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Blockbusters' poster boy

Spielberg, Lucas and others have turned to Drew Struzan to create iconic images.

May 22, 2008|Tom Russo | Special to The Times

At its best, the art of movie poster illustration conveys a tangible sense of adventure. There are few sharper contemporary examples than the imagery crafted by veteran artist Drew Struzan for "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" back in the summer of 1989. Arresting, iconic likenesses of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery anchored a montage that also featured Indy on horseback, charging determinedly ahead, pistol pointed like he was about to blast out the fourth wall. Calculatedly random paint spatter represented sand kicked up by his wild ride, while just over his shoulder, pursuing Nazi forces trailed off into the textured swirl of a cruel desert sun. The poster alone was enough to make us wish it wasn't Indy's last crusade, as it very much seemed at the time.

With the release, finally, of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," Struzan's painting is again proving to be a key ingredient to a vintage recipe. His posters for the new movie are as much a throwback as is Ford's again donning that famous fedora, or George Lucas and Steven Spielberg getting their geek on for more Saturday matinee fare of yesteryear.

Long a favorite of Spielberg and Lucas, Struzan has employed his transporting brand of heightened realism to create memorable posters for a whole gallery of blockbusters and cult classics going back decades. A shortlist includes multiple "Star Wars" episodes, the "Back to the Future" trilogy, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the various Muppet movies, "Hook," Rambo's debut in "First Blood" and John Carpenter's "The Thing."

But Struzan's association with Indy has been particularly close. He created a post-release poster for "Temple of Doom" that became the marketing campaign's dominant image, replacing the original one-sheet in theaters. He followed that with all the promotional art for "The Last Crusade," video box covers for "Young Indiana Jones" and illustrations for numerous other spinoffs and tie-ins.

So calling on Struzan to help sell "Crystal Skull" was a no-brainer for Indy's handlers. And no, the soft-spoken artist insists, he didn't cheat Ford's age, never mind his gift for portraiture with an immortal glow. Look closely and you will see the wrinkles, the weathering, the tiniest hint of sagginess around that khaki-outfitted midsection.

"I painted him the way he looks," says Struzan, 61, speaking from his cozy home studio in Pasadena. "In fact, I kind of like the lines in his face. I looked at thousands of pictures of him, as I do with all movies. And you know, some pictures, he didn't look good, but others, he looked fantastic. So I didn't try to young him up at all. Didn't have to. I just honored what he's done and what he is today."

Guillermo del Toro is among the filmmakers who rave about Struzan's ability to expand the world of a movie through his pictures -- images that, while printed, hardly seem static. "What Drew does isn't really distilling the elements of a movie," says Del Toro, who has enlisted Struzan to do posters for "Hellboy" and its upcoming sequel, as well as a limited-edition piece for "Pan's Labyrinth." "It's almost alchemy. He takes images and makes them quintessentially cinematic. His style has been copied so many times in a bad way, people don't realize until they revisit his posters just how powerful the pure Struzan style is, how purely filmic it is."

Frank Darabont is such a fan, he not only has tapped Struzan for pieces for "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile," he has also made him a basis for Thomas Jane's lead character in last year's "The Mist." (Several of Struzan's originals were featured on-screen as set dressing.) "Most of what passes for movie poster art these days are just Photoshopped pictures of actors striking saucy poses and staring at us like a troop of lobotomy victims," Darabont says. "Drew's work speaks to me on a much deeper level. The images he renders become part of that film's iconography and history, just as important in some respects as the film itself, and sometimes better.

"He crafts a piece of art that honors your film instead of just merely trying to sell it," he adds. "Seriously, for a filmmaker who really appreciates what poster art means, Drew doing your poster is like getting an award."

Such endorsements don't necessarily translate to a torrent of work for Struzan these days, however. Computer-driven design effectively ended the Neoclassic illustration wave of the '70s and '80s, and it seems that aficionados have spoken wistfully ever since about painted posters being a dying art. (In a certain sense, they mean it literally: Prolific artist John Alvin died of a heart attack earlier this year, and acclaimed painter Richard Amsel, whose "Raiders of the Lost Ark" posters were the franchise's earliest signature images, died more than two decades ago.) It hasn't helped to have the Internet continuously diminishing the importance of seeing the posters as a first-look marketing tool in theaters.

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