KN/PC Presents: Inside Look at Frank Chimero

As a part of the Kitsune Noir Poster Club I wanted to give you an inside look at the process behind the posters. First up is Frank Chimero, the Springfield, Missouri based illustrator who’s been really blowing up lately. Frank has worked for clients like The New York Times, Nike, Starbucks, GOOD Magazine and ton more. He’s one of my favorite artist/designers around these days and I was stoked when he agreed to take part in the club. For Frank’s poster he decided to choose Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut.

Why did you choose Slaughterhouse 5?
It represents something to me. So far as I can tell, it’s really the first book I found, read, and then chose to like on my own accord. It was mine. I owned it and the experience of reading it and how it made me feel. I did this when I was 12 or so, and it holds a special place with me, because it represents the process I went through of trying to understand who I was. The book is perennial for me. I’ve read it two other times since that first time, and it still has that an impact on me. It’s aged with me. Each time I read it, I connect to it in a different way. The first time, it was about aliens and pretty girls on other planets and time travel. Now, the book is more about what’s it’s like to try to capture things in a piece of art even though they fight their hardest to defy your efforts. It’s about how words fail. It’s about how people fail. It’s about how fruitless the world can seem some times. And it’s about how maybe, just maybe, Billy Pilgrim’s naivety saved him.

Why did you choose the images in the poster to represent in the novel?
The prison is obviously that. It’s containment for Billy Pilgrim. He can escape by changing his place in time, hence the silhouette being warped backwards outside of the ball. Then, there’s the eye. That’s, obviously, about seeing. Billy Pilgrim’s life was saved by not being seen. And then, his other life with the Trafalmadores is about being observed and being intensely seen. Billy Pilgrim’s an optometrist, and I can’t help but feel that Vonnegut’s symbolism there is to use Billy Pilgrim as a device to show how he believes one with proper vision should see the world. Things happen that don’t make sense. Wars are waged. People die. It’s tragic, but so it goes. It’s a cold message. The background is largely blues and whites and noisy and dirty. I wanted to make a wasteland. I wanted to make a cold, lifeless city after a fire bombing. I wanted to make a ski slope after a plane crash. The poster is disjointed. The top is the bottom, the bottom is the top. Things are backwards. Things are fragmented. The design is unstuck in time, just like Billy.

What was the process of making the poster like?
Arduous. Hard. Difficult. Like everything, it took three times longer than I thought to finish. It’s a hard book to summarize visually, because there is so much going on. There’s so many messages in so few pages.

Who knew that making an image to represent an existential, non-linear science fiction novel about an intergalactic specimen and prisoner of war would be difficult? Who thought that fitting space and war and four-dimensional beings into one picture would take some time? I didn’t. Honestly, I didn’t even think my choice through very much, and had an “Oh god, what am I going to do?” moment the first time I sat down to work on it.

So, I started by doing what I always do. I reread the book. Then, I mapped things out for myself, looking for themes and ideas and illogical connections that somehow work. I just start with associations and lay everything out on the table to see what I can work with.

My first idea was to hone in on the writing aspect. It called to me for some reason: Kurt Vonnegut opens the book by writing about writing the book. Kilgore Trout is a writer. Billy Pilgrim is writing in the book too. It’s a book about a lot of things, but one of them is the process of making something that refuses to get on the page in the right way. I know that feeling. Oh man, do I know that feeling.

The first sentence is “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” Can I make the cover come unstuck in time? How about the title? And Vonnegut’s name? I wanted a sense of tangibility and roughness to it, so I decided to borrow a friend’s typewriter and start fooling around with options of how I can play with type. How does a title that’s unstuck in time look?

With a bit of modification, I was really happy with the idea. It didn’t even have to have any visual reference to events in the book. It was snow and it was rough and it was out of order. It was up to the viewer to put the pieces together to figure out the meaning. Isn’t that really what the book was? Just a set of disjointed, out of order vignettes in which someone could construct a larger meaning?

Or did it even have to be that complicated? Maybe it just needs to be… meaningless.

I had been fighting and wrestling with ideas that were difficult to summarize. I sent these out for you to take a gander at and got some really nice feedback. Basically “Go more visual.” Though these ideas might work well as a book cover, they’re certainly not posters. Maybe what I needed to do was back track to my mind map and look for other themes. I think I hit the bullseye with these concepts, but it was the wrong target.

I looked closer. I found some other themes that were interesting. Vision and perception. Entrapment versus freedom. Fracturedness and suffering and barrenness. So, i started thinking of ways to visually interpret that. Below is a series of images that roughly go through the changes from the initial visual idea to the final.

What’s your favorite part of the book?
To be honest, I intensely love the parts of the book that are about writing the book. It operates on such a meta level, but it’s so satisfying. It sets up the book as a flawed story with flawed characters, written by a flawed man in a flawed way. It sets your expectations immediately, and there’s a sense of honesty in that, whether the occurrences at the beginning of the book actually happened or not. It’s Vonnegut dancing a dance for 30 pages that only he can do. It’s engrossing.

And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their houses had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.

So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.

People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to anymore.

I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun.

This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.

Thanks for the interview Frank, you did an awesome job.
To purchase Frank’s print click here.


December 14, 2009