Even if you are only remotely interested in the horror genre, chances are somewhere in your collection of belongings, in a book or on a DVD case will be a piece of artwork by Graham Humphreys. From his work with Palace, Arrow, Tartan and The Creative Partnership, he has amassed an incredible portfolio of work. For over 30 years he has created countless pieces of art adorning cinema awnings and home media packaging. Working in brushes and oils he has become one of the foremost artists creating illustrated film posters in the UK.
I was lucky enough to grab an interview with him, even though this was intended to be for 10 minutes, we ended up talking for half an hour, so we have decided to split the interview into two parts.
You started your design work in posters at palace in the 1980s with probably one of the more iconic posters which was the Evil Dead, which was one of the first ones you did as far as I understand.
It’s the one that I identify as being the beginning of the horror career its true, I did do a couple of other posters before that, but I’m deeply embarrassed about them because they are not very good pieces of work. One of them was the Monster Club, so that was officially the first horror film poster I did. I was commissioned on the basis of some portfolio pieces that I had which were horror related. They decided they were going to market it more bizarrely at children, after having commissioned me to do this piece. I think it was to do with the colours being a very blue cast and had a very gothic look to it, they deemed it too frightening. So they then said we can either pay you a rejection fee, or you can do another one with some ‘happy colours’. I had about 2 days to do it in, I worked 2 days & 2 nights as at the time I was perfecting my technique, or trying to shall we say? I ended up doing a very bad piece of work that I’m still deeply embarrassed about.
Unfortunately people do know it and…I was actually watching the League Of Gentlemen Christmas Special a few years back and they did a little piece within it talking about Portmanteau Horror films and annoyingly the background to the interview was the bloody Monster Club poster!! (laughs).
I was mortified.
I think everyone has pieces of work that they design that secretly they are not that pleased with. Alot of your influences in the posters from the 1980s seem to come from B movies, with some influence from early Hammer artwork in there as well. Are there any of those posters that you cherish or hold dear as being heavily influential on your career or style?
Thats a tough one because there have been various poster books that I would have had access to in the early 80s. Collections of older posters, those really would have been the sources of my inspiration at that point. Those books now are so rare that they go for thousands of pounds, but you could pick them so cheaply at the time. They were a tremendous source mostly. But now they are so valuable. The Hammer stuff is interesting, I saw a lot of the Hammer posters obviously in my childhood stuck up at the local cinema. When I was at art college there was a guy who collected those posters, he obviously had access to his local cinema projection booth, and knew someone. There was a poster for a double bill interestingly it wasn’t for two hammer films, it was The Vampire Lovers and The Devils Reign. American/British films, whoever came up with the combination? it obviously appeals in a double bill. I seem to remember the portraiture of Ernest Borgnine turning into the devil is something that interested me. Actually the styles were quite different as well, as you had the Vampire Lovers poster, I think that must have been a Tom Chantrell image, yeah I was quite fascinated by that whole difference. For me I want to evoke both of those styles and still struggle to do that now.
The one thing I find interesting with the artwork for the Evil Dead and Nightmare on Elm Street you did for Palace is that they are extremely different posters, not just stylistically but in the way the film was being portrayed, Evil Dead is much more loud and very much keeping with the film, whereas Elm Street is more of a dream state/nighttime, for obvious reasons.
I’m guessing you saw the films before doing the posters?
You kind of watch the film and you have your response to it. If I’m doing a piece of artwork it has to be sympathetic to the film but your also trying to evoke the film in a poster form. Because they are completely different films they needed a different response. With with Evil Dead I was asked to go to a screening with the idea of me being commissioned, so I already knew I was going to see the film and then be pulling stuff from that and mentally making notes. Whereas with Nightmare on Elm Street I did go to an early public screening at the old Scala Cinema. Obviously because of their connection with Palace Pictures and they always would try to show the films first for the loyal Scala Cinema Audience. I saw Nightmare on Elm Street not knowing at that point that I would actually asked to do a poster for it. I think it was about a month later that I was actually commissioned. Of course having already watched it I knew already what the approach should be. So as was the case in those days, you would be given a VHS copy which was your reference to pull from that. Yes, really the technique is different, the finish is different and the colour palate is very different as well.
Much bluer and keeping with an evening them rather than…
Yes more in keeping with the original Monster Club Poster! Scary and Blue
One thing I’ve always wondered about, in those days the posters were never really intended for use for a long period of time. They were glued outside the cinema on a piece of wood, for maybe a week or two and then discarded or covered over. Was there any limitations with the colour palette that you had deal with from the printing?
No, not that I ever recall at all. I do remember when I was at art college, printing was something we were encouraged to learn about, we went on regular trips down to… because I was at college in Salisbury, we went to Southampton which had a very big and important print faculty. So we were able to watch a lot being printed and actually understand the machinery and the mechanisms. How ink was delivered to the paper. What the limitations were with colour and such like.
There was one very famous instance that I recall with big advertising holdings they used to screen print. That way you would get a much denser quantity of ink so you would get richer blacks, deeper colours. There was a very famous campaign for silk cut which you may or may not remember, depends how old you are. It was a piece of white silk with some cuts in it which then showed the purple silk underneath which was the colours of the packaging. They did a reverse of that, with a purple piece of silk with a white silk underneath. Because the colour was so dense and dark, when they were pasting up the posters they would quite often fall down again due to the weight of the ink on the paper. That’s the only instance I’ve ever heard where their was an issue with the printing process and the colours used.
Of course and on the same note, with the Nightmare on Elm Street Poster, one of the things that I wanted to do was in order to make the blues even more intense, was to add that fluorescent orange in the title, because that would be complete opposite to the blue the title would stick out in almost a three-dimensional fashion. That was a 5th ink, most posters are litho printed, you print your four basic colours – yellow, blue, magenta and black. Anything extra like a fluorescent colour, that’s a 5th colour and it adds a bit to the printing costs. But with fluorescent colours you have to print it twice, it always prints thinly so to get that fluorescent you have to double hit the ink. Of course the problem with the fluorescent colours it does fade rapidly in light, but as you pointed out the posters had a shelf life for the duration of the publicity of the films. so it didn’t matter that the fluorescent was going to fade for me, because I thought they would only be up for a month at most and would have done their job anyway.
I want to ask you a little bit about digital work as well, as in the early 90s you did From Dusk Till Dawn. This was one of the first ones you did.
In terms of complete photoshopping yes, I think so. Its interesting, the person who commissioned that was someone who had worked at Palace Pictures previously. Buena Vista was the distributor of the film here and Daniel Battsek was the Managing Director at the time. He had been responsible for commissioning some of the later Nightmare on Elm Street Posters from me. So we had that relationship and rapport. But it was clear in their minds that the illustrated poster was dead, the Photoshop route was taking a precedence. It was interesting bringing the illustrated sensibility to something that is actually quite smooth and glossy. If I was doing it again now it would look quite different, because I now understand the processes that can be brought to the image to give it something a bit more organic. I look at it now and its one of those posters where I can see what I was trying to do but didn’t have the tools or knowledge to make it really what it should have been.
If you look at the American version of the poster, it’s almost being billed as a western bandit film.
The English Quad still isn’t leaning into the vampire-esque nature of the film. Was there much of a brief on how it should be selling the film?
The brief was to not actually reveal the vampire part of it, but we could hint at it. I remember watching the film for the first time, not knowing anything about it and being quite surprised at the sudden change of genre halfway through. Thats probably the only reason, so we had to avoid any vampire motifs, probably the only hits are obviously Dusk till Dawn and the sunrise or sunset. I think the character with cross is the only real hint.
The gun cross that Harvey Keitel is holding.
Thats right yes.
To Be Continued…