Tuesday, June 28, 2011

An Opportunity of a Lifetime

So as some of you know, a big part of my thesis was a stem-off from a realization I had while doing my poster series. I talked about this in one of my first blog posts here.

What I never expected was that that series would come full circle and allow me to work on a project that I've been watching VERY closely; one that appears to follow my thesis to the T. A film that gets me giddy as a schoolgirl just thinking about it.

I'm talking about Super 8.

I've done probably three or four posts on Living in Cine alone on J.J. Abrams and Super 8 and sort of how it all ties in together with my work. So what happened exactly?

A couple weeks ago, I received a text from my friend saying "Make sure you answer your phone when I call you." I happened to be at a barbecue and when my phone started ringing, I politely excused myself from the table.

"Dan, I just talked to my buddy who works at Bad Robot. He remembered your poster series and... They want you to try a crack at a poster design for Super 8!"

Silence. A wave of excitement, energy, and just sheer terror flushed over me.

He continued to tell me that I may be getting a call from either his buddy or J.J.'s producer, Bryan Burk in the next few minutes, so to be available. I waited for about a half hour, a huge knot tightened up in my stomach and I began to worry.

Those of you who have ever been to Chicago know that AT&T's service here is pretty consistently terrible throughout the city. It's especially bad in my area.
Thoughts raced through my head as I waited for the call. "Had they already tried calling but my horrible service didn't connect the call?" "Had they changed their mind?" "Is this really just an elaborate trick?" "What am I going to say if he does call?" "Is it too windy out here? What if he can't hear me?!" "Does my breath smell bad? What if he smells it through the phone? SHIT!"

At this point the rest of the people at the barbecue knew what was up and they were all giving me distance so I wouldn't have a panic attack or something.

The phone rings, and it's got an Indiana area code on it. A bit of calmness sweeps over me. "Good, it's not Bryan Burk himself," I thought.

I answered it and although my reception was bad and I was struggling to decode what he was telling me like it was a World War II cypher, I got the jist of the details.

"So you think you can do this?" He asked.

"I'm going to get started on this immediately."

I excused myself and ran home. They wanted three unique ideas by 10am the next morning. It was already 9:30pm, so I got a pot of coffee going and got right to work.

I've done tons of freelance work before, and pretty much every job I've ever had has required me to work under pressure with some sort of time crunch, but this was different. This was a potential freelance job from a company I could only DREAM of working with. Literally the epitome of where I'd like to end up.

A lot of design is research. I spent a good hour and a half gathering reference material and familiarized myself with the story. Paramount and Bad Robot both kept this project under tight control, and I was no exception, so I literally had just the images from trailers and promotion released to the public to work from. I gathered the story and really tried to come up with a really iconic poster. Initially I wanted to do a sort of Shepard Fairey/propaganda style, because that is what they initially gravitated towards in my series.

My fiance Veronica, got home just as I was finishing up the basic title and credit block elements. She knew what was going on and was SO excited for me and offered to help in any way she could, because she herself is an INCREDIBLE illustration artist. By about 2am, I had hit a dead end in the design I was working on and sort of felt the style I was aiming for wasn't really right for the tone of the movie. I realized it probably wasn't going to work and stopped myself before I wasted the rest of the night.

I woke her up out of a sound sleep.

"Veronica... I think I need your help."

She got right up and we began collaborating (this is our first project do so). I had an idea for the poster, but knew she could execute it WAY better than I could. We decided to do a Struzan/ Amblin style of Joel from a few images we had found, and depending on how quickly she could draft images out, we would do the other kids' faces.

Now I need to stop right here and say, although Veronica wasn't totally unfamiliar with a Wacom before, and owned one herself, she had never really had the opportunity to do anything with it. So we got her set up, and after some basic practice strokes with the pen, she started getting the hang of it.

She did an outline drawing and used that as her color reference. After a short while, and about a pot of coffee later, she rolled out with the first draft of Joel.

I knew how I wanted to lay it out and quickly tossed it on my machine and started rearranging and placing things like a mad man. At this point, the sun was rising and I kept looking at my clock. We didn't even have one design completely done. What if they hate it??

I really started to feel the crunch as I made some final touches to the design and tweaked textures and colors to something I was happy with. Around 8am, I got a text saying "How's it going?" I gave him an update and shot off what I had been working on.

At this point, I had been up for about 26 hours and could hardly concentrate.

He quickly replied to my e-mail with just "Fuck you, that's awesome! Make it dirty and beat to shit, and add a flare of some kind on it and call that one done."

So I whipped that out really quick and sent it out. He wanted us to get at least one more design together to show Bryan Burk, who was eagerly waiting to see what we would come up with.

"So we've got the one that is this romantic Amblin style, now let's do one that is sort of a more minimalist Bad Robot style. Make it as simple as possible. Do something with the train wreck."

I spent the next hour in illustrator trying to draft up something that would echo what he was looking for. It was a SUPER low draft, and more of a conceptual thumbnail more than anything. I wasn't nearly as happy with it as I was with Joel's poster, but I sent it off anyway.

I took a quick two hour nap and woke up to a message saying "Paramount saw it and liked it. I still need to hear from Burky."

Several hours later, unable to sleep and totally wired on coffee and adrenaline, I heard back again saying Bryan had an idea and wanted us to try it with Elle and the train wreck. They got us tiff files from the film as reference and we got to work.

We worked until about 2am and finally forced ourselves to go to sleep. We both had our basic elements started and could sleep peacefully knowing what we had to do in the morning.

Sunday morning rolls around, and not only do I have to roll out with another poster by 10am, but I also have to leave at that same time for rehearsals for Your Milkman. So we wake up in sort of a panic, I blow through a rough pass on my script and get my notes together for the rehearsal while Veronica picks up right where she left off with the illustration, and the clock starts ticking.

I end up having to push back rehearsals an hour just to finish the poster and get it out for Burk to see. We send this out and I head to my meeting.

When I arrive at the office, I get a text saying that Burk is going to call me. I'm freaking out a bit, but wait for the call.

I answer and Bryan asks how I am doing. "Fantastic," I reply. He starts off by saying how much he loves what we're doing and has an idea to tweak the train poster.

"That train needs to be inches away from her. Imminent danger." he says.

He gives me a few more ideas for his concept, and I express a few concerns for making it too close because of crowding the comp and making it look less like a train and more abstract.

"Do what you can to make it look like a train and we'll go from there. Also, where in town are you located?"

"I... I'm actually not in LA, I'm based out of Chicago."

"Darn, I was going to invite you out to the screening we're hosting right now."

Drat. (Does anyone say that anymore? They should.) From the brief conversation I had with him, Bryan seems like an incredibly enthusiastic and genuine guy.

I take my notes home with me, and by this time it's around 7pm. Veronica and I start hammering out the perspective. I render out a quick 3D box as reference for depth in Illustrator. She gets started on the box car.

Around midnight we send out another comp just to see progress and make sure we're going in the right direction.

I'm pretty damn tired, and can barely focus. I go splash my face with some water and see that a blood vessel has burst in my eye. I look like hell, but I'm thinking "This is the best opportunity you've ever been given, just keep pushing." And we did.

"Love it, keep it up" they reply.

Veronica illustrates up a Railroad Crossing sign while I begin working on sparks, smoke and debris details. The sun's beginning to rise as she finishes up the highlight strokes from the sparks on everything. We each have to be out the door at our respective 9-5's in four hours. I already know I'm going to be coming in late.

Once all of her elements are done, I force her to go to sleep while I do my magic.

After an hour of tweaking, I start to save my project. At this point, it's a 27x40" poster at 300 dpi and it's got about 120 layers on it. These things take time to save. I end up passing out waiting on the save and waking up an hour later in a complete panic. BACK TO WORK!

At about 10am, I end up rendering out the file and shooting it out to them.

I head into work, anxious all day as to what they're going to say. The deadline to make a decision on using one of our prints is quickly approaching. If they want more changes, am I going to have to leave work and stay up another night?

I get a few intermittent texts throughout the day that EVERYONE at Bad Robot loved the designs. The positive feedback helped, but I was still anxious.

On my way home, I was told that Bryan wanted to try one more placement of the train, but wanted to talk to Paramount about a drop dead timeline for when these had to be in for printing. I started working when I got home and figured out a quicker way to get the new comp turned around that evening. I was laying it out for Veronica to begin illustrating when I got a text saying that J.J. finally saw them and loved them, but they went with a simpler design to give away as a freebie.

To most of you reading this, you might feel a sense of disappointment that we weren't chosen, but aside from the lack of sleep, this past weekend was one of the most exciting opportunities I've ever had. The fact that I got to collaborate and foster a relationship with a few huge people, and that one of the pinnacles of my thesis, and a filmmaker I greatly respect, saw something I worked and liked it made it ALL worth it.

If anything, this will just open doors for Veronica and me. As an artist, pushing your bounds is something that's TERRIFYING to most, but has helped take my artwork into a new direction. And most of all, my fiance and I both learned that we can work incredibly well together on collaborations under the extreme conditions of a harsh deadline. I can't wait for another opportunity to come up for the two of us to work together on another poster. Her talent is simply incredible and I am just floored by what she does.

As a treat for ourselves for the 60+ hours we put into the designs, she and I have fixed up the drafts of our two main posters. Bad Robot has given us permission to share the final posters with you as a Living in Cine exclusive.

To view a larger version, click here and here.

Lastly to round out this spectacular experience, I received a picture text from Veronica while I was at work last week saying we had received a package from Bad Robot. What was inside?!

When I finally got home, I opened it up and found a bunch of copies of the original concept posters we did of both Elle and Joel, a Super 8 camera keychain they've been giving out as swag, and a thank you note from Bryan Burk. Truly awesome!

I have seriously been in amazement the past few weeks about the entire experience, and I feel like this project has just inspired me to work even harder on this thesis, on my design work and on my films, and keep striving to make my way up this creative ladder. I'm usually not one to share stuff like this, but this has been such a fun experience for Veronica and I. I feel like it would be selfish of me not to share it with you, especially to those of you who are interested in pursuing a career in illustration. There is no tried and true path to doing something like this, but what worked for us this time around was just knowing the right people and putting yourself out there and allowing yourself to be discovered rather than forcing your work upon others.

For those of you interested, Veronica also has a blog of her fantastic work:


  1. This was a fantastic read! I think you took full advantage of a great opportunity.

    I loved reading about your thought process on creating the posters and seeing how they evolved visually to come together.

    Good luck!

  2. That was a great read! Fun to watch the posters evolve a bit. I love the first poster, I think it could have complimented the other posters out there very well.

  3. Absolutely beautiful posters and great story!

  4. This is the kind of story that inspires people that glow in creativity and will strive in any condition to realise that. Too many people have I met, teem with wondrous ability but use excuses to mask their fears and never paint their masterpieces as they should.

  5. Thank you for sharing that experience with us. I think it was important for me as an artist to read this.

    You guys keep at it, those posters are beautiful. Damn fine job.

  6. Thank you guys for all of the kind words, I'm glad you enjoyed reading about our experience. It means a lot to both Veronica and I to have everyone's support and we're so thankful to be able to share the experience with everyone.

    I think our next venture is going to be Veronica trying her hand at a hand made poster ala Drew Struzan and then doing any digital retouching after the fact. She's extremely comfortable with traditional techniques and I think she can really soar that way. Be on the lookout for that in the next few months.

    Thanks again!

  7. Did you guys get paid anything or was this spec? I ask not to be nosey, only that you 2 really busted your butts and if all you got in the end were some giveaways and a couple of contacts I'd be pretty heated.