#SNDSF speaker Chris Mihal on Variety’s ‘Actors on Actors’

SND recently announced another round of speakers for the upcoming conference in San Francisco, April 7-9, 2016. Variety Creative Director Chris Mihal is among the SNDSF speakers. The program is shaping up to be a great look at our evolving craft, so register today if you haven’t already. Space will be limited. In the coming months, follow the hashtag #SNDSF on twitter and look for announcements and in-depth previews of some of the topics and speakers here at SND.org.

In early December, Variety released its “Actors on Actors” series, portrayed in stunning black and white celebrity portraits on each cover. I spoke with Variety Creative Director Chris Mihal about what went into this elegant yet powerful collection of covers.

Alexandra Sieh: Ah, the black and white cover – always a bold choice. Why go this route? What factors led to this choice over others?

CM: Well, the nice thing about Variety is that we’re not a traditional newsstand magazine. Our audience is largely subscription-based, so we’re less reliant on individual sales. On top of that, we sell advertising covers. With all that in mind, it allows us to take more risks with what we do on our covers. These covers in particular, we had a black and white setup as well as a color setup. In the end, our editors liked the black and white, and we used the color photography on the interior pages.

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AS: Do you consider opting for black and white covers a risk? Why or why not?

CM: I don’t particularly find going black and white to be a risk. I think as long as you don’t rely on it too much, you’re in good territory. Whatever makes the strongest, most compelling photograph or cover is what I’m most interested in.

AS: What role did the design department play in the “Actors on Actors” project on the whole? How integral is the design team in things like photo shoots, photo editing, etc.?

CM: For us, there really isn’t a difference between design and photography. It’s a highly collaborative team and any discussions we have about a given project begins and ends with both design and photography involved. Design is integral to the photography. Our photo editors are integral to the design.

AS: What were some of the challenges you and your team faced with these covers (balancing text vs. portrait, selecting that color for “Actors on Actors,” etc.)?

CM: The biggest challenge with this project is the actual shoot. This is a series we do twice a year and it is a pretty intense, two-day production that includes interviews, video, photography, sponsors, etc. Over the course of two days, we’ll photograph almost 50-70 subjects (about 5 minutes with each person). We’ll photograph them in pairs (two setups) as well as individual portraits (two setups). Then those images will run in 20+ pages for our weekly edition; 10+ pages for our awards season extra editions; and a 20+ page portrait portfolio in our voter’s guide. So most of the work goes into the preparation and front-end. We view the editing and designing process to be the most relaxed and enjoyable part of the process. Type on our covers is generally minimal. It’s always about maximizing the impact of the image.

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AS: What was one of your greatest successes throughout the project?

CM: This is going to be an extremely simple answer, but everybody being happy and getting what they need out of the project is the greatest success. Being able to do highly creative work while making sure sponsors are happy, our TV partners are happy, our photographer is happy and engaged, editors, marketing, etc. It’s no easy task. And at the end of the day, for our creative team to be happy with the end product is quite the accomplishment. Or at least happy that it’s over, ha!

AS: Tell us a bit about the timeline for these covers. What was the process in taking these covers from the idea to reality? Who was involved in this process?

CM: Initial conversations usually happen a couple months out. The director of photography and I usually start thinking of names of photographers, but not much can’t be done until we lock down dates for the studio. Once that happens, we’ll line one up. In this case, we were talking about Amanda Demme over lunch and later that afternoon her rep emailed us about a meeting. It was very serendipitous.

From there, it’s getting a sense of what Amanda wants to capture in the limited amount of time. While that is happening, marketing and advertising work behind the scenes with our TV partners at PBS, lining up sponsors, filling any missing holes for talent, etc. After a few weeks of prep, the studio work happens over two days. In this case, photography appeared three weeks later in print, as did videos on TV.

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AS: Looking through the portraits, there’s a beautiful mix of playful, serious, caring, etc. Were these poses deliberate for certain pairs, or were they organic to the shoot? How did certain images make the cut for the covers?

CM: It’s mostly organic. The most interesting part of the this issue is getting two actors, from two different movies, to talk creatively about their respective projects. So there is a genuine interest the subjects have for each other and I think their personalities really come through in the photography. The tone was really dictated by each person’s personality. So while you’ll get the statuesque and caring portraiture from Cate Blanchett, you’ll get quirk and playfulness from Steve Carell or Joseph Gordon Levitt.

Choosing the covers is a pretty involved pitch process between myself and the director of photography, to the editors of the magazine. We looked at 4-5 photographs for each pairing and had a pretty intense discussions about what we liked and disliked. In this case, I actually pushed for the color photographs and eventually lost that battle.

AS: Celebrity portraits frequently appear on magazine covers. What can designers do to set their cover apart? What are some things you would advise other designers to steer clear of when looking to run a celebrity portrait?

CM: I think it comes down to having a perspective. It’s that perspective generally dictates the tone and selection of photographs (and photographers) for covers and stories. It’s the glam portraiture that doesn’t say anything and has no emotional connection that designers should avoid at all costs.

AS: What is the visual philosophy behind Variety’s cover design?

CM: When we talk about covers at Variety, it usually revolves around being simple and bold. About making a statement and being interesting. It sounds like an oversimplified formula, but it’s difficult to capture weekly. Luckily all the stakeholders tend to be on the same page which makes the work exciting and creative.