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.