When art director Derry Noyes began the Great Film Directors project, she faced a dilemma: Should the four designs feature the faces of these Hollywood legends or scenes from the films that made them famous?
“Often I will sacrifice a portrait for what the person did, especially when it’s an artist,” Noyes says, citing Pioneers of American Industrial Design and Romare Bearden as examples. “People want to see what they made more than what they look like.” For this issuance, though, Noyes didn’t want to choose between the directors and their films. So she called on Gary Kelley, with whom she had collaborated on the 2010 Black Heritage stamp honoring pioneering filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.
“We could have just shown a scene, instead of a portrait,” she explains, “but because of Gary’s style and his mastery of portraiture, we wanted to have both. It is risky, since it’s such a small space and so much is going on visually — a portrait, the scene’s action, and all the type as well.”
Kelley is widely known for the large murals he created for Barnes & Noble stores across the country. But no matter the scale of the project, he says, the initial stage is the same. “It all starts with me sitting at my drafting board, drawing a proportionate rectangle on a piece of tracing paper, and finding out how everything fits within it.”
Kelley tackled the John Ford design first. He clearly remembers seeing The Searchers in the theater when he was boy. “Right away, I thought, 'The ending scene — when John Wayne walks out the door — has got to be the image on the stamp,'” Kelley recounts. “It’s iconic, and it’s great compositionally. The dark interior is a perfect way to frame the portrait. It all just fell into place.”
Deciding the composition of the Billy Wilder stamp was also pretty straightforward. “The hotel was a big part of Some Like It Hot," he says. "It was almost a character in itself. And that gave me my horizontal element.” Kelley cropped the Marilyn Monroe likeness at top and bottom to create a visual break between the portrait and the hotel.
Although the ideas for Ford and Wilder came easily, the illustrations for Frank Capra and John Huston were more difficult. “The most memorable scenes in Capra’s It Happened One Night are when a blanket is hung between the beds, but I was asked to show the hitchhiking scene,” explains Kelley. “Two figures by a fence in broad daylight along a country road — that’s a challenge compositionally to fit with a portrait. I didn’t want to make it look like Capra was standing in front of them or across the road.”
The Huston design originally featured a different film, but Kelley was asked to change directions and showcase a scene from The Maltese Falcon. He quickly came up with a composition that he liked: slanted light coming into a dark interior and a shadowy figure holding a statuette — very film noir. “Huston’s was my favorite face to do of the four because it has so much character,” Kelley adds.
As he worked, Kelley was aware that the scenes needed to be easily recognized. “That’s a challenge,” he says, “because I want to do an image that people haven’t seen a hundred times before. And I want to do an image that will not only satisfy the Postal Service, but also be respected by my peers — other illustrators. We want our friends in the business to look at our work and say, ‘That’s a pretty cool piece.’ At the same time, we want someone who doesn’t know anything about the process to look at it and understand it.
“That’s the tightrope we illustrators walk. And I embrace that challenge.”
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