The Story Behind One Of Star Wars’ Most Recognisable Posters

The Story Behind One Of Star Wars’ Most Recognisable Posters
A glimpse of <em>A New Hope</em> by Greg and Tim Hildebrandt. (Image: Greg/Tim Hildebrandt, Spiderweb Art Gallery)

If two people made one of the most iconic Star Wars posters ever in less than two days, wouldn’t you want to hear that story?

Directors Erik Sharkey and Kevin Burke hope that piques your interest because they’re making a documentary about artist Greg Hildebrandt. Hildebrandt and his twin brother Tim rose to prominence in the 1970s when they became two of the most prolific fantasy artists in the world.

Sadly, Tim passed away in 2006, but Greg is turning 81 this month and Gizmodo got a chance to speak with him—not just about his overall career, but the 36 hours it took for him and his brother to make one of the most memorable Star Wars posters ever.

The history of the original Star Wars one-sheets is unique in that they changed multiple times, even while the film was in release. The first poster almost everyone knows. It’s a cleanly composed image of a young boy holding a lightsaber, with a young woman by his side, and a huge helmet behind them with ships flying all around.

That poster was done by artist Tom Jung—but as Hildebrandt mentions, it wasn’t what George Lucas wanted. He wanted something more “comic book-y,” and the Hildebrandts were brought in to do just that while keeping the general idea and composition of Jung’s poster.

“Tim and I were discussing, well, what the hell does more comic book-y mean?” Hildebrandt told Gizmodo over the phone last week. “I figured more intense colour, basically overall just a stronger, higher contrast of warm and cool colours and maybe that the [characters] should be sexier.”

The Hildebrandts took Polaroids of two people who just happened to be at their studio that day—Greg’s ex-wife, standing in for Princess Leia, and a mutual friend for Luke Skywalker—to use as lighting reference. They then tweaked the Jung poster slightly, adding more detail and updated versions of the characters, and completed an entirely new painting in 36 hours.

The full poster. (Image: Greg and Tim Hildebrandt, Spiderweb Art Gallery)

If you think 36 hours seems too fast, you’re not wrong. But that timeline was dictated by the situation. Lucas’ problem with the original poster was only conveyed a week before the film opened. Luckily, the company knew of two brothers who, a few years prior, had walked into their office and painted a poster for Young Frankenstein overnight, for free.

“[When we were getting our start] we brought our portfolio to this agency and standing all around on these chairs, were these finished paintings, about seven or eight of them, for Young Frankenstein,” Hildebrandt said. “Tim and I just flipped out. We wanted to do a poster. They said, ‘Well, the budget’s all gone. It’s all used up and they’re being shipped out tomorrow to the West Coast.’ And I said ‘I don’t care. We’ll do one.’ And they said ‘By tomorrow?’ They gave us a bunch of 8 x 10 glossies. I figured out a set-up on the way back to Jersey where we live. We go home, grab the Polaroid, grab some people, shot models, painted a picture overnight, and brought it back into the studio. The next day they were kind of shaking [their] heads like ‘What the hell?’”

The company didn’t end up using the Hildebrandts’ poster for Young Frankenstein, but that speedy turnaround—coupled with their rising popularity in the subsequent years, thanks to their work with the J.R.R. Tolkien estate on Lord of the Rings art—made them the obvious choice to give Jung’s poster an upgrade. Plus, they apparently had a pretty famous fan.

Greg HIldebrandt at work. (Photo: Erik Sharkey)

“Last year, I was talking to [the people who hired us] and they said [at the time] they actually got a call from Lucas. He told them that he wanted us,” Hildebrandt said. “Back then Tim and I, we’d just sign ‘Hildebrandt’ [on the paintings]. We didn’t sign our first names. [And] we signed it very tiny on the finished painting. When they sent the copy of it over to Lucas, they came back and they said ‘He wants you to make your name bigger,’ which, normally, I was used to ‘Take your name off’ because nobody wants to pump the artist. But we did. We made the name bigger.” 

While the Hildebrandts initially made a deal for the poster to be used only for advertising, things quickly changed after Star Wars opened, and there was high demand, but little supply, for products.

“Our agreement with them initially was it was to be used as an ad strictly in the newspapers and as a one-sheet outside the theatre,” Hildebrandt said. “And instantly they just used it as a product. They sold it as a poster in the stores, and they used it on T-shirts, toys. It became basically a product more than [a poster]. They’re still using it that way.”

Eventually, when the film became a hit, a new poster by Tom Chantrell became the official one sheet, featuring the faces of those no-name actors the Hildebrandts were told no one knew. Well, people knew them now, and that went for the Hildebrandts too.

Greg being interviewed in the film. (Photo: Erik Sharkey)

“I got introduced to Carrie Fisher at her apartment,” Hildebrandt said of the Star Wars aftermath. “She was packing up to go on tour for the very first film and she was really nice about the painting. She liked it a lot, she told me, and she said, in her opinion, I made her look better looking than she really was. I said ‘I disagree with you.’”

According to Hildebrandt, the original painting now resides with a private collector in Paris—someone who bought it from Alan Ladd Jr., former head of 20th Century Fox. And while the original may be locked away, it opened many doors for the Hildebrandts. The brothers worked on more Star Wars projects over the years (most notably most of the artwork for Shadows of the Empire) as well as Harry Potter and Marvel, for which Greg is still working today. In that time, he’s become fed up with seeing that the hand-drawn, carefully-crafted style of movie posters has long been forgotten.

“I think they’re terrible,” he said of modern posters. “I mean, and I normally don’t get too critical or judgmental about stuff, but shit, where is the art? Just to slap together digitally done stuff, there’s no concern for that anymore. It’s just really kind of tragic.”

But directors Sharkey and Burke hope a documentary like theirs can keep that love of art alive.

Tolkien art by the Hildebrandts. (Image: Greg and Tim Hildebrandt, Spiderweb Art Gallery)

“Kevin and I are lovers of illustration and want to bring more attention to the masters of this art form with our documentaries, and Greg Hildebrandt is definitely a living legend,” Sharkey said in an email. “It’s amazing how many generations have grown up on the iconic Star Wars poster and Lord of the Rings artwork by…the Brothers Hildebrandt. Greg has also done beautiful work on his own for Heavy Metal magazine, Black Sabbath, and Marvel Comics. At 80 years old Greg has a lifetime of stories about the highs and lows of working in the industry and the creation of so much incredible artwork, and he still continues to work today with no intention of retiring. That’s definitely worth celebrating. Kevin and I are honoured to tell Greg’s life story and want to make a film that inspires and informs future generations of artists and art lovers.”

Since production the documentary is still underway, there’s no release date as of yet. But you can stay in the loop by following the film’s Facebook page.

This article has been updated since its original publication.