As a comic book fan, illustrator, graphic designer and the title and end credits creator of some of the most visually dynamic films of the moment, Justin Harder's living multiple dreams – and bringing them to life for others to share.
Harder's lavishly executed and animated title sequence work has enlivened the credits of films like Thor: The Dark World, The Book of Life and Lazer Team, and his most recent effort opens Deadpool, the film debut of Marvel Comic's Merc With a Mouth. "It's so important for these superhero movies," he says. "Everyone's now watching to see what these title sequences are at the end, which is really cool for us. The bar is being raised each time."
It's safe to say Harder really got into character: not only did he create the title sequence (and exclusive "Deadpool" art for Fandango, which you can see below), he actually donned some motion capture equipment and played the role of the mercenary for the film's director, Tim Miller, while shooting some test footage to prep for the film. But his love for Deadpool-style comics goes back further than that, as he reveals in our recent chat.
The Art of Discovering Deadpool
When the opportunity to work on Deadpool came his way, Harder had already done plenty of homework:
"Through Tim Miller, who I knew through a friend, I was able to be Deadpool for a motion capture thing that they were doing for a test. I got to do the motion capture and I put the little hat on and acted like him. And I was like, "You know what? I really like this guy now.
"The costume has changed and morphed now for the film. I was looking back at some of the original stuff that Liefeld did, and some of the staples are there – the black shoulders, obviously the black-and-white eyes – but other things have been plugged in along the way. This costume is so utilitarian in terms of the textures, like a motorcycle outfit. It has these great little nuances, like the bullet holes on the chest that were sewn up. It's already kind of beat up. It's so cool, the way they adapted it."
The Art of Booking the Gig
Harder's preexisting professional relationship with Miller's animation, effects and design company Blur Studio paved the way for his involvement:
"I have a studio called Claus – clausstudios.com – and there's two different facets to our business: sometimes I handle full productions, and sometimes I handle contract work for another studio. In this case, Blur Studio contacted me and I did [end credits for] Thor: The Dark World for them, and we've just had a great relationship.
"Tim Miller's wife, Jen, the woman that runs the commercial side of Blur, called me up and asked me to pitch on it. She said, "We're not really sure the look of it all, be we think it'd be cool to have Deadpool tagging – Tim was thinking maybe as stick figures." When I get a nice overall direction like that, I know at least where the director's mind is at, and where we don't want to take away from the story but just build or aid and just kind of leave everyone happy, saying "You know what? That was phenomenal."
The Art of Creative Collaboration
The creation of the opening sequence involved a lot of back-and-forth, with Harder and his colleagues taking Miller's basic notion as far as they could push it:
"I got to be on the ground floor from the beginning working together with a creative director there and a writer there, throwing gags off the walls at each other – like "How can we just make this most fun possible?" And I overstepped a couple of boundaries – numerous times – but that's probably all right!
"I like when the directors come to me with their ideas, because they have been living with these movies for a lot longer than I have. I'm always a little apprehensive when they don't really have an idea. That makes me a little nervous, because I'm like, ‘You know what your movie is and what kind of story you either need to set up with an opening title sequence, or need to button it with in end titles.’ The more they can give us off the bat, the quicker it's going to be for me, and the way better the product's going to be. We can really support their vision."
The Art of Fulfilling Fanboy Fantasies
As an old-school comic book fan, Harder's work on movies like Deadpool and Thor: The Dark World was a dream opportunity:
"The day that I was called to pitch on Thor: The Dark World, I nearly jumped through the roof. I went nuts, just to pitch on it! And then as we were pitching, I did a design for it – very illustrative; gray and black and white and red – and [after a few rounds] I get a phone call from Blur: 'Are you ready to do some painting?' 'What does that mean?' 'We got the gig.' And I screamed – it was the coolest thing ever. These characters, for a comic book guy – it's Christmas Day, over and over and over.
"I had to do 65 paintings for Thor: The Dark World and I worked from 8 in the morning until 2 a.m. All hours, and I didn't even care. It was the absolute best time. Because I knew we were doing a product and had to do it justice, but also it was forever."
The Art of Inspiration
While Harder has a well-rounded background in art and illustration, he reveals that his earliest influences came from Deadpool's creator Rob Liefeld and his fellow artists at the early ‘90s incarnation of Image Comics:
"Early on, it was all those guys from Image: Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Rob Liefeld, Todd MacFarlane. When I was in my early teens and drawing anatomy, I was looking at those guys' art – the muscles on muscles and biceps and things like that.
"Then I went to actual figure drawing class and got a little out of that mentality. I went to art school and started getting opened up to more design influences, like David Carson and [Stefan] Sagmeister. I was infusing some typography with my illustration."
The Art for Fandango
Harder reveals how his Deadpool art for Fandango came together – and ties in with his signature line of creations:
"I draw a certain way, and I was such a lover of the way all those Image guys did the details and the anatomy so ridiculously over-exaggerated – nobody's abs look like that! So I took that and I combined it with my love of gesture drawing. I do this line of characters called Squints – I have them on my website and I've done a lot of fan art with them; the reason they're called Squints is because I always make squinty eyes and never draw any actual pupils.
"In this one I wanted to make it kind of special and bring it into the color palette we're using in the title sequence. And it's just so cool that Fandango champions something like this, from fans and artists alike. It's a great platform for artists to go ‘Let's all just have a great love of movies and celebrate that.’"