Finding a Film's Essence : Poster designer John Alvin has created lasting images for some of the most popular movies ever.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You've seen John Alvin's work, and probably remember it, even if youdon't know his name. The poster for Disney's current animated smash, "The Lion King," is his. And it was the 45-year-old Alvin who did the one-sheet, or poster, for Steven Spielberg's "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982).

That's the one in which the lovable alien's elongated finger reaches out in digital embrace to the extended finger of his human friend (actually Alvin's then-6-year-old daughter Farah). The "E.T." poster is classic Alvin, as memorable and schmaltzy as good chopped liver, the image infused with cosmic optimism and rigged to set off viewer emotions through visual references to everything from Michelangelo's "Creation"--God reaches out to newly created man--to the fetus- hurling- through- darkest- outer- space sequence in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey."

A veteran of more than 100 movie campaigns, Alvin has the distinction of having created posters for 10 of the most popular films of all time--"E.T.," "Aladdin," "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (the most recent re-release), "Rain Man," "Batman Returns," "Gremlins," "Beauty and the Beast," "City Slickers," "Hook" and "Blazing Saddles." Creating classic movie posters doesn't make you famous, obviously, or Alvin wouldn't be what he describes as "the best-kept secret in the movie business." But the artist, or "visual problem-solver" as he has described himself, has found a lucrative, albeit unheralded, niche in the film industry, one that is financially and artistically rewarding.

Alvin has always had a knack for coming up with the iconic image that is the key to a successful poster. He was the kid everybody wanted to do the posters for the class plays at Pacific Grove High School in central California, where he grew up. Later, Alvin refined his posteresque sensibility and acquired a full panoply of artist's skills and techniques as a student at the Art Center College of Design, then in Downtown Los Angeles. It was there that he met his wife, Andrea, a painter as well as Alvin's partner in the design business they run out of their Northridge home.

Alvin broke into the movie poster business 20 years ago, when friends who worked at Warner Bros. told him Mel Brooks was unhappy with the marketing materials proposed for "Blazing Saddles." Alvin quickly produced a poster that was almost as unusual as the movie--a serious, even formal composition using zany visual elements from the film. Alvin often refers to his wife as his secret weapon, and she made a small but critical contribution to Alvin's first hit poster by proposing that the headdress worn by Brooks as the Yiddish-speaking Indian chief bear the beaded inscription, "Kosher for Passover"--in Hebrew, of course. The joke was just what was needed, Alvin says, "to take the edge off what was basically serious art." Brooks loved it, and the Alvins have worked with him on pictures ever since.

According to Alvin, a poster is essentially a promise of a wonderful cinematic time to come. In designing the poster for "The Lion King," he recalls, "even before we knew the story, we were trying to capture the feeling you get when you see the movie."

Surprisingly, Alvin often has very little to guide him when he starts a project. He rarely has the luxury of screening a finished film before he must find a way to make its essence visible, although he did get to see director Ridley Scott's original cut of "Blade Runner" (1982) before creating that film's now highly collectible one-sheet. But the "E.T." poster evolved from nothing more than a hurried reading of the script in a borrowed office at Universal and Spielberg's idea of capturing a Michelangelo moment, conveyed to Alvin secondhand.

Similarly, Alvin never sat down with the animators to discuss "The Lion King" before he did the poster. In fact, he's never met the Disney artists, although he says he'd love to. Instead, a Disney executive gave Alvin a fortune-cookie summary of the film, something along the lines of "It's like Hamlet meets King Arthur in Bambi-land, only without the forest." That, some discussion and Alvin's lifelong familiarity with the art of Disney was enough to inspire the final poster, with its powerful image of the ascended King of Beasts.

Alvin has been working regularly with Disney since "Arachnophobia" (1990). His forte is helping create campaigns that appeal to Disney's considerable adult audience, one of whom is Alvin himself ("Maybe I've always been close to the mouse," he muses). As Alvin explains, since 1989's "The Little Mermaid," Disney has typically developed two different posters, and indeed two full-fledged marketing campaigns, for each film--an adult one and a juvenile one. "The juvenile image will typically show every character interacting--a big, happy party," Alvin says. "The adult image will usually be more elegant, more symbolic." As Andrea Alvin observes, "people come to John when they want a mood, they want that magical aura."

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"The adult image is more of a tease, frankly," says Alvin. "Sometimes the less that's shown, the better it is." A perfect example is the adult poster for "Beauty and the Beast" in which the backlit figures of Belle and her monstrous suitor are shown slow dancing in an image that evokes the emotions of both fairy tale and senior prom. "In 'Beauty and the Beast,' " Alvin notes, "you never actually see them dancing that way, in that ethereal light, but you feel them that way."

Alvin's ability to infuse his posters with feeling is one reason Disney executive Fred Tio wanted Alvin for "The Lion King." "His work inspires me," says Tio, Disney vice president of creative services. "He brings emotion into his artwork that a lot of times can only be captured in an illustration."

One of the ways Alvin achieves the moody look of so many of his posters is by using an airbrush. The airbrush has been one of his favorite tools since high school, when he realized it could be used for more than spray-painting pictures of fast cars on T-shirts. With an airbrush, he says, he is able to imply soft focus, to create atmosphere, to suggest mist and vapor. It also allows him to blend and overlay colors in original ways. "If you're clever, you can induce a nice, dreamlike image," he says.

His wife says that Alvin uses whatever means necessary to achieve the desired effect. "He'd use Rice Krispies, if he thought they would work." And, increasingly, that means exploiting the design potential of an Apple computer. "If we've done anything wisely in the last five years," says Alvin, "it's to use technology as a blessing."

Alvin is amazed how many traditionally trained artists approach the new technology with fear and loathing. But he believes both the pencil and the computer can be the artist's friend. "We've benefited enormously from contemporary technology," he says.

As an example, he describes how the family Mac helped create the poster for "The Lion King." The final version began, Alvin says, as a 9-by-12-inch paint study of the heavenly lion's head. The original painting was "very orange, very hot, very African."

The paint study was scanned into their computer, and Alvin took it on disk to a meeting at Disney. The marketing people loved it but thought it should be blue, not orange. So instead of repainting the picture, Alvin recalibrated the color on the Macintosh to create a blue version. Later he added a frame from the film to the bottom of the image--so that all the animals of the Serengeti now seem to be gathered beneath the paternal gaze of the Lion King. Finally, with the computer-altered image as a guide, he did a large painting, using his beloved airbrush, that became the haunting poster appearing now at a theater near you.

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