As with much of illustration, entertainment art often faces a creative double standard: it has to be very good in order for people to take notice, while discerning art critics rarely, if ever, take it seriously. Artistic talent and skill were essential for a working illustrator to survive (much less thrive), but even the best of efforts were often dismissed as kitsch, impersonal – viewed as mere commercial products rather than creative enterprises. And, unlike every other painting or drawing deemed as “fine art”, most illustrators had to work anonymously – denied from even having their signatures visible on their creative work.
Nowhere was this more apparent than with movie posters.
An important clarification: when I say "movie poster", I'm not referring to the photo-touched, photoshopped, photodigital photocrap that's become the norm these days, slick and stylish though some may be. I'm talking about real movie posters - the big, artful, sometimes cheesy, often delightful product of some poor soul who actually bothered to sit down behind a drafting table and put a sharpened pencil to paper.
That's pencil, now. Not pixel.
It's probably the toughest art to master for any illustrator. It's not just about getting the actors' likenesses right; it's about conveying the best and most enticing things a movie going experience can offer -- it's soul, if you will, even if that sounds a bit inflated when so many films out there are such soulless enterprises.
Most poster artists rarely get the chance to see the very films they're slaving over prior to finishing their work. Commissions often come at the very last minute, with deadlines fast approaching. (A rather inexcusable crime on the studios' part, when one considers the inordinate amount of time they waste gestating their projects.) It's a tough job, and poster artists are a rare breed.
There are giants of this artform: Bob Peak, Saul Bass, Drew Struzan, John Alvin, Howard Terpning, Reynold Brown, Bill Gold, Heinz Schulz-Neudamm, Roger Kastel.
Some are still with us – perhaps working, perhaps retired, perhaps having moved on to other creative, more personal ventures. But most, alas, are now gone.
These talents deserve to be held in the same regard as classic illustrators like Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth. Why? Because at their best, their work didn't just convey the highlights of a movie coming soon to a theater near you. Rather, they built upon the anticipation, the promise and excitement of what (hopefully) was in store…hinting just enough to whet our appetites, while not spoiling things by giving too much away.
By Bob Peak’s death in 1992, the last “Golden Age” of movie poster illustration – thriving until the early 1980s – was already over. Commissions were harder to come by, limited to particular genres of films. They paid less. And for what work there was, the competition remained fierce. Until, that is, the age of the pixel effectively killed the artform.
In many ways, this Golden Age died with a young artist named RICHARD AMSEL. And he is the topic of our film.
An illustration in the Smithsonian. A cover for TIME. Thirty-seven published TV Guide covers. Iconic album and concert illustrations. Posters for The Sting, Chinatown, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Murder on the Orient Express, Flash Gordon, The Dark Crystal, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. And, of course, Raiders of the Lost Ark – named "The Greatest Hand-Drawn Movie Poster of all time" by Total Film in 2011.
Amsel made these all in less than 16 years. His life and career were cut short by AIDS, mere weeks before his thirty-eighth birthday.
When I first imagined filming a documentary about the artist, I naturally planned to focus on his remarkable body of work. Such are the things we all know. Amsel’s movie poster artwork is particularly legendary, iconic – and often exceeded the quality of the very films they showcased, revered in the realm of entertainment art.
The more research I made into Amsel himself, however, the more I shifted my focus into what I learned was a remarkable, personal life story. The art, I found, was only the beginning.
Richard Amsel was something of an enigma. While his work is widely known, little has been made public about the artist himself. He often shied away from the camera, and rarely discussed the details of his private and family life with even his closest friends.
For those who were close to Richard, his death has, in many ways, remained an opened wound. That pain is compounded by the way much of his work has been lost – literally and figuratively – in the three decades following his passing.
There will always be a great deal of justified anger over how much of Richard’s original work was auctioned off, or taken away, or passed through so many hands over so many years. While a large part of his original collection is now sheltered within The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, many of his other original pieces, including numerous sketches and comps never before published, have been scattered or hidden into obscurity.
So many people have their own personal spins on “The Richard Amsel Story,” and I suspect a number of them would insist on imbuing this project with only their own rosy perspectives at the expense of the truth. I strongly feel that Richard deserves better than that. He was not just a remarkably gifted artist, but a fascinating, eccentric, complex individual, with his own unique brand of peculiarities and attributes. And despite his considerable success, he also had a great many heartbreaks and unrealized dreams. I want audiences to know about the great work that was, and the magnificent work that should have been.
It’s a challenging project, emotionally and creatively, as it is not my intention to make anything exploitative, nor besmirch anyone in the telling of his story. My aim has always been to help preserve Richard Amsel's creative legacy, not to own nor exploit it.
Yet if we continue to address (or whitewash, or sidestep altogether) the circumstances of Richard Amsel’s life, illness and death in the same hushed tones and ashamed whispers as had been done thirty years ago, we are not only disrespecting and dishonoring the man’s life and legacy, but also the thousands of people of that time – and the millions of people of our time – who have been forced to die quiet deaths at the hands of AIDS.
Amsel was just one of millions, but even amidst a sky of shining stars, his still managed to burn particularly brightly.
I can never presume to know what Richard Amsel would have thought of my efforts, but I'm trying my best, and won't give up. There's a long journey ahead of me, and I shall make the most of every step.
A B O U T T H E F I L M
AMSEL: ILLUSTRATOR OF THE LOST ART presents the first in-depth profile of legendary illustrator Richard Amsel (1947-1985), detailing the artist’s remarkable body of work while chronicling an enigmatic life marked with family heartbreak, celebrity friendships, financial hardships, creative genius, and a tragic end at the age of thirty-seven from AIDS.
Amsel remains a titanic figure within the realm of entertainment art, with work ranging from celebrated movie posters (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Sting, The Dark Crystal, and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome), to iconic album and concert posters (including famous portraits of Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand), to magazine covers – including 37 covers for TV Guide. Yet while the Amsel’s illustrations remain extremely popular, little has ever been revealed about the man himself.
Now in production, the film will include extensive interviews with Amsel’s friends, celebrities, and colleagues, and will offer a new appreciation of the artist’s work. The documentary will also examine Amsel’s time within New York’s gay culture in the ‘70s, the onslaught of AIDS in the ‘80s, the aftermath of Amsel’s death, and his enduring creative legacy to generations of artists and moviegoers.