Teen Wolf Poster by Concept Arts: The Making of a Classic

Lucinda Cowell and her son Aaron Michaelson discuss the renowned 1985 piece

Lucinda Cowell founded Concept Arts in the early 1980s and ran the company with her husband Ron Michaelson through 2005, when their son Aaron Michaelson joined the company. Aaron has been president and owner of Concept Arts since 2012, overseeing its expansion from key art into video and social media.

One of the company's early successes was the poster for Teen Wolf, the 1985 American coming-of-age fantasy/romantic comedy directed by Rod Daniel and written by Jeph Loeb and Matthew Weisman. Michael J. Fox stars as title character, a high school student whose ordinary life is changed when he discovers he is a werewolf. Teen Wolf was released on Aug. 23, 1985, by Atlantic Releasing Corporation to mixed reviews. It was a commercial success, grossing over $80 million on a $1.2 million budget.

Below, Aaron and Lucinda chat about the making of the classic poster.

Aaron: Let's talk Teen Wolf, Mom! I turned 4 years old old when Teen Wolf came out in 1985 and have maybe seen the film once, but the poster was unforgettable for me. I remember growing up, when someone would ask what my parents did, my canned response was always, "They made the Teen Wolf poster!" I almost always got an "Ooooh!" or "Really??" It was an indie film with a limited P&A budget and mixed reviews. But it was an unforgettable ad, and hugely successful movie commercially. Let's start at the beginning. Mom, as an agency owner and artist, how did you get that project in the first place from Atlantic Releasing?

Lucinda: It was 1983. Dad and I had just relocated to Hollywood and had started working in the film business. We had one Coppola indie poster under our belts and were regularly designing posters for Island Pictures, who were making and distributing their own cool films out of the 9000 building on Sunset. Noticing Atlantic Pictures on the elevator menu, we pushed the button, went into reception and asked for their head of creative advertising … It was a very straightforward cold call. 

Once we met Marty Heslov, he liked my portfolio of realistic illustration work for album covers, book covers and magazines. The three of us had a good rapport and immediately began working together. At first we were making 8.5-by-5.5-inch mini-poster mockups to visually enhance their film properties at ShoWest in Las Vegas. At the time, ShoWest was an annual industry event for distributors and filmmakers to presell territory rights and aid in obtaining financing for prospective films. Apparently our imagery worked very well to position a film that didn't even have a script. The projects kept coming in and we were making up visual ideas out of whole cloth for films that had nothing but a treatment and no talent lined up.

So, how did working on Teen Wolf come about? 

We were told that Teen Wolf had been in the can (wrapped) and Atlantic was working with a well known and respected marketing agency but was not happy with the more graphic handling of this as-yet-unknown actor. We were a dark horse, new to the business, with unique skill sets … could we come up with a different approach? We were in the right place at the right time.

So how did the poster itself evolve?

Dad was good at being informed. He knew from Atlantic that the soon-to-be-released Back to the Future  would make MJF a big attraction, so we planned to design ideas that would put him front and center and position him as young and heroic … not a freak of nature.

So, after screening the film—we were lucky that the film already existed—Dad and I found an ideal black-and-white headshot from the film's unit photography of Michael that had the right upbeat expression and we shot B&W photo references for his letterman jacket and a body double to fit with the head. That was how I worked a lot of times as an illustrator. I took reference shots with my old B&W Polaroid camera until I got what I needed. Then I drew pencil drawings based on my reference photography.

So you showed this B&W poster study to the studio?

Yes, and Marty and his bosses loved the idea of MJF as a super teen; revealing the logo on his chest. They told us to immediately go to finish with exactly what that particular B&W drawing looked like.

At that time, very little movie marketing was based on market surveys. The filmmakers and distributors either liked a poster and agreed, or they didn't. It was a very visceral decision and often spontaneous, especially with the Independents. 

Amazing. So it was literally one comp and go to finish?

No, actually we had showed them three or four 11-by-17 B&W pencil comps. I also did that for book covers at the time. All these featured an illustration of Michael. We probably have scans of the other comps but none as good. A three- to four-comp presentation is kind of amusing compared to just a few years later when we were expected to produce an average of 20 to 30 comps in the first round.

So going to finish, we shot new photos to raise the resolution for the body and clothing to match the B&W unit head shot. Dad was good at that with his Mamiya medium-format camera. We printed sized stats, pasted everything together, leaving a clean space for the logo to print on the tanktop T-shirt. We enlarged it all in my stat camera to have as close to a one-sheet size as single surface stat paper allowed.

Aaron: What was the time frame or checks-ins you needed to hit?

They were in a big hurry. So I basically told Marty that if they wanted me to execute the illustration, I would need two full weeks from greenlight. I was sort of prepared for them to take it away from me and give it to an already known artist to execute, but our price was fair and I was eager to go. I also asked that I be allowed to sign my name on the art, a privilege only guys like Drew Struzan had.

Did they say OK?

They said yes.

So you have this sized-up black-and-white composite of photos and you need to make it look as real as possible. Where do you start and what tools and mediums did you use?

I started painting on the full-size black-and-white stat but we printed the blacks somewhat faded so I could paint on top and still create bright colors.

I would begin by airbrushing using Pelican inks where I wanted complete transparency and Liquitex watered down tube paints for opacity if I needed to add more color over the blacks of the stat. Tube paint became the thickness of milk. I blew in paint through an Paasche AB airbrush using a regulated tank of compressed waterless air that had to be delivered weekly. (Water makes the airbrush sputter.) Lois said the industrial tank delivery guy had a thing for me because he always wanted to stand and watch as I worked.

I would always cut masks—frosted acetate using an X-Acto—to get clean edges of color. The sky and moon are complete paint jobs using friskets or freehand over white paper. The flesh I would mask off in one frisket and paint all the flesh at once, but areas of the face and hands would have internal masking as well. I never painted flat colors, always worked in layers over layers to be more realistic, the way real life is … in tonalities and shading. I never used black. 

Normally I'd find scrap that showed ways flesh would look at night and head in that direction but in this case I needed the image to come across as more friendly, less creepy. When most of the airbrushing was done, I would have 20 or 30 masks taped to the walls of my studio in case I needed to go back in and add some more color to a specific area. Dad was my second pair of eyes. He would wait until I was thinking I was almost done and make some interesting suggestion.

At a certain point I would begin hand painting using a small paintbrush. This included any part that needed some more details or texture, the eyeball, some twinkle, eyelashes, cornea details or in this case making up the hair on his hands and popping out of his T-shirt. The details of the hair, I admit are a bit heavy handed here, and I've always felt I failed with the execution of his left hand, though my drawing got it right.

They never saw work in progress after they had said go ahead based on the drawing?

Nope. We carried in the final painting on time and happily there were no requested fixes. We carried out the painting, back to our converted garage studio in NoHo to get it ready to go to press.

Wow! and where did the copy line come from? 

Dad wrote a whole copy line exploration and they bought one of the two best lines from there, too.

Do you remember what you got paid for your work? 

We got a $12,000 commission for the art and we were paid for the comp and copy explorations and for doing all the newspaper breakdowns. Probably we grossed $30,000 to $40,000 in the end. With only a few hundred dollars out of pocket, it was the most we had ever been paid for anything. 

Do you remember seeing it out in the world? 

The film didn't have the money for billboards or bus shelters. We saw the poster in the theaters and newspapers across the country. All films, big and small, ran newspaper ads. That was the major part of an advertising budget … buying space.

It was not actually our first film poster, but it was my first illustrated film poster. And I was psyched. I was already accustomed to going into bookstores and seeing four or five of my book cover illustrations there at one time, and seeing my PaperMoon card series at novelty shops, magazine covers on newsstands. But never anything as big as a film poster! 

Did it help you get more projects or build opportunities?

Yes, I feel we quickly got an interesting reputation for thinking and executing good-looking work that was outside the box and didn't cost what our competitors cost, simply because we had no overhead. Not that we were aware of undercutting. We were making it up as we went along. We felt we were charging fairly for our talent and skill set, which did happen to be varied and diverse compared to the competition.

We went after and were especially interested in the flourishing indie films that were being made and shown in arthouse theaters across the country and internationally. We loved those films; they spoke to us as art. They were made by unique filmmakers, backed by smaller distributors. That also meant less people to run through approval. Our bigger competitors didn't care for indie budgets and our clients were really grateful for our earnest creativity and smart thinking. We were in heaven! 

What set you up for this success?

We were self-taught when it came to the business of commercial art, working and developing all our skills for 10 years after art school at a large range of freelance jobs in NYC, Santa Barbara, London and San Francisco. We inadvertently knew how to do everything needed to put together a campaign. Just about the only sound business advice a fine arts school teacher once told me was: "If someone asks if you know how to do something, say yes. Because that's how you get the job and then you get to learn." Even if it's on your own nickel.

So because we were new in town and had no connections that could help us get anything done or tell us how it was done ... it was the only way our tw-(wo)man mom-and-pop shop could have had a start. The only outside help we had in the beginning was a friend connecting us to Lois, your nanny at 7 weeks old and who is still with us today, Aunt Roberta gifting us a washer-dryer, and each of our parents loaning us $10,000 as a down on a sweet two-bedroom, one-bath Spanish stucco house in North Hollywood that we busied ourselves with fixing up as soon as we moved in … with you watching us from your expandable playpen in the backyard, under the orange trees. Best oranges we ever squeezed. 

We loved the excitement of L.A., and we really loved the film industry. We felt at home.

This content is presented by Concept Arts, a supporting partner of the 2021 Clio Entertainment 50th Anniversary Celebration, happening Dec. 14 in Los Angeles. Tickets to the event are on sale now.

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