-By Greg Ruth

So I was recently asked to take on a last minute rush job for Criterion for a forthcoming DVD/Blu Ray release of the Michael Curtiz film, BREAKING POINT. Last minute rush pants-on-fire gigs are pretty common in my orbit. True for most of us I suspect. Typically Eric Skillman will get in touch about taking on a film, (I’ve done a few to date). The usual rub is I’ll get a dvd of the pre-attended-to film if it hasn’t already been made beautiful through the Criterionomatron (Their film restoration process is not called this but it should be, just saying), and I’ll sit down and watch it with a sketchpad at the ready to mark time notes for particular scenes or imagery through which to find a cover and or interior illustrations that might be needed. I work up some proposed thumbnail ideas, we pick and choose and hone down things, execute the drawing and go through another round of approvals, go to finish and repeat and repeat until we’re done.

This time however, I had a mere 2 or so working days to take this on, given the other obligations already on the table for the week- insane by any account, but also this time, much of the deciding had been decided upon already. (I got the call to deal with this issue on a Tuesday and it was due the following Monday). But I don’t say no to a challenege if I think I can meet it, and try never to say no to Eric because, well, I love the work so much it’s always a pleasure to tackle, even when it’s nutburger like this. To be fair to him and everyone at Criterion, this is highly unusual. They almost always allow for a proper amount of time to take on a piece, and even when it’s a rush job as A Touch of Zen and Dragon Inn were, they have never been THIS rushed. But I kind of got my start doing a rush fill in gig back for the Matrix Comics and have been relied upon to do this same dance for others ever since. There’s far worse reputations to have in this business than being Johnny-On-The-Spot when needed. The trick of garnering and maintaining this rep is not only to say yes when someone comes with their head aflame, it’s delivering what they need at a quality that they would ideally like to see if they had more time to give you. Whatever rush fee gets tacked on to your commission for taking this on, and there always should be one, the real dividend here is the relationship. I’ve worked for Criterion for a while now, I consider Eric a friend and I adore the work they do for the history of film. S0 this was a no-brainer.

Alright. Essentially they had chosen a cover image from a screen capture of the film, worked up the title treatment etc, gotten it approved and then when coming in the next day to show to others, some confusion took hold and threw the entire process into question.The issue after thinking they were ready to go, turns out to be both the obscurity of what’s going on in our captain’s hands and his partner-in-crime’s hard to rerad gun and arm. Many thought he was pushing a broom, or didn’t know what it was. At that point it really doesn’t matter. One of the most important and primary rules in cover work is: if you’re explaining it, you’ve already lost them, and the work is a fail. Covers should be immediate and direct. This is not to say they all need be bright simple and bold, but they need and MUST be clear as to what they are doing. If the issuance of the story and through the cover is a question, that then can be made to work and the rule is suspended. (ALL rules have exceptions. We live in a complex universe of variables and simply put… shit happens). So in an understandable panic Eric rang me with the crazy idea of fixing this by drawing it.

Now for those of you, like me who have a particular thing in doing cover work where the publisher often chooses a much cheaper stock footage photo comp for their cover instead of hiring an artist to execute one themselves, this came as a particularly sweet moment of vindication. While I get that sometimes the budget for a book or film lacks the funds to pay an artist a going rate, this use of photo comps is often just used for simplicity and saving bucks on their end. There are times when this makes perfect sense, and in the case of Criterion in general, it does given what magicks they display by using screen grabs of the films they cover. However, for one plagues by this occasionally in other areas, this was a mighty opportunity to put on display exactly why having an artist on hand is a superior and worthwhile choice.He showed me the cover they had, pointed out what they were bothered by and requested i essentially duplicate it in graphite and use that opportunity to compose and draw the thing to make it clearer and more effective as a cover for the dvd/blu ray release. The not so cool was that at this stage, having only a handful of days before the announcement, and having already gone through the approvals… this cover was locked as an image. There would be none of the usual seeking the image in the film, or composing/inventing I particularly like to do for these. It was a straight shot, copy job and left only the technical needs as a place of invention. Cool because an interesting puzzle to solve for me personally, AND getting the opportunity to use my “depth of field” drawing technique in the field by blur-drawing the foreground info.

So. Eric sent over a few stills from the film by request, and the original hi def screen grab of the scene they wanted. My job was to take that image, and duplicate it while fixing it. The foreground fellow had to be redrawn entirely, blurry but not so much it wasn’t clear he was holding a rifle downward. The cap’n needed to have obvious money in his hands a counting and I thought some extra cash on the table would help as well as clarifying the windshield of the boat so it didn’t look like a wall.

Because detail was so important here, I went ahead with a large 13″ x 19″ scale drawing of the image. (Sorry I didn’t have a chance to stop and take progress pics- that would have been ideal, but this deadline was simply too insane for that business). But as you can see by the photo here, I’ve taken to reversing the trigger hand so we get a defined sense of the gun and man’s grip. Left much of the bottom as balck as I could since happily I had a finished title treatment I could respond to, and tackled the rest of the necessities in the drawing. The blurring thing is always wacky on the eyes and usually I come and go with a piece to save myself from the headache and trippy eye-kimbo that happens, but again… terrible unforgiving deadline said no. But this section of the drawing is where all the action is, so it needed to be perfect: look as close to the original screen grab so as not to require further approvals, and change what needed changing without also triggering said new approvals. Even so… you can see the arm is a bit goofy with relation to his body- essentially requiring him to have his should be just above his butt. I also needed to add some clouds or indication of beyond the windshield… tricky because too much would make it bust- so seagulls and the moon say, were out. Time again was the enemy so I had to commit to the rest of the drawing and look to fixing that arm/shoulder thing in photoshop. Some lighting changes, depth of field enhancements and dragged in spot drawinsg to make it work came into the play and in the end we had what we needed to go:

The weird thing is, if I did my job right, no one would notice what we did or needed to do. Sure I made little errors and obvious drawing areas so that if you looked you could see it was not a photo but a drawing. Otherwise my job was to do what no photo cap could accomplish and so having done so I graciously step aside and let them go forward. I’m glad I had time to take this on, and again a personal moment of victory over photo covers was the perfect medicine right now. In the roiling sea of freelance pitching between feast and famine, it’s hard to make and maintain room for these unexpected assignments, but it truly is something to keep in mind. I have an easy out in my ongoing 52 Weeks Project drawing series where I always now front load a piece or two to act as buffer should something like this occur, or I break my arm or the police finally find all the bodies I have been burying in my backyard. You never know what life will throw at you but it can be essential to your future self to make your present self available to them. They’ll never take the shape you expect but they always seem to yield enormous lessons.

In any case, this is a really fun noir crime yarn to take on and as always I am thrilled for the opportunity. If you’d like to preorder the film directly from Criterion, please steer your crime-boat to this placid port, HERE.