Masters on the Market: John Alvin

James Ardis
Published on
Photo of John Alvin. Image from John Alvin Art.
Photo of John Alvin. Image from John Alvin Art.

After years of poring over film advertisements in his spare time, John Alvin finally got his chance to produce a movie poster in 1974. The film, Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, could’ve been an intimidating first assignment, but Alvin took it in stride. A nod to the satirical nature of the film, Alvin played it mostly straight with the movie poster, hiding punchlines within the usual imagery of a Western.

The poster was a hit, and Mel Brooks invited Alvin back to work on the poster for Young Frankenstein (1974) and other films. Brooks wasn’t the only fan of John Alvin’s work, though. The artist went on to produce 135+ movie posters, lending his style to market now-beloved movies such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Blade Runner (1982), and The Lion King (1994).

Movie poster for Young Frankenstein (1974), designed by John Alvin. Image from Borg.
Movie poster for Young Frankenstein (1974), designed by John Alvin. Image from Borg.

Now, Heritage Auctions presents three original art pieces John Alvin created for the VHS remasters of the original Star Wars trilogy. Before the bidding begins, Auction Daily takes a look back at Alvin’s career.

John Alvin Makes a Promise

Alvin began his career as a freelance artist. But long after his freelancer days ended, Alvin’s flexibility was continuously put to the test. Some projects, such as the movie poster for Blade Runner, required him to introduce theatergoers to a whole new world. Others, like the Star Wars remastered VHS designs, needed to recapture the magic for nostalgic fans.

No matter which category the project fell in, though, John Alvin felt he had the same job. He believed movie posters are a promise made between the movie and the theatergoer. Whichever emotion the poster portrays must be the overwhelming sense an audience gets when they see the film. “I’m trying to embody the audience,” said John Alvin in an interview. “I’m trying to reflect back to them what they’re going to feel.”

Movie poster for Blade Runner (1982), designed by John Alvin. Image from John Alvin Art.
Movie poster for Blade Runner (1982), designed by John Alvin. Image from John Alvin Art.

Sometimes, demands from the studio threatened the truthfulness of these promises. When Alvin designed the poster for Blade Runner, Warner Bros. wanted Harrison Ford to be portrayed as a traditional hero. Coming off of the Indiana Jones and Star Wars films, Ford was a hot commodity. Yet Alvin felt that Blade Runner was anything but a traditional hero’s tale. To work around the studio’s request, Alvin made Ford the clear focus of the poster but depicted him with a more stoic, somber expression.

In 1995, Alvin had another opportunity to paint Harrison Ford, this time as the lovable rogue Han Solo. The design for the international VHS release and remaster of Star Wars: A New Hope will be available in the upcoming Heritage Auctions event (lot #71064; estimate: USD 20,000 – $30,000). Each of the film’s main characters, including Darth Vader, is draped in a calming blue glow, foreshadowing the blurry line between friend and foe in the Star Wars universe.

Star Wars: A New Hope video cover designed by John Alvin. Image from Heritage Auctions.
Star Wars: A New Hope video cover designed by John Alvin. Image from Heritage Auctions.

“Alvinize It” 

While some of John Alvin’s clients had a specific idea in mind, others wanted him to come in and “Alvinize” the poster. At the time, it wasn’t clear to Alvin what these clients meant. But looking back during an interview, he realized these clients wanted his iconic style, which combined light and composition to create a serene, mystical quality.  

One example comes from Alvin’s most well-remembered movie poster, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. While watching E.T. and other Steven Spielberg movies, Alvin noticed the director’s use of what he called “thick light.” Instead of hiding mystery around a dark corner, Spielberg often hid things in an unrelentingly bright light. This was the inspiration behind the spark connecting the fingers of E.T. and Elliott on the movie’s poster.

Movie poster for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) designed by John Alvin. Image from Bottleneck Gallery.
Movie poster for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) designed by John Alvin. Image from Bottleneck Gallery.

In Alvin’s 1995 VHS cover for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (lot #71065; estimate: $20,000 – $30,000), each character has their own distinct light source. Trailing Yoda is a green light reminiscent of an aurora borealis, while red flashing lights surround Han Solo and Princess Leia. A holy glow circles Luke Skywalker’s head, overshadowed by the red, setting sun behind Darth Vader.

Collectors will have the chance to complete the trilogy by bidding on John Alvin’s VHS cover design for Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (lot #71066; estimate: $20,000 – $30,000), also from the 1995 remaster. Luke Skywalker finally takes center stage in the third poster. Despite the Jedi’s victory, each of the film’s heroes wears a somber expression, hinting at the sacrifices they make along the way.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back video cover designed by John Alvin. Image from Heritage Auctions.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back video cover designed by John Alvin. Image from Heritage Auctions.

Heritage Auctions’ Illustration Art Signature sale begins on April 30th, 2021, at 12:50 PM EDT. Register to bid on the Heritage Auctions website.

Want to read more about upcoming sales? Our auction previews cover the latest events with an at-a-glance view of featured lots and starting bids.

Media Source
Writer
James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

More in the auction industry