If you regularly visit movie websites these days and you're not familiar with the work of Mondo…well, let's just say that the fact that you even regularly visit movie websites is being called into question. In just a few short years, the small Austin t-shirt, art and collectible boutique has exploded in popularity thanks to their beautiful, pricey and very limited original movie posters, offering bold takes on films both old and new. If you've ever tried to buy one of the posters and found them sold out in less than a minute, you can personally attest to that popularity.
The American Institute of Graphic Arts (or AIGA, if you're in a hurry) hosted a presentation and Q&A by Mondo head honchos Justin Ishmael and Rob Jones, who gave us a peek behind the scenes of what it's like to design and print movie posters for a living. Here are some of the highlights. The pictures were taken from the middle of an auditorium with a camera phone, so you'll have to forgive the quality. Even in this slightly fuzzy version, the work should speak for itself (and maybe these less-than-perfect pics will encourage the folks at Mondo to put this stuff online!).
Getting It Right
No one's perfect. Not even Mondo artists. One of the most fascinating parts of the evening was getting a look at how the posters evolved. Sometimes, this evolution involved tweaking one or two things. Sometimes, it meant throwing out a nearly finished design and going back to the drawing board, as was the case with the poster for William Lustig's gritty revenge film, Vigilante. The first attempt depicted a specific moment from the film, where a young child hides behind a shower curtain to evade home invaders…
…right before he is caught and brutally executed. Although the film is admired for not always playing nice, Ishmael and Jones decided that being reminded of child murder every time you look at your wall may not be the best move. The completely redesigned poster instead captures the dark, gritty tone of the film through a more minimalistic approach.
Sometimes, solutions to problems came from obvious places. When the artist turned in his poster for Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs' Edgar Allan Poe stage play Nevermore, Jones was underwhelmed by how "community theater" it felt.
He asked about an original design, one that they had previously discussed. As it turns out, the artist had gone with that idea, but wasn't pleased with the results. Jones took a look and disagreed whole-heartedly. The discarded concept became the final poster.
And then there was The Human Centipede, a film that certainly doesn't offer any easy answers on how to design the poster. Ishmael and Jones both agreed that the artist's initial submission was under par, a bizarre, Saul Bass-esque take on the material that really doesn't come together in any way.
The one thing everyone agreed on was that centering the poster around the film's instantly iconic villain was the right way to go. With that in mind, they found a surprisingly elegant and more subtly sickening way to get the point of the film across.
Director Tom Six loved the poster so much that he asked Mondo to do a poster for the second film. They declined.
Star Wars, Star Trek and Jurassic Park
One of Mondo's biggest boons was securing the rights to the Star Wars series for one year, during which they could produce as many posters as they wished. However, this ended up being a more complicated task than originally envisioned.
First, they had to deal with LucasFilm, who were meticulous and, er, patient with approving each piece of art. An image depicting a pile of firearms that form the shape of Darth Vader's mask was outright rejected and Tyler Stout's jaw-dropping trilogy series came under fire for depicting the same character multiple times in one poster, which is apparently frowned upon. Ishmael had to craft an epic email, citing dozens of movie posters that feature the same character multiple times ("Sleeper has eight Woody Allens and three Diane Keatons!"), including a few early Star Wars posters. They eventually won LucasFilm over by explaining that the multiple Luke Skywalkers represented Luke's journey in the film, which was never intentional and was pulled out of thin air because it sounded good.
LucasFilm insisted on preliminary sketches before actual work could be done on the posters. Stout, who never plans ahead, whipped up a few marker drawings that looked nothing like the finished product (and no one noticed or cared). Here's his initial Star Wars sketch next to the final product:
Here's his initial Empire Strikes Back sketch and an early design of the poster. Since he works digitally, Stout treats his posters like a puzzle, moving characters and pieces around until he finds a satisfying layout.
Ishmael and Jones emphasized how important it was to find originality in a world as overexploited as the Star Wars universe. Several major artists were tapped and beautiful designs were created…
…but Mondo decided to stick with the team that built the company and not use anything that felt too familiar, like those gorgeous sketches above.
Trouble also came from another company (that shall remain nameless here), who attempted to convince LucasFilm to cease work with Mondo. Although they didn't go into detail, Ishmael and Jones hinted that this company has been their ongoing mortal enemy, often going out of their way to disrupt their work. They promised their nemesis they would finish the year and not renew the licensing agreement with LucasFilm. The company, seeing this as victory, agreed. Mondo never intended to renew the agreement.
Ishmael and Jones were also able to confirm that they've extended their licensing agreement with Paramount for two more years, letting them continue to create posters from the Star Trek universe. Although they intend to make more posters with original series characters (they have likeness rights to all of the original cast, but William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy have final approval with they're depicted), they plan to concentrate on Next Generation and beyond for the time being.
They also confirmed that more Jurassic Park posters are on the way, with one appearing very soon to coincide with the upcoming Blu-ray release. Ishmael noted that the prospect of creating posters in the world of Jurassic Park proved far more exciting to Mondo's stable of artists than Star Wars did.
Dealing With Studios and Abandoned Posters
Ishmael was bursting with stories of how studio notes nearly crippled many posters, but the best of them involved the Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World design, which the studio said was far too muted and dark, insisting that they add bright neon colors to the mix. Even after they sent in an intentionally garish and painfully recolored design to prove a point, they had to appeal directly to director Edgar Wright to get the final product done the way they wanted.
Others were not so lucky. Mondo was tapped by Film District to create posters for the Ryan Gosling thriller Drive. Mondo got to work and sent in these incredibly promising concept (don't you want the second finished and on your wall right now?).
Film District did not approve, cropping their design and adding notes that compromised the poster in serious ways, like insisting that the poster show Gosling's face. Naturally, things fell apart from there.
Drive was not the only Film District casualty. An early design for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark was rejected because the creepy image of a monster menacing a young girl was deemed "too sexual", which was never the intention. Meanwhile, a beautiful poster for the stunning Enter the Void has been indefinitely put on hold after their contact with the studio vanished into thin air. They're still trying to re-establish contact so they can get the poster printed.
Unfortunately, studios are not the only cause of abandoned posters. Sometimes, the quality isn't just up to snuff. Ishmael and Jones showcased a number of posters that just didn't work, either because the art was lacking or their was bad communication between them and the artist. One of the saddest stories was about an artist who tried three variations on a poster for The Beyond, none of which worked at all, prompting them to bring on a new artist (the final design went on sale last week).
One of the biggest missed opportunities, and one that seemed very close to Ishmael's heart, was a poster for Forbidden Planet. The designs took too long to finish (the poster was set to coincide with a screening) and the results weren't what they were looking for. Ishmael hopes to try it again next year.
Ishmael and Jones were obviously proud of their work and open about their failures, so it was only natural that they radiated optimism regarding the future. Although the screening it was designed for was cancelled, they premiered the art for the cult slasher film, The Burning, which may very well be one of the absolute best designs to come out of Mondo, which is saying a lot.
Ishmael also spoke about one of his pet projects, a plan to create screen prints of the late Frank Frazetta's work under the Mondo label. Although the plan was put on hold when Frazetta passed away, Robert Rodriguez's acquisition of his work has breathed new life into Ishmael's plans.
Perhaps the most exciting news of the evening was a simple confirmation of something we already knew: Drew Struzan, one of the greatest movie poster artists of all time, has officially joined the Mondo crew following the overwhelming response to his Frankenstein poster. His first project for them? A series of posters depicting the characters and world of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series.
Perhaps a chill ran down your spine when you read that. You are not alone. There are exciting things on the way for Mondo (including a Mondo art book, which will be from "…a major publisher and will actually be available in real stores!") and even if we're not fast enough to buy those posters online, we can sure as hell enjoy looking at 'em.