This Summer We’re Channelling: Ali MacGraw in “Players”

Ali MacGraw and Dean-Paul Martin in “Players”, 1979 | Paramount Pictures


This Summer We’re Channelling: a recurring seasonal series
in the journal that celebrates both style in film and summertime.

There have been many memorable fashion moments in film, characters inextricably linked with their clothes, influencing generations and fashion movements the world over. But only few actors have had the personal style that would transcend the screen, and fashion. Cary Grant was one of them. Steve McQueen, James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, too. And Ali MacGraw.

Ali MacGraw started out in fashion, as an assistant to Harper’s Bazaar’s Diana Vreeland and then stylist to photographer Melvin Sokolsky. She was part of the world of fashion when the American designers were starting to break free from their own buttoned-up sartorial past and other influences, such as the too prim Parisian elegance, and find their own voice, liberation and trend-resistant style. Clothes started to be more than appearance and frozen perfection. Clothes started to be used as an expression of one’s personality, mere things quickly thrown together before going on with your life. Individuality and independence were the equalizer.

Ali MacGraw had the authenticity, self-confidence, resolute demeanor and classic American sensibility that contributed to her instinctive style. But, as she herself confessed in a Vogue interview, she also had the right person to guide her fashion sense – “I met Halston when he was making hats at Bergdorf Goodman. You ask me what really guided my fashion sense in 1967 and before—it was that guy.”

She also had another American designer, also a byword for American style, Calvin Klein, to dress her in Players (1979). In the book Point of View, Tonne Goodman recalls how the Calvin Klein fashion campaign models “became the essence of unabridged style, whether in collections, jeans, or nude,” and how the shootings would last for days because they had to get the models ready to enter a certain world and so they had to get tanned, work out and rest and do extensive fittings to attain “the Calvin Klein look”. Ali MacGraw already represented the essence of that unabridged style. She didn’t have to get into character to wear Calvin Klein. She “exemplified the great American style”, the designer himself noted, and she immortalized it on screen in the 1970s, defining an era when women were both liberated and celebrated for their femininity.

Players is an easily forgettable romantic drama, but “as a Hollywood tennis sports movie, it’s pretty good”, as Quentin Tarantino noted. Producer Robert Evans, an enthusiastic tennis player, wanted to make a convincing film about tennis (some of the best tennis players in the world, Guillermo Vilas, John McEnroe and Ilie Năstase, appear in the movie) and he wanted a professional tennis player who could act. Dean Martin’s son, Dean-Paul Martin, who played tennis professionally, got the role of the rising tennis star Chris, and Ali MacGraw, Evans’ former wife to whom he had remained close, plays Nicole, a jet-setter involved with a millionaire and who falls in love with the much younger than her Chris. Ali MacGraw’s wardrobe is the second good reason to watch the film.

Ali MacGraw, Dean-Paul Martin and Guillermo Vilas in “Players”, 1979 | Paramount Pictures

Her wardrobe is simple. It is a mix of sporty separates and relaxed elegant pieces. Denim shirts. Knitted jersey dresses. White jeans. Long flared skirts and white shirts with rolled-up sleeves and knotted at the front. A knee length skirt and a long sleeved black sweater. Loose-fitting trench. Easy slip-on dresses. And the coolest, most laid back and liberating look of all, mismatched long V-neck knitted sweater and flowy, silky long skirt (image on the tennis court above) – “This is me”, she seems to say. She’s naturally sexy and uncompromisingly modern. That all-encompassing modern style that is comfortable and easy to wear and effortlessly elegant for the woman on the go. For Ali MacGraw, this was not a sought-after look, something that fashion simply had to offer, it was instinctively hers, and it was stripped of any detail that could distract attention from her real self. It was her attitude that moved the youth toward a collective all-American look.

Calvin Klein is one those American fashion master minimalists that cemented the American design aesthetic and inspired generations of designers. But he wasn’t alone in accomplishing this: he had a great design team besides him, namely Zack Carr, who for nearly three decades was the brand’s creative director, who had a great contribution to defining the sexy, clean and minimal Calvin Kline style, which remains consistent to this very day. “I first met Zack in the very early days at Calvin Klein, where he was very much part of that brilliant new design studio,” Ali MacGraw recounts in the book Zack Carr. “Calvin and his team did all the clothes for me for two films. I got to see Zack’s immense talent at work over and over again. I think that he had a big part in the creation of the look that is “Calvin Klein” – the elegance, the color sense, the timelessness, the modernity. But what I think of above all, when I think of my friend Zack, is the quality of human being he was: tremendously talented, of course, but kind and funny and decent and humble. He was a shining star in a particular world that so often produces ego and competitiveness before humanity.”

True style requires a little more than clothes. I believe Ali MacGraw and Zack Carr for Calvin Klein made a pretty good team together.
More stories: This Summer We’re Channelling: The Safari Style in “Hatari” / An American Original: Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” / The All-Natural Look of Two Mythical Creatures: Thelma and Louise

Posted by classiq in Film, Style in film, This summer we’re channelling | | Leave a comment

Creating Mystery within a Single Image: Interview with Illustrator Jennifer Dionisio

Noir | Jennifer Dionisio self-initiated artwork


A distinctive cinematic aesthetic runs through Jennifer Dionisio’s illustrations. Her visual stories, through minimal colour composition and a beautiful command of light and shadow and space, transport you to the heyday of film noir and they convey a tangible sense of mystery, intrigue and fateful encounters. Illustration can carry so many meanings and visual possibilities, and Jennifer Dionisio’s illustrations easily accomplish that. Because they not only invite you to reflection and take you to a different time and mind set, but they work up your interest and curiosity as you are beginning to ask yourself questions about the characters you see, their past, their stories. It is a moody, classic feel that offers some detachment from modern reality and puts the focus on imagination and emotion.

In our interview, Jennifer and I are talking film noir and film noir heroines, stylistic approach and film cover images as artworks in their own right.

Left: portrait of Emily Weiss by Jennifer Dionisio, Courier Magazine Issue 18 | Right: Jennifer Dionisio artwork for the
cover of Idler Magazine, issue number 54, featuring Julian Barratt as ‘Mindhorn’ and Essie Davis as ‘Patricia Deville’


”A great cover can represent
your first memory of a film you enjoyed.”

There is a distinct cinematic element in your work, with a special emphasis on film noir. Where does this interest in film noir originates?

I was originally drawn to the strong, bold female characters and the look and feel of many classic film noirs. In my personal work I like to create a mystery within a single piece of artwork, and it ends up being very similar to a still from a film.

You recently did a beautiful cover art for The Criterion Collection, for Detour, at its first major restoration so that it can be fully appreciated by hard boiled fans and new audiences alike. Could you walk us through the inspiration and the design process for this particular project?

Eric Skillman, the art director and designer, wanted a composition which reflected the grittiness and shoe-string budget of the production. So I worked to strip back the drawings and use hand drawn textures in pencil and charcoal. Eric created the title treatment to fit within the drawing. The stripe motif is a nod to the original promotional images and the title. It was also great to include a big portrait of Ann Savage. She’s such a fantastic character with one of the best evil crazy stares I have ever seen.

Lizabeth Scott. There is another actress who was made for film noir. Your self-initiated work on her makes me curious: If you could choose one of her noir films to do the cover image for, or better yet, the poster for the film back in the day, which one would it be?

I would love to create a poster for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, because I also really love Barbara Stanwyck.

Blu-ray and DVD artwork by Jennifer Dionisio for Criterion Collection’s re-release of
Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 noir “Detour” | Title treatment and graphic design by Eric Skillman

Besides your Criterion collaboration on Detour, you are a frequent collaborator of Arrow Films and did some beautiful artwork for them on films like Jean Grémillon’s The Love of a Woman (1953) and Frank Borzage’s Magnificent Doll (1946). Do you believe that the wonderful work of the likes of Arrow and Criterion, of restoring these classics and building momentums with the help of talented artists who do the cover art, will also bridge this gap between today’s public and online streaming?

I think so, people want a special experience. If you’re a fan of film, owning a physical object with special artwork is worth having and revisiting. I like to display mine like little art pieces on my book shelf.

Do cover images stand as artworks in their own right? Can we judge a film by its DVD or blu-Ray cover?

I think they can absolutely stand alone as artwork. A great cover will make you want to watch the film. And can also represent your first memory of a film you enjoyed.

Which is the film poster or cover art that has impacted you the most? Do you remember the first time when a film poster made you want to watch a film?

I’m very inspired by the film posters of the Russian Avant-Garde era of the 20s and 30s in particular. As for what poster made me want to watch a film, it would have been something by Drew Struzan, like the first Harry Potter movie.

A House They Call | Jennifer Dionisio self-initiated artwork


”Illustration is such a beautiful and diverse art form,
it can help cut through the visual noise we all experience.”

Does the design process differ from one film to another? Do you watch the film, does the client come with an idea or a theme from the very beginning, do you seek for inspiration outside the film itself?

Sometime the client comes with a fully formed vision and sometimes they don’t, it depends. Either way, I always watch the film, take notes and makes screenshots. I also research the original promotional material and sometimes other reference research as well.

Have any other film poster designers or illustrators influenced your work and your style of illustration?

Edward Hopper is my biggest style influence. His compositions and use of light and shadow are very inspiring to me. I also look to Gregory Crewdson’s photography for those same reasons. They are both masters at creating mystery within a single image, which is an aspiration of mine.

How would you describe your aesthetic?

Atmospheric, cinematic, vintage inspired.

City Noir | Jennifer Dionisio self-initiated portrait of Lizabeth Scott

You also do editorial illustration and you have collaborated with some great print publications, Idler being one of them. What does an illustration bring new to an editorial in comparison to photography? How much research, how much observation and how much conceptual work does an editorial illustration involve?

Illustration can visualise complex ideas in interesting and accessible ways. Illustration often holds the viewers interest for longer, encouraging them to pause and digest the information. Editorial can be highly conceptual and require a lot of research, but it’s a balancing act because the deadlines are often quite short.

For years now, illustration has experienced a revival in the more traditional sense and print magazines have been using it more and more frequently. Is that because the constant feed of photography surrounding us on a daily basis has made the craving of the unique grow stronger?

It helps the publication or article to stand out. Readers may not be conscious of it, but I believe it signals to them that the content they are consuming has quality and is worth spending time on. Illustration is such a beautiful and diverse art form, it can help cut through the visual noise we all experience.

Your work can be found in print magazines and movie cover art, which translates into a physical connection with the public. How important is it to be present online? Does it help that an artist’s work has become so much more visible in this way?

I think it’s important to be visible online, that’s where most of the art directors and commissioners see your work. Having a large online following also can make you more appealing to certain brands. I don’t really like using social media, but do feel it’s necessary. I keep it up to date when I have new projects to share, but I try not to worry about it too much. I’m not willing to dedicate a lot of time to it and don’t feel it’s helpful to my creativity. So far that hasn’t stopped me from being commissioned, which is great. Artists who are willing and post a lot, can do very well from it.

Crossfire | Jennifer Dionisio artwork depicting the film “Crossfire”, 1947, for Issue C of Shelf Heroes Magazine

How big a part does hand-work and digital, respectively, play in your illustrations?

I like doing both, so maybe it’s around 50/50. My portraits are always hand drawn in pencil while I’ve been drawing more of the other parts of the compositions digitally.

Your editorial illustrations sometimes accompany articles or interviews regarding new releases. I recently worked on an article in which I asked for the opinions of film industry insiders and film festival directors on why movies still need cinemas. Do you hope that your work could also drive people to the movies and not just to want to read about them in the magazines?

Definitely, I think the cinema is amazing and I love going to see new films. I hope that people will feel encouraged to continue going in the future. It really is a special and fun thing to do. Being in lockdown makes that more evident than ever.

What is one of your most memorable experiences from going to the movies?

My first time going to see the The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We dressed up, sang and danced. There were actors acting out the scenes in front of the big screen, it was so fun!

Website: | Instagram: @jendionisio

More stories: On and Off Set with Unit Still Photographer Merie Weismiller Wallace / Why Movies Still Need Cinemas: In Conversation with Film Industry Insiders / Art Directing Film Posters: Interview with Akiko Stehrenberger

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Face It

”Face It” by Debbie Harry

She was a punk. She still is. Breaking down walls, “cutting new paths instead of taking the tried and tested roads”, making music because they wanted to make things happen, being artistically strong because they had something to say.

Debbie Harry calls herself a visual thinker, and her songs, she sees them as moving pictures. She confesses that her “punk bombshell” image was influenced by old movie stars, predominantly Marilyn Monroe, who fascinated her with the fantasy her image projected on screen (much more a character invented by Marilyn herself than a fabrication of the publicity machine behind her), “the mother” of her Blondie character. Only there was also a “dark, provocative, aggressive side” to Debbie Harry’s cool and understated sexuality and platinum hair. A punk aesthetic born in “a special time in New York, with the wild beauty of the decayed and dirty city in the seventies. The garbage strewn everywhere, where you found fabulous things that people threw out and you deconstructed them and you put the pieces together with creativity and irony as the glue.”

The arresting depiction of the New York City punk and cultural scene of the 1970s is one of the best parts of Face It*, the memoir of Debbie Harry, the face and front singer of Blondie (but also solo musician and independent movie actor), the band she co-founded with Chris Stein in the 1970s, pioneers in the American punk and then the new wave scene of the mid-1970s in New York. A dark, dusty and dirty New York City, but ripe with creativity and rich in struggling artists who had no money but who were culturally central to the city’s life. Glory came with no shortage of grime.

How can you explain that to the young people of today raised in an affluent lifestyle, with the personal Mac and companionable iPhone? How can you explain to them that people had to go out there to try and make it (some still do), who did something because they believed in it, who made music to express themselves, before making money out of music became a subject taught in school? How do you explain someone raised on online social media that music and the music scene used to serve as a source of social documentation, revelation, as a way to read body language, as a way of learning how to express and read oneself physically and be comfortable in one’s own skin? How do you explain body language to someone whose only “idols” exist on Instagram? How do you explain to them that fame came only after one had accomplished something truly remarkable? How do you explain all this to someone who hasn’t been exposed to the reality of life and to history?

Through intuitive and intimate storytelling accompanied by striking visuals, including personal photographs, drawings and fan-art illustrations, Debbie Harry comes through as an original, an artist with initiative and strength and grit and a vision, and a whole lot of sense of humour that made it easier for her to navigate this crazy, demanding, extraordinary and once very macho rock music world. A musician, a muse, an icon, a rock star, in a time when each of these things meant something.

“I’ve been trying to think what best of Blondie was for me.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it was the early days of the band
when we were struggling artists scuttling around the Lower Esat Side just
trying to get something going, walking home from work before dawn through
the dark, dusty, sweet-dirt smell of the city. Everybody got by on no money.
Nobody talked about mainstream success. Who wanted to be mainstream?
What we were doing was so much better than that. We felt like pioneers.”


”Face It” by Debbie Harry

* For an easily accessible, official synopsis of the book, I have linked to the publishing house. However, in these trying times, our intention is to support artists and small businesses of any kind, especially bookstores, therefore we will not link to global online book chains or corporations, leaving you to make the choice of helping your favourite independent bookshop and placing your order with them. If you don’t have a favourite indie bookstore, here is how to find one you can support.
More stories: Chronicles: Volume One / M Train / It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll But I Like It

Posted by classiq in Books, Culture | | Leave a comment

The All-Natural Look of Two Mythical Creatures: Thelma and Louise

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in “Thelma and Louise”, 1991 | Pathé Entertainment, Metro Goldwyn Mayer


This Summer We’re Channelling: a recurring seasonal series
in the journal that celebrates both style in film and summertime.

N° 10: Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in “Thelma and Louise”

She rips the sleeve off of a denim shirt and makes herself two bandanas to wear around her neck. She’s dressed in washed-up blue jeans, white cowboy boots and white tank top. She then sits next to an old man with a beat-up white cowboy hat on. She takes off all her jewellery, her earrings, her rings, and watch, and gives it to him. A little later on, we see her with the hat. “Where did you get the hat?,” asks Thelma. “I stole it,” Louise replies. She had in fact traded all the possessions she had left, except for the car, for the hat.

Why the cowboy hat? Is it because the cowboy embodies the idea of a great adventure? Is it because it embodies a well defined character? Is it because he doesn’t dwell on the past because his kind of life only allows him to live in the present? Is it because his lifestyle, just as the road adventurer, just as the outlaw, alone on the road or in the vast Wild West, is reduced to the essentials of survival, stripped of possessions and committed to an elemental way of dressing, solely out of necessity, making the best of something and someone, himself, with limited resources? Whatever it is, the cowboy hat is the final piece that Louise chooses to define her look. Throughout the film, we see her and Thelma gradually contest and lose the adornments, and trappings we could say, of what is traditionally considered feminine, redefine it and form their own identities, making boyish silhouettes and emblems of the road and of the western their own, a new kind of femininity.

Thelma and Louise, directed by Ridley Scott and scripted by Callie Khouri, bends so many genres, having been predominantly acclaimed as female revenge movie or female liberation and empowerment film, but to not see it as what first and foremost is, a great film and groundbreaking road movie, would mean to subverge it in a sub-genre of feminist cinema meant to please academic film criticism, which would be an injustice. Moreover, this is a road movie in outlaw and buddy movie trappings, standing alongside the another great of the kind, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But by making both protagonists female, Thelma and Louise formed its own identity. Another pivotal element, more important than any feminist appeal, was that the film, just as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, depicted real bonding and real friendship of two memorable characters. Because despite common belief, that doesn’t come off that easily, neither in real life nor in film. In life, it’s rare to find people to take a journey with, let alone a life and self-defining journey. In film, it has rarely been depicted truthfully. Maybe that’s why the film has appealed so much to both men and women. Because every great film does not consider gender.

“Thelma and Louise”, 1991 | Pathé Entertainment, Metro Goldwyn Mayer

They took the road to escape their tedious lives, and then the law, and while on the road they are finally happy and free, freed from their past and from all the restraints that held them back. It is a journey, they can not remain the same. Their clothes – Elizabeth McBride was the costume designer – can not remain the same either. They lose or leave behind everything and everyone, and they trade or let go of many of their clothes, too. What is interesting to see is how denim, present from the very start in both Thelma and Louise’s wardrobes, this symbol of American fashion sensibility and universal modernity, function-grounding and gender-breaking, and which should stand for unapologetic American coolness, has its own arc in the film. Like the ugly truth and limitations that lie underneath the great American Dream and promising freedom, a piercing commentary made throughout the entire film by Ridley Scott by contrasting the American great outdoors (with all the patina, texture and hardness of light that is the stuff of myth and legend) with the run-down dwellings, crummy interiors and small-town harsh reality. All denim is not the same.

Louise, the older and wiser and more bitter of the two, is wearing her faded jeans, hardware leather belt and white cowboy boots when they hit the road, and pairs them with a white shirt. But it is not the kind that may be borrowed from the boys. It is embroidered on the collar, and Louise is wearing ladylike cat-eye sunglasses and a colourful feminine scarf wrapped around her head to keep her hair neat. Make-up is in place, too. Thelma, younger, reckless and more naïve, is wearing much more conventional feminine clothes, from her floral robe when she’s at home, to a long denim skirt, frilly white top and embroidered denim jacket, and oversized tinted shades. She is also wearing heavy make-up.

As the story advances, their looks change. Taken out of societal norms, they are shown as individuals. Louise swaps her embroidered shirt for a plain white tank top, her headscarf for two denim bandanas, her jewellery for the old cowboy hat, and her cat-eye sunglasses for a policeman’s aviators. She also adds a hand-band made of some kind of patterned cloth. Thelma goes from her girly clothes to jeans and a sleeveless denim shirt, from her oversized sunglasses to timeless black Ray Ban wayfarers, leaves all her jewellery behind, from her wedding band, drop earrings and necklaces (she only keeps two simple golden bracelets) and ties her tousled braided hair with a denim strap (which probably came from the same ripped-off denim shirt as Louise’s bandanas), and finally, to a black graphic rock ‘n’ Roll tank top with the line “Driving My Life Away” written on it and the weathered baseball cap she takes from the truck driver during the car spin around him after they have blown up his truck. Thelma and Louise both give up wearing make-up.

With their disheveled and dusty looks, weather-beaten tan, high waist faded jeans, white and black tank tops, their t-shirts becoming symbols of rediscovered sisterhood, cowboy boots, unisex sunglasses and men’s cap and hat, they “become more and more natural, but more and more beautiful as it goes on and by the end… just these mythical looking creatures”, as director Ridley Scott described them. Without make-up, colour, fashion and “things”, exposed to the natural elements, the dirt, the sun fade, the open road, the Grand Canyon, they are illuminated, and their jeans have gained even more character not through years of wear (as it happens with our most beloved pairs of jeans), but through a life-defining journey of wear.
More stories: This Summer We’re Channelling: Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde / When the Man Dresses the Character: Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief / He Wore Black: Challenging the Romantic Notion of the West

Posted by classiq in Film, Style in film, This summer we’re channelling | | Leave a comment

Drawing on the Quiet Moments of a Movie: Interview with Poster Designer Michael Boland

Film poster design by Michael Boland for “We the Animals”, 2018, directed by Jeremiah Zagar

Films have tremendous power. Film poster and cover art is a way to communicate that power. Good film poster and cover art is able to communicate that power in an honest way that honours the film as an extension of the film experience and not just as a sale tool. I like to believe that good film poster and cover art is designed more for the film than for the market.

My recent conversation with film poster designer Michael Boland reinforces my belief. Michael is a frequent collaborator of The Criterion Collection, and their passion for and knowledge of film, their well-established presence on the market and sophisticated audience allow them the freedom to be creative in their cover art designs and film packaging, and to easily depart from the “tell them the story in an image” approach and team up with the most talented designers who have the skill and liberty to reposition and bring a new sensibility to classic films which have seeped into the popular consciousness. Moreover, in a time of social distancing and when the future of the movie theaters, a vital experience for us as society, remains uncertain, the print designs and movie packaging play a tremendous new role: physical engagement with the audience. Beautiful cover art and packaging show commitment to the art of cinema, to the visual language or cinema, and to an audience for whom the experience of watching a film goes far beyond online streaming.

But it is probably the film posters for new releases, the one sheets as they are called in the poster design world, such as We the Animals (2018), The Painted Bird (2019) and The Tribe (2014), that bring an even bigger appreciation for Michael Boland’s work. Because they have the ability and power to help shape the visual identity of certain directors and contemporary worldwide cinema. His subtle yet arresting and cohesive designs build interest without revealing much. Their main source of inspiration is looking at the film and the director’s vision. They look into the quiet moments of the films to reveal their strength. In a time when everything is on display, this less is more approach shows faith in the audience’s rediscovering of what it is like to be curious, to ask questions the poster raises, to go beyond the surface, to get immersed into watching a film. That’s the beauty of good film poster design.

In our interview, Michael reveals why he doesn’t work with too rigid of an original idea or concept, which is the film poster that has impacted him the most and why he hopes we never lose the privilege of going to the movies.

Film poster design by Michael Boland for “These Birds Walk”, 2013, directed by Omar Mullick, Bassam Tariq
Cover art by Michael Boland for the Janus Films release of “Blood Simple”, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, 1985

We the Animals is a film I haven’t yet had the chance to watch, but ever since I saw your film poster I have wanted to see it. Do you remember when it was the first time that a film poster made you want to watch a film you had’t yet viewed?

Make it a point to see We the Animals. It is a remarkable movie and one that I had to constantly remind myself was fictional. Sometimes you see documentaries that feel like scripted movies, but this is the other way around. Great film, and that always makes it more exciting to work on the poster.

​I love movies and get excited by new films for the same reasons that we all do. It is a favourite actor, telling a great story or bringing a beloved piece of literature to life, or merely a unique visual experience. If there is a movie that interests me, I will probably go no matter what the poster looks like. Since I was young and art became the path I knew I would follow, I have wanted to create art for film. I intended to become an illustrator, and so I enjoyed looking at the technique of someone like C. Michael Dudash on Bill Gold’s Pale Rider poster or the great Richard Amsel.

​So I would like to change your question around a little bit and tell you the poster that impacted me the most, two actually. They were the companion images of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins for Silence of the Lambs. It is credited today to BLT Communications, but I believe at that time that they were Frankfurt Gips and Balkind.

​That poster seemed to me to be a watershed moment. It revealed that movie promotion could be so much more than recreating a moment from a film or only showing the actors side by side, prominently and clearly. That poster had an attitude. It made a statement and had such a strong point of view and sense of style that I recall very clearly being stopped in my tracks by it, and I loved that there were two of them, quid quo pro. I don’t think I had ever seen anything quite like it, and looking back at it, I think it continues to influence me.

”If you are going to see a Spike Lee joint or a Tarrantino film,
they are so established that you have a pretty good idea
of the types of worlds you are going to visit. When they first
started, those posters helped sell what their visions were.”

What makes a good movie poster?

The answer to that is so subjective! I also think it is hard to qualify beyond, something engaging, true to the film, smart, and with a clear point of view and message. All very abstract terms, but I think they all lead to art that engages the viewer and converses with them on some level.

When does the work of the film poster designer come into play, especially in the case of a new film? How important is it for you to watch the film first? And how challenging is it if you don’t?

I HAVE to watch the film first. In some instances, I can get away with just watching a trailer, but if I am doing a full exploration leading to key art for a cover or a one sheet, I find it almost impossible to adequately explore appropriate concepts and ideas without being able to contextualize characters, plot and locations. I also use the time spent watching a film to make grabs that I can either use in the art or reference later on.

I think that with a new film, the key art is essential in establishing its footing. In the case of a new or young director, I think it can help define multiple aspects of what the experience is going to be. If you are going to see a Spike Lee joint or a Tarrantino film, they are so established that you have a pretty good idea of the types of worlds you are going to visit. When they first started, those posters helped sell what their visions were.

More and more often, I work directly with directors who head into festivals with a poster as well as their films because it is an important element in the sale of their film. It helps distributors visualize more quickly the potential audience and what type of niche it might fill.

Film poster design by Michael Boland for “The Painted Bird”, 2019, directed by Václav Marhoul

How big a role do existing photographs of actors or screen grabs play in creating a new image? What is the design process like, from the jumping off point of inspiration and then the creative direction it takes from there?

Everyone almost always wants the presence of the actors, and the marquee value of those actors and how the film is to be marketed will affect how recognizable they need to be. After some initial conversations regarding the film and the audience the art is targeting, I will create a range of ideas, and within that range, those considerations will be explored. Sometimes a simple graphic solution is so powerful that likenesses can be less important than the resulting overall impact.

There are a couple of factors involved when it comes to the raw images used to create a piece of art. The biggest hurdle is the sheer size of a theatrical one sheet. Those dimensions require a very high resolution, and that ideally means good on set photography or perhaps a photoshoot of some kind. For me, it is rare to have either of those. Therefore, grabs are another resource and work very well for the smaller proportions of a package or cover art. 4k resolution has been a game-changer when it comes to poster design, but even then, sometimes grabs work beautifully, and sometimes they don’t, and I never know until I start.

Another consideration is that if I have access to a good photoshoot, the emotion present in a scene in a movie can be missing in that staged environment. You have to pick therefore and choose your priorities and how you intend to use your images, specifically those of the actors.

​Given all of that, I don’t work with too rigid of an original idea or concept. I like to let the images, grabs, photos help dictate where things lead and what you can ask of them so that the art feels organic and not composited or worked in a way that lacks emotion or feels alien to the film itself. As I mentioned earlier, I make grabs as I watch a film and those can be used in the design as an actor’s image, setting a location, or as a textural element. Regardless, the grabs help me revisit that world as I work to make sure I communicate the tone, colours, and overall vibe of the film.

”I think that subtleness of pose was unexpected and created the need
to know more. That is the fundamental purpose of good key art.”

Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry is an upcoming Criterion Collection release. Kiarostami was a filmmaker who didn’t make up extraordinary stories and extraordinary worlds in his movies, but he looked for ordinary lives in exceptional moments. He liked making movies that showed by not showing, that left questions unanswered, that did not explain, that worked up the viewer’s imagination, and was against the kind of cinema that didn’t ask the audience to think. Taste of Cherry, too, entrusts much of its meaning to the audience, yet there is a sense of isolation that lies at the heart of the film. What is it that you felt you needed to convey with your cover art?

That is a good summation of Taste of Cherry, and I would add that it was also an examination of self and destruction of self. Badii is pursuing people who will help bury his body following his suicide (I don’t recall the reason for his despondence, which is not the reason for the film’s journey; as you say, it is the director’s unanswered question.) In addition to his request, the film is built upon resulting conversations between three passengers and Badii. They discuss right and wrong, and what it is to exist. That is where we found our inspiration for the cover.

​There is a scene in the film where the lead character, Mr. Badii, sits at a construction site surrounded and enveloped by the dust in the air. Criterion art director Eric Skillman and I loved how much distance and melancholy that dusty haze conveyed, but we did not want him seated. It was simple enough to recreate that texture and colour through stock art. Then, into that environment, I placed instead Badii standing with his hand extended as he talks with one of his passengers. That detail felt as if it could be interpreted as his asking to be saved, and it became another unanswered question open to interpretation to the viewer and similar to how the director worked. I think that subtleness of pose was unexpected and created the need to know more. That is the fundamental purpose of good key art.

Cover art by Michael Boland for the Criterion Collection release of “Taste of Cherry”, directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Film poster design by Michael Boland for “These Birds Walk”, 2013, directed by Omar Mullick, Bassam Tariq

That is good key art. One of my favourite artworks of yours is Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin). The film happens to be one of my all-time favourites. Where do you start when working on such a film, a visual metaphor? What was the biggest challenge?

I also love Wings of Desire, and it is just as beautiful and poignant a film today as on its theatrical release. I also just love black and white cinematography. The challenge with that film, as with many Criterion or other classic titles, is how to be true to the film while bringing a modern sensibility to familiar images.

​We explored numerous ideas and depictions of Bruno Ganz’s Damiel, but ultimately settled on that image of him overlooking Berlin for its powerful conveyance of his love and loneliness. The expression of his pose just speaks to the themes of the film so strongly. It was among a handful of original photography stills that I received upon beginning the process. It is one that you often see in its original form and has been used in other iterations. I made a few aesthetic choices that I thought would enhance its impact; I introduced clouds and increased the sense of distance between the angel and his city as well as softening the tone in the sky. Both of those things I felt increased his isolation and repeated the great shift in scale that I recall in the film. It was present in the original poster design where Damiel sits upon the shoulder of the statue at the top of the Berlin Victory Column. I can’t take credit for creating the typography as it comes from the title card of the film itself, but I felt that it was a personal element that was missing in some other uses. The overall effect was to make Damiel more iconic and seems to be a shift that has created a connection with people.

I suppose this was an example where the design lived in the choices made and the sensitivities to how it all related and less to a unique and new vision.

”I do very much like the drama and power that
can be found in the quiet moments of a movie.
I think I do seek those out. To me, they are like the
downbeats in music, or the negative spaces in painting
and offer the opportunity for conversation with the viewer.”

That dusty haze image you used for Taste of Cherry reminds me to some extent of your cover design for Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterpiece, Ugetsu, with its misty cinematography being part of the film’s ethereal beauty. But your work on Ugetsu also reminds me of Wings of Desire, as another example of a film where you drew on certain sensitivities of a visually powerful film.

Years ago I was surprised when a friend told me that he could always tell my work. I never thought I had a very identifiable stylistic approach, but perhaps it is on display in your examples and in something like my work on the films Risk or Beauty and the Dogs. I do very much like the drama and power that can be found in the quiet moments of a movie. I think I do seek those out. To me, they are like the downbeats in music, or the negative spaces in painting and offer the opportunity for conversation with the viewer that I spoke of.

Cover art by Michael Boland for the Criterion Collection release of “Wings of Desire”, 1987, directed by Wim Wenders

You are a frequent collaborator of The Criterion Collection and you have worked on such classics as the aforementioned Ugetsu (1953), or Sansho the Bailiff (1954), again by Mizoguchi, or Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1056). Do you believe that the wonderful work of the likes of Criterion, of restoring and releasing these films and building momentums with the help of talented artists who do the cover art, will also bridge this gap between today’s public and online streaming? And how does the design process differ when you are working on an film poster than when you are doing cover art?

When working on cover art, specifically art for a Criterion release, you have the luxury of their reputation as skilled curators of great films, as well as the value of their restorations and added features. Those two things elevate the home video experience and make Criterion’s releases their own new entities and not derivative of the original films. I think that with that came the willingness, maybe even the need, to take chances and depart from simply reworking existing key art, because in some ways, these are new versions of beloved films.

Having that core audience then allows you to take some risks and explore some of the more subtle emotional connections to films without the same regard for marketing needed for a broad general audience. From the top-down, Criterion is less committed to marketing a movie than they are with presenting art that is a true and fresh representation of the film. Eric Skillman and Sarah Habibi (ed. note: Criterion’s head art director) have assembled an incredible stable of artists that I am proud to be part of.

The fresh take that we work to present for these films does, I think, translate to a general audience and helps to seduce new audiences to take a chance on a classic. I believe that this brings me back to my thoughts on the poster for The Silence of The Lambs in that the Criterion covers as a whole show us what design for film can be. I think they have influenced the way theatrical one sheets and imagery for online streaming are evolving.

How important is it for you, as an artist, that your imagery stands as artwork in its own right?

I hope I am understanding the meaning of your question here.

I think there are, broadly, two schools of thought in designing a piece of key art. One would be recreating or depicting an important scene or moment from a film. And the other would be creating something which taps into the themes or tone of the film and presents them in a new iconic form.

​Regardless of which one you choose, I believe that the hand of the artist should always be present. It should not overwhelm and become just personal expression, but without the designer’s personal perspective, it is just a pretty picture that is probably without any real depth or significance.

Film poster design by Michael Boland for “The Great Beauty”, 2013, directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Film poster design by Michael Boland for “24 Exposures”, 2013, directed by Joe Swanson

How big a part does hand-work and digital, respectively, play in your designs?

Ten years ago, I would have said it was 25% hand-work to 75% digital, but those percentages have slowly all gone over to the digital side. Even as little as a year ago, I would still paint things and scan or photograph them. Now, between stock and programs like Procreate, it is all digital all the time. It is rare for anything to happen “by hand,” which is weird to acknowledge.

Do you miss drawing by hand? Are the tight deadlines one of the reasons for this complete shift to digital?

I can’t say I miss drawing by hand. I don’t think I was doing that much of it anyway. Most of my work is photo manipulation on one degree or another.

​I think the transition to digital was really just because of ease and fluidity. There is no break in the thought process anymore. You are just reaching for the next tool to create what you imagine. Plus the ability to do, undo, and redo work when working digitally is an incomparable advantage over traditional means.

Was there any hand-drawing on We the Animals? It seems that way.

We the Animals was one of the last traditionally hand-done pieces, the title and scribbled burst.

If you could choose one classic film to make the official poster art for back in the day, which one would it be?

Well, it can’t be something with existing exceptional art like Rosemary’s Baby or a film for which Saul Bass created the art, because that would be way too much pressure…

​I would love to do an action movie, a big budget extravaganza. But for lack of a better answer, I will stick with my first choice whenever I get a call from Criterion about a new project and go with Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980).

Poster design by Michael Boland for “The Tribe”, 2014, directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi


”That giant screen, totally immersive, people cheering or crying
in shared emotions… It just can’t be duplicated and seems
like exactly the type of connection that is missing in our lives.”

Do you ever watch a film just for relaxation?

I have to admit that after watching two or three a week at times, I do tend to choose shorter episodic television experience to unwind. It is hard to invest the time sometimes.
​That being said, I absolutely love the experience of going to a theater, and I go as often as is possible. I hope we never lose that privilege.

I think that’s been on everyone’s mind lately. Because movies still need cinemas and our fascination with the big screen lingers. Would you care to share a memorable experience from going to the movies?

I had to think quite a while about which would be my favorite memory. I realised that they all speak to the powerful connection movies make with us and between us.

Waiting in the rain or cold was necessary before you were able to reserve tickets in advance, but you were with your friends, maybe you made a few new ones while on line, and the anticipation of would you get in was all part of the moment. The doors open and you walk in, stopping at the concession stand before finding your seat. The lights finally dim and the film begins. It was all a ritual that can’t be duplicated and it is a commitment that you all made together to the movie you are about to see.

That giant screen, totally immersive, people cheering or crying in shared emotions… It just can’t be duplicated and seems like exactly the type of connection that is missing in our lives.

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