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“The Art of John Alvin” Captures Lost Art of Movie Poster Magic

John Alvin changed the way that a generation and an industry looked at film. It sounds like hyperbole, but so many of the iconic images that I associate with the films of my youth may have been traced by the filmmakers but were inked by Alvin. A true artist, the most important movie poster designer of the ‘70s and ‘80s took the visuals of the industry and turned them into art. When I was a teenager, I actually collected movie posters, framed and hung on my wall, and I believe that Alvin’s approach to the form greatly influenced my love of movies. This wasn’t advertising, it was art—an extension of the art of filmmaking in the way it distilled the essence of a story down to imagery.

The raucous lunacy promised by the posters for “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein.” The iconic connection in the center of the poster for “E.T.” The way the artwork for “Blade Runner” blended noir and a vision of the future. The lyrical beauty of the posters of the ‘90s Disney renaissance. Even just the perfect simplicity of “Jurassic Park.” John Alvin was an artist and a new book about his work, “The Art of John Alvin,” is a must-own for fans of the lost art of the movie poster.

The Art of John Alvin,” available today, is a coffee table book with some incredible archival material, including sketches for posters that never saw the light of the multiplex, and the stories behind Alvin’s most important works courtesy of his widow, Andrea Alvin. The book is filled with amazing behind-the-scenes stories of how some of our most iconic film posters came to be, but, as you might expect, is heavier on large reprints than text. It’s a picture book for a visual artist, and it’s a great one.

John Alvin was a young freelance artist, a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in L.A., when he was asked to create a poster for a new comedy on spec. The comedy was “Blazing Saddles,” arguably the best of all time, and Alvin’s art would become not just closely associated with the film—many ‘70s film posters have been replaced on subsequent VHS/DVD/Blu-ray covers but not this one—but remarkably influential. It launched a career, helped push Brooks’ work to the center (he would instantly hire him to do “Young Frankenstein” as well), and made clear that movie posters could have a life and artistry of their own. Alvin, as she does with most of the key works of her late husband’s career, details the process that led to the “Blazing Saddles” poster, noting her contribution to the work and even detailing the process—he painted it on a 30 x 40 illustration board.

John Alvin took the energy of that “Blazing Saddles” poster and ran with it. His career includes the amazing work for “Phantom of the Paradise,” “Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi” (and you’ll see sketch work on the legendary “Revenge of the Jedi” posters in the book), and “Blade Runner.” The next huge leap forward would come with “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” in 1982, and it’s clearly the work that Andrea Alvin considers essential to her husband’s work, devoting the cover and ten pages to it, including early designs and sketch work. According to the author, John Alvin was so involved in the art for “E.T.” that he was there working on it back when it was called “A Boy’s Life” and still filming. She even argues he influenced the final product. It feels almost impossible today to have a visual poster artist that closely tied to a major film as now posters and marketing are seen not as art but ways to push product. Great trivia—perhaps the reason that John focused so heavily on E.T.’s hand in the poster is because that’s all he had been allowed to see during the top-secret production. 

More ‘80s classics would pile up—“The Goonies,” “Short Circuit,” “Legend,” “The Golden Child,” “The Lost Boys,” “Empire of the Sun.” Some of the most interesting behind-the-scenes details come during the production of Tim Burton’s “Batman.” As fans will remember, the art for that film was kind of uninspired, focusing mostly on the Bat symbol, which even Burton didn’t like, apparently (people complained it looked like a mouth). Alvin designed some incredible work that never made it through the process but is available here (and he'd get the chance again on "Batman Returns"). On a similar note, a later chapter in the book offers dozens of unused “Jurassic Park” posters, half of which would be the most interesting poster of the year were they in theaters this Summer. Pardon my cynicism but “The Art of John Alvin” makes the “Floating Head” approach to marketing in the ‘10s even more dispiriting.

Finally, there’s the undeniable fact that John Alvin played a role in the childhood of millions. When Disney was looking to change its image and revolutionize its animation house, they needed art that would stretch their demographic. How can we sell this animated film to adults? Alvins’ work on “Beauty & the Beast,” “The Lion King,” and “Aladdin” did just that, selling these works not as cartoons but as art. The quality of the filmmaking was essential but people needed to get into theaters to see the films and Alvin helped make that happen. He played such an essential part of that process, one that led to the domination of animated films today. John Alvin may not be around to have that influence any more but it still resonates. And one hopes that studios, producers, marketers, and artists pick up “The Art of John Alvin” and remember a time when movie posters weren’t just ways to sell movies but complements to them.

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