Flashback to Wednesday, March 23rd - I find myself in New York City visiting the 9/11 memorial for the first time. I decided to take the trip after being hired by 590films to craft key art for THE TREES, a thoughtful documentary about the planning and development of the World Trade Center Memorial Plaza. As I walked around the grounds, snapping photos and doodling in my sketchbook, I couldn’t help notice - for a place that had experienced an unspeakable amount of awfulness and trauma 15 years ago - how beautiful it has become and how much hope is in the air.
I think it’s fair to say that watching Scott Elliott’s documentary ahead of traveling to New York definitely had an impact on my experience, but the concepts of rebirth and beauty are what I took from my field trip. I felt fortunate that I was able to experience the plaza in person and walked away from the day with a solid grasp on how I would approach the artwork for the project.
Don’t get me wrong, elevating themes of growth and hopefulness about a place that’s been shadowed by darkness wasn’t going to be easy, but it was a challenge I was willing to tackle because I believed in the film’s mission and philosophy.
The Trees uses the tagline “Growing a forest at ground zero,” so while featuring trees in the key art was obvious, it was also crucial to include some kind of reflection or remembrance of the fallen towers. Figuring out an appropriate way to work in the twin towers proved to be the most challenging aspects of the design. The documentary doesn't spend time trying to help process the horrific events of 9/11, it instead deals with the public reaction to this lasting, yet ever-changing memorial to the victims of the September 11th attacks. So whatever reflective element we worked in needed to be subtle, as the primary focus should be something beautiful.
I knew I didn’t want to use photorealistic trees, and felt it was important to find a medium that helped push the design in natural and organic direction. I settled on watercolors and after doing a bit of research I came across a splash technique that looked perfect. Because you can really only control where your brush spray lands, it can yield some pretty interesting results and felt like the best way to create a series of beautiful and diverse trees.
Once I had created around 20 individual trees, I numbered and photographed each one separately so I could fully control scale when adding them in. My initial sketch only featured a single line of trees, but as I began to lay them out, I realized I could add a ton of depth by working on a perspective grid. That also helped push the art towards a contemporary and modern feel, so while the watercolor trees definitely evoke the nature side of the doc, I also wanted the precise design and layout of the memorial itself to be present. The end layout is a nice balance between the natural feeling of the trees and the modern design and layout of the memorial.
Next up was figuring out a way to incorporate the Twin Towers in a subtle but yet poignant way. Just having two tall shadows below the trees felt a big grim and didn't feel appropriate. Plus, it was vital that the towers didn’t get lost in translation. I did a bit of research on the Engineering and Construction of the Twin Towers and decided that instead of using a two dark shapes to form the shadows, I would find a way to incorporate the columns themselves. Initially, I did a very flat interpretation but it felt way too two-dimensional and didn't draw the viewer in. Once I started playing around with continuing the perspective plane and adding some three-dimensionality, the poster really started to come together.
I decided on Seravek medium italic (designed by Eric Olson of Process Type Foundry) for the title treatment. Rising out from behind the tree-line, I wanted something to contrast their wild and free nature, so it made sense to go with an unobtrusive and clean font. I also thought using a sturdy and modern typeface would help reinforce the hard work that went into creating the memorial itself.
Finishing touches included working in a blue watercolor wash, the photorealistic downtown skyline and sunrise. Even though it came later in the game, the addition of a light source is a huge part of the artwork. Not only does the sunrise motivate the long shadows stretching beneath the tree-line, it also signifies a new beginning and is crucial for a tree’s survival.
By combining hand-crafted elements with a blue/green color scheme and utilizing a minimal design layout, the key art creates a natural yet elegant visual tribute to the lasting, yet ever-changing 9/11 memorial. Furthermore, I feel this piece perfectly complements the meditative and peaceful approach the documentary utilizes.
To learn more about this incredible film, please visit their official site. If you’re in the NY area, you can catch the world television premiere of The Trees on these PBS affiliates: WLIW21, Thursday, September 8th @ 8pm and channel Thirteen on Sunday, September 11th @ 7pm. For everyone else, the film is available to purchase via iTunes and Amazon.
Footnote: If you haven’t had a chance to visit the 911 memorial, I highly recommend it.