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Interview with Thomas Walker

Thomas Walker Portrait
Thomas Walker talks about his procedure ,his cooperation with Third Window, Arrow and 88 films, coming up with art for "Battle Royale", "Vital", "Pulse" and "Dragons Forever" and other topics.

is a UK-based illustrator with over 20 years professional design experience, specialising in film posters, physical media artwork and book covers.

We speak with about his interest in Asian cinema, his procedure of creating, his cooperation with Third Window, Arrow and , coming up with art for “”, “”, “” and “” and other topics.

How did your interest with Asian cinema begin and how did you get started working on film posters and covers?

It started from what some might say too young an age. Staying up past my bedtime and discovering weird and wonderful films on late-night TV that blew my tiny, impressionable mind, like “”, “” and eighties films. It sparked a desire to seek out and understand all aspects of Asian culture, not just film.

I'd always wanted to be an illustrator/graphic designer – I wasn't good at much else but I knew I had a talent for art. I fell out of love with it as a teenager, I didn't fully understand how to apply my skillset to it and discovered my sensibilities aligned more with 3D Design. So I studied that, earned a position at one of the UK's leading design consultancies, and worked as a stylist for almost 10 years. When I hit 30, I wanted to shake things up, so I quit and moved to New Zealand. Much soul- searching and deliberation on what I was going to be next ensued. What could I do that would fulfil me, pay the bills, but didn't completely abandon all the skills I'd developed? I had a 3AM “eureka” moment when I realized I could combine my skills with my interest in writing and literature and become a book cover designer. So I set about creating a portfolio from scratch, redesigning some iconic books, and then emailed every publisher I could find until one took a chance on me.

Around that same time, alternative movie posters were becoming a thing. In between book covers, creating posters for my favorite films scratched an itch I never knew I had. It had never dawned on me that you could make a career creating art for the movies. Just for fun, I made my first alternative poster for my favorite film “The Shining”, and submitted it to a website that collated every memento, prop, behind-the-scenes photo and fact from Kubrick's film. I chatted back and forth with the creator of the website (he called himself “The Caretaker”) and he kindly agreed to feature my poster. Incredibly, it was months later that I realized I had in fact been chatting with Pixar's Lee Unkrich.

What is your procedure, when you start drawing? Does it differ between working on a movie and a book?

I start every project with a good old-fashioned spider diagram. I scribble down every thematic and associated visual cue I can think of, and then try and find connective tissue between them. Firstly, I'm looking to see if there's a clever way of integrating two of these visual elements to unlock a new, fresh and surprising way of viewing something. As my wife jokingly calls it, “you think it's one thing, but it's also this other thing”. My alternative approach is to create a scene that encapsulates the story, tone and essence of the film.

My sketches are very quick, scratchy and loose (“back of a cigarette pack” as we called them in my consultancy days). A vital trick I learnt from my agency days is to not dwell on an idea. When you need 20 concepts, you're not being precious, drawing a sketch just-so, you're extracting the ideas out of your head as quickly as possible. When you have something, circle it and move on. Usually when you instinctively know you have the right direction you can picture the final piece in your head before you even make a mark on a page. If I think I have something I jump immediately into photo-mashing images so I can see if the composition works.

With book design, the mistake some people make is expecting to apply the principles of a film poster onto a book cover. The canvas is considerably smaller and crucially needs to communicate everything at Kindle-optimised, thumbnail size. The idea needs to be simple, clear and concise and still work at the size of a postage stamp. Obviously a Blu-ray or steel book is also small, but there's usually a pre-existing understanding of the title from the viewer so you can afford to be more nuanced or detailed. Plus, they're more coveted so customers expect more – they're similar to a collectable poster in that respect.

Have you ever had to do artwork for a film you do not like? Or draw something about a film you like but you end up not liking the work? In general, as a movie fan, what kind of movies do you like?

I suppose the professional answer is that its not about the film, rather whether you can create something interesting with it. I've never turned down a film poster or cover job because I'm not a fan of the film. It's a fun challenge to find some way of creating an inspiring image from it. Every project is an opportunity to grow, create something fresh, maybe try a different approach, a new technique.

I'm sure every artist has projects that didn't turn out the way they hoped. Artists who have their own work on their walls must be psychotic – if it were me, I'd fixate on every line thickness, color choice, font choice, find a thousand ways I could have done it better. Over the years, my techniques and sensibilities have evolved and hopefully matured, so I look back on earlier pieces and cringe slightly.

Very hard to pin down what kind of movies I like… When I think of all my favorite films, a lot of them are shot in one location, almost certainly stemming from my love for “The Shining”. As I've gotten older, I'm less wowed with the visual bravado of a filmmaker, I'm far more interested in engaging, inventive storytelling. That's why I love a ‘bottle episode' of a TV show – they force the writers to focus on character and story.

How did your co-operation with Third Window, 88 Films and Arrow get started?

It's amazing the trajectory that creating film art has taken me. Starting out, I had no idea there was a whole industry that not only specialised in curating physical media, but also took great pride in presenting these films with unique and original artwork, and were scouting the film poster world for artists. Second Sight were the first company to get in touch and take a chance on me in that respect, and I was pleasantly surprised and amazed that here that was a whole new world of possibility to combine art with film. So after that, much like my early book cover work, I scoured the internet for the contacts of every specialist Blu-ray/steel book distributor I could find and bombarded them with emails. I'm fortunate that I've created relationships with Third Window, 88Films, Arrow, 101Films, Spectrum, Turbine, Fractured Visions  amongst others, and that they have such an appreciation for presenting World Cinema with new and creative packaging.

Can you give us some details about how came up with the artwork of Battle Royale, Vital, Pulse and Dragons Forever.

Battle Royale Blu Ray

Battle Royale is such a cult classic and a real gateway to Asian cinema for myself and others that it was a proud, thrilling and daunting moment to be invited to create artwork for it. The concept came from attempting to effectively communicate the synopsis of the film; a bloody battle with one combatant left standing. I felt this image was a neat way of communicating the competition and the brutality.

Vital Blu Ray

Vital was a trickier one, and having the title represented by the strands of blood vessels in an arm I felt was a cool idea. I don't know if I had the opportunity again whether I'd create a piece that incorporated the text into the art, perhaps it comes across a little cartoonish in my style. I feel my sensibilities and understanding of my own style have shifted since then.

Pulse Blu Ray

Pulse was one of my first projects with Arrow. Trying to capture the sombre, haunting mood of the film was a challenge. My technique when it comes to portraits have certainly changed since I tackled this, but the glitching effect keeps things interesting. For a while I believe a blown-up poster of this cover was actually up on the wall at the Arrow offices, which is a real badge of honour.

Dragons Forever Blu Ray

If you'd told me as a Hong Kong action cinema-obsessed teenager I'd one day be paid to draw Jackie Chan I wouldn't have believed you. With Dragons Forever, it presented a opportunity to do something a little out of my comfort zone, to incorporate multiple characters on one cover, almost like a superhero film. With this design, it wasn't about being clever or capturing a tone or telling a story, I just wanted to create a bold, bright, fun, dynamic and action-packed collage.

Can you also let us know of some your own favorite works?

The pieces of mine that I'm most proud of are the ones where I feel I've managed to either capture the tone and essence of a film in a single image, or – as I mentioned earlier – found a smart way fot combining elements into something surprising. They might not be perfect (see my earlier answers!) but if I had to pick any, I'm proud of some of my personal projects such as the posters for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, The Sopranos and Oppenheimer. These projects have been just as valuable in generating interest in me as official commissions.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Are you working on anything new at the moment?

It's been a busy year so far, a good mix of book covers for some new and returning clients, and plenty of cover artwork for my physical media friends. So much of it is yet to be released so from a social media/self-promotion standpoint there's been more radio silence than I'd like, but I'm excited to share everything I've been working on and for what the rest of the year brings.

About the author

Panos Kotzathanasis

Panagiotis (Panos) Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer, specialized in Asian Cinema. He is the owner and administrator of Asian Movie Pulse, one of the biggest portals dealing with Asian cinema. He is a frequent writer in Hancinema, Taste of Cinema, and his texts can be found in a number of other publications including SIRP in Estonia, Film.sk in Slovakia, Asian Dialogue in the UK, Cinefil in Japan and Filmbuff in India.

Since 2019, he cooperates with Thessaloniki Cinematheque in Greece, curating various tributes to Asian cinema. He has participated, with video recordings and text, on a number of Asian movie releases, for Spectrum, Dekanalog and Error 4444. He has taken part as an expert on the Erasmus+ program, “Asian Cinema Education”, on the Asian Cinema Education International Journalism and Film Criticism Course.

Apart from a member of FIPRESCI and the Greek Cinema Critics Association, he is also a member of NETPAC, the Hellenic Film Academy and the Online Film Critics Association.

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