This bit of business is divided into two parts. The first part is me discussing the process behind creating the one-sheet for Drafthouse Films’ re-release of "The Visitor". The second part is a discussion with designer Jay Shaw on his journey in creating the wonderful silkscreen print for "The Visitor" being released by Mondo this week. What follows is a lot of talk about graphic design and evil birds from space. Enjoy.
Let’s get right to it: "The Visitor" is outright bananas, a film that really needs to be seen, and whatever I write here stands very little chance of painting a clear picture as to how absurdly incredible the ride is. A detailed account of how a poster was made feels a little less wondrous than following an agent of Space Jesus through the cosmos to battle the eight year old descendant of the evil Sateen on Earth in the late 1970s. Instead of telekinetic children, far away worlds, vicious birds, and cloaked warriors, we're mostly left with me sitting at a desk putting things together while the main theme from the film repeats itself in the background for days on end. I wish I were kidding. Visit that page, look at the number of views, and estimate that more than half of them were probably me.
Drafthouse Films and I worked together to create something that reflected both the spirit and the brazen insanity found within those 108 minutes of 70s celluloid. The brief itself was as free as they come, with the stipulation that the poster for the re-release needed to shy away from convention while not being too alienating. The original one-sheet is bizarre in its own right, divorced from any meaningful connection to the film but maintains a visual clarity that we wanted to make sure was still present in whatever direction we headed in.
The Visitor is, at it's heart, a story brought to life through it's unabashed blending of genre and a desire to be more than what its budget allows. Equal parts science fiction, horror, mystery, and drama, ideas collide together to form something that feels both strange and familiar. Many of the roughs for the poster played off the idea of taking disparate elements and throwing them into a blender: visual ephemera from the prog rock albums, old sci-fi book covers, and scattered personal memories of Trapper Keeper graphics from the 1980s. The goal was to emphasize and symbolize elements of the film while carving out a sense of scope to the world that the film strived for.
Being such an obscure production from over thirty years ago, there wasn’t much in the way of visual assets to work from; everything had to be put together from scratch. Telekinetic powers were reduced to brains and floating eyeballs, juxtaposed against birds and otherworldly landscapes without context. Other avenues tried to emphasize different notes the film hit: the dark, looming presence of evil or the epic battle being waged by two interstellar forces for the fate of the Earth.
The idea was to evoke an emotional response over an intellectual one; visual cleverness doesn’t have much of a foothold when the story plays by its own internal logic. Ascribing order and sanity onto something that exists outside of normalcy misses the spirit of the film and the world of hypnotic absurdity it creates. But scribbling things down in a notebook helped to reframe things and tether the poster back to the film. What wound up sticking was a little less arbitrary, but firmly within the arena of odd: a giant, pupilless cloaked bird from the cosmos enveloped in clouds and electricity.
(Left, rough. Right, final re-release one-sheet)
Honestly, the original draft felt like something off of a bizarre metal album cover from the 80s. Rather than acting as a strange, ominous figure, the orbs projecting lightning veered a little too close to parody. With enough adjustment, the color palette was brought more closely in line with the alien planet featured in the opening moments of the film and the eyes were pulled from their sockets. As a nod to the original poster, an eyeball was placed in an orb at the center of the bird’s mouth.
If you’ve ever wondered what all of this would look like if it were dreamed up and jotted down by a four-year-old on a Skittles binge, well, look no further.
Asking the truly hard questions.
Design stopped being a circus long ago. Education and experience have a habit of drowning out that naive sense of play you have when you first start out, replacing it with other tools essential to getting the work done. It doesn’t make the process any less satisfying, but designing these days can occasionally feel like running a marathon with weights bolted to your ankles. Every now and then a project like that is good to have a chance to work on; it keeps you from becoming a design automaton. The weird nature of a film like The Visitor allows for the opportunity to throw caution to the wind and whip spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks, something that happens far less than it should.
Who knows. Maybe it doesn’t have to be reserved for the strange and bizarre, and perhaps loosening the reigns a bit can bring back to the surface some of that spontaneity that gets buried as time goes on. After all, without a little recklessness, would be talking about space birds or intergalactic Jesus? I doubt it.
And now a conversation with Jay Shaw.
Jay Shaw is a widely acclaimed graphic designer and illustrator. His clients include Mondo, Arrow Films, The Criterion Collection, and a whole bunch of others. His work can be found on his website, kingdom of nonsense.
BRANDON SCHAEFER: My first exposure to the flick was when I stumbled on your work for the first time years ago. The print with the giant glasses and the birds.
JAY SHAW: Yeah that poster. Yikes. A decent idea wrapped up in terrible execution.
BS: I dug it. But I think you're more careful when it comes to the fine details than I am. Working on that, was that the first time you'd seen the film?
JS: I was just starting to figure out things then. Actually no, I’d seen the film before. I had no idea what it was called but I remembered little details about it: the bizarre intro, the bird, the birthday gun, the basketball game. When I watched it again to do the poster I was like “holy hell this IS a movie and not some weird dream I had!”
BS: Do you remember how you saw it? It seems like such an odd gem of a thing that's been more or less tucked away for years.
JS: Oh I have no idea. It was probably on cable or someone had a copy on VHS. I was pretty young the first time I saw it. Movies like that tend to melt into the weird stew of being young.
What’s it like seeing it for the first time as an adult though? I mean you’re old enough to appreciate a movie like "The Visitor" on a level a kid never would. You’re also old enough to dismiss it.
BS: That's tough. I think I'm less critical of it than most films I have to watch because it reminds me of a thing I'd find on TV when I was a kid, so I can appreciate it for whatever weird sense of nostalgia it cooks up. I can see the film’s that influenced it as an adult, though. As a kid I would've been clueless.
JS: Yeah for sure. Some movies are like that. I think The Visitor shoots in so many different directions it’s almost impossible for it to not hit the target at least some of the time. Everyone I know who’s seen the film takes away something they like from it. As a kid it’s just another midnight movie that gives you weird dreams.
My dad! He’s the one who showed it to me. I just remembered that. He rented it!
BS: Wow. How old?
JS: He used to do that all the time. My sister and I would go to his house on the weekends and he’d rent some funky thing and try to expose us to what he called “cinema”. Oh I was probably ten years old. The shit my dad used to show us was wildly inappropriate. “Near Dark”, “Holy Mountain”, “The Visitor”.
BS: Huh. I imagine that's why you've got a pretty good knowledge of stuff I'm still catching up on.
JS: Possibly but I also have a tough time turning off the lights and jumping into bed before the nightmare shit grabs my ankles. So there’s the tradeoff.
BS: Something's just stick with you. I'll spare you my dribble on what growing up in the tail end of the 80s did to me.
JS: Hah, try growing up in the tail end of the 70s.
BS: Yeah, I can't imagine. I think I'm a bit younger, but it's interesting that at least that we've got that shared experience growing up of the weird thing you'd see on VHS or cable and how that relates to appreciating something like “The Visitor”, where as that's something that's just going to not be a thing for a lot of younger people. I'm sure they'll find it on Netflix or something.
JS: Indeed. There’s definitely something to be said for how we got exposed to movies way back when. If you saw “The Visitor” it was because you were intrigued by the VHS box art and chose it over “XTRO” or “The Stuff” for your Friday night rental. You probably huffed it home in your backpack while riding your Mongoose listening to Circle Jerks on your walkman.
Now you’d just click the triangle button.
BS: From your iPad, while on the toilet. Time's have changed.
JS: I force my kids to ride their bikes through the woods and go on adventures before I let them watch an 80s movie. Keeps the experience authentic.
BS: Sounds like they'll have good heads on their shoulders. I know too many people that just lock their kids indoors and give them a screen. Goodbye childhood, hello tablet.
JS: And that’s not to say sitting in front of a screen is a bad thing per say. Seeing as how Drafthouse Films is releasing this thing on VOD and all. Setting your kids in front of the digital window is totally cool, so long as they’re watching THIS movie.
BS: Preferably on something bigger than an iPhone. John Houston needs to be seen battling evil eight year olds on a screen more decently sized.
JS: Dude I watched this movie on a 15” trinitron where the blue never worked. Anything is better than that.
BS: Haha. We used to have a TV that was strictly black and white.
Pulling back a bit, and my memory is fuzzy, but have you revisited many posters you've worked on before? Or ones that you made when you were starting out?
JS: I don’t think so no. The first time I did a thing for “The Visitor” was for a series called Cinema Overdrive in North Carolina. I was really surprised when DHF announced they were picking this one up and doubly surprised when Mondo asked if I’d like to do a poster for it.
I’d love to go back and re-do every dumb poster I’ve ever created but the opportunity doesn’t come up too often.
Jay Shaw, "The Visitor" (Mondo)
BS: I say the best thing about this job is that you can revisit something years later and it'll feel fresh and new again because time has a habit of making you see and put things together differently.
JS: I say the best thing about this job is that I don’t have to wear pants to work. But revisionism is nice too.
BS: Haha. It's been five or six years since I've had to throw on pants or shoes. I forget that that it’s special. It's silly to ask, but there's really no cookie cutter answer here. How would you describe working on “The Visitor” then as to now?
JS: That’s a two part answer I think. Different clients and quite frankly different artist. On the client side it’s more than just me now. When I come up with an idea I feed it to the mighty Rob Jones and he tears it apart until there’s something worth exploring left standing. Back when it was just me I’d come up with an idea and that’d pretty much be it. Not a lot of guidance on the art side.
As for me as an artist I’d like to hope I’ve gotten better at this through the years. I look back at the early stuff and cringe a bit. Now I look my stuff and shrug. That’s progression.
You only worked on “The Visitor” this one time but how would you describe the process?
BS: My turnarounds are typically a day or two, and there are usually a lot of cooks in the kitchen. With this there was more time to work, and Drafthouse gave free-reign on it. The only stipulations were that it had to be eye catching, a little bananas, and not step on the direction you were working in.
JS: Well you accomplished all of your goals sir. It’s a great piece of weird, eye catching bananas that doesn’t look a thing like what I did.
BS: Thanks. I obviously dig yours; you pulled off something I had tried in a sketch that belly flopped in a big way.
JS: What’s funny is I almost did a really similar thing to you but went in a different direction. Have you seen that crazy Spanish one? It’s like this gorgeous illustration but they made Sateen a sexy adult for some reason.
"The Visitor" (US and Spanish one-sheets)
BS: Yeah. It's the first image you see on the youtube video for the theme, which I had on...repeat, for days. So I became very familiar with it. It made me uncomfortable.
JS: Super odd choice there. Obviously the artist saw the movie. Wish we could have whoever that is on for this chat.
BS: Yeah. There were some really rad interpretations out there that stuck more closely to images from the film than the giant eye with monster hands, although not as iconic.
JS: That eye with the hands thing is cool looking but doesn’t have a thing to do with the film. Although who am I to talk, most of my stuff strays pretty far from base too.
BS: Your work tends to hang on an idea, though. Like, when I look at it, I understand what's going on. Do you think that's important?
JS: That’s the intention. If it strays too far I’m not doing a very good job. I admire a lot of the weirder interpretations I’ve seen in old movie posters but I don’t necessarily think they’re all being fair to the subject.
BS: Prints or official one-sheets? Because to me, the official business asks for a different set of pants then a print.
JS: There’s a Polish “Romancing the Stone” (or “Jewel of the Nile”) poster with Michael Douglas pointing a gun at the viewer all Dirty Harry style. If I were an art director I’d light that thing on fire, but I kinda love how silly it is. With prints you’ve got a bit more freedom because you’re not advertising to a new audience. You’re paying tribute to an audience that already knows the material. You can get away with things. That said you still need to service the film in some way.
BS: With the print with “The Visitor”, you mentioned talking it over with Rob Jones. What ideas did you run through that didn't work? How were you handling it as a print, because I'm sure your considerations were different than mine.
JS: Well the idea was basically the same. I wanted to illustrate the opening scene standoff. My initial execution was off though. It was an odd mis-match of techniques and wasn’t clear enough. Once I got feedback from Rob I was able to focus a bit more and get the imagery right. With a screen print the real consideration is keeping the color count low and easy to separate. I’ve done that quite a bit so it’s second nature now. I usually have to remind myself to not worry about that stuff when I’m working on one-sheets or packaging.
BS: Right. That's great to have, though. It makes you more conscious of details.
JS: Absolutely. Even if you’re working on something that’ll only ever be viewed in iTunes you’re still designing as if it’s going to be a giant printed poster.
Speaking of which have you seen yours printed yet? How’s it look on paper? That’s always a nerve wracking thing for me. Looks great on screen, what if it looks bad on paper.
BS: I haven't. I'm almost always terrified of seeing the stuff up close because I'll always find something wrong
JS: I saw my Pieta poster hanging in a theater lobby and my only thought was “goddamnit I should’ve made the red brighter”
BS: It's always something, isn't it? My problems tend to crop up if you look really closely at things. 9 times out of 10 I'm trying to cover low res imagery being blown up because assets are almost always in short supply
JS: Just make it look twice as shitty and then it’s retro! That’s what I do.
BS: That's my go-to solution. Things get all bungled when it comes to color. I've always loved black and white but it can be a hard sell to clients.
JS: You should start out with a super gaudy color palette and then when they’re like “yikes Brandon can you dial it down a bit?” the monochrome scheme becomes their idea!
BS: That's a good idea. I'm going to steal it for the next thing I work on.
"The Visitor" opens November 1st in LA & Austin from Drafthouse Films. To learn more, visit http://drafthousefilms.com/film/the-visitor