The good folks at Mondo released a ton of great screenprints at this year's San Diego Comic-Con, but one particular print in particular made a huge impression on Con attendees: Daniel Danger's Crimson Peak. Stunningly detailed, moody and visually striking, the print was a huge hit with SDCC attendees (and the millions of bummed fans who couldn't be there to pick one up for themselves).
We sat down with Danger to find out how this amazing print came together. Turns out, there's a pretty great story behind the piece.
So you get contacted about doing a Crimson Peak poster. What's your immediate reaction?
The first time I saw the trailer, I made a joke on Twitter about how I was going to live on the film’s set and just spend my days drawing. It's so grand and beautiful I could easily spend months doing so. When the actual offer came in, suddenly that was a reality, and my joke became an actual logistical concern: how do I do this set justice? How do I go toe-to-toe with one of the most ambitious visual minds of modern cinema?
I specifically love Guillermo's work because there are few directors out there whose signature is their production design. You can identify a Tarantino movie by its dialogue, you can identify a Spielberg movie by its dolly zooms, but (del Toro's) movie sets and characters and costumes are unique to him. There's an old school craftsmanship to it; he's an illustrator like me, he works his ideas out in sketchbooks and scribbles.
In the end, I knew I would need to go big, moreso than usual, because I'd be working on visually representing something that already had many, many artistic hands involved before my name was ever mentioned.
I understand you were allowed to see the film prior to working on the poster. That's unusual, right?
Yes! Very unusual. Most studios are very protective; they won't open the doors even for the people who'd never do anything to hurt them. But if you only give an artist one image to work from and prevent them from knowing or seeing anything else, you're just going to get that one image back. It won’t feel inspired. It won't be a truly unique take. But if the artist can see the whole project, and pick and choose from the scenes and elements that represent their aesthetic best, the final product will represent the actual movie, rather than the three promo images and trailer the public have seen. Hell, trailers so rarely represent the movie, anyway.
Guillermo and Legendary clearly understood that trust and access were crucial, and allowed me to see the movie nearly 7 months before its release. They set me up with a screening room at a local indie theater, and I eagerly took it all in while taking pages of notes and scribbles, quotes and keywords -- all while a security guard sat a few rows behind me and nursed a Dunkin Donuts Coolata the entire movie. I sketched a mock-up in the dark while the credits rolled, little arrows pointing to what would be what. Upon arriving home, I tightened up the sketch, wrote out my pitch, and sent it off.
Guillermo was excited. Mondo was excited. I was relieved. We chatted back and forth a bit on elements that should be included, and he let me do my thing. I sent the studio a list of elements and references I would like, and they sent me back a giant packet of set photos and such. I went to work, and the mock-up was pretty identical to what I drew in the theater. And my final art, 23 days later, was pretty identical to the mock-up.
I imagine you generally have more time to kick around ideas/concepts before settling on one. Or do you usually go with your gut instinct on the first concept you really take a shine to?
My running joke is that my pitch for a movie will usually be "the sad quiet scene where nothing is happening." Nine times out of ten, I'm going with that, because I want to make sure my prints for movies represent the vibe and aesthetic of my personal work. So, I have to find my moment in the films: what are the scenes I might've drawn, anyway? How do I tilt that scene to my look? It's also simply my emotional response to first viewing, what stuck with me.
For older movies, you have time to dig through the film and come up with ideas; a fresh take on something that's already had artwork and posters. You've got years of discussion to interpret, knowledge of what scenes became iconic, what characters became fan favorites. With new or upcoming films, you're playing with a lot less. And if the studio is keeping things secret, you're probably working with just guesses. Sometimes you'll have so little to work with you're pitching concepts that you aren't even sure are relevant to the film. It's a terrible way to work, and I try to avoid it entirely these days. If I can't see the movie and find my moment -- where I fit in -- then I'm probably not interested in the job.
The movies I've been less sure of are the movies where I'm pitching more ideas, sort of throwing spaghetti at the studios' wall and seeing what sticks. But the movies I feel I have a strong grasp on are the ones where I tend to get excited and go, "Ok, I know my concept, I got this."
I generally trust my first conceptual instinct; it's served me well. Mind you, concept and layout are very different things. I might have one visual concept hook, but maybe I have five layouts of that idea and it will morph and change as I go. For instance, there's at least ten versions of my recent Hannibal print, all with different formats, croppings, slight concept tweaks. Colors always end up changing, things move...you make decisions as previous decisions are completed.
You mentioned the piece took over three weeks to put together. First of all, holy shit. Secondly: is that about average for one of your prints? It doesn't seem crazy given the level of detail.
Crimson Peak clocked in about 22-23 days spread over a month. The majority of that was 12-14+ hour days of just drawing alone in my studio, watching Friday Night Lights (again). It's probably safe to say 250+ hours (were spent) on the original alone, which was done as a full-size clayboard piece. Then there were a handful of days on the scanning, coloring, shading, text, border, and final print separations...this project was definitely above average for me. Most clock in around 100-150 hours.
Speaking strictly financially? I need to cap that sort of stuff. Theoretically, I'm getting the same X dollars whether I work for 150 hours or 250 hours, and this is a business. But because I was simply "feeling it,” and everything about the project was going so well, and because del Toro and the studio were so supportive, and because I was actually able to really do the piece I wanted, I really went whole hog.
What sort of toll does it take, putting that much focus on a single image for such an extended period of time? The patience involved seems borderline superhuman.
You do go a little crazy, staring at one image for weeks on end! Especially when that image consists of a million tiny lines, one after another after another after another, and knowing that the whole image may not actually take shape until you're a hundred hours into it. I generally prefer to hop around between projects, just so I don’t get to that point where the image simply stops looking like anything.
But there's a flipside. Let's just say I have a "busy mind" and "the world is a little too bright" for me, so there's something very therapeutic about focusing on a motion and a movement and a single goal for an extended run. It's not unlike a weird Zen garden, and I think a lot of artists can relate to that side of it.
But yeah, it's entirely patience and focus. I get asked constantly by upstart artists how I create my work, and outside of the obvious "I use this brand and this brand," the only answer I can give people is that it's simply time. There's no shortcut for "drawing every goddamned line"; there's only drawing every goddamned line. And that's generally not the answer people are looking for. To do ambitious pieces, you have to be ambitious, and you have to take what comes along with that. In my case, there's also a physical side: my hands are toast, they're cramped and arthritic and they hurt. I have a half-finished personal piece that I worked on for about 300 hours over carelessly long days about a year and a half back, and by the end I could barely hold a pen. I pushed myself too hard, and basically had to not draw for about six months to let my hands recover.
This was originally published in the October issue of Birth.Movies.Death. magazine. Crimson Peak arrives in theaters October 16. Check drafthouse.com for listings.