• Criterion Designs: Dr. Strangelove

    By Eric Skillman


    Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satire of Cold War nuclear hysteria, is a high-water mark in the careers of its director, actors Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, cowriter Terry Southern, and other luminaries. But for design nerds, the contributions of Pablo Ferro, who designed the film’s iconic opening credit sequence, are just as notable. So it was surprising to find that the aesthetic that Ferro established in the titles had never really been used on any official posters or home-video packaging. That was something we wanted to rectify.


    Ferro’s lettering was intended to basically fill the (horizontal) screen, so a direct translation to our (vertical) cover wasn’t ideal. I liked the idea of squeezing the amusingly long title into the shape of a bomb, and a quick rough version convinced me that was feasible:


    It needed something more, though, so I followed Ferro’s lead and set it on the image of the bomber from the opening titles. Showing the comically outsized “bomb” dropping from the plane seemed to strike the right balance of absurdity and pitch-black comedy, and I was quite pleased with myself, I must say . . .


    . . . until we announced the title and were promptly informed by our keen-eyed audience that the plane I’d used was in fact the refueling plane, a KC-135 tanker, and not the B-52 bomber at all. As fan Juan Reyes rightly described it, “it is tantamount to a cover of Back to the Future being released with a picture of a Ferrari instead of a DeLorean.” Suitably chastised, we quickly corrected the error. Happily, there did exist a similar image of the bomber later in the film, so the swap was relatively seamless:


    As happy as we were with the Ferro-inspired cover, we wanted to find a new idiom for the rest of the packaging. Producer Curtis Tsui suggested riffing on the “Plan R” documents opened by Major Kong and his crew, and his access to scans of the original props provided by the Stanley Kubrick Archive proved invaluable in getting those details just right. For example, here’s a clip showing one of the original props:

    And here’s our version:


    We mashed that up with the “survival kit” issued to the bomber crew, as described by Major Kong in this clip:

    We weren’t about to include a .45 or a hundred dollars in rubles, of course, and no good could possibly come from manufacturing Strangelove-branded prophylactics. But a pastiche of a certain men’s magazine seemed like it would hit something like the same comedic note, and some promotional cheesecake photos of actor Tracy Reed—“Miss Foreign Affairs” herself—lent themselves surprisingly well to the concept.


    I’ll refrain from spoiling all the little jokes we scattered throughout the package, and leave you with the pièce de résistance, the survival kit's “miniature combination Roo-shan phrase book and Bible”:


    This post, inspired by the book Criterion Designs, is a continuation of our efforts to share insights into the collaborative process of creating images for our releases. Eric Skillman is a designer and art director at the Criterion Collection.


  • By John Sullivan
    June 30, 2016
    07:44 PM

    Strangelove-branded prophylactics would have been an ingenious promotional tool during the film's initial release, had they been able to get away with it.
    • By Naked_Island
      June 30, 2016
      09:44 PM

      Indeed. They could have "Precious bodily fluids" written down the side.
  • By Antiquercus
    July 01, 2016
    02:43 AM

    I wonder if Dr Strangelove is the first mention in film of prophylactics.
  • By Eric M Litke
    July 01, 2016
    09:32 PM

    Mr. Skillman, regarding your cover: A+ concept, C- execution. Your title is, uh, bombing. It's losing a visual weight battle with the black bars and Criterion logo that it's got to win: it's the title! B-I-G-G-E-R and why not a 'lil bulge; why does it have to be pin straight? Visual Interest is the name o' the game. Look at the undulating play with scale and pos/neg space in Ferro's stacked words and his crooked, wavering, skinny line: that is why that title works. Your rough draft has great grit and feel that got drained outta your final. The concept is: "handwritten" . . . imperfect!
    • By Bernard Jenkins
      July 06, 2016
      07:51 AM

      Thanks for sharing. Now go fuck yourself. Just when I thought the internet couldn't get any more bitter, petty and lame I read your comment and my faith is restored. Critiquing Criterion's design. Really? It's come to that for you, eh? While there's no cure for edema of the soul, you could probably use more fiber in your diet.
  • By DavidDR
    July 05, 2016
    03:18 AM

    I agree with Eric to some degree. I will say, the rough draft is better. The final draft didnt need the plane. Putting it under the plane is like a person explaining the joke to a punchline. We get it already, the words are in the shape of a bomb. Would have been much cooler and more powerful without the plane showing the words are a bomb. That would have made the title bigger too. All the inside stuff is a great idea though. Thanks, CC.
  • By Majus
    July 10, 2016
    04:21 PM

    Jeez everyone's favorite pastime is picking cover design nits it seems. I admit some CC designs leave me cold but hey--that's the designer's prerogative. I'm happy to have the package at all!