The San Francisco–based creative team Century, cofounded by Jason Hardy and Steve Knodel, is no stranger to working with Criterion, having designed our Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema set, as well as the current form of this very website. The latest of our editions to include Hardy and Knodel’s visual signature—our rerelease of The Cranes Are Flying, available now—is yet another testament to their ability to make a bold impression while also expressing the emotional subtleties of the work at hand. Below, Hardy describes the process of conceptualizing and fine-tuning that went into the final Cranes cover image.
When we first began working on the cover art for Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (1957), we focused on three aspects of the film that felt like rich territory for design exploration.
The first was Sergei Urusevsky’s innovative cinematography. Urusevsky’s work has a feel all its own, and though many of the techniques he employed were revolutionary, his images always work in the service of the drama, never overshadowing it. Another obvious source of inspiration was Kalatozov’s approach to telling the story, in which two lovers are separated by World War II. It is intense, layered, and heartbreaking. The intersecting paths and missed connections of the characters, the struggle to remain hopeful and the cruelty of fate, combine to make for a rich, complex film. And finally, there was Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova), who emerges as a resilient source of strength and optimism.
When Criterion art director Sarah Habibi first briefed us on the project, she put forth the idea of using multiple images to weave the different characters and locations together in a dramatic way. We needed to establish the backdrop of war, while maintaining a focus on Veronica. We thought that a collage-style approach would help us achieve that balance, so we started out by combining graphic elements, imagery, and typography in different ways.
We liked the idea of incorporating flowers into the cover somehow. In the final scene, when Veronica learns that Boris has died, she is given a bouquet of flowers. She quickly begins passing the flowers around to all the other people around her, many of whom are celebrating the return of their loved ones. We thought it might be interesting to use the flowers—a symbol of selflessness, optimism and forward-looking ideals—juxtaposed against feelings of being trapped.
Another graphic device that we tried incorporating was handwritten typography. Handwriting tends to feel intimate and personal, and throughout the film Veronica misses out on discovering a letter written to her by Boris before he leaves for the war.
While we liked some of the tension and symbolism that we were getting here, we felt that there needed to be more overlap and deeper layers, more perspectives and greater contrast. The flowers weren’t working, and the connection to the war was getting lost. We started settling in on a color scheme and tried some different combinations of elements. We wanted the overarching, first-glance impression to feel big and weighty, but we also wanted to position the characters in ways that felt disjointed and isolated.
At this point, focusing on the characters themselves felt like the right move and it was a matter of finding the right images, expressions, and textures to tell the story. We chose an image of Veronica where she appears resilient and focused, looking upward; behind her, we included one of Boris, her lost love, looking down, crestfallen and exhausted. An image of the two of them, isolated from each other, hovers like a memory at the base of his gaze. Along the bottom, we chose to show Boris, fighting for his life (and the life of his friend), slogging through the mud. The texture and layers here are meant to emphasize the tension between torn, chaotic desperation and bleak emptiness.
One of the best things about designing a cover for the Criterion Collection is that, by the end of the project, you have a new understanding of the film itself. Our goal is always to add to the film’s legacy, so we live with the characters and try to interpret the director’s intentions. With The Cranes Are Flying, we developed a deep respect for Kalatozov and Urusevsky’s spirited, inventive storytelling. It is inspiring work. The nuanced complexity of Veronica’s character (and Samoilova’s portrayal) also left a lasting impression on us. Her ability to be both hauntingly sad and optimistically defiant feels as relevant today as it must have in 1957. We hope that our new cover art achieves a similar effect.