When Criterion asked me to try my hand at a design for Charlie Chaplin's MODERN TIMES, I was quite intimidated. It's the first Chaplin film to join the Criterion Collection's esteemed pantheon, and its one of those films you'll run into quite regularly if you're browsing through lists of the best and most beloved films of all time. I was given free reign to come up with whatever ideas I wanted to try, so after watching the movie again (it had been a while) I started doodling in my sketchbook. I don't have scans of those pages with me, but that process led to some rough drawings like these:

And, later that night, some cut construction paper collages like this:

I knew that it was going to be important to represent the modern city as a major character in the artwork, but also that I needed to feature Chaplin himself. The above cartoon of Chaplin's hat becoming a kind of cityscape / landscape had some potential, and it would come up again later. The yellow drawing above touched on a vision I had in my mind of a massive cartoon landscape that showed both the looming industrial city with its giant buildings and gears as well as the natural landscape, with the gears and the hills blending together, and in a more polished version of this concept I imagined a great volume of tiny details-- people, cars, shops, trains, houses, trees, a whole miniature modern world contrasting the modern city to the open American landscape. These initial sketches and doodles served as a way to explore the themes I wanted to focus on while also providing some graphic and textural templates to work with, like the above paper cityscape which would later end up serving as the template for the entire package.

This led to a cover idea that I envisioned as a landscape of gears. The images of Chaplin crawling around and through these massive factory gears are some of the most well-known in movie iconography, and I was initially hesitant to use the gear imagery just since its so obvious. At the same time, if a good design came of the gears I didn't want to rule them out, as some things are obvious because they have good reason to be. Initially, we considered the possibility of using die-cut holes in a cardboard slipcase, where images of Chaplin would slide through the die-cut openings and reveal different moments and scenes. So I made this unfinished "gearscape" layout with that idea in mind.

Meanwhile, I had sketched out two other simple ideas that I thought might work for the cover. The first featured the last shot of the film. I hate to spoil it for anyone reading this, and if you don't want to know what that shot is you might stop here, but I also had the thought that if there were ever a last shot to give away in a poster or cover, this would be a good contender... It's just that good. And what I really, really loved about it was that it showed both Chaplin and his wife at the time, Paulette Godard, and the story is ultimately about these two characters, as a couple. I loved that idea, and although it wasn't ultimately represented in the cover, I tried to spread this theme out through the rest of the package and menus later. This image wasn't the ideal choice for the Criterion cover because it didn't really address any of the modern or technological themes of the movie. The image of the couple walking away had also been used in existing posters and we needed to create some new iconography for the film.

Another doodle led to this concept of Chaplin's face with mismatched gears for eyes. Here I was really inspired by the Czech and Polish posters I love that used a decisively abstract style and didn't necessarily concern themselves with matching the look or story of the film they represented. The black rounded border and some of my type experiments were conceived as a direct homage to these kinds of posters.

Criterion really responded to this design, and we realized it actually worked quite well thematically as well as graphically, in that the movie is about Chaplin's Tramp becoming a part of the industrial machine and going kinda crazy in the process. From here I added the branding and set out to find the perfect typeface to use, at which point our friend F. Ron Miller helped out by suggesting some typefaces from the period. Throughout the process, we also refined the actual image of Charlie's face to make it slightly less abstract than my original concept. I must have tried about 50 different type and layout variations, but we finally found one that felt just right.

From there it was time to start on the menus and booklet. While Criterion Blu-ray menus are built around one image or video with an overlaid interactive menu, their DVDs use multiple menus for each special feature, chapter menu, etc. I had a lot of fun working with some cut-out paper illustrations and integrating them with images from the film. Here I had the opportunity to play with all of Chaplin's personas, sequences and locations within the movie, aside from the industrial gear & factory imagery everyone associates with it, and really create my own playful visual world. I applied this style to the booklet as well, the cover of which used my earlier hat-city idea and became a screenprint for the Belcourt's Chaplin Festival. Here are some selected images from the menu and booklet art:

I came up with the above image as an homage to that last shot of the film, "SMILE" being the theme song of that section and the song that closes the film. This image, without the text, became the back cover of the booklet.

It was a tremendous honor to work on this release and once again I fell in love with this movie while working on the package. Sifting through hundreds of publicity stills and behind-the-scenes photos from the Chaplin Archives was as wonderful a treat as any movie lover could hope for, and I hope that all the Chaplin fans out there enjoy seeing some of those great images in the booklet and supplements. Janus Films is touring the new Chaplin prints around the country right now and I've been surprised how many people I know have admitted they've never even sat down and watched a Charlie Chaplin movie all the way through. If any are playing near you, check them out and get ready to be moved and entertained. At home, you can enjoy Criterion's MODERN TIMES Blu-ray and DVD, for sale now. Thanks again to Sarah Habibi, Abbey Lustgarden and everyone else at Criterion for this opportunity.


Anonymous said...


Antoine said...


Anonymous said...

Fabulous work.

Shellsburg9 said...

Great job - I love it. I especially love the "Gearscape". It looks like it is straight out of the 1930's. I appreciate you did not try to "Modernize" the designs, but kept them in the spirit of the era the film is in.

David said...

Fantastic! Thanks for sharing your process.

Anonymous said...

I love this movie, and I love the art you did for it. Thanks for another fascinating process post.

Anonymous said...

isnt it interesting....the infinite number of ways that life can be captivating and thrilling......lovely peice, Sam....thanks for the inspiration.

KiNo said...

Good work!
I love the collage of the cityscape.