Raiders of the Lost Art
It was always a dream of mine that once my book was published, and the film deal secured, Drew Struzan and Ralph McQuarrie would step into Bespin’s carbon-freezing chamber and battle for the right to produce the artwork.
Admittedly, this is looking increasingly unlikely, given that Mr McQuarrie has departed into the great matte painting in the sky and Mr Struzan has retired.
Also Bespin doesn’t exist.
But the fact that I can immediately picture such a scene, with these two legends entangled in epic battle amid the hissing blue and pink vents, lightsaber-sized pencils in hand, shows you what an impact these artists have had on me.
Movie concept and poster art can be a thing of beauty. This is especially so in fantasy and science fiction films, where reality is cast into the fires of Mount Doom in favour of the improbable and impossible.
Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Harry Potter, E.T., Lord of the Rings—all have presented us with some truly astounding and exciting art.
For me, book covers are just as important. Perhaps even more so.
Once again, fantasy and science fiction is where this art truly shines, where a single image can capture an entire world, or alien universe, or an emotional beat in an alternate time. These works speak to the basest of our desires, the very same that squeeze our insides whenever we cast our eyes upon a delicious sunset, or stars over an ocean, or distant snow-capped mountains.
Of course, these genres are also infamous for their dragons, glowing magic and near-naked heroes with huge swords (check out Orbit’s 2008 Chart of Fantasy Art), but even these covers can still adhere to the idea of ‘art’. There is some degree of imagination and artistry at work, even if it is entertainingly skewed towards the cliché.
Yet there is a new trend in town, where art is erased in favour of graphic design.
Recent films such as John Carter, X-Men: First Class, and even The Dark Knight Rises, to name a few, have disappointed with some fairly ordinary visual marketing for such expensive cinematic entertainment. Jarring portraits are manipulated and slapped onto all manner of backgrounds for various merchandise, with seemingly little thought for aesthetics or context.
And with ensemble pieces especially, character posters are now the norm. Clearly studios are pushing their marketing teams to do more with less—and as a result there is precious little artistry to be found (for a laugh, or a cry, see here for Empire’s Top 50 Badly Shopped Movie Posters).
It would be easy to blame Hollywood. They seem to be in a particularly noteworthy phase of churning out rehashed movies. We can hardly be surprised that they care so little for the art that sells it.
Yet the same trend can also be seen in publishing.
The rise of the self-publisher has played its part. It’s never been ‘easier’ to get your written work into print (note: writing a book is still hard!), and due to impatience, and/or cost cutting (given that the author is paying), the cover art might be sacrificed in order to finally ‘be published’.
Of course, there is a wealth of cover templates out there you can pick and choose from yourself. But that’s like working up an appetite, only to eschew a three course meal in favour of your local fast-food joint:
‘Would you like a free sunset with your stock-standard, half-naked main character?’
‘Yes, please. With moody vampire sprinkles, if possible!’
I know what you’re thinking. We’re going digital. If it’s going to be an ebook, why even bother worrying about the cover? And who cares what the movie poster is like, so long as the movie itself is good. It’s only the content that counts, right?
Well, yes and no. A definite no in fantasy’s case.
Fantasy is a thing of beauty, and so it should be, both inside and out. If the content is King, the art that seduces you should be his Queen, in all her breathtaking glory. It shouldn’t be the buxom serving wench with rotting teeth you can pick up almost anywhere.
Fantasy, by its very nature, is epic and sweeping. Consequently, it has certain responsibilities to paint suitably epic and sweeping pictures for the audience. This is especially important given that these stories usually deal with strange new worlds—it provides a visual touchstone going in.
Until recently, I’ve seen fantasy as the last bastion of artistry in entertainment. Yet even now cracks are appearing in its mighty walls.
Ironically, we may have to apportion some of the blame to the aforementioned Mr Struzan. After all, his work certainly makes full use of the (now) clichéd heroic floating heads and characters looking over their shoulders, interspersed with scenes of action, adventure and romance.
The difference is that he has talent. Whereas many of the rest of us do not. So to save time, effort, and cost, we try to fake his seemingly effortless style with much cutting, pasting and general manipulation of stock photographs through Photoshop.
The term Photoshopped has developed quite the negative connotation over the years. But this is unfair. Photoshop is, after all, a design aid. How it is used depends on the user, and for as many people out there with my graphic abilities (nil), there are just as many artists who wield the software like Excalibur itself.
It should also be noted that, for certain genres, those stock-standard covers do their job well and without fuss—such as the shadowy figure set against all manner of urban backdrops (thanks, Da Vinci Code), or the single item metaphor for the writing to follow (thanks Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey).
And, yes, of course, the content is obviously where the work will live and die, regardless of pretty pictures. But still, we’re visual creatures.
George Lucas sold Star Wars to 20th Century Fox on the basis of a few concept paintings by Mr McQuarrie. Can you imagine what history would have been like had he simply slapped some stock photos together, as many do these days?
Fortunately, fantasy and science fiction artistry continues to have its champions.
Some self-published authors are, like me, fans of ‘real cover art’ and have spent hard-earned money on commissions from great artists. And recent movie posters like Sam Raimi’s Oz The Great and Powerful, or Mondo’s fantastic vision for John Carter (among others), gives us hope there could be a return to form in Hollywood too.
There are also the traditional publishers who still recognise the merit in using talented artists like Stephan Martinière and Greg Bridges for their fantasy book covers. While the advent of astonishingly beautiful, almost photorealistic, video games is also testament to the continued appreciation of such artistry and its growth in the digital age.
So hope is not lost. Not yet at least.
The art of fantasy and science fiction provides a window into the world beyond ours. But like any inter-dimensional portal, we need to remember to protect and cherish it. Not only that, but cherish too the artists that create the magic, as well as the writers, publishers and studios that continue to take pride in framing their work in such spectacular fashion.
Because this art all at once entertains, delights and excites. And ultimately inspires us to journey into those impossible worlds.