventional Hollywood musical. There are some spoken intros and a handful of skits but there’s no over-arching narrative. It plays like a night at the Orpheum only with the overlay of seriously inventive movie magic.
It felt to me the best compliment to that structure is to cram as much variety into the typography as possible, so that the pages of the 16 page booklet as well as each screen of the DVD menus would offer something special at every turn. The type styles and techniques come straight from the jazz age yet were filtered through the movies quirky sensibilities.
The collages, mirroring and kaleidoscopic imagery in the booklet —all techniques used in the movie— are born of practical necessity. The pictures are all frame grabs from the movie. Even when the source is high resolution, it tempts the fates to use frame grabs from a movie of this era. The grain structure can be formidable. You’ve got to reduce the size of a picture in order for it to tighten up. By creating backgrounds that are assembled of multiple frames that have been reduced over all, the integrity of the pictures hold up a lot better. The feeling I hoped to impart with the booklet was something that felt like a theater program handed out of the night of the big show.
A courtroom procedural, a family drama, a tale of impulsive and wayward youth, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Vérité is many things, not the least of which is it’s star, Brigitte Bardot. The Criterion Collection has a tradition of period Bardot illustrations on it’s covers. (Contempt, And God Created Woman) Their edition of La Vérité is no different. The image for this one—or at least the photo from which it’s created—was used for the original release, although I haven’t found the poster that uses exactly this painted version. (If anyone recognizes it, please let me know.)
The movie’s title translates as the truth. As the story unfolds, we see the truth, subjective as it is, as a weapon turned on anyone getting in it’s way. How best to present the title? The artwork is stark, dramatic and, well, Bardot. Competing with that face is a fool’s errand. The type should be evocative but not competitive. Best to back off and compliment what’s there. I looked at white title treatments as well as gray ones but they muddled the illustration and diminished the impact of the black background. Red seemed like the best choice for color. Symbolically it hits the right notes. (passion! blood!) Plus it shares the space with all that blackness without taking away from it —or her.
There’s a pleading quality to Bardot's face here so I tried a few solutions with the title close to her mouth — suggesting the truth was her’s to utter. That works. The ones at a larger scale superimpose the truth as a label for the movie. The truth in this configuration belongs as much to the story as a single character. That works too.
The serif samples, above, are something I drew up based on the movie’s main title card. You find a lot of typefaces like this in mid-century French films. There was a vogue for old style serif’s like Georg Trump’s Trump Medieval and this one shares those qualities. The painterly title treatment invokes a counterculture/protest vibe that, to me, was both simpatico with the cover portrait style as well as the discontents given voice throughout the movie. It would be another eight years before the youth of France would take to the streets but seeds of ‘68 are in evidence in la Vérité. The geometric sans serif has proportions more suited for signage than the printed page and so imparts an institutional quality. There’s a cold, objectivety to it. The consensus leaned toward a sans serif but one that didn’t go on top of the illustration as much. This version would have been lost had it been simply scaled down, so that led to the condensed sans serif that became the cover.
The typeface is Alternate Gothic. It has an unfussy, utilitarian affect. At this scale it shouts like a newspaper headline yet its also the kind of typeface one expects to encounter on any number of bland, ministerial forms of, say, a police department, a woman’s prison or the justice system. Name, address, date of birth, check all boxes that apply —that sort of thing. There are reams of paper evident throughout the film. We hardly get a close look at them except to see they’re all typewritten documents and forms. There are piles on the courtroom tables and under the arms of lawyers. The reports, the depositions, the motions, all of it comprising the truth in the form of paperwork underpins the courtroom scenes as supporting player. The cover, the packaging and the DVD menus for la Vérité are designed to support that through-line.
Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, a boxed set edition by the Criterion Collection compiles all six of the films which the star and star director made together at Paramount in the 1930s. As described by Criterion on the back of the slipcase, they’re “deliriously entertaining masterpieces [that] are landmarks of cinematic artifice”. Though I wasn’t explicitly given that description at the time, the idea of artifice was ever present in my mind, informing many of the design choices. Like von Sternberg recreating Shanghai on a Hollywood backlot, I wanted the packaging to be a kind of simulacrum of 1930s era design.
I‘d previously done a von Sternberg collection for Criterion that featured his silent films at Paramount and —in collaboration with art director Sarah Habibi— decided this set should pair with it as best it could. The earlier collection used black and white portrait photography and an identical typographic theme throughout. That may have been OK for three films but this time around we had twice as many titles to cover. The monotony of the same type treatment would likely prove dull and not serve genres as divergent as these. A unique, period correct title treatment would bring the requisite glamor as it set the tone for each film.
Ideally the box would feature a portrait of the the director and his actor/colaborator/muse but the imagery we had on hand wasn’t providing that. I made a trip to the Motion Picture Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles to look through the core collection hoping to find something that might fit the bill. The Margaret Herrick Library is an amazing repository of books, photographs, posters, correspondence, you name it —and its open to the public. Not only did they have an image which would become our cover but also some of the imagery that appears throughout the set. Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood wouldn’t have been the same without them.
I wanted the cover type to have a quality that one associates with the movie posters or title cards of the day and specifically sought type styles that appeared to be hand-lettered. There’s no artifice without the hand of the artist so it felt important to keep that element in the foreground. In no particular order, here’s an example of the kinds of treatments I played around with before landing on the one that was eventually used. These were initial explorations intended to suss out a vibe before really getting in there and tinkering with things.
Once we locked in a style we felt was working for us, the selected title treatment then became the ‘voice’ of the collection —speaking for the set as whole. It appears exclusively on the slip case and throughout the accompanying eighty page book which gives an overview of the films as well as essays on Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg. You can’t really tell from these images but all the components are printed with a bronze metallic ink. It gives everything a luxe shimmer.
The process for the individual title treatments was no different than that of the the main. In total there are seven type styles used throughout the set. The movie title treatments, which make cameo appeareces in the book on their respective cast and credits pages, also appear on the DVD menus. They’re there, not just as main titles but as a typographic style for the menus of each movie. Here’s some examples of that — if I’ve done my job well you should be able to determine which menu belongs to which film at a glance.
I’m pleased to share my poster design for a documentary making it’s debut at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, “David Crosby Remember My Name”. I really enjoyed working with the folks at PCH and Vinyl Films, they’re great collaborators. The material for the documentary is rich and it runs deep, so we weren’t lacking for something interesting to say or show for a poster —and the desire was there too. As we wrapped up our initial meeting it the director, A.J. Eaton’s parting note was ‘go bold!’. I think the image by photographer Henry Diltz meets the criteria. Special thanks to David Crosby, director A.J. Eaton and producers Cameron Crowe, Michele Farinola and Greg Mariotti.