Friday, July 27, 2007

Gladiator (2000)

One of my biggest regrets is missing this film at the cinema when it was released. It was not untill Nov 2000 when the dvd was released that I watched it for the first time and have seen it countless times since.

Gladiator is a historical action drama, directed by Ridley Scott. It features an excellent cast who's performances are unmatched in the roles they play
. Russel Crowe portrays the General Maximus who is to be left in trust of Rome when the Emperor Marcus Aurelius dies (played by Richard Harris). Before his wish for Rome to become a Republican govenment is made public, the Emperor is murdered by his sociopathic son, Commodus who seizes the throne, excellently played by Joaquin Phoenix. After being given a death sentence by Commodus, Maximus escapes but is captured by slave traders and forced to live life as a gladiator. He rises through the ranks of the arena to avenge the death of his family. Ultimately, Commodus challenges Maximus to a duel in front of a roaring crowd in the Colosseum, which is finished with the dying wish of Marcus Aurelius being fulfilled.

David Franzoni wrote all of the early drafts for Gladiator after being inspired
by reading Daniel P. Mannix's 1958 novel Those About to Die. He decided to base his script on Commodus after reading the Augustan History. Initially, Maximus was to be called Narcissus, the man who strangled Emperor Commodus to death, but was renamed after the scripts were redrafted to be more heroic and powerful. He is also credited with writing Amistad and Kingdom of Heaven.

The plot is influenced by two 1960s films; The Fall of The Roman Empire and Spartacus, drawing the films gladiatorial qualities from spartacus and similarities in the story and politics from The Fall of The Roman Empire. Ridley Scott was approached by producers David Wick and Walter Parkes who showed him a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme called Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down). This poignant image inspired Scott to take on the project, which he incorporates into the film's fight scenes creating tension and emotion.

While researching the famous quote from the film, 'what we do in life, echoes in eternity' for a previous project, I found that it was adapted from Stoic ideas written in Marcus Aurelius Meditations. After reading these volumes, I found that other quotes were used from them in the film's script or adapted from them, such as when Maximus says to Commodus, 'nothing happens to anybody which he is not fitted by nature to bear'. Amoungst other references, these strenghten the Stoic philosophy throughout the film, believed by Romans at the time. It was a satisfying feeling that I had found a book that had been used as a source of ideas by the script writers.

Ridley Scott has created a powerful and psychological film that breathes new life into a reclining genre, seeing the release of King Arthur, Kingdom of Heaven and Troy in the following years. Asside from its spectacular effects, Gladiator benefits from
a talented cast who add depth and dimension to the characters. The cinematography is laden with artistic touches that could impress even the most hardened critic and adds an aesthetic quality throughout the film. The opening battle scene and numerous fight sequences throughout the film are visually electrifying and show the savage side to a supposedly civilised society.

The attention to detail is outstanding from the costumes to the set. Benefiting from a huge budget, a replica of the Colosseum was built at 1/3 its actual size, one tier high with the remainder digitally imposed. With similar skill, post-production company, The Mill, had to create a digital body double for Proximo, following the death of Oliver Reed after a heart attack during filming. A 3D CGI mask of Reed's face was mapped onto the remaining scenes at an estimated cost of $3.2 million. It is hard not to admire the skill and expertise of the people that help create such spectacular effects.

More subtle notions are hinted by the imagery and dialogue in between the action scenes such as the afterlife, adding more depth to the plot and increasing the motivation of the key characters. The scenes where maximus brushes through a golden wheat field while softly touching the tips of the wheat become almost iconic, creating a subtle link between life and death which is reinforced throughout the film.

Gladiator has qualities to suit every taste including a powerful and fast moving script, amazing special effects and a beautiful, artistic aesthetic, strengthened by the quality of the acting. If by some chance this film has managed to avoid your attention, I would strongly recommend seeing it.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Jason Brooks - Digital Illustration

I first discovered the amazing work of Jason Brooks in 2003 when I took a keen interest in funky house music. In particular, I enjoyed listening to and collecting Hed Kandi compilations. I was instantly attracted to the ultra-modern, ultra-stylish artwork on the covers, by illustrator Jason Brooks. Even after my taste in this music dimished, I continued to collect the albums for their exquisite and unique styling. Over the years, I have become more and more intrigued by this artwork and have looked more closely into the world of Jason Brooks and how his drawings and illustrations have evolved into one of the most recognised and imitated digital styles of today.

Jason Brooks is a London born digital/fashion illustrator. He spent much of his early life living in Brighton and showed a keen interest for drawing and painting. At 19, Brooks studied graphic design and illustration at St. Martin's School of Art. In 1992, he won the prestigious Vogue/Sotheby's Cecil Beaton Award for fashion illustration. Brooks became a Master of Arts in illustration after attending the Royal College of Art in London.

He started his early career as a fashion illustrator, drawing on the spot at the Couture Shows in Paris, gaining valuable experience of the fashion industry. Brooks increased his recognition at this time significantly by creating an identity through posters and promotional material for the notorious London club of the 90s, Pushca. Ever since, his distinctive style has been widely imitated on promotional devices such as club flyers and posters. Brooks style is nevertheless, unsurpassed and still regarded as the original in his field.

Digital illustrators were a new breed when Brooks first adopted the medium to produce glamourous illustrations of clubbers and models in the 1990s. He became a pioneer in his field and helped bring about a reform in the world of illustration. His most well known achievement started in 1999, when he was commissioned to produce the artwork for the Hed Kandi label - work that has helped gain him world wide respect and numerous offers from companies requesting his services. The image below is one that I feel epitomises eveything that Hed Kandi aspire towards - sexy, glamourous, funky, up-beat.

In 2005, after 50 illustrated covers, Hed Kandi was sold to Ministry. This change of hands saw the departure of producer, Mark Doyle, who went on to create his own label 'Fierce Angels', taking Jason Brooks with him to produce the new artwork for his compilations. This left Ministry with the task of replicating Brooks' style on the forthcoming artwork, as the style and values associated with it were firmly in place. They chose the New York based agency, Vault 49 to take over the reigns. It is instantly apparent that their attempts are inferior in comparison, however, they do seem to be improving. The two images below are examples of their designs for Hed kandi.

It is clear that they have tried to mimic Brooks in terms of subject and style, however, it is distinctly obvious that these designs are sub-standard. The illustrations are greatly lacking in contrast, which is a major contributor towards achieving Brooks' sleek and sexy style. The backgrounds are also fairly generic with a heavy use of bland colours. The key features that characterise his work, such as the smooth hair and exaggerated eyes seem to have been completely overlooked and the general body shapes of the figures are different. Jason Brooks combines various techniques during the process of producing his final image, starting with a hand rendered drawing. This free-hand appeal is a quality that cannot be replicated and is unique to Brooks' own creative hand, ensuring that his genuine designs are instantly recognisable.

Despite failing to live up to Jason Brooks expertise, Vault 49 have produced some excellent and inspirational work for plenty of other major brands, having a unique appeal of their own. Check out their online portfolio at

Aside from his artwork for the fashion and music industries, Brooks has produced a wide array of designs in other areas. His clients include L'Oreal, Mercedes Benz, Globetrotter, Saatchi & Saatchi, British Airways, Vogue, Hed Kandi, Fierce Angel, Cosmopolitan, Carlsberg, Ritz Hotels and many more. The images above and below are a few examples of his success for these brands.

I especially like the two dimensional interior drawing and the silhouette style he utilises on the bacardi shot glasses. The black figures set against the four different coloured backgrounds creates four different moods from the chilled-out blue to the warm orange. Brooks' work has inspired me to create my own two dimensional design utilising silhoutte figures that I compiled from various photos taken in Sardinia, shown below.

He also inspired me to produce this image to develop new skills and techniques using Illustrator and to add to my portfolio.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Iconic Album Art

As an avid music fan, much of my spare time is spent listening to artists old and new, attending live performances and generally immersing myself in music culture as much as I can.

Over the last four decades or so, whole generations of people have been influenced by artists, bands, and even individual albums; affecting the way they behave, the language they use and even the clothes they wear. Iconic albums; albums that have secured their place in history as one of the greats, generally share one of two factors: excellent music, or a strikingly orignal album cover. When the latter of the two is able to earn iconic status, with or without the help of the music, it is a humbling achievment for any designer.

One of the most famous images of all time was photographed for the Beatles 1969 album, Abbey Road. The pose is so well known throughout the world that hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to liverpool each year to have their picture taken where their idols once walked. What is particularly impressive about this image is that the band name and the album title are not needed in order to identify who the image is of and where they were at the time it was taken.

The photograph has been satirised on many occasions, including an episode of the simpsons (shown above).

These two album covers (shown below) epitomise a youth punk rock culture that dominated teenagers in Britain during the late 70's and early 80's. They're incredibly simplistic images; both powerful, both hugely famous.

Although these two bands dominated the punk culture, they had completely different attitudes and styles and this could not be more apparent in the album covers. They both demonstrate a two-fingers up approach to authority in an equally effective and shocking manner. The sex pistols cover uses vivid colour and coarse language to make sure that it is an album that will not only stand out to any fan wishing to buy it, but is also so attention grabbing, you find yourself looking at it whether you want to or not. The phrase and typography are so well known that productions such as the BBC's music quiz; Never Mind the Buzzcocks use the title and styling of the cover its logo. The Clash's 1979 album, London Calling, uses an image of frontman, Joe Strummer (now deceased) smashing up a guitar on stage. An act for which the band became well known in their later stages. Partnered with the title 'London Calling', the image is used brilliantly to demonstrate that the punk culture, which was growing throughout London at the time, would not only be heard, but was here to stay.

Both covers are powerful and unforgettable images that have stood the test of time.

Nirvana's 1991 album is widely credited for commercialising the alternative 'grunge' movement during the early 1990s. Selling over twenty five million copies worldwide, 'nevermind' is also one of the most sucessful albums of all time.

The image concept was conceived by the now immortal frontman, Kurt Cobain. It brilliantly depicts an innocent baby floating peacefully whilst being lured by a dollar on a fish hook - Cobain's not-so-subtle way of rebelling against the money grabbing executives he claimed were trying to control Nirvana's musical direction.

The cover was initially thought to be too offensive due to the baby's genitals being shown, however, Cobain argued his corner and the album was released with a sticker covering the questionable area stating 'If you're offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile'. Brilliant publicity, and a brilliant cover design.

Like the beatles cover, this image has been satirised many times, including the 1992 album 'Off The Deep End' by Weird Al Yankovic (pictured above).

Other iconic Album covers can be viewed below. They have not only boosted the fame of their artists, but have become famous in their own right. Every cover mentioned in this post is a fantastic piece of design, and excellently captures their intended artist, audience, time period and purpose.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Grafik 150 Book

To celebrate the release of its 150th issue, Grafik Magazine produced a limitted edition book. It is a follow up to the 100 book in 2002.

It only seems necessary to include this book as a great source of inspiration, as inspiration is what the book is all about. 150 Graphic Designers share their personal response to what in
spires them and what has contributed towards influencing their work. The result is an eclectic array of products, places and imagery that gives us a small insight into how the designers' minds work. The most interesting discovery in this book, is that even the most acclaimed designers are human, as some may perceive them as being very secretive about where their ideas stem and maybe knowing something we don't. Grafik 150 book proves this to be wrong, as they take their inspiration from flocks of birds to architecure and from posters to price labels - day-to-day occurances that we all have access to. There are some unusual collections in this book and it opens up a new world of design. Most of the inspiration stems from years of fascination or from collecting unusual designs/objects, which Grafik 150 now gives us the opportunity to share.

The book's design is much the same as I have described in my post on Grafik Magazine, if not even more simplified. Inside, The left page is dedicated to copy and the right to an image portraying the designer's inspirational source. Avant Garde is used through out, maintaining that 'ultra-modern' feel associated with Grafik. The cover is text only on plain stock with a variation of colours as shown in the top image. The type is gold with a coated finish and wraps around the spine, making the word 'grafik' almost illegible. The book was disappointingly small when i got it, but fairly thick for its size. Their choice of the same grade paper as the magazine does not work well for this book as the cover has quickly become bent and the book mis-shapen. Grafik 150 has a fairly poor design in my opinion, but it makes up for it in its content.

This book is by no means a page turner and should probably be read a from time to time, giving the opportunity to learn something new and inspiring. When you have a spare half hour on your hands, it helps to reignite ideas and provides plenty of inspirational sources.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Grafik Magazine

If you are looking for a diverse and interesting design magazine then Grafik is definately worthy of your attention.

Grafik is a London based, in
dependent monthly design magazine. It offers current information about the Graphic Design industry and examples from the most cutting-edge work today's designers have to offer. The free-minded editorial seeks opinions from the industry's leading experts and each month's edition contains a special report that takes a detailed look at an area related to the industry. This could be anything from the fashion to photography or from art to the design process.

Grafik has had much appraise for its design over the years as it has its content. I was originally attracted to it for its quirky layout consisting of layering, trasparency and overlapping text and image - a technique almost invented by Grafik as it went against every unwritten law of graphic design, treating its content as objects to be experimented with.

This double page spread is a typical example of how it looked. Grafik editor, Caroline Roberts said that "designing magazines for designers is a tricky thing to do". Generally, this is true so design magazines treat their content very carefully, as they do not want the presentation to overwhelm the work. Grafik went completely against this thesis, which contributed to its international respect and popularity.

This was before its recent redesign by SEA that takes on a far different approach. Today, experimental layouts and pushing boundaries and limits in design seems to be the norm, so Grafik have pulled out their old trick and gone in completely the opposite direction with their new design. This is an aspect about Grafik Magazine that I respect and has encouraged me to subscribe.

Although I have read a lot of criticism about the new design, I do not agree with the opinion that it is 'too plain'. The image at the top of the page shows a typical front cover to the new design. These designs in particular are from the April 2007 editition. You may be wondering why they are both different? This is because, to celebrate their 150th issue, each cover for this edition was individually screen printed by hand in London by K2 Screen, making each copy uniquely beautiful and a great addition to the collection. Typically, the front cover of Grafik is type only. The identity is split in half and rotated, but maintains its legibility giving it a strange appeal and is usually accompanied by an arrangemen
t of type. The type-only cover seems to be a main concern by the 'old design' fans. Personally, I love the covers and suggest that whoever is unhappy with them should turn the magazine over and study the imagery on the back. Incidently, Grafik seems to be a magazine with a conscience that listens to its customers concerns, as the June 2007 edition features a dramatic portrait on its cover, putting an end to the danger of their covers becoming too 'samey'. The next series of covers will also follow suit, featuring the designers that they are profiling each month, shot by photographer Lee Funnell.

Almost every aspect of the new Grafik Magazine appeals to me and gives me ideas that i can incorporate into my own work. For instance, you only need to pick a copy up to realise that it is unique. Their choice of thick, matte pages gives it a distict feel of quality. This gives a sense of pride to own the magazine, as you turn the pages as carefully as you would an expensive book. Open it up and you can smell the freshly printed pages, as if they were hot off the press. These are qualities I have yet to encounter with another magazine.

This is a typical double page spread from the March 2007 edition. The layout has changed dramatically from the old design and has been created to be more streamlined and simple. This is yet another point the critics pick up on. The new Grafik sees the end of the Lubalin typeface and makes way for Avant Garde, which is used for all headlines and copy - a typeface predominantly reserved for one off logos or posters. This gives Grafik a tremendously modern feel, however, critics tend to think that it is too harsh on the eyes and 'nearly illegible' as a copy face. Personally, I think it adds to the new character of the magazine and supports the ethos of going against convention. This will hopefully give designers the confidence to take a risk and not just produce what is expected.

Grafik Magazine is at the cutting edge of graphic design and showcases some of the best work around the globe, sourced by Grafik and delivered in a suberb fashion. Grafik is an essential reference for all designers looking to stay informed and inspired.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks

After hearing much appraise for this book, I decided to pick it up for myself, and to my surprise, I'm pleased I did. The most important thing to note before reading this book, is that it is not just another war epic, but a powerfully evocative tale that is compact with emotion and vivid descriptions of life and death, but not as we know it.

The first chapter opens in 1910, when twenty year old, Stephen Wraysford is sent to Amiens to find out what he can about the french textile industry. He finds himself obsessed with his host's wife, Isabelle and they have a passionate affair. Eventually, she and Stephen run away from Amiens together, but after discovering her pregnancy, Isabelle leaves Stephen for her old life. It is six years later when Stephen finds himself back in Amiens, but this time fighting for the British army as an officer who possesses an unbreakable determination to survive.

Faulks vividly depicts his characters and their lives that have been disrupted by the turmoil of WWI. He writes between two eras simultaneously to put the horrendous events of the war into perspective: Stephen's life in Amiens and on the front line, and 60 years after the war, his granddaughter, Elizabeth reads his diaries to try and understand her grandfather and the hardship he went through on the frontline.

Birdsong is mind-stirring and thought provoking. It is admirable how much research was done in creating this intriguing story based on facts and the effects of war. Although the events in this book seem so removed from reality, they are probably not far different from the conflicts of today, making it all the more intriguing. Birdsong sheds a unique insight into the past, and provides interesting facts about the war, such as the role of the miners and the dangers they encountered, making it eductational as well as enjoyable.

There are several book jacket designs for this novel, presumably, a new one for each edition. This is the design that featured on the copy I read. It employs a starkly simple technique of silhouette imagery and a limited colour palette.

Although it is advised not to read a book by its cover, from a designers perspective, the design on the front should conjure the same atmosphere and emotion as the text inside. This is achieved quite nicely, but even more so in the alternative design on the audio book and previous edition of the novel. The soldier's composure over the make-shift grave instantly grabs the attention of the viewer. There is an aire of mystery surrounding this figure as he has no features and no expression, but his grief and weariness can be felt through the powerful emotion evoked by the scene. The cloudy, duo tone sky creates a moody backdrop to the silhouette image of the soldier.

The type does not work so well on the featured book jacket as its
sheer size seems to overpower the effectiveness of the image, however, the delicate typeface used on the audio CD cover complements the silhouette. The Author's name is too large though and may work better at a smaller size.

Faulks is best known for his contribution to journalism, leaving teaching to become a reporter for the Daily Telegraph and later, Literary Editor for The Independent then Deputy Editor for the Independent on Sunday. In 1991, he left to concentrate on writing. Birdsong is his fourth novel, written in 1993, which shares links through location history and minor character with The Girl at the Lion D'Or (1989) and Charlotte Grey (1998).