austin’s Kurt Volk makes a name for him­self with cre­ations for Robert Ro­driguez

Kurt Volk cre­ates the worlds of ‘Planet Ter­ror,’ ‘Ma­chete’ and ‘Preda­tors’ in 2-D art

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Chris Gar­cia

When the dou­ble-fea­ture movie “Grindhouse” was in the plan­ning stages, film­mak­ers Robert Ro­driguez and Quentin Tarantino sat down with Kurt Volk, the graphic de­signer and art di­rec­tor at Ro­driguez’s Austin-based Trou­ble­maker Stu­dios. They knew what they wanted — throw­back de­signs, im­ages and taglines that res­ur­rected the lurid stylings of vin­tage drive-in and grindhouse posters, down to the most au­then­tic, raunchy de­tails. They wanted the real deal.

Volk stud­ied old B-flick posters from the 1960s and ’70s, in­clud­ing faded an­tique win­dow cards — small­ish, silk-screened posters printed on card stock that drive-ins once used to ad­ver­tise up­com­ing shows. The come-ons and taglines on these flashy ads in­vari­ably fea­tured ab­surdly over-the-top type­faces, sexy prom­ises and a for­est of ex­cla­ma­tion points.

Volk or­dered clas­sic win­dow cards and pored over the vast col­lec­tions owned by Ro­driguez and Tarantino, B-movie fa­nat­ics. He scanned ob­so­lete op­ti­cal fonts from the posters and re­worked them on with Pho­to­shop soft­ware to make some­thing new while hon­or­ing the past.

The “Grindhouse” ex­pe­ri­ence has led to what’s now a full-time job at Trou­ble­maker, where Volk was re­cently busy on the ad cam­paign for the ac­tion-thriller “Preda­tors,” a reimag­in­ing of the “Preda­tor” fran­chise pro­duced and co-writ­ten by Ro­driguez and di­rected by Nim­ród Antal. The movie opens Fri­day.

“Grindhouse,” shot in 2006 in Austin, was a high-con­cept dou­ble-bill, with one movie, “Planet Ter­ror,” made by Ro­driguez and the other, “Death Proof,” by Tarantino. So Volk cre­ated a va­ri­ety of old-fash­ioned dou­ble-fea­ture movie posters. He de­cided what era each movie was pay­ing homage to: “Planet Ter­ror” nod­ded to late-’70s and early-’80s horror by di­rec­tors such as John Car­pen­ter; “Death Proof ” bowed to road racer movies from roughly 1957 to 1963.

Work­ing with the di­rec­tors, who hadn’t even pre­sented scripts, Volk de­signed an iconic speed­ing car, with a skull and light­ning-bolt cross­bones on the hood, for “Death Proof” and the sil­hou­et­ted im­age of a woman stand­ing tough with one of her legs re­placed by an M-16 ri­fle for “Planet Ter­ror.”

For “Death Proof,” Volk says, “I wanted an homage to ‘The Road War­rior’ one-sheet poster. I’ve al­ways loved that. I think it’s the most ex­treme, mas­cu­line movie poster I’ve ever seen.”

Tarantino was de­lighted with Volk’s hand­i­work, par­tic­u­larly the skull and cross­bones. “He im­me­di­ately latched onto this im­age,” Volk says.

Volk also thought up hy­per­bolic tag lines for the films. For “Death Proof”: “A white­hot jug­ger­naut at 200 miles per hour!” and “Sex-hun­gry thrillseek­ers vs. the ul­ti­mate killing ma­chine!”

For the dou­ble fea­ture, he wrote: “The grue­some two­some re­turns! Quentin Tarantino and Robert Ro­driguez bring you a ter­ror so fierce it will tear you in two!”

“We had a lot of fun with these posters,” says Volk, a for­mer part-time graphic de­signer for the Amer­icanStatesman, who was hired by Trou­ble­maker in 2003. (His first project was graph­ics and back­ground dis­plays for “Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over.”)

One of the most talked­about parts of “Grindhouse” was the fake ’70s-style trail­ers for nonex­is­tent movies shown be­tween the two fea­tures. The “Ma­chete” trailer was so pop­u­lar that Ro­driguez turned it into a full-length movie star­ring Danny Trejo, Lind­say Lo­han and Robert De Niro. (Shot in Austin this year, it will be re­leased in Septem­ber.)

Volk de­signed the poster, type­face, ti­tles and tagline for “Ma­chete.” The tag line is clas­sic B-movie ar­got: “Yes­ter­day he was a de­cent man and liv­ing a de­cent life. To­day he is a bru­tal sav­age who must slaugh­ter just to stay alive.”

The ti­tle de­signs of Ser­gio Leone’s spaghetti west­erns in­flu­enced Volk’s “Ma­chete” — “these ex­plo­sive op­ti­cally printed ti­tles,” he says. “Do­ing the ‘Ma­chete’ ti­tles was prob­a­bly the most fun I’ve ever had on any art project.”

“Grindhouse” was Volk’s first poster for a the­atri­cally re­leased movie — he has made sev­eral posters for in­die films, such as Austin di­rec­tor Kat Candler’s “Jump­ing Off Bridges” — and it won The Hollywood Re­porter’s an­nual Key Art Award for horror posters, the only con­test of its kind.

A large part of Volk’s job at Trou­ble­maker, and one of his fa­vorite parts, is de­sign­ing tie-in books for the movies. He made his first book in 2004 for Ro­driguez and Frank Miller’s “Sin City,” a semi-an­i­mated adap­ta­tion of Miller’s graphic novel. He also made one for “Grindhouse,” which El­iz­a­beth Avel­lán, Trou­ble­maker Stu­dios co-founder and film pro­ducer, calls “ex­tra­or­di­nary.”

The books, de­signed ex­clu­sively by Volk, are ex­trav­a­gantly de­tailed, hard­back col­lectibles crammed with cast and crew in­ter­views, sto­ry­board draw­ings and pho­tos.

“Robert looks at them as sort of a year­book be­cause ev­ery­body worked so hard on the project,” Volk says. “Yes, it’s for the fans, but it’s also a way of giv­ing some­thing back to the crew and the ac­tors. It’s a doc­u­ment of the pro­duc­tion” that de­mys­ti­fies the film­mak­ing process.

Volk’s lat­est cre­ations are the poster, logo and ti­tles on “Preda­tors.” For the logo, Ro­driguez pro­vided Volk mea­ger coun­sel. “He just wanted it to be cool,” says Volk, who earned a bach­e­lor of fine arts in graphic de­sign from the School of the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago. He moved to Austin in 1999 with his child­hood friend Chris Hrasky, the drum­mer of lo­cal band Ex­plo­sions in the Sky.

As for the poster im­age, “One of the things Robert (Ro­driguez) and I dis­cussed was tak­ing this crea­ture that was very over-ex­posed and draw­ing it back into the shad­ows, recre­at­ing a sense of mys­tery in the fran­chise. It was no longer scary, and we wanted to make the movie scary again.

“I wanted some­thing heroic and fright­en­ing to in­tro­duce the new Preda­tor, yet some­thing that was kind of classy.”

The re­sult is a chill­ing, inky black pro­file of one of the Preda­tor crea­tures that Volk ad­mits is some­thing of an homage to Bill Gold’s poster for the Clint East­wood movie “Un­for­given.”

“You al­ways need to keep in mind what the style of the film is,” he says. “It’s not about you as an artist ex­press­ing your own style. It needs to be a vis­ual dis­til­la­tion of what the movie is. For in­stance, when I think about ‘Rose­mary’s Baby,’ I think about the poster.”

Volk col­lab­o­rates with artists and pho­tog­ra­phers, but when it comes to de­sign­ing he works mostly alone. This is unique. “A typ­i­cal key art cam­paign uses 20 peo­ple at a big agency in New York or Los An­ge­les,” he says.

When Volk con­sid­ered mov­ing to Los An­ge­les him­self for more Hollywood work, Trou­ble­maker gave him a raise to stay, Avel­lán says.

“There’s no ego, he doesn’t get ruf­fled and he’s just bril­liant. Any­thing we need, he’ll fig­ure it out,” she says. “It’s a huge thing for Austin. He’s a lo­cal trea­sure.”

Volk is stick­ing around. His job is plum, and he knows it. In a work en­vi­ron­ment as free as Trou­ble­maker’s, the artist is granted re­mark­able room to ad­vance his ideas in a medium with a rapidly chang­ing fu­ture.

“A movie poster isn’t just a poster any­more,” Volk says. “It’s some­thing that goes on a film’s web­site and on­line. Most posters I see, I see on­line first.

“This is still a vi­brant art form.”

ri­cardo B. Brazz­iell AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Austin artist Volk uses in­spi­ra­tion from old movie posters and type­faces to put the feel of Robert Ro­driguez’s film on paper. He’s also cre­ated mak­ing-of books on some of Ro­driguez’s films, in­clud­ing ‘Sin City’ and ‘Grindhouse.’ The books act as a year­book of the movies.

Kurt Volk

Volk also of­fered this al­ter­nate poster for ‘Preda­tors.’ His idea is to re­mind au­di­ences why the Preda­tor crea­tures are scary.

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