Monday, March 28, 2022

Train Keep a Rollin

THE MILLIONAIRES’ EXPRESS is an all-star Hong Kong action comedy “western” directed by and starring Sammo Hung. It was a 1986 lunar new year release intended to be a fun rollick. Though a modest success at the time, it is perhaps even more highly regarded today for it’s entertaining action sequences.

For the re-released blu-ray cover I didn’t try to get overly artsy with this one. Just straight down the middle exactly what most audiences would expect for an epic like this. Big centered Sammo head shot. Surrounded by headshots of the comedy stars and body shots of the action leads poised for conflict. The exterior set where some key action bits happen gets some prominence below Sammo. Then a new golden title treatment positioned below that. Big, bold and fittingly “western” in it's flavor. With the apostrophe in the right spot. (It’s plural possessive folks. More than one millionaire onboard.) Then the steam-belching train of the title anchors the piece with a hint of actiontwo bandits on horseback approach while Richard Ng trots across the roof of the train in the distance (shuttling from his wife in one car to a potential mistress in another, if memory serves me). All set against blazing orange with a burnt parchment border. (Referencing the stunt-filled fire sequence in the film.) Although the comedy segments perhaps outnumber the action bits in the film overall, it’s the impressive action that wows western audiences so that element naturally gets “played up” in the marketing.

I'd do some things differently if I had a redo, but that's the case with almost all my art if I sit with it long enough. At some point it's "pencils down". But I hopefully take what I learn and apply it to the next one. Train keep a rollin'.  

Originally these HK films feature the Chinese title large and the English subtitle as a smaller afterthought beneath. But for these English-friendly re-releases I have to reverse the emphasis. For this one, my redesign left the Chinese title still on top (like a little hat), but I tried to emulate the WIDESCREEN SCOPE aspect of classic western movies (such as HOW THE WEST WAS WON) in the subtly arching distressed antique English type. Even if you can’t actually read what it says, hopefully you can still comprehend what it conveys, through the careful use of these tropes. 

Although the film boasts many stars, I like to limit the number of actor names on the cover to just a few of the key players so as not to clutter an already busy piece. Blu-ray covers are small enough as it is. And target audiences tend to already be quite familiar with these 40 year old films anyway. There’s no need to list half a dozen names regardless of their popularity.  

Although the slip cover art was rather straight forward, I did get a little cheeky with the included booklet cover concept. Designing it to appear to be the boarding pass for the titular train. With a back cover featuring the “conductor”, director Hung.

I remember back in 1990 I worked for a television station in the production studio. We finished video taping a segment and the on-air talent came into the control room to view the playback. She looked forlorn, then finally turned and asked me if I could make her look thinner. I looked at her inquisitively as if to say “Uh, how?” She then said, “I dunno, can’t you push a button or something?”

Ever since then I’ve had this reoccurring feeling that others who don’t truly understand what you do, what you actually do, always think there is just some button you push. So perhaps I’m writing these reflections down just to express what it is designers actually do, I mean, before we push the magic button that draws all the pictures for us.

These reminisces on past projects are not presented in exact chronological order, just whatever order that strikes my fancy. Next time, we go further back in time… to the late 1950s.

To reflect on a midcentury view of the future of Japan. Which, by now, is already the past. Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Vengeance! is Mine

My responsibilities continued to grow. This time I was afforded the opportunity to actually name the release, as it was a collection of 8 action films from the same director. The “Joseph Kuo Collection” just wasn’t gonna cut it, so I suggested CINEMATIC VENGEANCE! 8 KUNG FU CLASSICS FROM DIRECTOR JOSEPH KUO. The exclamation point is key.

It’s always an interesting challenge when tasked to represent several movies in a single image. Especially when it’s not a series of sequel films in a continuing saga, (such as Indiana Jones) but rather films only linked loosely by genre and director. And, sadly, not one who is instantly recognizable (such as Alfred Hitchcock, who used his own silhouette as his logo). 

So with those issues in play, I decided the title, handwritten in a pseudo graffiti style (as hand-made as these films are), should be prominent and perhaps surrounded by his cast of archetypical kung fu characters. All tensed and ready for action. Or more precisely, VENGEANCE!

I divided the cover into eight equal sections, each representing a film in the order they appear in the set. Then filled each with the cast from that film. 

To me the negative space between elements can be as important as the elements themselves. For example, the space between notes in a song, (the semitones) are what give the music its rhythm and character. Otherwise it's all noise. The same can be said to be true in the visual medium. I call an image with no eye-lines “wallpaper”. (Apologies to Jackson Pollack fans.)

I generally try to avoid this. But, in the case of CINEMATIC VENGEANCE! after cramming in a few characters from each film, at least 23 figures in total, into the cover, it came dangerously close to becoming just thatwallpaper. Efforts were taken to keep all the section’s dividing lines leading the viewer's eye toward the title. And all the characters were also facing the center, again, leading the eye toward the title.

Notice the “blue left side” and “red right side”. Adding a consistent lighting scheme to all the painted figures is an easy way to bring them all into the same environment. (This can be done much more easily with illustrated art than when Photoshopping a bunch of separate photos together. Careful attention has to be paid toward getting all the lighting consistent in a composite shot otherwise something just seems off.)    

To me, two of the most important aspects of the design, is tone and composition.

In my previous post I discussed some art I did for a couple horror/action/comedy films.

See below.

The tone reflects the color palette of the predominantly nocturnal stories. While the symmetrical compositions create eye-lines that effectively lock the viewers gaze into the center of the frame. Which is also helped by the direct eye-contact from all the characters. It's an "eye-catching" cover by design, not necessarily by its content or fairly simple rendering.

See below.

Your eyes might not have noticed, but your brain did.    

After considering the age and “rediscovered” nature of the films in this collection, I then decided to add further visual interest by giving the box art some natural distressed wear and tear. As if it’s been on a shelf in some backroom of a long abandoned Taiwanese film studio. But as you open the box the contents get cleaner and cleaner until you get to the gleaming mirror blu-rays themselves. The sparkling jewels within. Giving the customer a subtle feeling of discovery.  

Inside the hard slipcase is housed two separate Amaray style cases with two discs in each. I was asked to come up with names for these as well in case these might get solo releases one day. So I divided the films into two logical groupings, one becoming DEADLY MASTERS and the other FEARLESS SHAOLIN.

The art for these only includes characters from those four films and carries over the graffiti style for the titles as well as a similar framing border. The weathering is noticeably less, but still present to some extent.

I did reversible color-coded covers featuring the original poster art fans may remember. Sadly the posters had to shrunk to fit the available real estate, but I made them as big as I could filling both "front and back" panels of the spread. Personally, I’m a fan of using the original poster art, but I also understand the need for studios to give fans something new, as well as to distinguish their release from others (such a Joy Sales or some Japanese distributors that only use the old poster art) especially when viewed as a thumbnail online. A lot of work goes into these releases so it makes sense to make your product unique so fans don’t order the wrong version. Therefore unique cover art is essential. But I always include as much of the original promo art as I can where I can. As a designer I naturally love that stuff.

And as a longtime collector of HK movie memorabilia (and being married to the owner of a Chinese video rental store), I like to dig thru my archives and include whatever rare old imagery I can.

Beginning with this release I was hired to now do the full layout of the entire package and provide final print-ready files. This now included the interior design of the included book as well. (Not just the front/back covers and photo/poster/lobby card page inserts as I had been doing, along with disc art and MENU background files.) This added level of control allows me to create a visual consistency throughout the entire package and provides a more cohesive final product. It can also contribute to resulting in a better product in other ways. As it gives me more time to dig through my old Cinemarts, Milky Ways, etc., to find rare imagery that I can include in the booklets last minute. Since I don't have to provide this material ahead of time to another layout artist, since now I'm the last one who touches it.

For this release I also retrofitted or redesigned old lobby card art to fit in the package. It's a preciously rare opportunity to combine my personal interests, passionate hobbies and my professional work. It was a blast. 

Pack your bags! As we'll be taking a wild ride on... THE MILLIONAIRES' EXPRESS!
Next time. Right here.