Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Deadly Reflections: Creating The Cover

When it came time to find an artist to do the cover, I turned to my good friend Patrick Mattox. Not only is he an excellent artist, he’s also got great design sense and a drive to make things perfect. We hadn’t collaborated on anything since we were in middle school, trading comic book pages back and forth. Since then he has honed his craft while I—realizing I would never be even passable with a pen & ink or a brush—switched mediums, turning to prose. I always hoped our artistic endeavors would cross again, and I am delighted that he is involved with my first major work. The cover ended up looking fantastic—I think he did a masterful job.

Just like the book itself, the cover was the result of a lot of hard work. There were months of e-mail discussions, countless mockups, and a complete change of direction halfway through. Now that the book has been released, I thought it’d be interesting to have a casual conversation with Patrick about the process of making the cover and share some of the alternate concepts that were developed before the final version was settled upon. The following discussion should be informative to anyone interested in how the cover was made. Enjoy.

DHS: Hey Pat. Why don’t you introduce yourself first.

PM: Hi everyone. My name’s Patrick Mattox, I’m a graphic artist and designer. Most of my energy is devoted to sequential art, otherwise known as comics, but I do occasional design work for app companies and also for local businesses. And I suppose I also do book covers now, too.

DHS: Had you ever done a cover for a book before?

PM: Never. Deadly Reflections is my first one.

DHS: What were some of your initial ideas about the cover?
PM: Well, we started talking about the project while you were writing the book. I read the screenplay [the book is based on] to get the feel of the story down. But you had very concrete ideas from the outset about what you wanted the cover to look like, so my initial stabs at it were just trying to fulfill your vision of what you wanted.

DHS: I think I had in my head this idea of like an old horror movie poster or something, something with a nubile young girl looking in a vanity mirror with this monster looming behind her.

PM: I immediately grasped what you were going for. Like you said, it would’ve been like the ads for movies like Friday the 13th, or even the campier ones like Chucky or Leprechaun. I also thought of those old teenage horror books I used to read by guys like Christopher Pike.

DHS: We quickly abandoned that idea.

PM: Well, the problem was that to do a design like that effectively, I felt like it couldn’t be done with anything except paints, or watercolors, specifically. To achieve that classic atmospheric imagery you really need a nice, smeary gouache. And, well, my painting skills aren’t the best, to put it bluntly. (laughs) So if that was definitely what you wanted, I would’ve suggested you get a different artist.

DHS: I think I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted. I knew that the classic imagery you’re talking about has always been effective and I think I wanted to tap into that a little. But I think I realized two things: 1—that the line between it being genuinely chilling or laughable camp was awfully thin and it would’ve been an incredibly slippery slope. And, more importantly, 2—I realized that while the screenplay had some incredibly campy moments (it was probably way more of an homage to that sort of bad teen slasher flick), the book’s story didn’t have as many of those elements in it. It was a little more serious, so that cover would’ve been totally inappropriate.

PM: Having had a chance to read the entire book, I agree wholeheartedly. I’m glad you didn’t pursue that initial inclination, even with an artist that would’ve made it look really good as a piece of art, while being not so much a fitting cover for your book.

DHS: Let’s talk about fonts for a second. Regardless of what the cover of the book was ultimately going to be, I remember you wanted to design the font of the title.
PM: We talked about wanting the title to “fit” into the cover image somehow and be inseparable from the image. I have an interest in typography and felt this would be a good project to stretch those creative muscles. But after some fiddling around, I decided that established typefaces would give us a lot more flexibility, especially with the overall design being in flux for a majority of the time we were working on it. 

DHS: After doing away with the campy horror movie version of the cover, we went for a more minimalistic look to the whole thing.
PM: I was showing you a lot of samples of other books in the genre and we both agreed that a less direct, more suggestive rendering was the right direction to go in. The question became: What one image from the story could be used to represent the book? I thought the recurring glowing red eyes that keep popping up in mirrors throughout the book would make for a striking image, so I started to do a lot of mockups incorporating that element. Having the glass of the mirror be cracked or shattered seemed to strike the right metaphoric note as well. There were also a few attempts to include the chest that is imprisoning this murderous creature. I think that might’ve been extremely effective if we had decided to go in that direction…it’s so evocative and creepy, and of course everyone would wonder, “What’s inside this box?”

DHS: When did the breakthrough of deciding to use a single mirror with a frame come?
PM: I was creating all of these jagged images—shards of glass, broken pieces, mirrors that were intricately cracked. After looking over everything, I realized that the most effective designs were the most basic. Instead of making everything really messy and chaotic, having one framed mirror—or part of one—struck me as interesting. I was taking my cue from one of the nightmares the old man has in the book, where he approaches an ornate mirror. The mirror could still be shattered, but the solid frame would provide an intriguing juxtaposition. After you signed off on this approach, I did a bunch of sketches to determine the layout of the cover and help us decide how much and which part of the mirror would be in the image.
DHS: We eventually settled on the bottom left of the mirror.

PM: Yes. I believe the thinking was that this way the top frame of the mirror wouldn’t overlap the title in a distracting way, and with the title presumably being in the mirror part of the image, we could potentially fracture the typeface in interesting ways if we wanted to. Once we settled on the composition, all that remained was burnishing the mirror and frame, adding as many design elements to it as I could, making it look as interesting as possible. At least, I thought that was all that remained for me to do. (laughs)

DHS: We got as far as picking fonts for the final “locked” version of the cover when you decided we needed a complete overhaul of the whole thing.

PM: After taking a long, hard look at what was supposed to be the final product, I decided it wasn’t working. While the concept was sound, the art wasn’t evoking the right mood. On impulse, I grabbed my digital camera, dug some stuff out of my garage, and starting shooting these scenes with a mirror in them, both exterior and interior. It became immediately clear that this was resulting in superior imagery. I sent these photographic sketches to you and you quickly agreed with me. The deadline for the final cover was rapidly approaching, but you had the courage to say, “Stop working on the other one, do more stuff in this direction.” It was basically starting over from scratch, which was frustrating, scary, and exciting, all at once.

DHS: I really like some of the pictures you took, even though we didn’t use them. I especially like the ones you digitally manipulated.
PM: I was lucky that it was a time of year when you could find certain areas of the woods that still possessed that very sad and ominous autumn feel. A lot of the pictures required no tweaking whatsoever. But a few of the images required a little push in some way. For example, I took some interior shots of a mullioned mirror in near pitch-darkness. Using GIMP (a powerful graphics editor) I turned up the brightness on these images but also ramped up the contrast in order to keep the blacks solid, and it resulted in this fascinating image in which the frame and crossbars of the mirror are ghostly white, appearing to almost glow. On one of the exterior shots, I liked everything about it except I accidentally caught a bit of blue sky in the mirror, which seemed out of place for the cover of this book. So I manipulated the palette of the image, squeezing out most of the color while managing to retain the visibility of the frame, giving it a cold, deathly cast…it almost looks like it’s made of bone. Also, I like in this image how the trees are all black against a stark white sky and the branches look like paint spatters, making it look like a Jackson Pollock painting. It was a fascinating and fun process. It was interesting that what I thought we needed all along—a shattered mirror—turned out not to be necessary. I took a few pictures with a broken mirror and it never looked right. But for the most part I was getting good results, which was really gratifying.

DHS: Did you immediately know what you had when you took the picture that would be used for the final cover?

PM: It was definitely not the last picture I took that day. There was no hopping up and down, shouting, “This is it!” (laughs) In fact, it required a fair amount of imagination to realize there was something special in that image because it was taken in this bright, green, verdant field. But when I got home and loaded all the pictures I had taken that day, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. Something about the composition spoke to me…the way the mirror was covered with the grass and leaves was just perfect. It seemed half buried in the earth, half trying to escape out into the world. It became impossible to dismiss. So I set about doing the massive digital alterations that were required to make it a viable cover image. At one point I applied a red tint to the entire image. That looked ok, but it verged on entering that campy territory we had talked about wanting to avoid. It took a few weeks, but to make a truly long story short, I arrived at what we know today as the cover of Deadly Reflections.
DHS: The one last thing we’ll talk about is the last thing that was settled on: the title font.
PM: That was a case of coming almost full circle. I experimented with fracturing the title but it never looked right. I went back to a font I had used in some of the earliest designs and used it for the “Reflections” part of the title. I always liked it because I felt it evoked an old or ancient quality, which was part of what I felt The Terror embodied—an ancient evil. The “Deadly” part of the title is in a stately, seriffed typeface. The juxtaposition was interesting and I thought it would subliminally suggest the modernity of the people in the story clashing with this ancient monster.
DHS: Pat, thank you for taking the time to discuss how the cover was created. I think it’s a work of art and I can’t wait to work with you again.
PM: Thank you for the wonderful opportunity to do the cover to your first book, which I think is amazing. I’m honored to be the cover artist, and it’d be my pleasure to do the cover of your second book.

UPDATE 11/01/12:

DHS: So Pat, how did this cover evolve?

PM: Well, you had some mandates right off the bat for the second cover. One: you wanted to fracture the text somehow. Two: you wanted the overall design to be less austere than the first cover, a little more adventurous.

DHS: Yes, I wanted to get back to some of the original ideas for the cover that we discarded, like fracturing the text. I really felt that doing that would subtly convey some of what happens in book, as well as represent its thematic concerns, if I could be a little highfalutin here.

PM: You also wanted it to be more bright somehow…basically everything the first cover was not.

DHS: Don’t get me wrong, I love the first cover. I think it worked well as an introduction for Deadly Reflections. It has a very classic look and a timeless quality, like a hardcover that’s been on the shelf forever. But I thought with the book being out for close to a year and being put in front of tens of thousands of readers, there was enough of a familiarity about the book that we could get a little more wild with the “paperback” release.

PM: This is often the case with traditional publishing: the hardcover will have an iconic, prim, staid look and the paperback will be more experimental and audacious.

DHS: Exactly. That’s what I wanted for Deadly Reflections.

PM: So pretty early in the process, we decided to go with photography again. But the question became what to photograph.

DHS: I initially thought we could do something with broken glass….

PM: Which turned out to be a dead end. Well, not so much a dead end as an infinite road spiraling endlessly into the horizon. There were just too many options and variables with broken glass. We could fiddle with images for the next three years, literally.

DHS: It helped that I didn’t really respond to any of the pics you took. But we were saved one day when I spotted this crystal container on your desk.

PM: It’s this thing I’ve had forever that I keep odds and ends in: notes, erasers, just everything. I’d ceased really seeing this thing that had been a fixture on my desk for a long time, but when you pointed it out I began to see the possibilities. There were all sorts of interesting angles and bevels in it that I could tell would refract light in interesting ways. So I began to shoot it, over and over.

DHS: I must have seen at least 200 photos of this thing.

PM: At a certain point I started working exclusively with its removable top. I seemed to be getting the best results with just this one piece.

DHS: I loved how it looked almost like a cage at times. It’s nothing like the box that contained the monster in the book, but it’s almost suggestive of it somehow.

PM: So from there we nailed down the design. The cover would be divided into thirds, with the top part devoted to the blurb, the middle reserved for the title, and the bottom having the author’s name. There’s a spotlight or shadow image playing over the entire cover, but the picture containing the title is overlaid on it in a very blunt way, which made for clear demarcations between the thirds. This is a very modern look, something you see on a lot of covers these days, though it’s something I wouldn’t automatically gravitate toward. But for this one I was perfectly happy to tap into my inner Chip Kidd. (laughs)

DHS: I was basically happy with whatever you were doing. After a few weeks, we had it narrowed down to three equally compelling covers.

PM: They offered you three very distinct choices. One played more with shadows, one played more with light, and one was a little off the grid and weird, which is of course the one you chose.

DHS: Well, it was a hard decision. I went back and forth many, many times. The shadowy one was the cleanest design and would’ve been an unimpeachable choice. But that rebel part of me kept saying I would be artistically spineless if I chose what I couldn’t help thinking of as the “safe” cover. After all, didn’t I want something completely different than the first cover?

PM: The new cover is definitely that.

DHS: There’s no doubt that it was the most daring choice, but the more rational part of me was asking whether it was the right choice. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of thinking something is better just because it’s riskier. I have to say, I’m still not sure if I made the right decision.

PM: Well that’s what’s simultaneously great and awful about this thing we call “art”: there are no right answers. You just go with your instincts and hope for the best.

DHS: I really do love the cover, how the light looks almost ghostly and how the reversed “e” is this really lurid red. It’s creepy, and in a completely different way than the first cover was.

PM: I’m pretty happy with it, too.

DHS: It’s a great cover, Pat. I hope we can do this again someday.

PM: It’d be my pleasure, as always.

1 comment:

  1. You certainly put a tremendous amount of work into the cover. Good luck! It sounds like a unique concept for a story!