NICK CARDY: THE ART OF MOVIE POSTERS
At age 87, legendary artist Nick Cardy is as passionate about his beloved craft as the day he first set foot at Will Eisner and Jerry Iger's studio in 1939 and began his professional career. At DC Comics, the illustrator forever left his mark on "Aquaman" and "Teen Titans"; in addition, he rendered many iconic covers for the flagship characters throughout his twenty-five years at the company. His impeccable storytelling and large range of styles would lead him to a very successful career as one of the top film poster artist of the 1970s, perhaps the last true golden age of cinema. Neil Simon's "California Suite," Sonny Chiba's "The Street Fighter," George C. Scott's "Movie Movie," various Walter Matteau films and many other popular matinee fare of the era had posters by the heavily in-demand Mr. Cardy. Also important, Cardy provided a last minute key art touch-up to Tom Jung's classic poster for George Lucas's "Star Wars" in 1977. The artist's next project is "Nick Cardy: Behind The Art" (with co-writer Eric Nolen-Weathington). In the upcoming TwoMorrows hardcover book, Cardy will look back on the creation of his finest works from throughout his distinguish career.
This interview was conducted in early December of 2007. The conversation focuses on the lost art of film posters. For myself, I grew up a block from two old movie houses that I would run to every Friday to see the newest film posters of the latest releases. The glamour of these great posters could inspire anyone to open up their imaginations by enticing them to see these particular films. Growing up, I vividly remember much of Nick Cardy's work capturing me as a young boy in an era when these posters were truly art.
Nick, how did you get your foot in the door in terms of doing movie posters?
Well, when I left DC, I did, I did some covers for Marvel, and the reason was to see how the different mediums I used [like watercolor, acrylic, or whatever] reproduced. I did quite a few covers for Marvel. There was one that I tried acrylics on and that was a kung fu type cover and the other one was a sick character. So I tried the different mediums. After I did that, I had some samples, and I went to different agencies. I went to one agency and they had me do some sketches and that's how I started in the agency, as a freelance artist. There they had me do some layouts. They had an idea, and they said, "Could you make a sketch of something?" Say, like Walter Matthau. So I made sketches, and, whereas before I used to get about $60 or $65 for a cover for DC, or, I don't know what it was, $45 a page for comics. Here, I worked for a couple of days, and I got $1000 or $2000 for them. The layouts were large and done in pencil or charcoal.
Were things in the comics business starting to dry up?
Well, after the war ,it was about 1950, I was doing some advertising, and I started making samples to show. My ambition was to be an illustrator, but I was in competition with some guys that are really good. I would say there were three or four hundred top illustrators, and there were others that were pretty good, too. They were doing illustrations by using large copying equipment. When you do a movie poster, they have a list of the characters that you have to deal with. Each movie company has a man that takes still shots throughout the movie. So, when the movie's done, they would give the artist that's working on it three or four composite sheets; each sheet has all the film that he used in shooting, one roll, then another roll, but they were all on the sheets so you could see them all. They were about an inch big each frame. When Norman Rockwell did a painting, he would have these characters pose for him. And then he would have those photographs enlarged in pieces or segments, where he would just trace the drawings from the projection. You see? Well, for me, to cut down on that, I leaned towards humor. When I was doing humor or caricatures, I cut down the competition by a half or three quarters. I only used photos as a guide for a caricature all the rest was original art no photos. But then I fell into the category of humorous illustrator, so I had to deal with others that were my competition. Whenever an advertising company wanted someone to draw a poster for them, if it was humorous, they have about two or three fellows that they liked, and they would ask each one to do one. It's called a finished comp, of a scene that they worked on. And one would do it one way, the other one would do it another way, and then they would show it to the producer. The producer would pick up one – say they gave you $3000 to do that painting, right? If the producer picked yours out of the three, you would get an extra $3000. It was nice if you could get two or three of those a year. Later on that all petered out because photography was cheaper, and it was a lot quicker or whatever. A lot of artists that used to paint went into different fields.
Did you find any resistance from those agencies because you were a comic book artist? Did they treat you any differently?
Well, I'll tell you. Before I went to the advertising agencies, comic books were a dirty word. That was in the fifties and sixties. By the time it got to '74 and '75, the advertising people had been infiltrated by art directors, artists that became art directors that were influenced by comics. So it wasn't a dirty word anymore. That's why I changed my name on some of the drawings. I'd put C-A-R-D-I on my last name, which is the way it was originally. So, therefore, I didn't want to have the stigma of being the comic artist. The other stuff was C-A-R-D-Y, you see. I don't know what difference it made, but I didn't say I was a comic book artist – in some of them, when I showed them Superman stuff, they looked at you and right off the bat you were down two levels.
But you were always a huge movie fan and film buff. I was reading your book, "The Art of Nick Cardy" by John Coates and yourself, where it said you were always influenced by John Ford's storytelling and other film directors.
Yes, I was. A movie is in motion, where as comic book stories are many single pieces of art or shots. Movies, more or less, are paintings that move. In comics you select, long shots, close-ups, etc… with selected paints. Like, say if a man and a wife were going into this house, it's supposed to be a "House of Mystery" story, so you show a long shot of the house and the grounds, then you show them coming into the entrance, and while they're in the entranceway, you can take a shot and look down from the first flight down the stairs of the banister to these people, but right at the top you could show a foot in a silhouette, just a foot or part of the trousers, and it's dark, so you know they're getting into something sinister. In other words, you're doing it in steps, to tell a story. Where you do an illustration, you're doing one picture or one scene from a picture. Like a cover, you're doing one scene, and with that, then you have to compose it like you would any other painting. But the other is telling a story in sections.
There's a director called Rene Clair who did a movie many years ago called "And Then There Were None," an Agatha Christie movie, the first one. The way he introduced these characters to the story, it all takes place on a lifeboat. And you have to tell a little about each person in that boat that is going to this island that they will never come back from. And maybe a girl is sitting there when smoke goes across her face, and she screws up her face and looks at this guy with this pipe sitting next to her when he sees her look at him, he takes it down, he says he is sorry. While he's doing that, a scarf blows across his face from the woman sitting next to him, and so on. They lead to all the others in boat, and you get a little bit of their characters. Then you go to this island. The way he led things into another, it was so smooth. In the sixties or so, movies were shot so quick that they didn't have a smooth transition. They just shot from one scene to the other. That's the thing that screwed it up for me in the sense that it wasn't the smooth stuff. With Ford it was one way, but there's one or two others that I liked, and William Wyler was about the best. And Hitchcock! It depends on what you're doing.
The main thing for a comic book man is to tell a story, and to tell the story well. When you think back to those days, when you did an original, you gave the original to DC, and you never saw it again. As a freelance artist, I would deliver my job, and they would let you sit in the room or an empty desk to clean up where the ink lines went over the edges of the paper and you'd clean it up. So one time I went in to get some white paint or something in that storage room, they had comic book pages stacked up about four feet high, and there was a big cardboard drum that used to have these metal rims around the top where they fasten them. There was this man, who was a supervisor or something, and he was taking these original pages and he was tearing them in half and throwing them in the garbage back. That shocked me, so when he was gone, I looked and I picked out some of my "Bat Lash" pages or whatever I had and I took them home with me. Later on they gave you your original art back, and with the movie posters, they gave you your original art back. Until later on, Paramount, kept them.
How would you handle each assignment? Was there a main thing that you always wanted to convey in these paintings for the movies?
Well, with the movies, it depended on what it was. You try to follow the theme of the movie, and you try to pick out a scene that doesn't give away the movie, but is something in the scene that would make you want to see it. In these advertising agencies, they had an art director that would figure it out; he would give you stick figures. I would draw something like where the guy's holding the girl, and I made a background something like this, so he gives you that, and you make a drawing. Sometimes you make two or three of the rough sketches, and you say, "Well, the idea you gave me, I shifted it over this way to give it more action," whatever it was. So you work together on that, and then you come up with a movie poster.
So they would even request if they wanted watercolors or acrylics?
No. You did it the way you wanted. Sometimes they would give you a preference, but, to me, if it was a light story that had romance, a lot of humorous things, I would do it in watercolor. And sometimes, if it's something that's a little sinister, I would use opaque colors. Opaque colors have a little white added to it, so therefore, when you put a transparent watercolor down, you could almost see the color of the white paper coming through the color. It gives it a light feeling. Put it this way, it's like a very thin soup compared to a heavy soup. They work differently. Most of the illustrations were done that had a medium with a little opaque in them, and that was called opaque colors, but I had a different name for it.
Did you find this work challenging as an artist?
Oh, it was interesting. It wasn't frustrating, in a sense, it was a challenge. When you're doing something that you worked so hard to get into, you put a little more into it. So, I did a variety of things. I've done them with acrylics; I've done them with oil. Like say they had three guys to do "California Suite"; it was a big movie with a lot of big stars. I did my interpretation, and another guy did his interpretation, and one time they picked somebody else's. But I got paid for the job that I did, but I didn't get that extra. I did a poster one time for two different companies for the same movie -- it was a Paramount movie -- and it was called "Serial." It had to do with these people in a sauna tub, and all these characters were sitting in a sauna tub with their clothes on, it was on the humorous side. I did two different interpretations of that and they picked one. Paramount loved it, the agency loved it, and all the artists loved it. The producer loved it. But the producer's wife didn't like it. She had some friend that she wanted to do the drawing and her interpretation showed the sauna tub and somebody diving into the water. You didn't see the body, you just saw from the waist down showing the legs the last to enter water.
Yeah, that was pretty horrible. I've seen the final poster. You can't even see the faces of the actors.
The people at the agency blew their stack. Oh, they cursed like hell.
In many ways, doing these posters is similar to doing comic book covers, because you're trying to sell a story just based on that front image, right?
Yeah. Well, it was, in a way. A cover is supposed to encapsulate what the general theme of the story is about and a lot of guys used to gripe that sometimes they'd show a cover doing something that had nothing to do with the story. Sometimes they would do that just to say, "Well, that's an interesting cover," catch the people, that when people read the story, it wasn't anything like it.
There are times that movies were like that, too. The poster was different from what was in the movie, too.
Oh, yes. There was a guy named Bob Peak. He was at the peak. When they did the first "Superman" movie, I did some layouts or that movie's poster. I did quite a few of them. Two different agencies were doing that one. I had done drawings of Marlon Brando as Superman's father, and all these characters I did drawings of. In the end, they wound up with just the emblem, with an airbrush. Just a big "S" shield, and it was against the sky or some color and the guy that did it, I was told, got $35,000 for it, where I would have gotten $5,000.
Just for that?
Just for that. I think it was Bob Peak. He was the highest paid artist. Then I did one for another company, I forget what the movie was, but the guy says, "Okay, I brought the original." He says, "Oh, put it in the other room, just on the floor, lean it against a table." I went there, and it was a choice between mine, Bob Peak, and somebody else. I felt so tickled to death that I was up in the big leagues with him. Even if I didn't get it, it made me feel good that I was up there a little, y'know?
But your "Superman" imagery was based on the stills? Because I've seen that shot that you have of Christopher Reeve with his hand up, I've seen a photo of that.
Well, that there was my idea of Superman the way I would draw it, because, at that time, when I was doing it, there was some secrecy about it. They didn't show who the hero was. Like, Christopher Reeve, they didn't have a shot of that. So the face I used wasn't him, but it came close to him. They did show me the faces of Marlon Brando and all these other characters, but I never got Reeve.
I did another poster for "Movie Movie." It was a movie that was a two-part movie where all the characters in both movies played different parts. It was like a two-parter: one part was about boxing, and the other part was about a producer and dancing. Like George C. Scott, he played a boxing manager in one part and a promoter for the dancing in the other. [Editor Note: This film consisted of two parts. Featured actors from the first part would subsequently reappear in the second part in different roles.] There were some characters that I didn't get photos of, so I made them up, but they didn't look like them. It all depended on what I could get.
They weren't afraid to use you for a dramatic picture, either. You weren't just limited to comedies.
Oh, no. I did some romance covers many years ago that people tell me were some of the best, and I tried different ways of handling women, so they used to say that they liked the way I drew women. I used to like Bob Oksner's women, but when I met Bob Oksner, he was praising me how he liked mine, so it was [laughs] a nice feeling to get a compliment from a guy that draws good women. Your mother can tell you you're a good artist, because a mother will tell you anything, because you're her child. But when you get somebody praising you in the industry that you're working with, whose work you respect, that carries a lot more weight than your mother's. Even though you love your mother, but it carries a lot more weight.
They had a meeting at the Illustrators Society where they had some of the cartoonists, and sometimes they had illustrators and cartoonists at the meeting, and they had this nude model posing. Everybody did a batch of sketches. So I turned in the most sketches, and who gave me the award was Bob Peak. I got a bottle of champagne for doing the best stuff. [laughs] These illustrators were top illustrators, but they worked mainly from projections, and I was better from life. It's an interesting field, and it's a shame to see it go.
Oh, it might come back one day.
Well, every now and then I'll come up with something, but I think it'll be like cartoon. Do you ever get any publicity from Heritage Collectibles or any booklets from Heritage?
I've seen them, yeah. Why?
Because Heritage has a section that they send that shows just movie posters.
Oh, I've seen that. For some of the classic movies, their posters go for a lot of money.
Yeah, and they're nice. I still have the original from "Movie Movie" and one of the originals from "Serial," they're in the tub. Another one is "California Suite." I have that. And then I did one for "Apocalypse Now."
Do you still have that one?
I still have that, but that one wasn't used, because I had Marlon Brando standing straight – well, his legs were apart. He's holding a little Shakespearean book, and he's resting it against his chest, and he has this angelic look where he's looking up to heaven. And he has, like, a Shakespearean bard look. But, in his other hand, he was a contradiction of that niceness: a semiautomatic gun. He's got a pistol on his holster, and he's got a knife in his boot, and he's got Martin Sheen's hands tied up. I made him a little heavy because in "Superman" he was dressed with a big gown to cover up his fat. When I showed this, he had a little pot belly and all that, and they said, "No, you made him too much of a caricature," and they used something else. But I have the original. It's an acrylic painting. I would say, about 23" x 30".
You were happy with that particular piece?
Well, I liked it at the time, but, to me, I was still experimenting with color because, with acrylics, unless you get to know it well, sometimes you can't blend as well as you like. Watercolors I can do a lot better. When I did the cover for my book, "The Art of Nick Cardy," I did all the layouts, basic color, the ground color, and I used acrylics to put the shading in some of the figures. And then, when that dried, I went over it with oil, and I could do the blending. That's what I do, mostly. I did the same thing with the "Serial" poster. The "Movie Movie" was watercolor, and "California Suite" was watercolor.
How did you get involved with the "Star Wars" poster?
Well, when I did that "Apocalypse Now" poster, I knew the agency, but this guy made the poster. I think he has a Japanese name, I've forgotten what his name was.
Yeah, Jung. He left out the two robots. He didn't have them in his painting. So they wanted me to paint the two robots, R2-D2 and C-3PO. I put those in the original drawing, but I also, on the original drawing, he had made on the figure, with Leia and this guy holding up his sword, the hero...
Skywalker, yeah, and he made the legs too thick, and so they had me trim them down. You can see the little white line around it. He had some that he hadn't trimmed, because the top of a boot was sticking out about six inches on the side, and I don't know how a guy could walk with those things. So they had me trim that down. The other stuff was great. I didn't touch it. The guy did a beautiful job on it.
Did you ever have to do that before, correct somebody else's work for a poster?
No, I didn't. That was the first one, because I hate working on somebody else's work. I feel it's sacrilegious. Now, I would get pissed off if somebody took one of my drawings and changed the faces or did something like that, and I didn't want to push it too much, but I wasn't touching their faces or anything like that, I was just trimming part of the outer edges. In other words, the figures were intact, the faces intact, I didn't touch the faces or anything, just those little boots, or the legsr, and that sort of thing.
The poster itself, when you had to do this work, it was in New York, wasn't it?
Because they wanted it really fast and he was in California. I think that's what the story was.
Well, I don't know. Was he from California, this Jung?
I'm pretty sure he is.
Well, I didn't know, I never met him. They had a different group of artists out there in California. I'll tell you a funny incident. When I did this poster with Walter Matthau and a kid on a horse, they were expecting a storm one time in New York City where everything sort of stopped because of that storm, so they felt it was coming from the coast, coming east, so they decided to send me to California and do it there. So they had a limousine pick me up. I never was treated like this before. They had a limousine pick me up, took me to the airport, then they had another limousine waiting for me, and they put me up at The Beverly Hills Hotel. So then I went to the agency and in their conference room they had this big table and they set up whatever I wanted. I told them what paper I wanted. So, I was working there and they had these sliding doors that closed that separated the conference room from the rest of the people that were working out there. So then the door opened, about two feet, and this young kid, must have been 12 or 13, maybe younger. He looked in, stopped, he looked at me, and he looked at the paper that was on the table. I buy expensive watercolor paper, and I get the best. So this kid came up to me and he said, "Can you draw me a rocket?" So I got up, and I went to the door that was opened, and I called the guy. I said, "There's a kid here that wants..." I was trying to get him out of there because I was in the middle of doing work. And he says, "Oh, yeah, that's the producer's son." So I came back, said, "What size rocket do you want?" [laughs] I didn't want to be a brown nose, but I figured I'm not going to ruin my chances of, "Hey, daddy, this guy kicked me out." It was funny at that time.
You had a similar experience when Gary Cooper saw you working.
Oh, Gary Cooper. I was in junior high school, just about then. I was about 14 or 15. It was shortly after the Depression, I couldn't afford to go to school so I went to the boy's club in New York, and there I had some teachers who were teaching art and I was doing some murals on the walls with them. Back then, once a year, they'll take over a hotel or a storefront on Fifth Avenue to raise money from people to fund the boys club to help them out. So they had one or two society girls and models sitting on a platform, and they had a large store window facing the street, and there was another guy sitting there, too. My drawing table was almost facing the model, but I had my back to the window. It was at an angle, anyway. So, as I was drawing her, I turned around and this guy was there standing, looking at me, and he was just with a lot of other people, and it was Gary Cooper. He had this smile on his face. I was drawing. Then one of the girls said, "Oh, there's Gary!" They jumped off the platform and they started running out, and he disappeared. I didn't see him. Then, about, oh, not even a year later, I was working with Jerry Iger's studio. Iger used to come in - he had, oh, some beautiful girls. I don't know if they were call girls or not, they were beautiful. They'd walk in and he'd say, "These are my boys, here." You know, they're his property. They never even looked at us. Well, I was a young kid then, y'know [laughs], and both of these girls were beautiful. So, one day I came in and in that building where the studio was, there was a place upstairs that had something to do with rifles. And Cooper was quite a hunter. So, as I came in, waiting for the elevator, there was Cooper. I said, "Oh, I don't know if you remember..." He said, "You're the kid in the window with the drawing board." So we got in the elevator, we got to talking, and he told me he wanted to be a cartoonist, himself. Then he said, "Write me." Just then the door opened and he says, "Okay." He shook my hand and he says, "Don't forget to write me." These girls were there with these guys, and they were looking with their mouths open at me coming out, and I tell you, I think I floated a foot off the ground, all the way [laughs] to the studio where I was working. And that was a good feeling. But I never did write, I got lazy, so I let it go. But it was a nice experience.
Is there a particular poster that's your favorite from all the ones you have done?
Well, I'll tell you, of the posters that I did, let's see, I started getting my stride in the one with "Serial," because I loved the faces, and I discovered how I work with the medium, where I do it with acrylic and put very light oil glazes over it, and then you could feel the undertone. I liked that for that experience alone. "Movie Movie" was another thing, where I'm always learning while I'm doing these things, and sometimes, say if I had done a hundred drawings, out of a hundred, I may like two. Like with the covers, I may like two or three. But then, on some of them, I would like little parts of it. Like, the head I did on this, I didn't care for that other part of it. You know what I mean? That you like pieces of it, but not all of it completely.
Your son must have been proud, like, the "Star Wars" one was all over the place. Even though it's not credited to you, you know you did what you did.
Oh, yeah. Well, with "Star Wars," it came out lucky that, I very seldom make mistakes, and luckily, usually, when they want you to do something big and important, you become all thumbs, and so luckily I didn't make any mistakes.
So, eventually the poster work just started to dry up?
It did. The thing is that later on I moved to Florida, a lot of people said, "Nick, you're committing financial suicide by going to Florida." In a way, they're right. My agent that worked with me getting different jobs, there were two of them, and this guy called me when I was in Florida. He says, "How would you like to do a movie poster?" It was for "Meatballs 2." I said OK. A year earlier before I got this job, I had this contact with this agency, my agent asks, "Do you want me to handle that agency for you?" I said, "I'll take care of that." He wanted to get in on that. So, when my agent gave me the number to call, it was my old art director from this agency. The art director had asked him, "Where's Nick? Have you got his phone number?" The guy was trying to locate me to do a poster, but I didn't know it, my agent made me feel that he made this contact. After I spoke to my old art director, the guy told me, "I've been looking all over for you, and I asked this guy for your phone number." I thought this was a commission, that the agent made not my old contact. That phone call cost me 25% of a $10,000 commission.