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The man behind the movie posters

From 'Grindhouse' to 'Predators,' Kurt Volk has designed some of the most memorable - and outrageous - images for Robert Rodriguez's movies

Chris Garcia
Austin artist Kurt Volk did the posters for 'Machete,' both 'Grindhouse' movies and the new 'Predators.' 'Machete' went from a fake film trailer that screened between the 'Grindhouse' films and a cool movie poster to a real movie that will open in September.

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 white-hot juggernaut at 200 miles per hour!" and "Sex-hungry thrill-seekers 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 American-Statesman, 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 talked-about 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, re-creating 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."

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649

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Check out Kurt Volk's portfolio of movie art and posters at www.kurtvolk.com.