When Drew Struzan Painted The Greats

by David Konow
Drawing a tangible sense of adventure.

Let’s state the obvious. Today’s movie posters, with few exceptions, are pretty derivative. When the days of hand-illustrated movie posters passed, we entered an era of bland computer-designed ad campaigns that recycle overused motifs: a hierarchy of headshots, shadowy silhouettes, the use of orange and blue, just to name a few.

Now let’s make another obvious statement. Drew Struzan is a man synonymous with great poster art, and it’s crying shame that he’s retired from the field. Even if you don’t know the name, you know the artwork he created for Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, Goonies, and many more.

As a young movie fan growing up, I was coming of age when Struzan was making major strides in the business, and artists like John Berkey (The Towering Inferno, the ’76 remake of King Kong), Bob Peak (Apocalypse Now, Excalibur), and John Alvin (Blade Runner, E.T.) were still working regularly.

Eventually Struzan became the last man standing because in the age of computer art. Only the biggest filmmakers could demand, and get, a hand illustrated campaign. It was great to see Steven Spielberg and George Lucas still hiring Struzan to illustrate their posters, and there’s even been a rumor that Struzan may come out of retirement to illustrate the next Star Wars trilogy's campaign.

The irony is that while technology is partially responsible for the way movie posters are currently designed, it's also technology and the internet that finally brought Struzan to the attention of movie fans. For a long time, moviegoers didn’t know who illustrated their favorite movie posters; these artists were true unsung heroes of the film business. I spoke to Struzan several years before he retired, and I was relieved to learn that the best poster artist in the business was also a heck of nice guy who still was very humbled to be plying his trade.

“From my childhood, my focus was on making the best paintings that I could,” Struzan told me. “I could draw and paint from the time I could do anything. My mother said I could draw before I could talk. I was able to communicate with images before I could do it with words.”

Struzan is a trained artist who learned his trade at the Art Center of Los Angeles after he completed high school. “I got a real good education,” he says. “I did all the basics. I learned how to paint, and I learned all the mechanical things about perspective, and anatomy. I learned how to draw like the old masters, all the different compositional ideas and color concepts. I got a really good background, so I can work in any medium.”

Still, Struzan starved when he moved out to L.A., living by the artist’s maxim that he’d rather paint than eat. Finally getting sick and tired of the starving artist routine, he went to an employment agency looking for a job. A week later, he was offered a gig at Disney Animation, as well as a job at a design studio called Pacific Eye and Ear as a staff illustrator.

Struzan chose the Pacific Eye and Ear gig, where he illustrated the album covers for Alice Cooper’s Welcome to my Nightmare, and Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. Then he started getting movie poster work for the low budget company AIP (American International Pictures), where he illustrated the campaigns for Squirm, Food of the Gods, and other low budget "classics".

Illustrating Star Wars catapulted Struzan to the big leagues, but looking back he says, “One step at a time I worked my way up. Better projects, better work.” When he got the Star Wars assignment, it didn’t feel like a big break because, as Struzan explains, “Star Wars wasn’t really considered an A movie, it was a genre that everyone thought was a B movie. But it became so huge, it changed the industry. It made genre films very important. We’ve been watching science-fiction films for over twenty-five years because of Star Wars."

There have been many Star Wars posters, including the one illustrated by the Hildebrandt brothers, but the one that Struzan illustrated with Charles White III is reportedly George Lucas’s favorite. White had called Drew up, and asked if he wanted to share a project. White was a well-known airbrush artist, and Struzan wanted to learn airbursh technique.

On the Star Wars poster, Struzan illustrated the portraits, and White did the mechanical objects, like the robots, the hovercrafts, Darth Vader and C-3P0. As for why the poster image was torn and showed a wood wall underneath the ripped paper, Struzan says, “They found out the typography and the billing block didn’t fit in the space they had left. What can we do to make more space on a poster that’s already been painted? We added on to the actual poster by painting Obi Wan down the side, and painting stuff across the bottom to make it look wider and deeper.”

The phenomenal success of Star Wars also created the modern poster collectors market. “Posters weren’t really collectible before that time,” Struzan explains. “Star Wars started to make posters a force to be reckoned with, to be collected, remembered, honored, and respected. It was a nice growth period for the industry and art.”

Lucas has a vested interest in the poster art for his movies because he wanted to be an illustrator when he was younger. Struzan calls Lucas “the most generous and respectful of anybody I’ve worked with.” When working on a Star Wars poster, Lucas would always invite Struzan up to Skywalker Ranch to see the movie, where they’d then discuss concepts and ideas together one on one.

Spielberg is of course much more extroverted, and no less hands on, and Struzan says he’s “really open minded, very creative. I like working with both Lucas and Spielberg, I started working with both of them around the same time. After a while, Spielberg fell out of being involved in advertising with illustrations. Everything you see him do now is photographic, where George still does illustrations because of his appreciation of them. He understands that it touches the heart in ways that photography doesn’t, so he’s always stuck with it.”

Both Lucas and Spielberg have the power to get the ad campaigns they want, which is why they have been able to continue with illustrated posters, where a lot of other directors can’t get them. Yet Struzan says, “Most directors don’t understand that they can be involved. They can say, ‘Part of the contract is I want to be involved in the advertising.’ They can make that part of the agreement.”

Struzan feels the peak of poster art was in the eighties. “That’s when I think it was strongest. The seventies built it up, and we saw its strength in the eighties. That’s when I had my best run with Indiana Jones, Police Academy, Back to the Future, some really great opportunities to make some great paintings. It started to taper off in the nineties when computers came into it. It took a lot of work away.”

When I spoke to Struzan, he was still several years away from retiring, and he had just illustrated the ad campaign for the first Harry Potter film. He still loved creating poster art, and was sad that his colleagues weren’t doing it anymore. Struzan lamented, “There’s not enough work to go around, and they’ve had to find other ways of getting along. I’m really blessed and humbled that I can still doing what I’ve always done. It’s slowed down, but it’s still there, and I’m utterly grateful.”

Struzan is now the subject of a full length documentary, Drew: The Man Behind the Poster, and many of his biggest fans in the business, like Spielberg, Lucas, Michael J. Fox, and Frank Darabont all gladly gave interviews, singing the praises of Drew’s work. In a report on the film, USA Today summed it up very well when they wrote that movie posters these days “seem like bad Photoshop jobs and aren’t terribly awe-inspiring. Next to Drew Struzan’s detailed and remarkable work, they look 100 times worse.”

Posters courtesy drewstruzan.com

David Konow is a southern California-based writer with a passion for the schlocky films of Hollywood past. His book, Reel Terror, chronicles the history and impact of horror movies.