The Fall of the House of Usher cover design
Date : Tuesday 25 April, 2017
It may officially be the spring time, and the days might be significantly longer, but last week’s attack of snow in Poland instantly brought back the memory of those long months of harsh winter presence, with its cold waves and blue Mondays. And as I got reminded of winter, the season of dark tales and gloomy works of art, I thought this might be a good opportunity to write about the recent release of Hands of Ruin’s soundtrack to James Sibley Watson’s and Melville Webber’s film based on The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, whose 208th birthday was in January. Once again, I had the pleasure of working with Colin Z Robertson, the man behind Hands of Ruin formation, for whom I designed a cover to the soundtrack to another Watson-Webber film, Lot in Sodom. As we both immensely enjoyed working on that first project, we were looking forward to another collaboration, which turned out just as fun and rewarding as the previous one.
Since both films were made by the same directing duo, we felt that we should be consistent with the visual style. Therefore, just like in the case of Lot, we were aiming for an old print look with a slightly grainy texture, and we kept the colour palette just as limited as before. The colours were different though — while the Lot cover had olive green and warm yellow, we felt that Usher, being a darker tale, should have darker and cooler colours, so I suggested indigo and a variety of greys. Content-wise, there were a few design concepts, all of which explored the visual distortion techniques Watson and Webber were so famous for, like superimposing shots and shooting through prisms. But what I was pretty sure of was that the cover should feature both Madeline, Roderick Usher’s tragic cataleptic twin sister, who gets accidentally buried alive in the family tomb, and the unnamed narrator who travels on the horse to visit the peculiar siblings, and is a witness to the paranoia and madness that take place in the house. Since Madeline’s emerging from the “dead” was so beautifully visualised in the film with the use of coffins, revealed as multiple sets of superimposed stairs are moving sideways, I was very eager to incorporate both elements into the cover. The image where Madeline is standing with her back to us with her hand raised up on the coffin is so powerful and chilling, that we quickly decided we must use it.
The biggest challenge, as is often the case with graphic design, was choosing the typography. Having experimented with a number of modernist typefaces (including Zebrazil or Bazar), and failed to find one we would be happy with, we considered using the custom-drawn letters that appear in the film (just as we used the lettering in Lot in Sodom for the main title on the cover). But, again, this didn’t quite work. Finally we established that what this particular cover needed was actually a classical serif typeface, which was a challenge for me, as I rarely work with serif fonts. The typeface needed to be fairly condensed, given the amount of space on the cover, and with pronounced tails. The three contestants were Rosarivo (by Pablo Ugerman), Optimus Princeps (by Manfred Klein) and Griffos (also by Manfred Klein). After various experiments with placing of the text, kerning, leading, and adjusting the size of individual letters, we decided on Optimus Princeps for the main title, a beautiful typeface which reproduces the Roman style of carved typography, and Canter for “Soundtrack by Hands of Ruin” (used also in the Lot project, which created a nice link between the two).
Being based on Poe’s prose, the film is incomparably more well-known than Lot in Sodom. Since Colin released the soundtrack on YouTube in 2012, it attracted over 17 000 viewers, and many positive reviews. Alec Wilder’s original score, while being proper and solid in all senses of the word, in my view doesn’t suit the avant-garde style of filming, and fails to create a truly sombre and unnerving ambiance. Colin’s music works perfectly (as one person commented on YouTube, it is “the most perfect thing I have ever heard! I’ve seen so many silent films with modern scores that were either just ok or not very good but this one is so good it takes my breath away!”), and I hope that the cover and booklet complement the film and the score well. You can buy the album on Hands of Ruin Bandcamp site here. Happy listening!