Criterion at Thirty


On Design

CriterionDesigns_BBS_coversI’d always thought that designing new packaging for a classic film was like designing a jacket for a new edition of a well-known book: both are associated, in the popular imagination, with familiar, even beloved, graphics. If the designer strays too far from the original vision, the potential for public outcry is high. But where a book offers visual freedom—our minds are free to imagine the scenes and the various characters—a movie comes with a profusion of visual material that’s not soon forgotten. There’s the original theatrical poster, and then, of course, there’s the very film itself, and all the iconic images we associate with it. For designers, translating a director’s vision is hard enough the first time. How do you do it again?

The Criterion Collection is known for its impeccable taste in classic and contemporary films, and for the artful packaging that puts these films in a much-needed new light. Late last year, I sat down with their head art director of more than a decade, Sarah Habibi, and designer/art director Eric Skillman, who were celebrating the recent publication of a book they’d produced at breakneck speed in time for Criterion’s thirtieth anniversary: Criterion Designs, an illumination of their process in imagining some of the collection’s most successful projects. It celebrates thirty years’ worth of artwork and inspiration. A hefty and somewhat enigmatic silvery case barely hints at the varied work within. Skillman’s restrained cover design features a single, striking die cut of the collection’s instantly recognizable, leaning-C logo, created by veteran Pentagram designers Paula Scher and Julia Hoffmann during a rebranding in 2006. This C-shaped keyhole reveals Jason Polan’s black-and-silver patterned endpapers, whose loose, line-drawn figures and objects exuberantly represent the characters and locales from any number of Criterion films.


One of the book’s joys is that you don’t have to be a cinephile to appreciate the individuality and creative spirit brought to each Criterion package—including never-before-seen, unused sketches and layouts. The designs aren’t of a single, consistent style, and that variation allows Habibi and Skillman to keep the brand fresh and to have the freedom to seek out artists and designers who use a wide range of mediums and methods to match the tone of each film. Among my many favorites are Yann Legendre’s take on Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le métro—inky black illustrations that sing against a flood of Parisian blue interrupted by stunning strokes of shocking orange; Rob Jones and Jay Shaw’s figurative reinterpretation of the American flag for Robert Altman’s gem, Nashville; Leanne Shapton’s playful ode to Noah Baumbach’s gift for dialogue for her packaging of Kicking and Screaming; and David Merveille’s charming box set for The Complete Jacques Tati, inspired by the great Pierre Étaix’s iconic, midcentury theatrical Tati posters.

Habibi explained, “There are cases where everyone thinks of a movie in one way, but Criterion feels the director was aiming to say something different than what is typically thought. So for us, it’s about repositioning the film to show that it’s not actually the film that marketing people said it was all those years ago.” Package design can do a lot of this work. Instead of traditional marketing meetings, Criterion holds what they call “brief meetings,” in which the staff reviews a film’s historical significance—where it occurred in the director’s career, its genre, the political climate, and so on. After a brief, they typically have two to three weeks for initial cover sketches. Habibi referred to this as “the heavy lifting period,” in which they aim to nail down the look and style they’re after. Once a cover direction has been selected, another three months is spent refining the artwork and carrying the visual language throughout the entire package so that the design feels truly unified. Design by committee, Habibi insisted, never produces the most inspired work, so to ensure that the designs don’t become muddled by too many voices, they strive to keep the approval process as simple as possible and the meetings quite intimate with only the art department, the in-house producer, and the most senior staff weighing in.

Habibi and Skillman walked me through the design process of packaging for three films included in Criterion Designs. What follows are case studies in the inventive and thoughtful packaging that so defines their brand.

CriterionDesigns_BBS_cover“America Lost and Found: The BBS Story” (box set)

“It’s hard when we have to do a slipcase for multiple films because we’ve got to somehow convey something about all the films included using only one image—unless you have some sort of unifying element, like a fantastic photo of a director,” Habibi explained. “It can be hard to come up with a concept to hold it all together. For this one, we really wanted to get across that this was 1960s Hollywood, that it was time for a big change in how movies were made. These directors were really considered rebels, and we knew we needed to get that energy across.”

Sometimes the art department will know they want the packaging to riff on an earlier poster or to a very specific aspect of a film. With the BBS box set, though, they weren’t sure what they were after, so Habibi sent the project to two different designers. In return, she got a lot of American flags and handwritten type, all of it skillfully done but somehow too general; it was artwork that could have been paired with any number of their films. Habibi says that “specificity” is key. She realized that with so many important films to highlight on the slipcase—so many words—she had “a type problem” on her hands.

She sought out their trusted “type guy,” F. Ron Miller, who excels at re-creating period typography. He solved the problem with a wistful, 1960s-esque movie-house marquee photo illustration that announces all seven films “now showing” in the box set. Miller lives in L. A. and was only too happy to drive around the city with a photographer friend in tow, shooting elements from older theaters—those that had likely shown these films on their first runs. Miller’s marquee concept appears in various guises throughout the interior packaging—a photograph of an old, vacant ticket booth graces the cover of the booklet, for instance, and he designed new, “weathered” posters for each of the individual cases in the set. In everything, Miller managed to capture the decade’s disconcerting sense of abandonment and self-rule. My favorite of the group may be the faux poster for Easy Rider, which was created by Miller and the artist Fred Davis. They’ve referenced the ubiquitous American-flag motif from Habibi’s first rounds of sketches, but Davis found a way to reinvent the tired scheme by incorporating an open stretch of road and fraying the bottom edge of the collage as though it were printed on a pair of old Levis.

CriterionDesigns_AllThatJazz3All That Jazz (1979)

“This is a movie about dance, and there’s something a little perverse about not using any dance imagery … well, except for a single, behind-the-scenes shot hidden inside, under the disk!” Habibi assured me that she and Skillman hadn’t wanted to disregard “the mind-blowing, physical achievements” of the film’s dancers by omitting them from the packaging, but they also didn’t want to give new viewers the chance to dismiss the film as “just another dance movie.” Instead, Habibi and Skillman repurposed the original poster art. (The gleaming marquee-lightbulb type also appears in the film’s opening sequence.) Skillman describes it as “grandiose and bombastic.” If you look closely at the original artwork, you can make out the metal scaffolding on which the type is hung. This was a conceptual choice: The film, fantasy based on elements of Bob Fosse’s life and career, “is not only about the spectacle,” Skillman explains. “It’s also about what’s going on behind the scenes. It’s about the artistic process. It’s this attitude of always leave them smiling showmanship as the medium for how to deal with much weightier topics like artistic legacy and death.”

In the final scene of the film, the people closest to the director gather in the audience for one final, unforgettable performance, sending him off with a rousing parody of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” (in this case, “Bye Bye Life”). The glitzy, outrageous display is in fact the director’s own death onstage, and Skillman wanted “to build on this contrast between the desperate farewell and the theatrical razzle-dazzle.”

CriterionDesigns_AllThatJazzThe show-stopping musical climax was what most inspired Skillman’s art direction of Sean Freeman, the British illustrator they hired for the job of expertly merging texture and photography to build truly masterful digital lettering that rhymed with the seventies poster type. Freeman’s flawless work appears throughout the film’s booklet. With the help of Peter Becker, Criterion’s President, Skillman mined the film for its most quotable lines, especially those that seemed the least uplifting. Skillman’s concept was to ironically “light up” the bleak quotes using Freeman’s bright bulb letterforms. When it became apparent that those longer quotes would have been ill-suited to ornate, three-dimensional rendering, Skillman hit upon the idea of using the single words from the recurring, darkly comedic bit “Five Stages of Grief,” which not only would be less complicated to construct, but would also pack more punch. And they do—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance are each imagined in a unique lettering style and given double-page spreads in the interior booklet. They are luminous against the black pages—black as night and as bright and lonesome as Broadway can be.

CriterionDesigns_LouisXIV_coverThe Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966)

“Roberto Rossellini made this incredibly straight piece,” Habibi explained, “that is more like a documentary of the life of Louis XIV and his courts, that doesn’t have any feeling of romanticism or melodrama. All the imagery from the film is quite stiff.” Early cover design ideas included stills from the film, but as Skillman noted, the stills alone oddly didn’t appropriately capture the film’s measured tone. A film’s narrative typically provides hints for cover designs, but Rossellini’s film doesn’t follow a traditional narrative.

“We like there to be a reason for everything on our covers,” Habibi said, “and our type choices are purposeful. I was doing some image research from home, and I discovered that Louis XIV had commissioned his own typeface! Before this, typefaces had been mainly calligraphic, but Louis XIV, being the Sun King, had someone create a typeface of Roman capitals and lowercase figures that was beautifully mapped out on a grid. It had never been done this way before.” Habibi further discovered that a handful of people had since created a digital face based on this late seventeenth-century gem, but most were missing the character of the hand-drawn original, so the Criterion art department ended up creating the film’s cover typography directly from the refined and well-proportioned Versailles specimen. “The film,” Habibi said, “captures Louis at a time when he’s moving in a much more scientific direction in his thinking, and so this linear design direction paired well with Rossellini’s approach, which was so formal.”

CriterionDesigns_LouisXIV_RomainDuRoiTaking cues from early alphabets can lend incredible authenticity and character to all design projects, though often the found alphabets are frustratingly incomplete, and in this case Habibi had to draw her own capital W in order to complete the word POWER. Sometimes a project clearly calls for what is termed a “type treatment”: strong type, working without the support of images, can often do all the important work of setting a scene that photographs or illustrations (or in this case, film stills) have only been able to hint at. Habibi clearly relished the opportunity to create this final design, informed by the hand of Louis XIV’s typographer, and it makes for a handsome and appropriately spare package—one that is different from so many other projects included in Criterion Designs. As a fellow graphic designer, I too find deep satisfaction in projects that allow me to work hand in hand with a typographer or master printer from decades or even centuries earlier. By studying the subtle differences that distinguish one letterform from another and by discovering the common architecture of each form, one is able to create additional characters that blend seamlessly with these much earlier letters. (This is something, for instance, I’ve been doing for The Paris Review: working with a scan of our midcentury, lead-type masthead as a guide and a digital cut of Garamond Premier Pro, the magazine’s text face, for reference, I’ve been slowly crafting a complete set of Paris Review letterforms.)

When our discussion ended, Habibi led me back through the office. On the way, I glimpsed giant posters of some of their most enduring artwork and shelves containing numerous Criterion titles. Like book jackets, these Blu-ray and DVD covers are destined to spend much of their lives spine out. “As a company we definitely care about the bookshelf and collections,” Habibi affirmed. “People are living with these objects for a long time.” In the art department, she pointed out a large shared wall punctuated by multiple layouts from various designers for new projects now in the works—proof that there is never time to rest when it comes to marrying good design and ground-breaking cinema, and that the packaging for a truly noteworthy film can be nearly as important as what lies within.

Charlotte Strick is art editor of The Paris Review and one half of the design team Strick&Williams.