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Monsters Among Us! - Part I

JUNE 22, 2022
I love every job (i take) in illustration, but some are truly dream jobs. While I've been toiling away in the poster corner of the illustration world for some time, I never thought I'd have the opportunity to illustrate the series of Classic Monsters for Universal Pictures. Universal Monsters are the cornerstone of cinematic horror, creating the icons and setting the blueprint that still endures to this day. As a self professed horror nerd, this has always been my favorite genre to illustrate, and a chance to pay homage to the foundation... well hot damn, sign me up! 
For this job I was given six posters to do, with a variant for each poster - Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Dracula. The illustrations were created as general art assets for Universal to license, they ended up on posters, apparel, and even metal plates. They also went on to place and show in Society of Illustrators. Here are the first three pieces with sketches, thumbs and notes:

 
Regular Edition
Variant Edition
Sketches

Frankenstein

First up, Frankenstein. Frankenstein was released in 1931, following Dracula which was released half a year earlier. Directed by the great James Whale and featuring Bela Lugosi in his most iconic role, this to me is the first great horror movie of the talkie era. The production and make up design really shine, with the neck bolts, high forehead, windmill, and of course, Frankenstein's laboratory. There was so much great imagery to work with, but the one visual that really stuck with me was the torch. I quickly drew a thumb of the monster's visage formed by the flames in a barely comprehensible scribble mid watch and this became the foundation for the finish. This was a challenging piece, Bela Lugosi is so immediately recognizable that there wasn't any wiggle room on the likeness, and rendering accurately in flame was particularly tricky. Maintaining the position of the highest contrast values gave me some leeway using the movement of the flames to fill out the midtones, and viola, the piece came together. It was a tightrope walk for sure. For the variant, like all the others, I wanted to evoke the original black and white film stock, including grain and marks. I also used the original movie's title card, as opposed to the "official" Universal supplied logo.

Regular Edition
Variant Edition
Sketches

The Mummy

Next up, Bela Lugosi in his second most iconic role... The Mummy! The Mummy was released almost exactly one year after Frankenstein. Compared to that, it is a relatively slow and odd movie. Like Frankenstein, the production design and make up are phenomenal. But this is a tricky one - the mummy is actually only in the movie for a few frames, for the bulk of the movie Lugosi appears as a rehydrated version named Ardeth Bey. For the sketches I explored a range of approaches from a standard Villain over scene approach to something more in line with the Frankenstein piece, having the wraps cascade down forming the face of the Mummy. In the end, they chose the more straightforward approach. The title treatment is from the actual titlecard in the movie as well. 

 
Regular Edition
Variant Edition
Sketches

The Wolf Man

The Wolf Man was released in 1941, a decade into what was now a very well established cinematic universe. Interestingly, it isn't the first Universal werewolf movie, that distinction belongs to 1935's "Werewolf of London."  I rather liked The Wolf Man, it is a movie that has incredible atmosphere and mood, despite a somewhat lackluster performance by Lon Chaney Jr, son of the great Lon Chaney. The comps for this were difficult to conceptualize. There were two big problems in approaching this piece: we didn't have rights to either Lon Chaney Jr.'s likeness OR the likeness of the Wolf Man (his estate must have a great lawyer) and we couldn't use the image of the Star in the circle, which is the key symbol in the movie. I ended up doing about ten sketches, all with varying degrees of lack of success. It was so hard to make an iconic poster for an iconic movie without using anything iconic. There were two elements that I and the art directors ended up focusing on - the shadow and suggestion of the wolf man and his transformation, and the beautiful architecture of the "Welsh" village. This was a really tricky sketch to execute, as there was no direct reference to work with. I ended up using a lot of 3D modelling to map out the street and figure and dozens of shots from the movie to illustrate the setting accurately, signs and all.

 
Those were the first three posters I was commissioned to do, and luckily for me I was given three more when those were complete! So stay tuned, next up I'll go over The Bride of Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the many issues with Dracula...
Part II coming soon!
© 2022 Chris Koehler