The Rocketeer (James Horner)


It's hard to believe it's already been thirty years since "The Rocketeer" debuted in theaters. An adaptation of Dave Steven's comic series, the Disney-produced film, directed by Joe Johnston, had a moderately successful theatrical run but went on to build a larger following on home video. The film is a love letter to pulp serial adventure stories. Set in late 30's Los Angeles, we follow pilot Cliff Secord as he discovers a futuristic new rocket pack that aids him in stopping a secret Nazi plot. The film's gorgeous setting and design are aided by a fantastic score from composer James Horner. Horner was himself a lover of flight and this score really gave him the opportunity to channel his passion directly in the soaring music. He created one of his very best main themes and some of the most rousing action cues of his career. 


This was a rather daunting project, that unfortunately took me a lot longer to complete than expected. Between the overall number of covers, ten in total, and the complexity of some of the individual covers, it proved to be quite a challenge. But this is a film I grew up watching, a nostalgic childhood favorite, and one of my very favorite scores from one of my most beloved composers--so I simply had to keep plugging way, and couldn't pass up working on all the best poster art I could find. On album, the music has been fairly well represented, with Hollywood Records first releasing the score upon film's release (with an abridged presentation that hit most of the highlights), and then an expanded release by Intrada Records in 2016 (with a newly re-mastered update in 2020). 

Cover 1 uses a stunning Mondo poster created by artist C├ęsar Moreno for a Disney poster art-show called "Never Grow Up". Digital paintings like this can be quite a challenge to edit. Naturally I had to change the composition of the vertical poster, but I couldn't easily expand, so had to do a hard crop. Fortunately the lower section was a bit more blank anyways, but I did want to keep the flying rocketeers on the bottom corners, so I moved them up. I had to isolate the entire border to be able to shrink and reframe as appropriate, and then make sure it blended onto the new background appropriately. The main challenge then was figuring out how to incorporate text into what was already such an ornate and packed image. I had to recreate a similar title font effect (I'm not 100% satisfied with its placement here, but there was really nowhere else to place it). The ultra-small top and bottom credits were tricky too, but overall I'm happy with how this came out, considering the challenges and limitations.

The second cover adapts the common poster art, that I believe was created for the home video release--it definitely has that more modern Disney style to it. The challenge here (as per usual) was figuring out the composition and spacing, as the original poster features a taller portrait layout, and there was no clean place to put the title in the middle of the image, so this necessitated significantly expanding the image horizontally. In an ideal world, I try to avoid having this much negative space (and with the main characters taking up central real estate). I the end, I basically just took the same image, expanded it so the sky was filling up the wider area I'd created, and then blended it back in on top of the smaller characters in the middle. Also, most posters I found of this were fairly lo-rez, so I had to stack several versions and apply filters to try to get it as decent as possible.

Cover 3 uses a dynamic piece of digital artwork by Matt Ferguson that captures the first scene where Cliff dons the full Rocketeer suit and leaps into action to save a pilot friend of his after his plane malfunctions. Again, verticality was my enemy here, but fortunately since the art here had a more minimal, pop-art tyle feel, I was able to adapt it without compromising the original intentions too much. Basically, I separated Cliff flying, and then the top airplane and various cloud layers, so I could shift things around to widen out the composition (as well as doing a slight stretch and distort on the image as a whole to better fit the square format). The final detail was to then make sure all the levels blended back together properly, so as to maintain a smooth blend in the sky. In some ways, this is probably one of the heavier cases of distortion and manipulation I've done to a piece of art in a foundational way, but fortunately the art lent itself quite easily here, and I think the changes mostly work and should largely go unnoticed. To suit the art style and off-kilter look here, I went with a very different font and title treatment and diagonal orientation.

The fourth cover uses an alternate marketing poster (and a pose of Secord inspired by Moscow's Yuri Gagarin statue (as was echoed in a few other posters below)), this one done by the creator Dave Stevens himself. The art itself didn't take too much work, other than the usual filters to try to clean-up and enhance the noisy older image. I simply added a bit of padding onto the red background sides to loosen the composition, and then went with an 30's diner-style font to fit that period style. 

Cover 5 is an alternate take on the film's central marketing poster, by illustrator John Mattos. This poster is iconic and probably one of the greatest film posters ever made. The use of that cold art blocky art deco style is just fabulous and the composition is so dynamic. This artwork has also been used on both of the official covers. However, I didn't really like the specific way it was used on either cover (I prefer the general color tone of the first version better, but dislike the text font on both). The first step was overlaying several different versions of the same poster, both to get maximum detail and sharpness but also to get the widest available version of the background as possible (which I ended up having to do some cloning to expand a bit further). The biggest challenge was actually trying to color-balance the image. The older posters had a much warmer feel, whereas the newer versions had a more saturated blue tone. I tried to find a in-between tone, though it's honestly still not entirely to my liking. Ultimately, I think just updating the text a little bit and polishing things up give this a nice refresh from the official covers, even though nothing too radically different.

The sixth cover uses another piece of commissioned art, by Paul Shipper. I love the pencil-on-paper feel to it, though I had to patch together the several different images to enhance the quality where I could, as I couldn't find a hi-rez version of the whole poster. I further added some leather texture to the frame and gave it a bit of an emboss as if the art and text is punched into the leather. 

Cover 7 uses another lovely painted poster, again using that Gagarin silhouette inspiration, but with a pleasant art deco floral cloud texture behind. This image was used at the alternate cover on the Intrada version, but as a rule, I strongly dislike Intrada's blocky/outlined text style, so I had to improve on it. I had to do some significant cloning to widen out the sides of the image and try to blend it all together smoothly, which takes time. I also had to go in and meticulously clean-up the image as the version I was using seemed to be a physical scan, and had a lot of dust and hairs and particles to remove. I ended up adding a cool frame that enhanced that classic deco/nouveau style. 

The eight cover also took significant work. It is a combination of two core components--one an old poster, which featured the main three characters and the plane hangar at the bottom, and the other one a much newer wallpaper version of only the top portion of the image. The problem is the vertical poster version was small and very low quality, whereas the wallpaper was large and in overall enhanced quality, but it only covered about half of the area I needed it to. The first step was overlaying them and playing filters to make sure they matched as closely as possible in terms of saturation, tones and light/dark curves. I decided I wanted to just keep the image focused on the flying Rocketeer, and eliminate all the other elements in the original poster, as it would be too ugly to cram into a tighter composition. So I had to clone and paint them out entirely, combining and using portions of the surrounding sky and some new brushes to fill in all the missing bits with new clouds that would match those gorgeous sunset hues. I also took the title treatment in the original poster (which I used in another two covers), as it offered a more adventurous and pulpy style than the official title version. Unfortunately, since that poster I took it from was in terrible quality and pretty much useless as a source to cut out and mask the title, I ended up having to trace and recreate the title from scratch, one letter at a time, using nodes (something that was pretty much to me)--to be able to have a hi-rez title. In the end, I think the final product looks clean and beautiful, as if it was always meant to look like this, but it was truly a feat of will to muscle through all the steps it took to get there. 

Cover 9 features an alternate John Mattos poster design, I'm not entirely sure, but I think this might have been one of the earliest pieces for the film (and the originator of both the Gagarin-inspired look (made even more explicitly clear here), as well as that hard deco style in general). Again, the piece is just stunning, blending that hard deco style with a sort of fractured cubism. The lower part of the image features a cool city skyline, though sadly I had to lose this part, even with already cloning out the sides to widen the image. 

The tenth and final cover adapts an incredible poster by artist Colin Murdoch, strongly echoing the work of the legendary Drew Struzan. Again, the vertical to square challenge, especially for a digitally hand-painted piece like this was beautifully used the space it was originally intended for. This as another case of feeling like I was just running constantly into a brick wall, and stupidly, I saved the most difficult cover for last--but I was such a fan of the image that I knew that I had to keep going until I finally conquered it and found a solution. The central portion of the image mainly stayed the same, but I had to cut out the stone tile side frames, and also took the front portion of the bottom strip (the airplanes) to expand this to fit the wider composition (while keeping the back of the hanger the same smaller size). This left a bit gap between the stone frames and the central piece of the image that needed to be filled. The tricky thing here is that the artwork is meant to have a hand-painted feel, so it is highly textured and detailed, which is incredibly tricky to try to recreate. Cloning basically destroys all that detail, so I then had to go back in and play with different brush effects to add brush strokes and paint splatters, etc., to try to make this areas I expanded feel hand-painted again and hopefully not look too distracting or alien from the rest of the existing image. Again, there's a million little details and changes here that I had to try to do to seamlessly integrate my changes into the original piece--and if I'm successful, you probably won't at first glance notice any of it! Oh, the joys of being an anal, perfectionist designer!

I'm quite proud of my work on these covers and glad to finally have them out in the world, and I can only hope they do the story justice and the music of our beloved James Horner.


2 comments

  1. Fantastic work Joel! This film and it's music has always been near and dear for me too. Terrific detailing on all the covers and I love all the art deco. For me #5 will always be the one that just wraps the whole ethos of the film into one single image.

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    1. Thanks so much for the kind words! These were a real pleasure to work on, given my connection to the film and music, and just the style and quality of the artwork itself.

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