Painting A Picture

Friday, July 22 2011
Painting A Picture

It was around the time that Momentum’s Zombie Virus On Mulberry Street came out. This writer was having a sabbatical away from trade journalism and working on the creative and design agency side, and was chatting with another distributor.

“All bets are off,” he said to us. “They got away with it and didn’t get in any trouble, so we’re going to change the way we do our sleeves. We’re looking at spending more and treating it more like theatrical artwork.”

Zombie Virus was famously retitled from just Mulberry Street, artwork was created from a special photoshoot in London, with people (including Momentum staffers and assorted buyers) being made up as zombies. The result? It was a huge seller and turned an average DTV title into a mainstream success.

“We’re going to spend more money on the sleeve,” said our unnamed source “and we’re going to use a lot more illustrators.

That was a few years ago but this has now come to fruition. Shelves and online stores are now increasingly full of product with sleeves that have had illustrated designs and artwork that is much smarter than the average heavily comped and Photoshopped wraps of recent years.

It could be argued that it has now come full circle. For the 1970s and 80s, both in terms of a great era of inventive American film-making with equally groundbreaking artwork, and the nascent video rental market saw illustrated sleeves come to the fore.

These illustrated sleeves fall into two broad categories – the first are new, predominantly DTV or platform theatrical releases, the kind where the films and the genre are hugely commercial, but maybe they lack a bit of awareness or pedigree in terms of star names to boast about.

The second is unashamedly retro, going for that playful, early VHS and Betamax era feel, either paying homage to those halcyon days or new takes on old artwork from classic nasty and horror titles.

Hobo With A Shotgun, pictured above, is one that falls into both camps. Its artwork, like the film, harks back to the early days of video; it also gives a great launchpad to a title that is due a limited theatrical release ahead of its August 1 home entertainment bow.

It’s certainly helping to creat a noise about the release and some interest in it. As Momentum’s Adam Eldrett says: “The artwork for Hobo has been consistently talked about ever since we first started getting it out there. I am not sure I have ever had a piece of artwork that everyone loves so much, it truly is an arresting and powerful image, perfect for the release.”

The story behind the Hobo artwork is a fascinating one, designer/artist Thomas Hedge takes up the tale: “The whole thing started at the Midnight Movies double bills here in London, funnily enough. They where showing Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse double bill and they ran a comp where you had to draw your own poster in the bar. They supplied a few markers sheets of paper; I grabbed some and I just drew a poster there and then for a film called The Dude. Bizarrely, I won it (I snagged a sweet Hands of the Ripper poster as a prize!). Then they screened the film and that’s where I saw the trailer for Hobo, which kind of got me thinking. 

“After that, I went away and started working on the flyers for Midnight Movies, set up The Dude Designs and created a whole bunch of DVD and Blu-ray covers for companies like Arrow Video. All the while I was also keeping an eye on the development of Hobo. It just kept getting better and better – really pushing that 70s and 80s exploitation style that harked back to the same things I loved about poster designs of those eras. 

“At the time the film still hadn’t been picked up for distribution, so I  figured there was a window of opportunity there and just sent them an email saying  ‘Hey, I’m a designer; this is my work would love to do a poster for your film!’. The email made its way to Jason and the producer and they really dug my stuff, so they suggested I go away and see what I could come up with. And that was it, man. Usually with things like that you get some stills to work from, but in this case I didn’t. I always wondered if they thought I was some sort of chancer looking for stills to post online. And why wouldn’t they? I’d just emailed them out of the blue!

“So I knew I wasn’t going to be able to go through the usual process and sending something back and forth for approvals – I had just one chance to come up with something that would hook them. 

“I slightly re-jigged the Hobo logo to fit the layout better, grabbed what imagery I could off the web and constantly looked to the trailer for pointers. I wrapped it up, fired it off and they just really dug it and decided to run with it, which was awesome.  For me, the poster stays true to the video nasty era; it’s loud and grabs you by the balls and it was fantastic for me to just watch the guys run with it the way they did.  We where all on the same wave length with Hobo and it showed.”

Hedge has, as he says above, already produced sleeves for the likes of Arrow Video and its range of old nasty-era horrors and cult flicks. Arrow features the original artwork, different takes from other territories and brand new creations from the likes of Hedge.

Arrow’s Alex Agran explains how the company got involved: “We always felt there was real space to move in the market for illustrated artwork. With a collection of back catalogue genre classics, the challenge from the outset was to do something different which appeals to fans of each film and get people to buy into the brand. The feedback we received from researching this was that these films had never had decent releases that made [fans’] mouths water with anticipation. We utilised the best illustrators in the market as well as develop a brand and a style template that has been rigidly adhered to. The result has been a very appreciative fanbase that appreciates the time and effort we put into each release. The viral effect of this is huge, creating an effective self-generating PR machine. It’s also fan-created, all the guys that illustrate for us approached us, not the other way around – it’s the fans who are creating and developing the label.”

One of the other British artists leading the way in this sector is Graham Humphreys. He has recently worked on Icon’s The Pack, after making his name almost 30 years ago with his seminal artwork for The Evil Dead and A Nightmare On Elm Street.

Icon’s Chris Warrington says he had been hoping to do something that recalled those bygone days for some time and, in The Pack, had a film that presented itself perfectly. “You’re not beholden to photography, and people are bored of seeing comps and headshots. The language of movie artwork has become more and more clichéd. Sometimes the photography is just not there.

“I’d worked with Graham when I was at Tartan a while before, when he told he he’d done The Evil Dead and A Nightmare On Elm Street, I thought it was amazing. I loved them and always said that one day I’d do something with him.

“With The Pack, it screamed out to [have an illustrated] sleeve. It was a good way of elevating the title and remaining faithful to fans of the genre – it’s a throwback to video and we knew horror enthusiasts would get that.”

As Warrington notes, it offers great opportunities for PR and promotional activity, especially using social networking.

For The Pack, Icon was able to offer footage of Humphreys creating the sleeve (some on Facebook and the bulk as a complete DVD extra), as well as offering competitions with a Humphreys illustration of the winner as prize. Momentum too has done similar work with its Hobo artwork.

If Hobo had one eye on the past, then another Rutger Hauer starrer has proved the worth of illustrated sleeves. Barbarossa Siege Lord features the video legend, but he’s nowhere to be seen on the incredibly detailed sleeve and the film went on to be one of Metrodome’s most impressive successes of 2011.

As the company’s Jezz Vernon notes, if it works, then it really works: “We aspire to get an epic quality – which is not just about scale – its also about the emotional reaction you get from a sleeve which is intangible but when it works we get huge over-delivery on titles versus a lot of other DTV titles. A DTV sleeve is a proposition, a promise – an echo of a film that’s gone before – when you get that right it becomes compelling.”

He points to the company’s Apocalypse Of The Dead, Clash Of Empires and The Bridge as further examples. “Yes, it’s very similar to the 80s rental market as you once said, and in terms of budget – pound for pound it’s far more effective spending the money on design than on ads.”

One thing’s for sure, now it’s come back into play, the concept of illustrated sleeves is here to stay. Icon has confirmed that, if the title is right, it will be looking at the concept again, both Arrow and Metrodome are continuing and, as Momentum’s Adam Eldrett concludes: “I am sure this wont be the last piece of artwork you see from us with a Thomas Hedge design on the cover.”

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