Designing covers for BFI Film Classics

As the groundbreaking BFI Film Classics book series celebrates its 20th anniversary with 12 new collectors’ editions, we take a look at the newly commissioned covers, showcasing some of the best of contemporary British design and craft-making.

Samuel Wigley
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Ten years ago, with the BFI drawing up its 360-strong canon of important films to preserve in pristine show prints for perpetuity, our publishing department had the idea to commission book-length studies to serve as written introductions to each of these titles. The BFI Film Classics series broke away from the idea that films should only be written about by film scholars by inviting novelists, academics, poets, politicians and historians to choose a film from the list and commit to the page their personal responses to one of the greatest films ever made.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the series, the BFI and publisher Palgrave Macmillan have produced 12 limited edition reissues of original titles (including The Wizard of Oz by Salman Rushdie, Citizen Kane by Laura Mulvey, and Singin’ in the Rain by Peter Wollen) alongside some brand new additions (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Eric Smoodin, The Conformist by Christopher Wagstaff, and La Règle du jeu by V.F. Perkins).

Striking new covers have been commissioned for each of the chosen dozen, with the publishing team scouring the design world for talented artists to give these iconic films an appealingly original visual spin. Each designer was presented with a copy of the book and a DVD of the relevant film, and asked to produce a cover that captured the essence of the movie’s themes and motifs.

For the cover for Mark Sanderson’s volume on Don’t Look Now, a competition conducted in association with Creative Review magazine received 120 applicants from art school students. Benio Urbanowicz, a graduate in graphic design at Kingston University, London, was the winner with his subtle but vivid twist on the film’s famous red raincoat (pictured further down).

The haunting woods of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) provided inspiration for Su Blackwell, a sculptor known for her work with paper and bits of books. Her papercut forest trees were trimmed out from an old copy of the original fairytale, then assembled with wire.

For the cover for the Blade Runner edition, meanwhile, Paul Pope modelled his design on the work of printmakers from Japan’s Ukiyo-e era such as Utamaro and Hiroshige, rendering the replicant character played by Rutger Hauer in ebony pencil, Japanese Sumi ink, and watercolours. An appropriate angle on Ridley Scott’s depiction of a futuristic western city subsumed with eastern influences.

Went the Day Well? (1942) is Alberto Cavalcanti’s wartime thriller about an English village getting taken over by Nazi invaders. The cover by Mark Swan for Penelope Houston’s study brilliantly offsets a classic WWII poster-style sans serif font, with creeping shadows in Germanic lettering.

What follows is a selection of the artists explaining their technique and approach.

Benio Urbanowicz – Don’t Look Now

The concept

I decided to keep my cover design as simple as possible. In the film, the viewer is almost instantly confronted with the strong red of the young girl’s coat. Straight away I was thinking about how it could be used – what it could mean… Blood? Death? Love? Needless to say (without giving too much away for those who haven’t seen the film!), the red coat becomes quite important further along the line. Its first role in climaxing the death of John and Laura’s daughter sent my mind into a spiral, going round and round this PVC-looking red coat, trying to figure out how I could show it in such a way that it transforms into more than just a garment. Once I saw the red ink bleeding onto John’s photograph, I started imagining the coat covered in blood. Since the coat was red, it seemed pointless… unless the coat was made from blood? I loved the fact that something we wear to protect ourselves started becoming a symbol of danger, but danger mixed with contrasting emotions – first with the guilt and depression of the grieving parents, second with the fear and anxiety caused by the red coat in Venice. The coat started becoming the cause and the effect of death, endlessly playing on John’s mind – much like a bloodstain I once saw on a hospital ceiling… What had happened? Who was hurt? More importantly, if their blood was on the ceiling, how were they hurt? I was excited to match a bloodstain’s impact and ambiguity with the red coat’s purpose in the film.

The technique

I managed to find a beige coat I thought looked similar to the coat from the film in Oxfam, then crafted a hood out of cartridge paper and added it to the coat. Then I stuffed the coat with newspaper to make it look as if someone was wearing it. Suspended on string from the ceiling, I poured red gloss over the jacket and let it drip slowly, while adjusting my lighting. I had a lot of help from a good friend, Dan Jones, who took photographs for me. Since it was shot against a neutral background, I was able to use Photoshop to extract every red tone in my photograph, which I layered onto a charcoal background. The type was centred and spaced adequately to leave the blood stain/coat with the main focus, and to balance out the feel of the page.

Nick Morley – Vertigo

The concept

I actually wanted to give the reader a sense of vertigo when they look at the book. (Contrary to popular belief, vertigo is not a fear of heights but a feeling of dizziness.) At the same time I wanted to avoid anything too close to Saul Bass’s famous poster design. Instead I took inspiration from the prints of Cyril Power and Sybil Andrews, the famous British linocut artists of the early 20th century. They created images with strong geometric shapes, which impart a feeling of movement. I wanted the text and image to work closely together, almost as though the text were part of the image, so I made the title sweep round behind the tower. The colours were also important to me – I chose red and green which have are strongly symbolic in the film. They are also complementary colours (and the colours of old-fashioned 3D specs) so they really vibrate next to each other, adding to the feeling of vertigo. The scene pictured comes near the end of the film and is a composite of various screenshots with a bit of exaggerated perspective. I hope it is evocative of a sense of drama without giving away too much of the plot!

The technique

I used linocut to make the image in its entirety. It is printed from two blocks, in red and green, with the second block ‘reduced’ by carving away some of the image and reprinting in a third colour to darken the title and parts of the foreground. I use linocut a lot in my illustrations. It is a very flexible medium – great for fine detail, subtle textures, strong, graphic shapes and playing around with colour. It shows the artist’s hand and it works brilliantly for book covers. The only drawback is that you have to get everything right from the start. It is possible to make changes afterwards in Photoshop but I prefer not to.

Chloe Giordano – The Wizard of Oz

The concept

My cover was largely inspired by the colour theme of The Wizard of Oz. I’ve always loved the contrast of the brighter colours against the soft baby blues of the skies and Dorothy’s dress, so my immediate reaction to the brief was to try and bring this together in my own work. I couldn’t leave out the iconic yellow brick road, so in making it form the text itself I’ve tried to make it an integral part of the design rather than just a prop.

The technique

The design itself is sewn onto a piece of hand-dyed calico, with a range of embroidery thread. I hand sew all my work, which I feel gives me the ability to work into minute detail but also to make sure the whole piece flows together.

The BFI Film Classics series is available now.

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