Fight Poster Knock-Out

Faculty Guest Blogger: Bill Yermal

Bill Yermal: Illustration projects come in all shapes and sizes. Many of the projects illustrators get are long on hours and short on excitement and glamour, so when an ad agency in New York called me out of the blue to do a fight poster for HBO’s Boxing After Dark I was thrilled to take a crack at it. Unfortunately the high profile boxing poster I envisioned ended up giving leaving me with a black eye!

round 1

In Spring 2013 I received a call from a creative director from an advertising agency I had never worked with before. He found my work online and decided to give me a call about a project his was working on – the promotional posters for the HBO Boxing After Dark series. The client informed me that they do 12-18 posters a year for this series so if this worked out there would be a lot of work to follow. In my world projects like this are few and far between so I was extremely excited to get the chance to work on this assignment. The agency handling the account was farming out the project to do the fight poster to an illustrator. I would be working directly for the agency, but the final approval on the poster illustration was to come from HBO. Since we had never worked together before the agency decided to do commission the first poster as a test case. I would still be paid for the assignment but it wasn’t going to be used for the fight I was illustrating.

After a preliminary discussion the style of the poster I was sent half a dozen samples of what the visual style the client was looking for. The samples included Nike ads with flaming shoes, jumping and running athletes with sparks and swirls coming off of the figures. Any technique I could think of that expressed fast motion or high energy or dramatic lighting would be suitable for the illustration. Having this much freedom and so little structure was a little intimidating, but at the same time I couldn’t wait to get started! This was going to be a great poster that would was going to give me enormous exposure!

After looking at the samples provided I started on the assignment. The photography of the two fighters would be provided by the agency. I had to work with the photography I was given. The shots of the two fighters were similar in composition and the pose of the fighters, but completely different in terms of how they were photographed and lit. It was going to be a challenge to make the fighters look like they belonged together in the same scene, but I was confident I could make these two images work. After a weekend of Photoshop magic I sent the client a tightly rendered comp illustration of the two fighters. Sending a first image to a client you have never worked with before can be pretty stressful. You have no idea how they like to work, what style they gravitate towards and most importantly how they art direct a project. Every project requires you to meet the stated goals of the assignment, but you also have to work with a wide variety of people. So much of being a successful professional in any field is dealing with different personalities. Some people are very communicative and respond quickly when you submit a sketch, others may not even respond and you have to follow up time and again just to make sure they are receiving your emails. The more adaptable you are to their style the more likely the process is to go smoothly.

Knock OutI was absolutely thrilled when the art director told me he loved the first illustration. “I have never had an illustrator nail it on the first take before.” I was thrilled! Visions of a career doing fight posters for HBO were already swirling in my head! Unfortunately, that moment was to be the highlight of this project! The agency liked to submit 10 posters for approval to HBO so I had 9 more variations still left to do. From that moment on the art director never approved of any of the remaining images I submitted. I tried every type of technique I could think of to create a dramatic and interesting photomontage. I ended up doing a total of 18 designs that were all rejected.

End of round 1

I went back and looked at the previous fight posters that had been produced. I pulled out the samples the client had sent and tried to figure out why my images weren’t working. After several frustrating weeks of trying and failing to provide another acceptable image the agency pulled the plug. I did not agree with the assessment that none of these images were successful. I felt that many of the illustrations could have worked and that they should have been presented to HBO so that we could have gotten some feedback. I lost this round and none of the images were ever shown to HBO. I felt very dejected that I had not been able to meet the needs of the client. As an illustrator with 20 years of experience I pride myself on being able to solve visual problems and provide a good final product to a satisfied customer. This was the first and only time in my career a project did not have a successful resolution.

We agreed that this wasn’t working and that when the next fight project came up I would get another shot at it, so I wasn’t surprised when a month later I got another call from the agency regarding the next poster. With the last failure still fresh in my mind, I was more than a little nervous to try another round, but still confident this project could be a success. I submitted 3 new images, none of which were accepted by the agency art director. From my perspective the biggest problem was that the art director had never given me the slightest direction on what he wanted to change so I asked him, “what specifically about these illustrations isn’t working for you?” Is it the color, the style, the typography, the composition? He had no specific direction, he only replied, “I need to see something I have never seen before.” That is not helpful or realistic direction. I realized that without some sort of specific suggestion from the art director this project could go on forever and never be completed successfully.

I did two more rejected versions of the project before I gave up. I called him and said that it was obvious that I would never be able to supply him with a suitable set of images for this project. I told him to keep the work I had done to that point. There would be no charge or kill fee for any of the work I had produced. He was free to do whatever he wanted with the images. I didn’t feel good about the way the project had ended, but I know I wasn’t going to be able to satisfy him on one image much less ten. I was disappointed that the project ended the way it had. I thought this project had so much promise and potential! I was sorry, but I was also very relieved not to be working on it any longer.

End of round 2

In a very ironic twist, the art director called me again about a week later. He had run out of time and he had finally shown the abandoned images I had worked on to HBO. They loved several of them! He said that they only needed a few small revisions. I told him that I would be happy to make a round of revisions provided he gave me a specific list of what he wanted me to change. I did not want to get back on an endless merry-go-round trying to create something “he had never seen before”. He never responded to my offer and we never did finish the project or work together again. It was a project I really wanted to do but the art director was never able to communicate what he wanted in the final illustration, or what the images I submitted had lacked. I believed that many of the images could have worked if only we moved forward with them. I think the response from HBO proved that. This adventure, more than any other, made me appreciate the importance of good art direction and the value of strong communication skills.

Knockout!

Bill Yermal is an Adjunct Professor of Illustration at Marywood University. To learn more about his work, visit his website at http://www.TheArtGuy.com

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