John Alvin created some of the most iconic movie art of all-time. His legendary work includes posters for the Original Star Wars Trilogy, Blade Runner, Batman (1989) Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Alvin left such a mark on popular culture that often when you think of the films he worked on—the first thing that pops into your mind is his timeless artwork.
For me, I am of course most interested in John’s numerous contributions to the filmography of Steve Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment. He made posters for Amblin films like The Goonies, Gremlins, Cape Fear and Arachnophobia. Alvin also has an impressive list of Spielberg directed films he worked on, including E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Empire of the Sun and Jurassic Park.
In 2008, John Alvin passed away. Like any great artist, his artwork lives on long after his passing. I had the pleasure of speaking to John’s wife and collaborator, Andrea Alvin, about his amazing career.
Can you talk a little bit about how you and John got your start in the art world?
I graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. John was a few years behind me and a mutual friend introduced us and we got together. I had started working in animation, working mostly on commercials. I was doing animation design, some assistant animation…I was generally doing a lot of everything when I met John.
When John graduated he was pursuing an illustration career. At one point I was working for Hanna-Barbera and they were hiring and we decided John could get a job there. We would both have a paycheck for a while…it wasn’t a bad thing. While we were working there, there was a tradeshow for printers, but they had a section for illustrators and artists to show their work. John went to it and he met a guy named, Anthony Goldschmidt.
Anthony had been working in the film industry in advertising as a freelancer. He asked John if he would be interested in doing some work for him. John did a couple of play posters, which in Los Angeles was unusual. That was his first full color work and the first real illustration work he had done. That was his entry into the poster world.
You and John worked as a team on a lot of projects. What was your working relationship like?
For a lot of years, we freelanced in the same studio, doing different jobs. We were always a part of each other’s work. Critiquing and coming up with ideas and that sort of thing.
When he went to go work for Intralink, which was Anthony Goldschmidt’s company, he worked there for 7 or 8 years. That gave him the opportunity to work directly with the studios. When he left there around 1998, we formed our own company. My major in school was Advertising Design and I had been working in the background with him all along. We found that when we started working together we had a really good shorthand. If I came up with an idea, a design, I knew what he could do with it as an illustration. There was this great shorthand going on.
You wrote a book, The Art of John Alvin, what motivated you to do it?
Well, when John started doing movie posters, in a lot of cases they didn’t let him sign his work. Some of that came from studios, and some of that I think came from Anthony not wanting John to get too much attention. Over the years you would ask people, ‘Do you know who John Alvin is?’ They didn’t recognize the name John Alvin. He had done so many major movies and his artwork was so iconic, but his name was not. That was one of my main reasons and I am constantly trying to get his name associated with the actual work that he did. If anyone looks at this in terms of history, they will probably say he did more movie posters, for major motion pictures, than anyone else as an illustrator and designer.
What was his process like—in terms of his poster art creation?
Hopefully he got to see the film and if he didn’t get that…maybe a script or treatment. We would have a concept session that would discuss what the film is about. What were the key moments in the film? Is there anything in the film that would describe the feeling of it? We would both write headline copy and do little visuals. John’s whole concept was to give the viewer the promise of a great experience. It wasn’t about a particular scene in the movie…it was about how he could portray in one image the feeling and emotions involved with the film. That’s what separates a lot of his art…there is an emotional quality to it. We see his art and we picture the film.
What was his working relationship like with Steven Spielberg?
It was exciting because we got to work on the best movies that were coming out. Especially after E.T., it was like, ‘Ok, another Spielberg movie, another Amblin movie!’ It was very exciting at the time. It was a big responsibility to come up with something interesting and something good.
Do any memories or experiences stand out about your and John’s time collaborating with Spielberg?
The story John told me, because I wasn’t there, was he needed to have a photographic reference of E.T.’s hand. They didn’t want anyone to see what E.T. looked like—nobody had seen it at this point. He went on the lot to take pictures and they came out with this big rubber prosthetic hand. He said it was just this big floppy thing. He got terrible pictures of it. It was a bad situation. Ultimately they had to get one of the creature designers to do a blue print drawing of the hand, so that John could work from it.
I actually worked with him on Jurassic Park. We were involved very early on before the movie was shot with logos and all kinds of things. John went to Stan Winston’s studio and got to see all the dinosaurs and everything. We worked on it for a long time and at the very end when he was working on the final Jurassic Park piece…this large painting of the gate with footprints going into it…it was at night with helicopters flying around…and we got a call from Universal saying stop working.
Spielberg decided he wanted the logo from the book on the poster. That was disappointing, but they did use it for standees in the theaters. They did use my copy line: “An Adventure 65 Million Years In The Making.”
What do you think about the current state of poster artwork?
When John first started they would advertise in all of the print magazines, newspapers and they would make the posters. That artwork was used in a lot of different places. Over time they felt that the film trailer was the better sales tool. So they cut back the budget on the posters. They started feeling like posters were second class and not that important.
The other factor was the agencies. They didn’t want the concept anymore, they wanted to see the star…whether that was Tom Cruise or whoever. It became the ‘big head’ on the poster. I think it has evolved from there and has gotten better, but it isn’t what it was when John was doing it.
The studios started saying, ‘you do the concepts and we will finish it.’ Our concepts were great ideas, but they were often picking what we felt were the weakest ideas. In terms of money, you would do all these sketches and you would make your money on the finished art. When the finished art started getting taken away it wasn’t as fulfilling.
Do you think they will ever bring back the style of poster John did?
I don’t. He would get called once in a while because they wanted something ‘retro.’ When you start to get called retro that is a bit of a shock. But, they wouldn’t budget the time. It takes a lot of time to do a big painting. They have gotten so used to how fast you could do a poster in Photoshop that they wouldn’t give him the time. I don’t think it is ever going to come back.
Andrea Alvin is currently working on another book that chronicles the artwork of John Alvin.