A Look At John’s Iconic Movie Poster Art from Titan Books and an Interview with Andrea Alvin
There was a time, when a trip to the theater was a magical event, and made for a real evening out. The marquee all lit up, the smell of the popcorn, and most importantly of all, the big, beautiful lobby posters. These painted masterpieces were hung with pride up front for everyone to see. They were handcrafted by master artisans, true craftsmen, and they were the epicenter of the theater lobby experience. Of all the painters to ever create movie posters, none conveyed the spectacle and mysticism of film quite as well as John Alvin. You’ve probably never heard of him, and that’s ok, because you’ve definitely seen his work, and you certainly remember it fondly.
Look through your movie collection. If you’re anything like me, then you will come across at least a dozen films that John has either done the poster art or box art. For those of you a little too young to remember, there used to be these things called VCRs, and they played things called VHSs, and they came in boxes that had original art made specifically for them. John was one of the all-time masters at his craft, and his art is truly timeless. Whether it be almost every Disney movie form the late 80’s/early 90’s, Star Wars and Star Trek, or just about any Ridley Scott movie ever made, John worked on the poster art.
Titan Books has compiled a vast collection of John’s best and most formative work, everything from the conceptual art, to the process pieces, to the final product. This is truly a look into the man behind the art, and the path he took to bring some of the most iconic film images to life. Never have I come across a more extensive, or through portfolio in one book. With a forward by Jeffrey Katzenberg, a Disney executive during John’s time with them, and an absolutely touching afterword by Alvin’s daughter, Farah, this book gives you a look at what John was like as a man, as well as an artist.
Unfortunately, John passed away in 2008, but his art and his genius, will live on forever. I had the supreme honor of being able to interview Andrea Alvin, John’s widow and the author of this book. Here’s what she had to tell about his art, his life, and his legacy.
Stephen: “Where did John get his start in movie posters? What was his first poster?”
Andrea: John had been working with a graphic designer/art director named Anthony Goldschmidt. They had done a couple of play posters together for events in the Los Angeles area. Goldschmidt had been working on title designs for Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles and had come to find out that Brooks was very unhappy with the poster art and concepts that were being shown to him. John and Anthony decided to take a chance and create a poster on spec, without being hired for the movie. The rest is history. Mel Brooks loved the poster and the day after John turned it in, it was posted all over Los Angeles. His career took off from that day forward.
SP: “What can you tell me about John’s art background? What did he study, and where?”
AA: I am told that as a child John was always drawing and painting. He was enamoured with movies like the Vikings, and 20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and would come home from the theatre and paint scenes from the films. His mother saved these, and I now have them. They are very good and it is quite interesting that, film art became his career path. John’s formal art education was at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. The school is now located in Pasadena, and was known at the time, for turning out top illustration graduates like Bob Peak and Bernie Fuchs, Mark English and of course John Alvin. I was also a graduate of Art Center and that is how John and I met.
SP: “I hear you had a little something to do with his ‘Blazing Saddles’ poster. Tell me more about that.”
AA: I was included in the brainstorming sessions developing ideas for the Blazing Saddle poster. There are many little visual jokes throughout the art and we were coming up with as many as we could. Two significant contributions were mine. They wanted to have Mel in an Indian head-dress behind the rearing horse. I suggested an Indian head nickel and the words, “Hi. I’m Mel, Trust me.” We thought he should have Hebrew lettering on his head-dress and I came up with the idea that it should say, “Kosher for Passover.” Sometimes the idea works and in this case it did. Those two jokes seemed to resonate with many people.
SP: “What is your favorite poster that John ever did? What makes it special to you?”
AA: Although I love many of his posters for different reasons, I would have to say my favorite is ET because there are some personal connections to our life. The image is so iconic and John’s has captured the magic of the moment. He used our daughter Farah’s hand as his final model for Eliot’s hand. None of us had any idea how huge the movie would be, and the image was everywhere! Years later we moved to a new house and it turned out to be ET’s neighborhood and our street was used in the film. Farah’s hand, and living in ET’s neighborhood make it very special to me.
SP: “Did John have any artistic influences? Anyone he really admired?”
AA: One of his influences was an illustrator named N.C. Wyeth. He is the eldest of the Wyeth artists and father to Andrew and grandfather to Jamie. N.C. was a great storyteller who would draw you into his painting with his dramatic use of light and shadow and his compositions. Another great illustrator who had strong storytelling abilities was Norman Rockwell. I believe that both artists’ ability to draw viewers into the art were a great influence on John. He also loved to draw like Alphonse Mucha, the art nouveaux artist. John’s lyrical renditions of smoke are drawn from Mucha.
SP: “Was there always a special connection to movies with John?”
AA: John’s father was a career Army man and the family moved nearly every year or more of his childhood. I think the movies were a great escape and an outlet for his vivid imagination. As I said earlier, he would see a film or look at the ads in the paper, and make his own paintings of the films. When I was working with John, we would play while we were working. They became so familiar that we didn’t need to look at them anymore, but just listened while we worked. The Godfather saga, Star Wars and lots of screw ball comedies were his favorites.
SP: “What can you tell me about his process? How did he create such iconic images?”
AA: John was usually involved in the development of the poster concept. It was his goal to create “the promise of a great experience” in one still image…to find the elements that conveyed the heart and soul of the film. He was then able to express that emotional element with his use of color and atmosphere. He put a lot of thought into creating an image. It began with concept sessions where we would throw out all kinds of ideas; lists of all the elements that the movie suggested to us, and small thumbnails on yellow legal pads of visual ideas. This was the first step in the development of a poster that had relevance to the film’s content.
SP: “What is your fondest memory of John?”
AA: Having been married to John for 37 years, there are so many personal memories that I couldn’t really pick one.However, as for a moment in John’s career, I believe that this one stands out. John completed the art for Blazing Saddles late in the evening, delivered it and came home for a much-needed night’s sleep. We were awakened early the next morning by a friend who lived in the Hollywood area. “You need to come down here right away!” he said. “Your art is all over the place!” We drove down and there were Blazing Saddles posters everywhere. They were “wild posted” on telephone poles, construction walls, building sides, and billboards. It was a totally illegal tactic, but successful. Nearly every poster was torn, as people were trying to take them home. We were so excited we forgot to bring a camera. It lives on only in my mind.
SP: “If you could have people know one thing about the man behind the art, what would it be?”
AA: John was a very likable man with a wonderful sense of humor. He was honest and loyal, sometimes to a fault. He referred to himself a “Boy Scout.” John was very generous with his time when a young artist or student would come to him for advice. He would spend hours talking with them and mentoring them. He felt that creative young people are always hearing negative comments about aspiring to a career in the arts, and he might be one of the few encouraging voices in their lives. He could show himself as an example of someone who was dedicated to perfecting his craft, and making a living doing it.
Purchase The Art of John Alvin from Titan Books.