“Jirga” by AJ True

Work for hire can be a lot of fun! You work on something that is exposed – officially! – to a much larger crowd than normal and you support other peoples’ art. In the process, you get to know them and their desires which is always fascinating, always surprising and always pushing your personal borders of experience.

In July 2017 I was contacted by an Australian composer named AJ True, who requested my work for his debut feature film score. Jirga is a very personal story about a former Australian soldier who returns to Afghanistan to find the family of a civilian he accidentally killed during the war. I was intrigued. It’s not only the film itself, but the extraordinary story of how it was made

Every few months I visited the film’s website, hoping to finally find official info about the score and especially its album art. It didn’t really leave me in all those months and I was eager to see what a capable designer would come up with for a score as promising as this. Up until a couple weeks ago when AJ – out of the blue – sent me a whole shenanigans of material and offered ME the job I was so eager to take almost a year earlier.

The project asked for a digital booklet, the main album art, a package design for a physical digipack and later on a promotional poster as well. Quite a lot of work for a pretty tight timeframe, as the Sydney Film Festival was coming up quickly. And so I began to stake out the artistic frame and set off to work.

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The digital booklet was the first thing I started with and also the very last thing I finished. It demanded a very forward-thinking approach as every artistic decision limited my own leeway for all subsequent designs later on.

I basically fought on several fronts at the same time. And many technical aspects had to be considered.

  • Are the chosen font types legible for both screen and print?
  • Did I bear in mind all the necessary safety margins the print shop was asking for?
  • Does each item look good on large desktop monitors, mid-sized tablets, and in small 12 x 12 cm CD format?

The list goes on and on. My start on this project was more like a technical hurdle race instead of a creative engagement. But that’s part of the deal and I have to admit that I’ve learned so many new things, as never before in any project.

One particular bit I definitely learned was how to decrease the file size of a finished PDF booklet. Due to the large amount of pages and the high resolution images that I’ve used throughout, the PDF grew to 29 Megabytes in size, which is way too much. I managed to bring it down to a reasonable 6,5 Megabytes, but the journey to that was a story of itself.

I tried countless ways to loose as many MBs as possible, without sacrificing a whole lot of image quality. At one point I deleted more than half of the finished pages (which is ridiculous when you think of it), ending up with a dwindled 15-page booklet. After exporting the PDF I excitedly checked the filesize and all it saved me was 1 lousy megabyte. One! The booklet was still 28 Megabytes in size!! Sometimes PDFs really are a pain in the ass!

Embedding the text as vector shapes was the first step to glory and scaling back image quality to 70% was another part of my ultimately glorious defeat over one of the most dreadful file types of all time. I may have vanquished in the end, but I’m still at odds with Adobe’s Portable Document Format.

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Throughout the entire project I was in frequent email contact with AJ and it was as good as a collaboration could get – despite the large, geographic time delay. He provided me with lots of feedback and support, whether it be digital booklet guidlines from the iTunes store or print templates from the Melbourne print facility. And more importantly, he was able to very clearly articulate what he was looking for which made work tremendously easier for me.

When I invest myself in commissional work I try to support the client on all fronts. Coming up with promotional material is just another aspect of the design process. Because at the end of the day, even the best CD cover artwork is only advertising space, strictly speaking. Often, I tend to forget that I’m not designing something that is art for arts’ sake. Because in reality my work is supposed to serve the actual product, the music! To make it go over the counter, hopefully in great quantities. So we threw in a release poster at the last minute that was ought to help AJ sell his physical score album at the premiere night. This one was uncharted territory for me as well.

Collaborating is always about two parties. It was my job to put AJ’s initial ideas into practice, add my own ideas on top and, when he was feeling insecure about something, offer different options to choose from.

Below you can find some alternate outputs from along the way, together with some personal thoughts in the image descriptions.

Jirga is only the second original soundtrack that I’ve worked on that is available publicly. My first venture into the big business was Karim Elmahmoudi’s Nightfall back in 2015. I’ve come a long way since then, but it feels just as exciting to know that a new soundtrack album I have made the artwork for, is officially available on iTunes.

And in case you’re not part of the Apple legion you can also stream the score for free on AJ’s bandcamp site and download the full set, including the digital booklet PDF, for just 10 bucks. Considering the amount of working hours that went into the music and the album as a whole, that is a pretty fair price if you ask me.

I would finally like to say thank you to AJ for approaching me with this project. It was so great to accompany you for a little bit on this journey of yours. And I hope we’ll see our paths cross someday again. And of course also thank you to Benjamin Gilmour for making this incredible film happen and thus enable a collaboration like this. I feel honored to have contributed my tiny little part to a film and score as personal and unique as this one.

Thank you guys. It was my pleasure!

9 Comments

  1. Bart Oss

    As always great work ! I hope you will be more involved in commercial projects. Your covers is always amazing.

    1. Thank you Bart! I certainly hope so too.

  2. BlockBusted

    Can you do separate covers for ‘Hotel Transylvania’, ‘Hotel Transylvania 2’, and ‘Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation’? A score album for all 3 films are coming out next month.

    1. Hm, those kind of films are not really my cup of tea. I’d rather favour Pacific Rim instead…..

      1. Block-Busted

        I understand your feeling. Is it possible to make them though?

      2. I’m afraid not. Plenty of other (better) things to do right now.

  3. arandomvistor

    Hey!
    I have been visiting your website for a while, can you give me some critiques about my work? Thanks.
    https://ibb.co/iT8PDd

    1. Hello random visitor! :) I really like it. The image works great as a front cover.
      There are kerning issues though with the additional text. Right now I see it as follows:

      ORIGIN AL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTR A CK
      MUSIC COMPOSED BY J A MES NE W T ON HO W A R D

      You see the pattern there? It’s the A, R and W mostly. If you’re on Photoshop change the kerning to optical. But usually that’s a sign of cheap, free fonts.

      1. arandomvistor

        Wow! I never notice that, but that is something which is very high level…

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