“I was always involved in art and design growing up… but back then, I didn’t even know ‘graphic design’ was a thing. I didn’t exactly get along with school very well, and at one point, my dad got really angry and said, “You’re not going to get anywhere drawing video covers!”.
You may not know Tom Hodge by his real name, but horror and genre fans should certainly know him as The Dude Designs. He’s the man responsible for some of the most attention grabbing film poster art from the last decade; from cult gems such as Hobo With a Shotgun through to blockbusters like The Heat, his work can also be seen on video game sleeves (Heavy Rain and Uncharted: Drakes Fortune, for example) and even corporate logos (that lovely Death Waltz Records one is his, too). So what is it about his work that’s striking such a chord with horror fans? To understand, you’ll need to cast your mind back to the 80’s; a time when video was king, and distributors often went for eye-catching video sleeves to sell their products, rather than relying on the faces of the actors. “I grew up in a small town, which had a cinema, but we didn’t really ever get to go to it when we were kids… but we could get down to the video shop. There were, like, three or four of them in the village. It was where I first found out about films. The artwork, especially the horror ones, played a major part in me becoming a film addict, and I knew that I wanted to somehow combine film and art. It was the same with video games; it was the same style, as half the time the graphics were so crap on the games they needed those box images to sell it! But it was inspiring; I think growing up now you wouldn’t get that same exposure. Everything felt a bit more obtainable; like you could do it yourself. I like that really organic, ‘not-quite-perfect’ feel to things.”
Going from University to getting work is never easy, and any artist will tell you how long it can take before you eventually find your niche. “I started off working in corporate design, then a general design agency, which lead on to working for Sony Playstation, doing game covers. It eventually got frustrating; as budgets got tighter, and things got a bit more panicked in the games industry, they were leaving a lot of the creative up to the game designers, and you’d end up doing just the back-of-the-box work. It led to me experimenting more on my own, and led me back to the video covers that I used to love, and I sort of ‘rediscovered’ it for myself. It originally started as a fine art project… I was going to do work for films that didn’t exist. But then I starting looking into it a bit more – the history of it all, the artists, the style – I wanted to actually recreate that, to recapture that tone again, and what was exciting about it. So I ended up working all day at Sony, and coming home and working all night on the film stuff…I needed the push… it’s not easy going solo!”.
In a relatively short space of time, Tom has managed to amass an impressive body of work, but more importantly, his style is instantly recognisable; when you hold that DVD in your hand, or gaze at that poster art, you know exactly who put it together; and in film industry we have now, it’s a rare thing. “If you look back at the likes of Medusa Home Video, they started off as carpet salesmen… it was likely two people in an office, hiring artists… but amazing artists, such as Renato Casaro and Enzo Sciotti… and giving them a slate of work, and letting them run with it. Now, even the small companies have ‘marketing departments’ who are glorified accountants; they’re not trained designers, they’ve got no creativity… it’s all brought down to such a basic level that’s easily controlled. It’s all about expediency.” One of the biggest breaks Tom received was getting commissioned to do an alternate poster for the Paul Feig film, The Heat, starring Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, but things didn’t work out as expected. “Feig had approached Mondo to get a certain style of film poster off his own back, and funded it himself. The studio didn’t know what to do with it. It resulted in them choosing to release The Heat posters with one of the worst ones I’ve ever seen… I dunno, maybe they felt they would confuse or alienate the audience. But if you go to IMDB, it’s my artwork on the film’s page! That was one of the few in which I didn’t get to see the film first; but it was fun to see if I got it right, and I think I did. It was like when I was a kid, you’d watch the film, and have the video cover next to you… and it was all part of the experience… trying to capture the tone, and have a complete package with the film and art”.
Not everything gets dropped in favour of bad Photoshop, however, and looking through his website shows such a wide variety of genres that it gives you hope for this style of work making a comeback completely. It’s interesting to note though, that each job is considered carefully for both the style and composition, but whether the artwork ultimately ‘works’ for the film itself. “A lot of the time when you get commissioned, it’s because people have seen your work and say, ‘I want that’, but when you see the film… it’s not really suitable, and I do tell them they shouldn’t do it. Ti West‘s The Sacrament is a good example where he just comes to you as a designer and asks you to do it, as opposed to having a specific style in mind… which is great. The Innkeepers is still my personal favourite. I hadn’t seen it when working on the poster, but he came to me with the ‘root’s of the story, which was Victorian ghosts. That was another that was going to go down the ’80’s montage art’ route, but I pushed to go for something with more atmosphere.”
One of the major dilemma’s that any freelance artist, musician, writer or filmmaker will have to face during their careers is being expected to work for free; there are a lot of horror stories out there of artists simply being ripped off on the promise of ‘exposure’. “There’s a lot more people who are doing a similar style to me know that are killing themselves doing it for next to nothing… and I know it comes down to the distributors who don’t want to pay; they spend more on drinks with their clients and business nights out than they do on poster art… these young people won’t be doing it in a few years time, as it’s not a feasible way to live, but there’ll always be a new group of people coming behind them who are willing to kill themselves for exposure. I think people are afraid to charge a fair rate for their work, and they need to be fair to themselves. You wouldn’t get accountants giving away their work, nor would they be expected to be. Unless you put a value on it, nobody else will.”
After decades of being influenced by those classic video sleeves and unknown artists, Tom has decided to try to help bring the original artwork to new audiences, with his book “VHS: Video Cover Art“. “When I was young, Graham Humphrie‘s ‘Return of the Living Dead‘ was one of my favourites, as was Black Roses, Neon Maniacs and Silk… these just ingrained themselves in my head. It was a need to preserve the work, and also inspire other artists. A big part was trying to identify the original artists, too; many of them we weren’t able to uncover, unfortunately, and even then, many others just don’t get used for their talents. Hopefully we can get more people interested beyond the hardcore horror and tape collectors. This stuff belongs in galleries, and I think it’s more relevent than ‘modern art’ has been for a long time; modern art has become so exclusive and expensive, and really alienating to the average person… you go to a modern exhibition and it’s all investors and champagne… I think the VHS art is much more relatable for most people. ”
Tom’s book, VHS: Video Cover Art is available for pre-order from Amazon here, and is released on the 28th of May 2015.
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