Attendees of this past weekend’s Mondo-Con were treated to a special new print from the master pop-culture provider: a striking new poster for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Eagle-eyed fans will recognize the graphic from its debut on La-La Land Records’ 35th anniversary double-disc expansion of John Williams’ Oscar-winning soundtrack. It’s a wondrous image: of the film’s protagonist Elliott, seen from behind astride his bicycle as he looks upward into the evening sky, reflecting on the incredible bond he shared with his friend from three million light years away.
It was a bold choice to avoid any familiar key art for this release; the original soundtrack and 1996 reissue featured John Alvin’s iconic poster artwork featuring E.T. and Elliott’s fingers touching; the key art for the 20th anniversary, seen on the most recent soundtrack release, featured a collage of that artwork with the film’s signature shot of the duo’s bike flying across the moon.
The challenge of creating new art was something that Jim Titus was more than qualified for. You’ve seen Titus’ work on countless soundtrack catalogue titles, including Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Batman (1966), Home Alone and Jurassic Park. Here, he worked closely with soundtrack producer Mike Matessino to create a piece of art that may be destined to enter the E.T. canon–and both men shared some secrets of its creation exclusively with The Second Disc!
Titus’ artwork excels primarily because the artist is first and foremost a fan of the material. He first saw it at six or seven years old, and while he spent time as a teenager “shrugging it off as kiddie stuff,” he came to rediscover it on DVD as a bona fide classic. “Oh, E.T. is kid stuff all right, but in all the best possible ways,” Titus said. “It’s an utterly magical film, start to finish, and a masterfully crafted one that somehow seems effortless.”
Matessino, a longtime restorer of John Williams’ filmography from Star Wars to JAWS, was excited to revisit E.T. in a new way, both on disc and in the package. While previous key art used fleeting glimpses of E.T.’s arm or silhouette, Matessino delighted in using nothing of the titular spaceman, or the film’s most familiar promotional images, on the front cover.
“I wanted to bring back a sense of mystery to E.T. and avoid showing the creature,” he said. “I have felt for a long time that the lonely boy from a broken family is what many people find relatable about the story, and I wanted to try to capture that. This was an opportunity to go for something a little different because the bike over the moon and the touching hands, while iconic, are so well known that one tends to not really see them any more, if you take my meaning. I also wanted something that made you hear the music in your head when you saw it or something evocative enough to stare at as you listen to the score.
“Part of the reason I wanted to go in the direction we did is that, for me, the magic in E.T. is not just the creature,” Matessino continued. “It’s the kids, the house, the neighborhood, the forest. Everything was so normal looking, yet somehow it looked like a world you wanted to escape into.”
Titus loved the opportunity to focus more on Elliott’s story arc on the cover. “Spotlighting Elliott would give an opportunity to suggest something of the emotional journey he undergoes in the film, something I felt that had been somewhat overlooked in the packaging of the film, but shone through brilliantly when I found myself listening to John Williams’ music again,” he said.
Initially, however, with most of Titus’ designs sourced from original ad campaigns, the designer first experimented with using a lesser-known E.T. piece from Alvin’s oeuvre: a series of teaser images showcasing E.T.’s spaceship as it descended from the clouds and landed on Earth. (One of the images, as seen below, became the film’s first poster.)
“It’s really a lovely piece, albeit slightly forgotten over the years since Alvin stole his own thunder a few months later when he also painted the final art of the touching hands,” Titus said. “That early teaser poster brings to mind the lights in the sky from Close Encounters but in a more colorful way that smooth over the darker, ominous tones of CE3K‘s extra-terrestrial visitations.”
But adding images of Elliott seen in the image sequence proved challenging. “I tried to blend the Alvin sequence of the departure into one design, so that Elliot would draw the eye but the background would remain dominated by the teaser poster’s swirling sky,” Titus said. “[But] when the boy was added, the angle was rather flat and two-dimensional. And since the teaser art appears to have been polished and finalized by Alvin, elements from the additional paintings were unfortunately left feeling rough and unfinished in contrast.”
Other concepts involved subtle “remixes” of the original key art; Titus said the image on the below, an elegant new blend of the moon/bike and fingers images, was “quickly earmarked…as a fallback plan if the Elliott-centric cover failed to materialize (or, worse, turned out splendidly but was never approved to run).”
The turning point occurred when Matessino, on a visit to effects house Industrial Light & Magic, obtained a high-resolution scan of a matte painting of the E.T. suburb–the perfect starting point for what became the final product. All Titus needed was a stand-in for Elliott–which proved tougher than one might think.
“My oldest son was an easy choice, but he was a little too young still, and his hair was all wrong,” Titus noted–though, in a nod to Alvin’s using his daughter as the hand model for his artwork, snuck his son’s hands into the final art. His second idea, using one of his son’s soccer teammates, fell through when he realized that they all sported the wrong hairstyle.
“Then, last game of the season, I spot this kid circling behind all the parked cars at halftime,” Titus recounted. “Right age, right size. No helicopter parent in sight and no interest in the game going on. Was he someone’s brother? Nope, just some kid out on a bike and on his own on a Saturday afternoon. It was like he biked over from the 1980s. I never even got his name, just said, ‘Hey, kid–okay if I take a picture? Okay, let that bike dangle. No, lower. Okay, now look up. Yep-that’s good. Thanks.’ And then he lost interest and pedaled away across a busy street and disappeared.” Building on that young stranger, Titus manipulated the bike to better resemble Elliott’s distinctive Kuwahara BMX, added foliage and mist effects and embellished the sky “with dark wisps of clouds sweeping away from the central figure of Elliott, like a dream fading away and dissolving into a night sky with that single brightest star.”
“The whole thing was a gamble,” Matessino added, “but to our great joy, Mr. Spielberg approved it.”
Whether seen on a wall or inside a jewel case, what Titus achieved with his art for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was a work of mystery, enchantment and uncommon beauty–just like the blockbuster film itself.
“Looking at our world today and how things have changed since E.T. came out,” Matessino said of Titus’ design, “those feelings have become even more powerful. For me, our cover art captures that in one image. I’m so happy that we were able to do it and very proud of Jim for doing such a great job with it.”
You can read more about the assembly of the E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial soundtrack, plus insight into more of Matessino’s recent and forthcoming restoration of soundtracks by John Williams, at JWFan. You can also still purchase copies of La-La Land’s E.T. anniversary edition soundtrack here!