Interview With Zachary Zirlin
Zachary Zirlin was the graphic designer on Daredevil Season 1, and also on Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Here we talk about some of his fascinating work and the ideas behind some of the concepts. Please make sure to visit his portfolio site at ZacharyZirlin.com.
Thanks for doing this interview. I was going through your online portfolio, and it was really surprising to see the amount of custom design work that is involved for a show like Daredevil or Jessica Jones. Can you briefly talk about your background and how you eventually got into design work for film and TV, and specifically on Daredevil?
Thanks so much for reaching out! As I prepared to do the show, your site was a great resource, so thank you! I have loved film for as long as I can remember. My high school had an absolutely incredible fine arts program, but its film/tv offerings were limited. Wanting to be a director at the time, I got involved in the closest thing I could -- theater. And I absolutely loved it. I acted, I directed, I designed, I sang (poorly), and did just about any job you could throw at me. When the time came to head off to college, I went to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to study set design for theater. It was there that I really began to learn the fundamentals of design and how they apply to any medium you want. Whether it’s a set, a costume, lighting, or a graphic, you’re still communicating an idea or emotion and helping to tell a story. As part our program, we had to do an internship. I did mine in the art department of “Across the Universe”- an opportunity which came to me through my design teacher, Toni Barton. From there I kept hopping from project to project with various members of that art department as an intern, production assistant, and assistant. A few weeks after I finished college I took the exam and was able to formally join United Scenic Artists 829, the New York union for this sort of work, and begin working on my own. It’s a pretty tight knit community in the New York film/tv world and I had made a lot of really great contacts in my years assisting and PAing. I did a lot of film and television and was lucky enough to do a good amount of location work ranging from Connecticut to New Mexico. As in any industry, if you work well with people, you’ll probably want to keep working with them. Two people that I had the great pleasure to work with numerous times were Loren Weeks and Toni Barton, production designer and art director of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. I signed on as quickly as possible when they asked me to do it.
I guess it's something I never realized before... I know that the boxing posters and newspapers for the show had to be made, but I also saw you had to design labels for the drinks in Josie's Bar, or even the subway ads in Jessica Jones. So let's start first with those whiskey and beer labels... were you basing those off of existing brands and changing them up?
O'Harren's Scotch Whisky Label - Graphic Designer Zachary Zirlin
I have to say that liquor and beer labels are some of my favorite things to design. There is such a wide variety in the world and it’s so much fun to try to establish a fictional brand. I begin by doing research for some inspiration. I try to look at similar products as well as specifics of country of origin, perceived market, iconography, color palette, etc. From there I spread it all out digitally or physically and get going. We hopefully have a bottle style chosen at this point so I can design to a specific “canvas”, but I start by putting together all the elements. The name, the logo, any design elements, and even the little bits that help sell it as a real product, like the alcohol percentage and volume markings. I typically end up playing around with 3-4 versions before I’m happy to share with the rest of the team. Once approved, it’s time to get it made. I have a few vendors that I work with to turn the design into a reality. I love making them as realistic as possible and working with my vendors to make them something more than a simple printed label. I love to incorporate metallics, foils, and texture whenever I can to make it feel like a real brand. The subway ads are a very similar process but a little more difficult. Real subway ads are quite often for movies and tv shows. We’re creating our own realistic world and trying not to tie ourselves to any one specific time period so I generally try to keep things as non-descript as possible while keeping it as grounded and realistic as possible. Whenever possible, I try to throw in easter eggs and references to our other shows.
What kind of software and tools are you using when you create all your work?
I work mostly in the Adobe Create Suite. In order of use: Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, Lightroom, After Effects, Flash. I also use some plugins from Mister Retro, VSCO, Really Nice Images, MacPhun, among others. I run everything off a MacPro with a Thunderbolt Display and a Dell 4K monitor. I’ve got an Epson SureColor P600 and Epson V600 scanner. Whenever I’m doing anything Photoshop intensive I pull out my Wacom 13” Cintiq. I also love to doodle, draw, and explore by hand whenever I can.
For the boxing posters, I recognize many of your design team's names listed as opponents... did you have to make versions for the flashbacks and the present timelines?
Fogwell's Gym Boxing Posters - Graphic Designer Zachary Zirlin
That is something you’ll see in most TV shows and movies. When we need to populate paperwork, posters, signs, etc., we have to do so with names that we are legally allowed to use. It’s typically part of our start paperwork and contracts that crew members names can be used on screen. So when I’m tasked with creating over 40 boxing posters, it ends up being a full on crew-on-crew brawl. It’s also a really great way to throw some love to the crew. It takes a lot of people to make a show and putting their names on something seen on screen is a fun way to show appreciation. (And I always get tons of requests to print copies for them). In order to show the passage of time, we created a ton of older posters that would play in both the flashbacks and the present day. We felt that Fogwell’s was an old school place that wouldn’t be getting rid of their old posters. We then created some more contemporary posters to help show the progression of time, but wouldn’t overtake all the history of the place.
For the newspaper mock-ups, did you have to go back and forth with Marvel to determine what you could put on them?
New York Bulletin MCU Front Covers - Graphic Designer Zachary Zirlin
We work very closely to create the newspapers. I love putting as many easter eggs in there as possible. Michael Tuths, our clearance coordinator, has been invaluable in helping to wrangle and brainstorm ways we can keep as many easter eggs as possible. Creating the New York Bulletin was a lot of fun as we were creating our world’s version of the Daily Bugle. Due to all the rights negotiations and whatnot surrounding Spider-Man and Sony, we had to create our own newspaper instead of using the Bugle known from the comics. We went back and forth defining the type of paper we wanted, how it was perceived, the type of journalism, etc. and I began creating versions. It was definitely a fun collaboration that we’re all happy with. We had a lot of fun working closely with Marvel to create some of the Bulletin’s most famous articles and covers, many of which were written by Ben Urich. You can catch them in the background of Urich’s office and the Bulletin offices.
Another cool design I wanted to ask about was the tattoos from the prison, and how do those temporary tattoos get made?
Russian Prison Tattoo Layout - Graphic Designer Zachary Zirlin
The tattoo design was a really fun challenge. I did a lot of research into Russian prison tattoos. It is such an incredibly deep, symbolic, frightening, and mesmerizing world. Certain symbols mean certain crimes and there’s a vast visual language to it. So I was attempting to tell a bit of their stories with the tattoos. Their past, their crimes, their political views, etc. At the same time, it needed to be a fairly quick read on camera showing just how hardcore these guys are. After I had designed them and got them approved, I pass them off to Josh Turi, our special effects make up artist. From there he takes over in outputting them and making them look like they are real tattoos of varying age that are part of their skin, rather than a normal, cheap temporary tattoo. It’s pretty magical.
Can you briefly go over some of the logos you designed as well, specifically Josie's Bar, Fogwell's Gym, and the Nelson and Murdock sign? Were you given any guidance from Marvel/Netflix on what they were looking for, or you had to present some ideas and they went with those?
Nelson and Murdock Logo - Graphic Designer Zachary Zirlin
For those hero logos, we were given a lot of free reign. We had decades upon decades of incredible comic reference to pull from while developing them. But at the same time, we were creating a world specific to our show. It was based in the comics, but still our show’s unique interpretation. So it became about figuring out how we bring some these businesses into the contemporary, grounded Marvel universe that we were building. I tried to keep as many elements as I could in terms of layout, proportion, and type, while also allowing them to feel at home in our universe.
Are the fonts your own custom fonts?
Only a few are custom, and those that are, are very, very basic. That’s a whole other skillset that I would love to learn someday. I have a bit of problem buying fonts. What can start as a second to browse new releases on MyFonts.com can get very expensive, very quickly.
And last question, you're keeping busy in the Marvel Netflix world, what can you reveal about your next projects?
I wish I could reveal more, but I can only say that I’ve been lucky enough to keep busy. I can’t say anything about my current project, but we’ve got Luke Cage coming out September 30th which we’re all really excited to share with everyone!
Check out all of Zachary Zirlin's work at his portfolio site at: ZacharyZirlin.com
(c) 2016 Kuljit Mithra & Zachary Zirlin
Daredevil:The Man Without Fear
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