Updated: May 5, 2020
Part of the process of making a film, not just a documentary but any film, is conceiving the key art, a poster that will represent the movie on a wall, on the web, at film festivals and in most official communications. The design of the poster is an essential part of the filmmaking process, and no project is ever really finished without it. Hollywood studios have creative and advertising agencies, in-house artists, art departments. I prefer doing it myself.
Growing up I watched my father at work on the design of the jackets of the LPs published by Discos Qualiton, a record label he cofounded with a handful of friends in the 60s. In those days my father would cut out strips of paper, columns of text, paintings and drawings, carefully arrange them and paste them onto a board to create the album artwork. This original would then be photographed and the resulting negative split into four basic colors and delivered to the printers. One day I woke up and Photoshop was there. I don’t know how it happened, but everything had changed. Well, not everything. The basic process remains invariable.
To conceive a poster that will represent a film, one must know and understand that film like no other and then come up with the visual elements that are needed to render the poster and other variables of the key art. There are typically four elements to consider: the artwork (basic image), the title treatment (the design of the film title as it appears everywhere), the copy line (one line synopsis), and the billing block (the portion of the poster that states who’s who on the film). The last one is the one I’m least concerned with since the documentaries I make are pretty much a one-man-band deal. I don’t usually include the copy line, although I might. I do believe the title treatment is relevant and that it should always match the title on the actual film. However, the most important element is the image that will represent the film.
Winter Dance: A Collaboration
For “Alice” I chose an actual work of art, as opposed to a still from the film. The image is a reproduction of an original oil on linen painting (19x12 inches) by Trina Sears Sternstein, a neighbor of Alice Parker in Hawley, in the western mountains of Massachusetts. I stumbled upon her work by accident. I was trying to find Alice’s house after a blizzard and there were two possible ways to get there. Both were open during the Summer, but one was closed in Winter. It was early January and I chose the wrong way. Stranded at the end of the road and mesmerized by the landscape, I pulled my camera from the bag and started to film scenes that later became a fundamental inspiration for the documentary. Unbeknownst to me, the house at that spot on the road was Trina’s home. I related the story to Alice later that day and she mentioned that Trina was a friend and an amazing artist, and that I should find out more about her work. She even showed me a postcard with the reproduction of a painting of hers, a perspective of the woods in the nearby hills of Hawley. The image was a fair depiction of the landscapes I had filmed earlier at that roadblock that not even the village plow would dare to cross. The coincidence resulted in a remarkable collaboration, and “Winter Dance” became an essential element of the key art composition of “Alice”. The collaboration between filmmaker and visual artist honors the synergy that fueled my relationship with Alice during the process of making the documentary about her, and also seems a fair tribute to her past collaborations with Emily Dickinson, Archibald MacLeish and Eudora Welty to name just a few. I often forget how meaningful these and other artistic relationships are, and how much we all have to gain when we work together. With the meticulous stroke of her brush on the cloth, Trina Sears Sternstein contributed to make our film a stronger window into the world of Alice Parker.