Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Time Waits For No One

Sometimes I base a Blu-ray cover design on a memorable moment in the film, or a collage of key actors and elements. In this case, it was more an overall impression. But not an impression from seeing the film. Nope. An impression from seeing the trailer. Marketing based on marketing. I’ll explain.

In a perfect situation I would be very familiar with the film or product I’m designing a package for. In the case of a film, the client may usually provide a screener for reference if I haven’t seen it.

But, I can’t remember the last “perfect” situation I’ve experienced. As everyone knows, we are NOT living in “normal” times. You simply have to be flexible. And in this unusual instance, I had long resisted all opportunities to view this specific film due to indifference. Who knew I would be asked to design a cover for it one day.

And frankly, this indifference to the movie seemed odd even to me. Because the film in question, TIME AND TIDE, was directed by the man, Tsui Hark,  responsible for my favorite film, the genre-bending 1986 masterpiece, PEKING OPERA BLUES. And of course his name is connected to dozens of bonafide Hong Kong cinema classics, including THE KILLER, A CHINESE GHOST STORY, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA. (And even lesser known pleasures such as I LOVE MARIA and WEB OF DECEPTION.)

But much like filmmaker, James Cameron, whose work I usually enjoy, I similarly have zero interest in watching his TITANIC film. It just did not interest me. I rather liked A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, the 1958 retelling of the story of the sinking. So I have no objection to the basic premise of the story, but rather the trappings. Spending three hours with Kate Winslet and pretty boy Leonardo DiCaprio on a sinking ship to the tune Celine Dion? Nah, pass. I still have never watched it to this day. No offence to anyone who likes it. I just would rather watch Ray Harryhausen’s THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD for the umpteenth time instead. To each their own.

The end of the 90s was a declining time for the HK film industry. By 1996, my wife and I had shuttered VIDEO CITY—our Chinese video rental store in Maryland. In the few years leading up the Chinese 'handover' in 1997, there had been a mass exodus of talent leaving HK for attempts at greener (or at more free) pastures in America. Or just retiring from show business in general. Even Hark himself got caught up in the “migration”, trying his hand at helming two lackluster American-produced Jean-Claude Van Damme films.

So Hark, like the industry in general at the time, was in a bit of a slump. And not being a big fan of pretty boy Nicholas Tse, especially coupled with the whole “totally-extreme-surf-the-neon-net-double-barreled-dutch-angled-Matrix-style-action” that was so current then. That bored me. So I skipped it. Every chance I got, I skipped it.

So being tasked with designing the cover, I relied on my memory of my general “impression” of this film I never saw. That, and a low resolution trailer I found on YouTube. I hope I did justice to it’s “Year 2000-ness”. Not sure. I’ve still never seen it.

Below is my cover design for the accompanying booklet.

I should give it a spin one day. Co-star Anthony Wong is a solid character actor. (I actually ran into him a couple times on the streets of Hong Kong the year this film came out.) And Tse has been pretty good in more recent Benny Chan films such as INVISIBLE TARGET and RAGING FIRE. Even DiCaprio has matured into a respected actor and I do enjoy his work sometimes now.

So maybe, perhaps it’s time… for me to give it another chance?

I dunno, that THIS IS SUPERMARIONATION documentary is just screaming my name. It’s soooo shiny!

"STAND BY FOR ACTION!" Damn, foiled again.

Next time... accidents will happen.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Dreadful Plot

The martial arts mini series continued with director Yuen Woo-ping's 1981 "madman-on-the-loose" actioner DREADNAUGHT. For this title I used black as the thematic color. Well, not true black. I wanted the parchment paper textured to be visible, as it is with the other colors in this series. So it's actually a very dark gray, so the true black areas such as Biao's hair can stand out and pop against the background. 

The composition is straight forward. Yeun Shun-yi's serial killer looms ominously overhead. Yuen Biao's "laundry kung fu" (which was surprisingly parodied in BATMAN FOREVER) takes center stage, as it is a key element to the plot. Bryan "Beardy" Leung Kar-yan and Kwan Tak-hing flank him, while the Chinese lion/dragon dance/competition anchor the base.

The quasi-duotone booklet cover art focused on the bell necklace which drove White Tiger into a fit of angry rage throughout the film. Along with the blood splatter which ultimately resulted from his madness.

For the next title released in the series, THE SHAOLIN PLOT, I went with a hot magenta tone. A color pulled the costume worn by Chen Hsing's (aka Chan Sing). The narrowing perspective of the temple courtyard pulls the viewer's gaze into the image. With a single character partially turning to make eye contact with the viewer. As if to casually welcome you to witness the bloody conflict playing out in the heavens overhead, like angry Gods doing battle in a tremendous tempest. With villain Chen Hsing positioned as if manipulating deceitful strings of control over the proceedings.

(Although not a sequel, the bulk of the talented cast would carry over into Sammo Hung's directorial debut, THE IRON-FISTED MONK, made later that same year.)

My booklet art highlights Sammo Hung's weapon of choice in the film. A pair of deadly Golden Cymbals. His character even takes his nickname from this odd accoutrement. For the cover art I depicted the second, more deadly, version of the weapon (employed after the first pair get destroyed in battle) sporting teeth-like blades―for added carnage. 

Stay safe. And keeping riding the tide, until the next time we meet.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Odd Knocking

In keeping with the visual style on this mini series of old skool martial arts films remastered on Blu-ray, my cover design for the 1979 Lau Kar-wing/Sammo Hung weapons classic ODD COUPLE, was fairly straight forward.

This time I chose an olive green for the color theme and created a composition reflecting the dynamic interplay between the two leads. The plot features an interesting premise. Hung and Lau portray aging masters (via old age makeup) who have a long-standing competitive relationship. Who is the better master of their weapon of choice? Once a year they meet to duel it out. Hung as the "King of Sabres" and Lau as the "King of Spears". But every year it ends in a draw, with neither the clear winner. 

So, considering their advancing years, they decide it's time to each take on a younger apprentice with the hopes of them settling the score. Cleverly, Hung plays Lau's student, and vice versa. So, without the need for costly or technically difficult visual effects (remember this was 1979) the actors could appear throughout the film, in nearly every scene, playing one of their two characters. And they both get to showcase their impressive skills with both the sabre and the spear.      

So the cover art features the masters leering at each other from behind their weapons, as their younger students do the clashing between them. In the finale they are forced to team up to defeat a common foe in Bryan "Beardy" Leung Kar-yan. Before resuming their age old feud. Which ends with... well, you'll just have to see the film if you haven't.

The included booklet cover continued my minimalistic 3-color approach to the design. The ending of the film is represented, (spoilers) with weapons marking the graves of the masters.

For the 1979 action comedy KNOCKABOUT, the focus was on breakout star Yuen Biao. Director Sammo Hung and the producers at Golden Harvest were hoping for a star-making performance from Biao, something similar to what DRUNKEN MASTER had done a year prior for Jackie Chan. The resulting film, although perhaps not as ground breaking as Chan's film, still resonates with fans today and is widely considered a classic of the genre.   

Sammo, in the beggar-turned-kung-fu-master role (at least on the surface), instructs Biao in the illusive ways of monkey style (猴拳, "monkey fist") kung fu. So my art is designed to reflect that memorable aspect of the film. Biao does his training in the looming shadow of Hung. The co-stars are shown in boxes which was a common design trope of star-studded films from the 1970s (think Irwin Allen).  

The booklet cover art concentrated on the monkey and the thorned vine from the climactic battle.  

Next time... the plot turns dreadful.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Warrior Son

My client decided to release these two martial art films co-starring Sammo Hung as a double bill due to them both sharing a character. Real life pioneer of Wing Chun, Leung Jan, was portrayed in WARRIORS TWO (1978) as an old master by Bryan “Beardy” Leung in old-age make-up. While Yuen Biao portrays a younger, scrappy version of the character in THE PROGIAL SON (1981).

The WARRIORS TWO design is below.

To streamline the release, both discs were housed in a flipper case with a limited edition booklet and o-card slipcover. I was asked to create cover and booklet artwork for each film, as well as a combined version for the o-card. By this point I was also handling all design and layout duties for these releases which means I got to maintain visual continuity throughout, as well as cram in as many rare photos as I could.

In keeping with the same visual style I had started with ONE ARMED BOXER, these sport a main accent color for each film and a consistent lighting theme on the characters. Yellow rim light from the left and blue from the right. In doing a photo collage in Photoshop, it’s often difficult to get the appearance of a common light source on all your figures as they usually were not originally photographed that way. So when combined together they often look strange, as if they don’t occupy the same physical space. Luckily in illustration, that can be easily remedied. I just draw the lighting however I choose.

The accompanying booklet cover features the same established minimalistic visual style. This time, highlighting a Wing Chun wooden practice dummy. 

For THE PRODIGAL SON, I went with a mid-tone blue, spotlighting a determined Yuen Biao. Although not his first starring role, many fans cite this (along with KNOCKABOUT) as his first break-out role. These two films proved Biao had what it took to be a future super star, and not just a side kick.

The booklet cover features Biao is bold Peking Opera face paint.

Then came the o-card. There's many different ways to present multiple films in a single image. Simple side-by-side posters squeezed to fit the new shape. New illustrations with a clear dividing line. Down the middle, angled or contained in some shape. For the ISHIRO HONDA set I tried to blend the two "half" images to create a third new "combined" image. Therefore not drawing visual attention to the actual divider.

But for this one I decided to just let the background colors be the natural separator. With characters and text reconfigured to fit equal triangles of space.

Given the opportunity to do it again, I might try a different approach. And, in fact, I did with the ANGEL MAO double feature. But that's a story for another time.

One cannot progress without trying something new, and I'm trying to progress.

Next up... the kicks continue!

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Variations on a Theme


When my client graciously presented me with their slate of upcoming releases for the next 12 months, it afforded me the rare opportunity to plan the cover designs well ahead. I could see where certain movie titles, particularly 1970s and early 80s period martial arts films, would work well grouped as a loose series. As a fan of physical media, I appreciate how items look when collected and displayed on a shelf. It's a big part of the fun of collecting. So considering that, I set about creating a cover for the first title, 1971’s kung fu classic ONE ARMED BOXER starring Jimmy Wang Yu, with an eye toward making the layout style modular. Certain elements could be retained for the next film, connecting it visually to a “series”, while other visual elements would be unique to this release. This plays into my own "collector" mentality as I have to get them all

I chose red as the thematic color of this release. A key plot point, halfway through the film, is the protagonist getting his arm literally torn off during a skirmish. (It’s obviously important, as the film takes its title from this.) Throughout the film, audiences are treated to overly bright, gushing streams of crimson. So, naturally, the cover displays a gash of bold scarlet splattered across an aged paper texture. Along with the font styling, yellowish color treatment of secondary characters, this grungy background would become a fundamental element of the base template for all these films.

I knew going in, with a film title like that, I was definitely NOT going to represent Wang Yu with TWO arms. Much like my previously designed THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR, I wanted the cover image to match the title, even if the character doesn't look that way until the last half of the movie. Let's be honest. You come to this film to watch a guy fight with ONE arm, so THAT'S the draw of the film. So THAT makes the cover.

But, where appropriate, I do like to have fun with the interplay of positive and negative space. So if you look closely, the bottom edge of the red slash becomes the top edge of the jagged cliff seen in the finale. With the villains silhouetted against a blood red sky, leering down on our raging hero. With scores of defeated foes scattered across the background landscape.

For the included booklet cover I decided to go minimal. Designing simple iconographs that function to obviously represent a Hong Kong movie is difficult. It CAN be done. Some bird cages with hand guns perhaps. HARD-BOILED I guess. But it hardly represents the full excitement of that film.

However it's much easier to do this for American films. A DeLorean. You know right away. BACK TO THE FUTRE. A fedora and whip? INDIANA JONES. A t-rex head. JURASSIC PARK. Even a fin in the water. JAWS. (Spielberg likes to keep his marketing clean and simple. Smart.)

But for HK movies I usually have to rely on images of the actors coiled for battle. It's always more interesting if they are JUST ABOUT TO make contact. That second BEFORE impact holds more tension. I call that the "Frazetta Factor". His paintings make you want to see what happens NEXT.

Anyway I digress.

Since this is a design for a booklet enclosed INSIDE the package and doesn't have to convey the excitement of the film across a crowded point-of-sale display. I felt I could take a risk and go simple. So for ONE ARMED BOXER, I reduced it down to Yu's lost right arm. Again the theme is followed by using only the theme color (red), black and the aged paper color. With a pop of overlaid yellow text.

For the next release, 1983's wuxia pian classic DUEL TO THE DEATH, the color of the day was violet, pulled mostly from Damian Lau's costume and the foggy ocean mist of the final duel. Sometimes an artist has to answer odd questions like "what color does this movie make you feel?"

Anyway, below was the result.

And below is my design for the minimalistic booklet cover. Chinese and Japanese swords clashing in their decennial conflict.

Next up... the series continues.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

They Be Dragons... Forever

One evening I was contacted with the seemingly odd request to see if I could whip up a design for the cover of the Sammo Hung/Jackie Chan/Yuen Biao classic DRAGONS FORVER… in a couple hours. They wanted to review it THAT night. Weird, but NOT the strangest request to come across my desk, believe it or not. So I put down my fork, shoved my dinner back in the microwave and went to work mocking up a quick design.

This is what I presented. With my intention to illustrate it (or something like it) if approved. Jackie is a little blurry here as I only had some 30-year old magazines to work from.

I believe it was posted for feedback on a public forum with the general consensus being it looked like something hastily mocked up in Photoshop in a couple hours. Um. Bingo. That’s EXACTLY what it was! An initial concept, not final art.

So a request came for a second design. Posthaste. Okay. Here we go again. More red meat was thrown to the masses to stick their pitchforks into.

The next day, this potential client then asked for a mockup of THE PROTECTOR as well. I did an original, as well as a revised updated version of the Japanese poster adding in the missing Sally Yeh. (Everything goes better with Sally Yeh.)


Then a few CRIME STORY comps followed also in a hurry the following day. Not sure what the rush was. Perhaps they needed something to show someone I guess. It wasn't for me to know.

In the end that client was like, "Eh. Thanks, but nevermind."

You win some. You lose some. That's the nature of business. I've learned from 30+ years of graphic design you just do your best, but don't get too emotionally attached to this stuff. It'll break your heart.

Funnily enough, soon after, I noticed a Blu-ray distributor in Asia apparently felt quite differently regarding the artwork. And was happily using my DRAGONS FOREVER art for the slipcover on their release of the film. Would've been nice if they asked me first. But I contacted them and settled it. I told them it was only a design mockup, but apparently they are quite fond of photo collages and felt it worked for them perfectly as it was. No more work needed.

You lose some. You win some. On it goes.

Next up.... designing a flexible template for a series of martial arts classics.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Animals With Weight Issues

HK filmmaker and martial arts super star Sammo Hung severed ties with longtime powerhouse production company Golden Harvest as the 1980s came to a close. With a leaner budget he soldiered on with intensity, but the cracks were starting to show. 1990 saw the release of SKINNY TIGER AND FATTY DRAGON, an uneven but fun action comedy that sees Hung reunite with comedy legend Karl Maka and action master Lau Kar-wing. The fight scenes still shine brightly, while a few of the “in between” scenes feel a little more like filler material. Still, the film remains a highlight of Hung’s 1990s output.

For the cover art, I tried to play-up the dynamic colorful nature of the film while paying homage to the design aesthetic of the time in which the film was made (especially inside the pages of the included booklet). I derived the color palette from the HK title logo and gave the composition energy with an explosion of overlapping lavender-toned characters amongst orange and teal paint splatters. Our heroes are depicted surrounded by adversaries (even quarreling with each other in the center as they do in the film), but at the bottom stand together ready for battle.

 Not being a fan of the original somewhat awkward-looking English title, I created a new title treatment that read clearer and better fit my various uses for it (spine, disc, menu, etc.).

Since I feel a so-called “limited edition” o-card slipcover should provide something that is actually limited in availability, for the inlay artwork I decided not to reuse the same art but rather to utilize this space to highlight the wonderful Thai poster artwork. I painted out the Thai text and added the new English title font. And for the reverse, I recreated a close approximation of the original Hong Kong photo poster artwork from various elements I had, since a high resolution version could not be provided by the licensee.

I had seen a YouTube trailer for the Mark Houghton documentary I AM THE WHITE TIGER and suggested to my client to possibly license the doc as an extra feature. Sometimes they go along with my suggestions (such as fixing the color grade on THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR, as the provided master was an over-bright teal and orange mess) and sometimes they don’t (releasing WARRIORS TWO and THE PRODIGAL SON in separate Amaray cases inside a hard slipbox, ala CINEMATIC VENGEANCE). You win some, you lose some. But somewhat to my surprise, a week later they told me they were now including it on a limited bonus disc. Cool!

I wish we could’ve sourced an HD version of the entire extended Taiwanese cut of the film. But it’s not unusual for those Mandarin-dubbed prints to be extremely hard to find in good condition these days. At least excerpts are included in standard definition as a bonus feature.

See you next time… where we keep the DRAGON theme going. FOREVER.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Paper Tears

The classic 1972 Hong Kong film, KING BOXER, was given an English dub and released the following year in North America as THE FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH.

Its enormous popularity opened the door, I should say floodgates, for a wave of kung fu quickie films of the early 1970s. It even preceded Bruce Lee’s ENTER THE DRAGON by several months. Quentin Tarantino called it one of the 10 best films of all time.

That’s high praise.

But when designing cover art you can’t let the pressure get to you. Just do the best you can. In the time you are given.

This cover project was for a large Blu-ray collection of remastered Shaw Brothers martial arts films presented within a digibook style package. So this art would be seen inside the packaging next to the disc itself, and not on the cover of the outer slipcase box. Also it was a “landscape” presentation instead of the normal vertical “portrait” format.

The first version I rendered is below.

I was caring for my ailing father at this time and he passed away while I was drawing this.

At his funeral I had a large black poster board with family photos mounted on it. A few days after the service I removed the photos, unintentionally ripping the poster board. The black paper turned out to be white on the inside. Never one to ignore an interesting texture, I scanned those rips and incorporated them into the design. Jaggedly radiating out from Lo Lieh, dividing the screen into 5 sections (the fingers) and one lower section (the hand/wrist.) 

(If I had a dime for every rusty truck tailgate and crumbling wall I’ve photographed with the hopes of later using it in some design.)

Sadly the client was less than enthused with the design. Particularly pointing out the rips and the "comic book" halftones in the background. So a second (more painterly?) version was done which they accepted. As seen below.

Many months later when I saw the final release, I realized that although I was afforded a full page for my art, many other films shared a single page in the digibook style package. Two movies on a single disc. Therefore, two cover images on a single page. 

And what was the divider between each film’s artwork?

A paper rip. 

So maybe they objected to it because they planned to use it BETWEEN the cover artwork on a page and didn’t want it used within a single film’s art. (Or maybe they got the “rip” idea from me. Ha. Who knows.) But one way or another, that rip is now tearing up 5 out of the 10 pages in the package. Instead of just mine.

Way to go Dad. 


Next time. We visit a zoo. To meet a Skinny Tiger... and a Fatty Dragon. 

Ishiro Honda Future Fears

ISHIRO HONDA was the visionary Japanese director of the original classic 1954 film, GODZILLA. As well as a dozen or so more Godzilla and tokusatsu (special effects) films. His lasting legend looms high in the hearts of kaiju (monster film) fans and throughout the annals of cinema history. It was a treat to illustrate images for a double feature of not one, but two, of his works.

Honda’s 1959 space-invaders-attack-the-earth sci-fi extravaganza BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, contains reused elements, slightly modified model ships and even character names, from Honda’s earlier 1957 film THE MYSTERIANS, but is generally considered only a very “loose” sequel, if at all. With that in mind I could approach this design with no need to tie it into that film. BUT, this being sold as DOUBLE FEATURE meant I had to find a design that worked well set beside a vastly different film altogether, THE H-MAN. Which is a 1958 sci-fi noir thriller, dealing with Tokyo police investigating mysterious disappearances, where only the victims clothes remain. These events are eventually discovered to be linked to the strange effects of radiation fall-out from a hydrogen bomb test. No space invaders to be seen, but creeping slimy monsters none-the-less.

It’s always a challenge to find a cohesive and clever way to meld two different films into a single design. Especially two slightly different genres. Sure I could retrofit two posters side-by-side with little effort. Boring. As nice as the original poster art is, and it is cool, that is not what I'm being paid to do. None of these characters are consistent between the films so finding a single protagonist to represent both films (ala Wong Fei-hung in Tsui Hark’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA series) won’t work either.

I got to thinking… (I know, never a good sign.)

What if the whole was something more than the sum if it’s parts? What if the two films together could somehow create a new image (sort of a MAD Magazine fold-in). What if they conveyed a greater understanding of Honda’s talents than did each film alone.

To that end I decided to try to blend the two “half” images (representing each movie) together to form something more cohesive.

The left side would feature a circular mushroom cloud with the vertical shaft of the cloud extending straight down underneath. The right side would be a half moon, the same size as the hydrogen bomb cloud. A carefully positioned rocket would mimic the shaft of the explosion, the baseline ground level would line up, and bingo bango jig-a-jog jango, the two images would together create two halves of the same shape. Well, worth a try anyway.

BATTLE was the first I illustrated. The client requested full-cover images of each film on the inside Blu-ray case inlays so that was rendered with cropping it in-half in mind. The first illustration I did was against a white background. I was just going for something I felt was modern and gave it a fresh feel. But once I saw it transferred from my imagination to the physical world, it didn’t please my eyes as much as it did my mind. Back to black. As a designer I feel, if you are afforded the luxury of time, it’s sometimes good to veer a bit “off road” even if you end up getting back on “the path” once you see things more clearly. I tried it. Meh. Maybe it’s more suited for something else in the future, but now I see the value of black space. Especially for a 1950s sci-fi film. But I still couldn't resist the urge to add a subtle splash of color to the blackness of space to give it some life, some visual interest. Space is alive isn’t it? Whatever. It matches the colorful film it represents. Plus I love dreamsicles ice cream treats and it reminds me of those. Mmmmm, I'll be right back. 

Anyway, below is the final cover used.

Then THE- H-MAN came next and was more straight forward to do. Once I knew the size I needed to draw the mushroom cloud and the ground level (and that the sky was now black) it all came together easily. I digitally recreated the films title logos from poster references and gave each film its own color theme.

Oddly enough, after living with this design for a bit, I eventually decided I DIDN’T like the moon rocket cut in half and moved it over to the right. This compromised the initial intent of the composition, but I can’t be tied to any idea, no matter how clever I thought it was, if it’s hurting the overall work. I have to let go if something better comes along. The work is not finished until I send it out to the printer. Usually stepping away from the work for a bit and then returning gives me fresh impressions which can illuminate areas of the art that should be addressed. Sure, you can kill it with improvements. But the more I looked it at, the more I felt it might be seen as a mistake to have the rocket halved right in the middle of the "canvas". So below is the version that finally went to print.

I retrofitted the artwork for use as menu backgrounds and even did WRONG REGION CODE NOTICE backgrounds you only see if your Blu-ray player is set to any region other than 2. I also created white versions of the menus for BATTLE which can be seen below, although they were never used.

It was a fun project as I love 1950s sci-fi, physical media, Blu-ray and Japanese cinema of that period. So combining these elements, and getting paid in the process, was a dream come true. I’ve long considered writing a chronological reference book on 1950s sci-fi/fantasy cinema, but with my limited time this may be as close as I get. For a while anyway.

Next time... we meet the KING BOXER. But don't look him straight in the eyes.