The art department at the Criterion Collection shares the story behind their cover design for the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 film, The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Like everything we do
here, the design process at Criterion starts with the film. Once everyone has had a chance to view the film in question, we sit
down for an in-house “briefs” meeting, where the art director, editorial
director, release producer, company president and a few others meet to discuss
the direction of the design and editorial content for the release. We talk
through the film’s themes and motifs, and select the aspects we want to
The briefs meeting is
also where we decide which of our designers or illustrators will be assigned to a
particular project. In addition to our in-house staff, we usually have five or
six outside designers in rotation, plus a long wish list of illustrators we’re
just waiting to match with the right project. The design process for each title
takes about two months (with an additional month or so required for replication
and shipping, before the product actually reaches customers). We release three
to seven films per month, so our in-house group has plenty of irons in the fire
at any given moment.
The first topic we
discussed at the meeting for The Man Who Knew Too Much was mood—that
classic British-period, Hitchcockian blend of the suspenseful and comedic, the
light-hearted and the tense. Espionage with a hint of whimsy—that sort of
feeling. With this in mind, we started thinking about an illustrated, rather
than photographic direction, as we felt that the lighter touch of a brush (or, as
it turned out, a pencil) would best capture the tone we were seeking.
But what to illustrate?
Everyone’s favorite scene in the film was the tension-filled assassination
attempt at the concert hall. The simple image of a gun barrel poking through
heavy curtains is iconic enough to convey “spies” and “melodrama” to everyone;
it’s also a direct reference to a moment in the film itself, for anyone who
knows the work well. Plus, the suspense of not knowing whose hand is holding the gun
helped establish a nice “whodunit” sensibility. Executed in a classic style—with
some good, old-fashioned pulpy typography—we felt our design approach would do
the job well.
However, there was a
practical concern that still needed to be addressed. There’s another,
better-known version of The Man Who Knew
Too Much out there—the later version that Hitchcock made in America with
Jimmy Stewart. The American version is in color, so we decided that executing our
image in black and white would be a good first step in distinguishing the two films. But that alone was probably not enough. If we had a lead actor like Jimmy
Stewart to work with, obviously that would go a long way, but the lead actor in
the British version is neither particularly well-known nor (frankly)
particularly interesting looking. The
earlier version does have a fantastically creepy villain, and instantly
recognizable face, in actor Peter Lorre, however.
At this stage, we began thinking about who
would be the right illustrator for this job. Because illustrators—at least
those we admire and want to work with—tend to put more of a personal stamp on
their work than designers, who often base their work on the photographic
imagery in the films, we’re not able to re-commission them as often. We do
keep an eye on the Criterion Collection as a whole, sometimes using the same
illustrator for two different projects to create an implied connection between
two films. Occasionally—as in Dan Clowes’ fantastic covers for The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor, or David Downton’s beautiful work on the various
films of Max Ophüls—this tactic works in our favor. But more
often than not, it’s an impediment to rehiring an illustrator who has already
done memorable work for us.
The upside to this approach
is that it gives Criterion a fantastic excuse to work with dozens and dozens of
the world’s great illustrators, and to really focus in on pairing each
illustrator with the perfect project. The most rewarding art direction
experiences occur when you’ve found the right person for the job and can simply
get out of their way and let them do their thing.
So after we talked
through a few possible illustrators for this project, we quickly decided that the
man for the job was the great portrait artist, Bill Nelson. We knew he could perfectly
capture the tone we were seeking; his talent with likenesses was also perceived
as a huge asset. Bill had done some work for Criterion back in the laser disc
days, long before any of the current art department worked here, but for all
intents and purposes, he was a fresh face on the Criterion roster. Luckily,
Bill was available for the project.
After we discussed our
thoughts on the film with Bill, he started working on what must be the most
fully rendered sketches we have ever seen here. As Bill told us, “It’s been my
practice that designers shouldn’t be handed surprises when they hire an
illustrator, so I give you as much as possible with graphite pencil. By
executing this way, I make very sure I’m nailing the likeness... Another
surprise designers shouldn’t have to endure!” We certainly don’t expect this
level of detail from everyone we work with, but it was fantastic nevertheless.
Although we do like to
have some idea of what we’re looking for when we contact an outside illustrator
or designer, we also encourage them to surprise us with an idea that might be
better than the one we’ve come up with—a policy that has led to many of our best covers.
Bill’s first sketch hewed pretty closely to what we’d been asking for, but he
also presented a variation that put the focus more squarely on Lorre. He also
tried another idea, one that he ended up rejecting himself.
Both of his sketches
looked fantastic, but we felt something was missing. In particular, the
illustrations seemed to label Lorre as the titular “man who knew too much”
(and, by implication, the lead of the film), when in fact he’s the villain, the
shady behind-the-scenes manipulator pulling all the strings. So we asked Bill to
try foregrounding the curtain a bit more, to push Lorre back into the shadows
where he belonged, metaphorically speaking. We also asked him to give us the
curtain as a canvas for type. Bill responded to our suggestions, quickly producing
another sketch, which we immediately fell in love with—to the point that when he
suggested foregoing his usual wax pencil and Prismacolor technique in favor of
a slightly tighter graphite pencil style for the final illustration, we said, “Go
for it.” We also requested a few final tweaks: changing the gun
from a revolver to a Mauser pistol (the gun used in the film) and reconsidering
the fabric of the curtain to give it a bit more heft, like the heavy theater
curtains we had been referencing.
Once Bill got to work on the
requested changes, it was time to begin work on the final element of the design
with typographer extraordinaire F. Ron Miller. We’ve worked with Ron on
numerous projects in the past, most notably on designs for the “BBS Pictures” and
“Golden Age of Television” box sets. Not only is he a fantastic designer, he’s
also a fanatic about period typography. More than once, we’ve called him up
just to research the origins of a particular typeface we’re interested in
using, or to help us hone in on some period-specific or location-specific type
options for a particular film.
We sent Bill’s sketches
to Ron, and he set to work on the type. He first tried some letterforms based
directly on the title treatment in the film itself, plus an alternate option that
had a more angular character. We liked both, especially the second version, but
thought that perhaps they appeared a little too polite. When placed directly on
Bill’s sketches, it was if they were trying to stay out of the way of the
drawing. So we pushed Ron to expand the title treatments to fill the space
vertically, and he played around with a few variations before we settled on the
final layout. Ron also took the time to make a complete font based on those
letterforms, for use in the film’s menus and packaging.
On other projects, this might
have been the stage when we’d have to send the design to a film studio or
director for approval. But in this case that wasn’t necessary, as the
director and most of the principal players are long dead, and the contracts
didn’t dictate any approvals from the studio. So once Bill’s final illustration
came in—as expected, it was absolutely gorgeous—we combined the drawing with
Ron’s type for a final cover image that evokes classic movie posters, but still
feels fresh and modern.
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