In the pantheon of great movie illustrators, Drew Struzan isn’t the only name to revere. The late John Alvin might not boast quite the same household name recognition – unless your household is also, say, a Tatooine moisture farm – but Hollywood’s Best Kept Secret™ has left us an astonishing array of classic designs for some of our favourite movies. His trademark handcrafted style adorned the one-sheets of E.T., Cape Fear, Blade Runner, The Goonies and many others. A new book, curated by his wife and long-time collaborator Andrea, celebrates his life and work in the movie business, from Blazing Saddles in 1974 to 1999’s Star Wars Celebration. Don your most nostalgia-tinged specs and prepare for some old-school movie magic. Oh... and Batman Forever.
One of John Alvin’s most famous designs, Blade Runner’s one-sheet had fiddly origins. A dearth of on-set stills left him using a few tiny frames of film and a magnifying glass to illustrate Harrison Ford’s Deckard. He was then left stumped by something indiscernibly off in his design. “We called another artist friend, Ron Scholefield, to look at it with us,” recalls Andrea Alvin. “The three of us regarded the painting for a long time until Ron finally said, ‘His left eye is in the wrong place.’” Errant peeper corrected, the poster met Ridley Scott’s approval and found a place in film lore. Pictured here is one his more character-focused drafts, boasting Deckard, Pris, Rachael and Roy. Not pictured here: Attack ships on fire off the Shoulder of Orion, electric sheep, unicorns.
Eddie Murphy’s greatest moment (of 1986) was promoted with Alvin's official poster that was part Lost Horizon, part To Live And Die In L.A. and, thanks to the Murphy’s funky leather cap, all fetish catalogue snap. Like much of his work, Alvin didn’t get time to doodle Murphy posing in costume so the leather jacket and folded arm pose had improvised origins. “In the early ‘90s I wore this leather jacket with big shoulders – who didn’t back then?” recalls his colleague George Androtti. “[John] had me put on the jacket, fold my arms and pose. That pose was the basis for the final pose he put Eddie Murphy in, and I was thrilled to death when I finally saw how John made it work.” That eyebrow raise and semi-smirk is pure Murph.
E.T. may not have been 100 per cent sold on the font on the teaser tagline – three million light years is a long way to travel for Comic Sans – but this design captures the awe, mystery and uplift of Steven Spielberg’s movie in one moody, purple-hued delight. It was painted by Alvin on illustration board using acrylics with brushes and airbrushing. To design that famous logo, he cut out an ‘E’ and ‘T’ from cardboard, held them a distance from the surface and sprayed through them, giving it a precision and fuzziness that encapsulates the movie. We’re calling this font Times UFOman.
This version, essentially a first draft for the official teaser, was used in a bid brochure to promote E.T. and appeared as an insight in the Hollywood trades. John Alvin had very little to go on when he painted them – not a single frame of film had been shot at that point and visual references were still thin on the ground – so this is a perfect example of his ability to tune quickly in to a director’s frequency and represent his vision with paint and brush. In fact, according to Andrea Alvin, that cut both ways. “John was told that Spielberg was inspired by the light and colours he used in the painting of the ship emerging from the clouds”, she remembers, “and that it influenced the scene in the film. I hope that’s true."
The one-time ad design graduate’s rapport with Steven Spielberg, by now three movies old, went from strength to strength with The Goonies. As was so often the case, Alvin’s work had to begin before the movie had revealed itself. In this case, he had no access to the pirate ship or gold designs so couldn’t incorporate them into his design. His answer was to draw on the spirit of Tom Sawyer and the work American illustrator N.C. Wyeth did for the covers of Scribner’s Storybooks Classics to paint Mikey, Data, Chunk and the gang on a rocky outcrop.
The film may have put the ‘ham’ into ‘Gotham’ but Alvin did his best to condense its strange charms in his illustrations, including this early sketch. He had to work with some of the strange stipulations of vying Hollywood egos, as his wife remembers. “There were five main actors, so if Val Kilmer’s Batman was shown, then the others had to be shown as well. Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones would be shown no smaller than 50 per cent of Kilmer, and Nicole Kidman and Chris O’Donnell no smaller than 50 per cent of Carrey and Jones.” It was, as Andrea Alvin understates, “a difficult job”. All that weird Arkham logic is represented here with Kilmer, Carrey and Jones doing the whole 50/25/25 thing. The Bat-Signal needs to have words with its agent.
One of our favourite unused Alvin designs, aside from begging the question ‘Why did the dinosaur cross the road?’ (answer: to eat the other side), this witty effort shows just one of the ways the artist went about representing the movie without revealing any actual dinosaurs. The others, all featured in The Art Of John Alvin, show off the dense jungle of Isla Nublar, the hurricane and a T-Rex in silhouette. Sadly, none of them feature Mr. DNA.
This Jurassic Park concept drawing played with one of the three elements: DNA, fossils and bones. Despite the Defcon-1 levels of dino-secrecy Spielberg imposed around his jurassic stars, he did allow John Alvin into Stan Winston’s studios for a peek at the dinosaur models. For the designer, it was like Christmas. As his wife Andrea remember, models were both a key tool for his work and a hobby all wrapped up in one fanboy-thrilling package. “I eventually learned that possessing the model was as important as building the mode,” she writes, “and that the Star Wars aisle in Toys R Us is populated by men at least 40 and above. No kids allowed.”
Sam Raimi’s superhero/revenge movie, in which Liam Neeson does a kind of reverse Joker as a man who is horribly disfigured and sets about offing all the bad guys, was always going to be a tricky sell in poster form – what with its angst-ridden protagonist being swaddled in bandages and its violence reprisals. Although Alvin’s final one-sheet, a more studio-friendly affair, focused away from Darkman’s face in favour of action, fire and choppers, this concept painting nails the sombre tone of the piece. Side note: every ‘A’ should have a Darkman in the middle of it.
“It was a dark and stormy night” may be the ultimate cliché in short story intros but it works pretty darn well in Alvin’s concept sketch for Martin Scorsese’s thriller remake. During the poster’s final evolution, Max Cady’s eyes were superimposed onto the eerie, moonlit water of the lake and then, ultimately, a torn snap of the Bowden family. Strange as it sounds, Alvin has to further scarify Robert De Niro’s eyes to isolate Cady’s formidable malice. He made the whites of his eyes bigger to lend them an almost Satanic quality.