Art Director Profile - Eric Skillman: "We get great illustrations because we hire great illustrators"

By Robert Newman   Thursday October 29, 2015

Eric Skillman is the art director for the Criterion Collection, the beautifully-designed ongoing series of movie DVD reissues. He’s been at Criterion for 14 years, creating a remarkable body of work that includes smart, cool graphic design and numerous examples of top-notch art directed illustration. Skillman is a talented book and poster designer, and wrote a graphic novel, Liar’s Kiss. He also designed the new American Illustration 34 book, with cover illustrations by Ranee Henderson. Skillman’s DVD covers and packages are works of design art. His design acknowledges references and influences from the past, but with a very modern sensibility and sense of the subject matter. And his choice of illustrators for the cover art is diverse and surprising. Looking through the many sparkling Criterion covers and packages, I’m reminded of the great LP cover designers of past decades. Skillman deserves much credit for keeping that kind of art and design alive, and for providing so many illustrators such a great public venue for their work.

Skillman will be speaking at the AI-AP Big Talk event, Wednesday, November 4 at 3p at the SVA Theatre in New York City, with other jurors and illustrators from American Illustration 34. You can see 10 of Skillman's favorite illustrated Criterion DVD covers here.

[Pictured: cover designs by Eric Skillman. Top: American Illustration 34, illustration by Ranee Henderson. Bottom left: illustration by Daniel Clowes. Bottom right: illustration by Sean Phillips.]

I live in Brooklyn with my wife, Mariel, who is a historian and teacher, and my daughter, Joella, who is three.

The Criterion offices and/or my desk in the dining room/living room/kitchen/office of our apartment. (Ah, New York living.)

I was hired as a print production coordinator at Criterion, and one of my jobs was to assemble the “sellsheets” that get sent out to retailers to announce new titles. Whenever a design was running late, which was often, instead of just putting a “TK” on the sellsheet I’d mock up a cover sketch of my own. I’m sure none of them were great designs but they were enough to convince the higher-ups to give me a chance to design a title myself, which eventually led me to my current position.  

I make an effort to try to find new visual influences/inspirations for each new project. Because 90% of my work is for the same “client,” there’s incentive for me to keep things fresh, to not let myself relax into any one style for too long. I’m sure I haven’t been entirely successful at that—it’s inevitable that certain stylistic tics slip through the cracks—but I try to start each project as a blank slate and see what reference the film (or book or whatever) suggests.

I’m going to go with Mike Watt. Not just for his music but also for the attitude that underlies it: he and the Minutemen took that basic (and essential!) punk idea that you don’t have to be a virtuoso to put yourself out there, but stripped away that convenient self-justification that insisted that there was some inherent virtue in lack of craft. For me, that’s been a crucial needle to thread: “not good enough” is no excuse not to get started; “good enough” is no excuse to stop pushing myself to improve.

The biggest challenges tend to be project-specific, but one recurring regret I have is how difficult it is to work with artists more than a couple times, which means I’m usually building working relationships from scratch. Because we try to think of the Criterion Collection as just that—a collection—we really do pay attention to how each new design plays off of previous designs. Sometimes that manifests itself as using the same artist for multiple films by the same director—Maurice Vellekoop has done a few Preston Sturges films for us now, Daniel Clowes did a great matched pair of Samuel Fuller designs, etc. But the reverse can be frustrating—often we have to avoid using an illustrator we’ve already used on one film, for fear of inadvertantly suggesting connections between unrelated films. Add to that the fact that we really only commission one, maybe two illustrations per month, and even for artists whose work I love, it can be years between projects. On the other hand, that also means I’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of amazing illustrators and designers, so really I shouldn’t complain.

Really the main thing is the films themselves. Every new film suggests new avenues to read up on—Satyajit Ray's pre-filmmaking career as a book designer, or Yukio Mishima's connections to Tadanori Yokoo, or 1950s pulp paperbacks or the 1980s New York graffiti scene. Plus the producers and editorial department here at Criterion are such a fantastic resource for film knowledge.

This may have been slightly more than a year ago now but it’s hard to top the Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman box set for “memorable.” The “wallpaper of carnage” concept that we brought to Ron Wimberly was an outrageously difficult technical challenge and he absolutely rose to the occasion, tapping into a whole new style I’d never seen from him before, plus at least two entirely different styles in the rest of the box. And that’s not even mentioning the 25 other artists we got to draw individual illustrations for each of the 25 films in the box, who all did outstanding work.

I really loved what Len Small, Esther Wu, and Daehyun Kim did with last year’s book, but I knew I wasn’t likely to top that for elegance or sophistication. Instead, I wanted to do kind of a 180: bright, loud color, something full of excitement and joy. Hardly any black at all. (Fun fact: there is actually no black ink anywhere in the front- or backmatter of AI34, just CMY.)

AI impressario Mark Heflin and I were both really excited about finding a fresh voice for the cover, someone completely unexpected. We batted a few names back and forth until Mark suggested Ranee Henderson. I’ll admit I had initially overlooked her as a potential cover artist, because the piece of hers in the book, while absolutely gorgeous, has kind of a black-on-black palate which could have looked too similar to last year’s book. But a quick trip to her portfolio site showed an artist extremely comfortable with bold color, and a unique and exciting perspective. Doubly exciting when you consider that she’s fresh out of school and really only just starting her career.

I got Ranee on the phone and we talked through what we wanted to do with the book. I think we landed somewhere like “alternate universe avant-garde issue of Tiger Beat” as our brief. The front and back covers are loosely based on old photos of Ranee’s sister, and the color palate inspired by some previous work of hers.

Challenges came mostly on the print production side, getting the colors to pop like we wanted. Also we wanted the physical book to have something of the textural, tactile experience that Ranee’s work has in person, which meant painstakingly tracing the ridges in the art to create a spot gloss varnish that would give a hint of that effect. It took some time but I think the final result is well worth it!

I think Ranee absolutely knocked these out of the park and I couldn’t be happier with the final result. (So much so that I bought the front cover painting from her and it’s now proudly hanging in my apartment.) Also worth mentioning that Ranee was a great collaborator and a pleasure to work with, so: art directors of the world, take note!

Taking as a given that I’ve got a pretty great set-up here, and I know how lucky I am to have it—I would love get my hands on a small book line, something where I could handle both the design and editorial sides of things.

I try to pay attention to people who seem to think in ways I don’t. Peter Mendelsund, Neil Kellerhouse, Paul Sahre, Leanne Shapton, Rodrigo Corral...

I hate to single out just one—it’s a special kind of thrill to work with long-time heroes like Bill Sienkiewicz or Jaime Hernandez, and I’ve had incredibly fruitful collaborations with Greg Manchess and Caitlin Kuhwald and David Plunkert and Yuko Shimizu and Sean Phillips and too many others to name. If I have to pick one, I’ll say Connor Willumsen, because he embodies my favorite trait in an illustrator—he’s always surprising me, always coming up with a better idea than the one I come to him with.

I’m still working through my list of long-time personal heroes, trying to find the right project for the right artists. Beyond that I try to keep my eyes open for exciting work when I see it. And very occasionally, when I have some specific idea that requires a specific discipline I’m not as familiar with (like when I became convinced that the cover for Dreyer’s Master of the House needed to be made of cut paper), I turn to Google. (And found the amazing Beatrice Coron, in that particular case.)

In a nutshell: we put the film first. We try to keep all our choices rooted in what will best convey the essential qualities of the film in question. Some films seem to demand a photographic treatment; others need something more synthetic to capture them.

We get great illustrations because we hire great artists and give them great films to respond to.

Because film is a visual medium, each project comes with an established aesthetic, which for a designer can be inspiring but also sometimes limiting. The challenge is in figuring out how best to channel that aesthetic—either by distilling it down to a single still composition, or somehow bouncing off of it in an interesting way.

I try not to make such a strong distinction between “illustration” and “design.” Almost everything I make involves some custom-created components, whether it’s type or image or decorative elements or whatever, so for me it’s not such a hard line between the two disciplines. Whatever technique will best solve a problem—assuming it’s within the limits of my abilities—I’ll give it a try.

Because we have access to such great films, we’re lucky enough to be able to call on the best illustrators in the world to work on them, so really it’s total hubris that I ever design anything myself. When I draw something myself, it’s usually because I have such a strong, specific idea of what it has to be that I would be literally dictating exactly what to draw and how, which is no fun for anyone. You’ve got to leave room for the artist to surprise you, otherwise why bother?

I’ve got a three-year old at home so all I have time to read is picture books. With that in mind, I will say I really admire what Flying Eye/Nobrow and Enchanted Lion have been doing lately—absolutely beautiful illustration, and the printing is amazing. They get so much mileage out of a few spot colors, such beautiful books.

I personally find the experience of most social media to be equivalent to walking into the middle of a crowded room and loudly introducing myself to no one in particular. Which is to say: no, I’m not especially good at self-promotion. Thankfully, I’m on salary so I don’t have to be.

I think anyone who’s interested in design or illustration as a career should try to take some literature classes at school in addition to art classes. For any kind of interpretive design (i.e. movie posters, book covers, etc), it’s hugely helpful to be able to really dig into a text and pull out its themes and structure. You might make the most beautiful image in the world, but if you don’t understand the film/book/music/whatever it is you’re meant to be representing, then it’s all irrelevant.

See more Eric Skillman work and updates here:
Eric Skillman website
See 10 of Eric Skillman's favorite illustrated Criterion covers here