It’s one of those seemingly arcane entertainment-industry-related vocational fields that, unless you are familiar with the inner workings of the Hollywood machine, you would likely not notice, much less ponder.
For every movie that is made, there needs to be related advertising-related graphic work that covers everything from posters to placards to billboards.
It is an exacting and demanding profession that definitely falls under the radar once you leave the traffic-congested confines of the City of Angels.
Basalt native Jeff Stevens has been a practitioner of that art form for more than a decade. And we’re not talking about low-budget art-house films. Does “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” ring a bell? How about “Sicario” or the “Halloween” series of horror films? Or works by the lofty likes of Quentin Tarantino? Movies we all have heard of. Movies that are prominently advertised on that big sign next to Movieland in El Jebel.
When asked by his third-grade teacher what he wanted to be when he grew up, Stevens, son of ex-Basalt mayor Rick Stevens, did not answer “A movie poster maker!” But he was, from a young age, very serious about his art work.
“I was big in drawing and art class,” says Stevens, who was born in Aspen.
When he left the Roaring Fork Valley after graduating from Basalt High School in 2000, it was with the full intent of pursuing some manner of visual art. He studied graphic arts at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, before opting to jump headlong into the Big Time: He moved to Los Angeles with the full intention of becoming … a guitar player in a rock-and-roll band.
OK, a detour of sorts. But a detour that lasted a full decade, one that came within a whisker of being successful enough that the rest of Stevens’ story as it is now written might very well have had a different narrative thread.
“I went to L.A. for music, trying to be a rock star,” Stevens said. “I was in the same band for 10 years, called Testing Tomorrow. We made four albums. We were close, real close. We talked to managers and labels and all that stuff. We played all original stuff, kinda Stone Temple Pilots.
“The music scene there really is not what people think,” he continues. “Now, you have to pay to play at a venue. If it’s a big venue like the Roxy, the Viper Room, the House of Blues — some of the bigger clubs where you hear about bands from the ’70s and ’80s being discovered — it can cost 900 bucks to play there at 10 o’clock on a Friday. You have to reconcile that by selling tickets to your friends and trying to get the money back. You play a show and realize no one really cares. And there are 100,000 bands in L.A.”
Paying to play was not the only sobering realization members of Testing Tomorrow faced in the New Digital World.
“What we really started realizing was that managers and record companies were just like ‘how many people on the internet like you? What’s your YouTube hits? What’s your quantifiable number that we can look at?’ They are not looking to see if you have 500 people paying to see you on a Friday night as much as your Internet presence.”
That, Stevens says, amounted to a double-edged sword.
“We were independently selling albums,” he says. “We probably sold upwards of 15,000 albums over 10 years, among ourselves, but also via iTunes and Spotify.”
That number was enough that Stevens and his bandmates asked themselves what they would need to do to sell, say, 50,000 albums, to make the leap from self-financing gigs to finding their work atop the charts.
“What happened was that people started making more money in their day jobs,” Stevens says. “The drummer got a big job with Dom Perignon. And people started having kids. I told them I was moving back to Colorado for six months, I needed a break. That was five or six years ago. That, actually, was like saying to everybody, this is kinda done. It was not a bad thing, though. It was time.”
Fortunately for Stevens, he had already been planning for a post-Testing Tomorrow life. Or at least a concurrent Testing Tomorrow life.
“I was doing movie poster stuff most of the time I was in the band, so my career was progressing and I was fine,” Stevens says. “I had graduated from Woodbury University in Burbank. A professor said, ‘I have a friend who works in the industry, why don’t you go talk to him?’ So, I kinda fell into it. I had one poster in my portfolio. Some people had 10, because that’s what they wanted to do, but I just started working in a place and it was like ‘this is awesome.’
“Creative agencies work for studios,” he continues. “A studio marketing executive says ‘hey, guys, we have this movie and we need a poster for it.’ It’s more of a creative bid process. It’s not necessarily a financial bidding thing. Sometimes, they’ll hire two or three companies and whoever has the best poster gets the job. So, there’s a lot of competition between the agencies. It’s very cutthroat.”
Stevens had been thinking during his tenure with Testing Tomorrow that he needed to find a way to pay rent.
“I was thinking in terms of what’s going to be my day job while I was trying to be in a band,” he says. “A lot of people will work some job they hate during the day to try to make it in art or music or whatever it is. I thought, why not just do what I like during the day rather than waiting tables?
“I was already doing a lot of design for the band, like art direction and the photos,” Stevens continues. “And I did a couple friends’ bands, like logos, so that was like really cool to overlap the music stuff and the art stuff. I definitely saw art, design and music working together at some point. I just didn’t know when or how.”
After the dissolution of his band, Stevens ended up staying in his native Mid-Valley for 11 months.
“I went back to L.A. after that and sort of realized I can live in Colorado, because I was working at home freelancing from my house anyhow,” he says. “That started the whole thing of splitting my time between California and Colorado. Eventually, I said ‘I am going to move to Colorado full time.’ I was sick of L.A. I was there for 18 years. It made sense to move back here. My parents are here, and my brother is here. There’s nowhere else I wanted to go.”
Stevens still maintains business connections in L.A.
He works from a studio doing movie posters. He says he works on one almost every day. He estimates that, over the years, he has worked on literally hundreds of posters.
“When I say posters, a lot of times, there’s more than one,” he says. “There are the ones you see in the theater. A lot of times, there will be outdoor campaigns, like billboards, bus shelters, and bus sides. It’s a little shocking to realize this stuff goes everywhere. The majority of my work goes outdoors.”
His professional relationship with the companies he works for has varied over the years.
“Sometimes I have worked as a freelancer, charging a day rate,” he says. “Right now, I do take salary. Besides ‘Star Wars,’ I did a bunch of the ‘Hunger Games’ posters. I did ‘Django Unchained.’
“I’ve been fortunate enough to work on the biggest movies there are,” Stevens continues.
His continuing relationship with the movie industry has now afforded Stevens the opportunity to spread his creative wings, to get back into the fine art work he envisioned all those years ago when he was carrying a sketch pad around Basalt High School. He has been working on a series of mixed-media collages that, while inspired in a reactive way by his movie posters, are unlike anything you are likely to see advertising a blockbuster film.
“The movie posters are so precise and there’s such a process with revisions and with the clients scrutinizing every aspect of the creative process,” Stevens says. “What I’m doing now is aggressively throwing that out. I don’t have to listen to anybody else. I can do what I want. There’s no planning. Sometimes, I lay something down and literally sand it and go back over it. Maybe the pedigree of doing some cool stuff, the posters, will make people more interested in the whole concept of this stuff, but my current work is sort of asking if the oversaturation of violence and sex and guns — the stuff that appears in a lot of movies — is really good for us.
“I view it as, I’ve transitioned in a career before from music to graphic design,” Stevens continues. “It is my hope is that I can plant the seeds for a fine-art career. A lot of times this stuff blends together. I’ll sometimes throw in some cool thing from a movie poster. I don’t think I’ll ever stop the movie stuff unless I make it big as a fine artist. Artists are constantly crossing over from advertising to fine art. We’ve hired artists to do movie stuff.”
In addition to partially transitioning from commercial movie-poster production to fine art, Stevens is reacquainting himself with the Mid-Valley.
“For me, there was really no challenge coming back home,” he says. “Once I figured out how to work from here, I was like well, I can do this. I still have friends from high school. I’m rebuilding some of those relationships. I was lucky enough to find housing relatively quickly. My brother and I bought a condo, where I kept a bedroom, so I could go back and forth between here and L.A. It took me two years to find my own place, but I finally bought a house and moved in last summer.”
Stevens has also worked hard to integrate himself into the Roaring Fork Valley’s vibrant art scene.
“I’ve had a couple pieces at Skye Gallery in Aspen, and I had a show at the Art Base in Basalt a couple years ago,” he says. “That was based on an art project I did with a buddy while I was still going back and forth. It was street-art stuff — graffiti — related to the KAMP Collective. That’s kinda where a lot of my work is coming from now.”
Stevens also has his first solo show set for March 1 at the Launchpad in Carbondale.
With a full creative plate, Stevens has put his fantasy of becoming a rock-and-roll star on the back burner.
“That’s gone for now, but I still pull my guitar out sometimes,” he says, with an expression that’s hard to read.