From the prolific pen of Stephen King, 1989’s Pet Sematary is a profound, emotional and at times malevolent depiction of a family on the path towards the downward spiral. Notorious for being the book that King thought was too scary to be published, Mary Lambert’s dark adaptation horrified audiences across the globe for its bleak and grief riddled imagery. To celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary, Mondo Records has dug deep into the catacombs and resurrected Pet Sematary for a limited vinyl release. As well as remastering Elliot Goldenthal’s soundscapes, the label commissioned Chicago artist Mike Saputo for the artwork. With a fine selection of sharp edged skills, Saputo brought to life a collection of meloncholic and foreboding visuals to cloak the gloomy, caliginous score held within the wax.
In regards to how the Pet Sematary cover art came to fruition, Saputo explains “Mondo and I have been working together for a number of years now. Typically when they have a project they need, they think about who would best fit the property, and they choose the artist to tackle it. Apparently they thought I’d be a good fit and they approached me to work on it. I am a fan of Stephen King, so I was a fan of this movie. Was it my FAVORITE in the pantheon of incredible King stories? Is it up there with Salem’s Lot, The Shining and Creepshow? Nah, but even the worst King is better most everything else. I have to say though, I really enjoy taking on jobs even where I don’t enjoy the movie, (which is not the case here) because one of the best parts of being an artist is, whether it’s your favorite film/band etc or not, to figure out how to convey the essence and nail it. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t, but whether you’ve seen a movie a hundred times or never, each offers a unique opportunity to tackle. Sometimes you can visually distill a movie to it’s essence being far away from it, rather than being wrapped up in the details if it was really close to you.”
Unlike most cover art commissions where artists are constrained to the labels vision, Saputo was given free rein to create his own set of opulent optics for Pet Semitary.“As an artist, to have a client like Mondo is a dream come true – great people, great properties, creative freedom, and great exposure” notes Saputo. Mondo lets the artist be the artist, meaning they chose that artist for a reason. So to let them do their thing is the way they work, and I think there’s no better way to get great results. You can’t hire an artist because you like what they do and then art direct them into your box. You’re gonna end up with shit, and trust me I’ve had clients like that. Once I was downloaded on the job, I got to sketching. Depending on the film, sometimes you just have a hard time stopping on idea sketches. The great ones to work on have a ton of berries to pick off the trees, if you will. So in working on Pet Sematary, it was blue sky, which was great.”
Turing the metaphorical into the literal, Sputo’s despondent blue sky shapes the backdrop and negative space of the image. While compressing many of the films elements into a single picture could result in a cluttered and confusing piece, Saputo get surgical and finely cuts and layers elements within each other. The buried child symbolizing the cats tongue, the cat is embedded within the Native American burial ground layout – Saputo excels in creating a flow and rhythm to the artwork. Also mirroring the on screen elements, the use of cold colors (blues and blacks) highlight the hopeless desperation of the films characters.
“I really tried to focus on trying to capture the mood of the film” explains Saputo. “To me Louis digging up Gage with an overlay of the Indian burial symbol really captured the meat of the film both visually and conceptually. I tried to use colors that conveyed the tone of the film, as well as the time of night when Louis was in the cemetery to dig up Gage. For the inner gatefold I tried to balance out the blue night with blazing reds of the ending sequence of the Crandall house on fire with Louis taking Rachel back to the burial ground”.
Mixing both traditional and digital ingredients, Saputo notes “this was a pretty typical process for me in terms of materials – a combination of pencil, pen & digital. Every job can be a bit different – there are times I would do something all vector, times I would ink the linework and scan it in, and now more recently I’ve been going all digital. I have a cheap Cintiq knockoff right now but the monitor is horrible and I plan to upgrade soon. Working straight digitally like I’ve been doing lately is been a bit of a revelation, I don’t think I’ll be going back to traditional inking. But for this release I did the cat face in pencil, as I wanted that great organic look that pencil gives. I’d rather see a piece done in pencil than in inks, as crazy as it might be. The trees and clouds I did in ink I believe. All the coloring was done in Photoshop”.
Digging deeper into the creative process, he explains “I think the one hiccup I had was that when I starting going to final color on this, I did so in a way that was in line with digital/offset printing in mind, meaning I wasn’t so concerned about colors and gradations and such like you have to be with silkscreen printing, which is what I would typically do working with Mondo. But since this was vinyl, it wasn’t going to be screenprinted and I could let loose a bit more in terms of how I render something. Digital/offset printing allows more flexibility that way. Once I finished, I think Mondo liked it so much they asked for a poster of it. So I had to take the file that I was a bit reckless with (in terms of layers, styles, blends etc) and clean it up for screenprinting, which was a bit of a challenge. Typically if I think the file will even have a chance of being screened, I’ll handle it in a way that makes for an easy transition. Saves alot of time and headache”.
In terms of the timeline surrounding the Pet Sematary artworks, Sputo confesses “estimating time & gauging time has always been a problem for me. Dates, times & numbers get jumbled in my faulty brain and I struggle coping with that. Secondly, I have a 9 to 5 and a family on top of this work I do, which alot of times will be multiple gigs at once. So most of the time I work on projects in little chunks at a time and on random days of the week depending on what job is hot. So if I’m working on a project for 2-3 weeks, it’s hard to gauge how much time I actually spent on it over the course of those 2-3 weeks. I will say this though – I don’t think I’m the fastest artist that’s for sure. I envy the guys who can throw stuff together at a ridiculous pace and it still looks awesome. I have an internal limiter in that I’m slower and meticulous, which is not to say better – just slower”
With the finished product filling up the vinyl shelves of soundtrack buffs and horror enthusiasts alike – Sputo reflects upon his work like a proud father by noting “I’m really happy with the way this one came out. Sometimes on certain projects, things just fall into place, and that’s what happened for me here. When you’re still figuring out the design, you play with alot of things – layout/elements/overlays and positions of things. Just so happened I overlayed the burial pattern over the design I had going and it fit perfectly, in particular the cat’s face and how it formed the cat’s ears and face, I love that. We also decided to do a spot varnish on the burial pattern which turned out great. Originally the colored vinyl variant was supposed to be a “cat’s eye” (Mondo’s idea which I thought was brilliant) – Yellow with a thin black cat like black pupil. But due to past production issues they had with other vinyl like that, which delayed the release, they decided to go with a safer solution, which was a green with black splotch middle. I still think it looks great.”
Treading the fine line between regretful and viciously claustrophobic, the Pet Sematary soundtrack is a clouded and shadowy score perfect to bury your ears in. Putting the ill in illustrator – Mike Saputo’s layered, beautifully melancholic approach to the cover art walks hand in hand with the audio art within.