Reporter's Notebook

Under the Cover
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We’re back. Welcome to the latest installment of Under the Cover.

Since last time, there are winners in the Republican and Democratic primaries for President, Senate Democrats wrapped up a 15-hour long filibuster on gun control, and the election is somehow crazier. For our new July/August cover story, Jonathan Rauch examines how American politics got to this point in the first place and how/if we can fix it.

Politics are inherently complicated and it’s tough to visualize the political system without resorting to symbols. Unfortunately for me, this is our second politics cover in less than a year, so I couldn’t use the trusty Elephant and Donkey symbols again.

I decided this time to use another symbol of America and democracy: Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam has shown up several times in The Atlantic’s cover history. The cover below on the left, illustrated by the legend Seymour Chwast, is for a 1995 piece about economic barometers. And in the 1997 cover on the right, also by Chwast, we see Uncle Sam in some sort of historical Conga line:

This next cover is from 2001. Uncle Sam is pulling double duty as a symbol of the might of “The Greatest Generation” as well as commemorating the Doonesbury comic strip at 40:

Artwork by Garry Trudeau

For our new July/August cover, the idea for the image started with the cover-line: “How American Politics Went Insane.” Then I started thinking about Jodeci … that’s right, Jodeci. They had a song called “Feenin’” in 1993, and the images of the band members in a padded cell are seared into my memory:

I watched a lot of MTV Jams. I loved this video for “Feenin.” Hype Williams is a genius.

So, how about Uncle Sam in a padded room wearing a straight-jacket?!

Idea approved, I reached out to the brilliant photographer Phil Toledano to do the shoot. We did a quick casting for our Uncle Sam and the prop stylists went to work on building a partial padded cell, which would be expanded later in post-production. The make-up artist gave our model James Stephens (who is British) a goatee and bushy eyebrows. Once the outfit was on, he was transformed into Uncle Sam:

From there it was simply a matter of getting the right position (fetal) and expression (defeated and angry):

The “padded room” was actually just a corner

Once we finished the cover, we worked on the interior photo, which was inspired by the crying Native American from the famous “Keep America Beautiful” ad from the 1970s:

I came up with this idea on the spot, so we had to improvise. Luckily the make-up artist had some Visine. We filled our model’s eyes up with the wet stuff and got our shot. Now if someone asks you what you think about the 2016 election and the state of politics in general, you can send them this picture:

You’re welcome, America, you’re welcome.

(Under the Cover archive here)

Here at The Atlantic, we like to do things … differently. The latest example is our Money issue, also known as “The Money Report.” We decided, of course, to do a cover story about not having money—more specifically, the shame that comes with financial stress in middle-class society.

A combination of poor decisions, as well as rising education and health care costs, have put the author, Neal Gabler, in a position where he would have trouble coming up with $400 cash in an emergency. “Financial impotence,” he calls it, “has many of the characteristics of sexual impotence, not least of which is the desperate need to mask it.” In other words, nobody wants to talk about their financial struggles.

When it came time to come up with the cover image, I started with ideas about financial struggle. One image I really liked was a guy in the hole. Literally. I wanted to stick a guy in a hole, holding his empty wallet:

Or what about using Gabler’s term “financial impotence”? Maybe a hand holding a tiny dollar?

While these would’ve been cool images, they didn’t convey the idea of “shame.” So I went back to the drawing board. I focused on the idea of shame and the “need to mask” oneself and then I thought about sports.

Let’s say you’re a fan of the New York Knicks … like me. And let’s say the Knicks are trash. You may decide as a fan to attend a game. You may also decide that rather than show your face, you would cover it up because you are too ashamed to be shown cheering for such a bad team. (C’mon Phil Jackson, get it together!)

(Jonathan Bachman / AP)

I wanted to apply that idea to our cover. I came up with a new sketch:

Idea approved, I reached out to L.A.-based photographer Hugh Kretschmer. We came up with more middle-class situations for who we were now referring to as “Baghead.”

Baghead mowing the lawn …

Baghead getting the bill at a restaurant …

Baghead paying for organic groceries …

Baghead and the rest of his Baghead family at home …

When I got to the set, the first thing I did was put my art school education to some good use and draw sad smiley faces on paper bags:

For the interior shots we used painted backdrops, the kind that movie directors used before the invention of CGI. Our theme: The perfect middle-class life that Americans envision—nice house, two cars, white picket fence—isn’t always what it seems. It’s not real:

There is nothing like welcoming a model to the set and saying “… oh, that’s nice … now put this bag on your head.”

Photographer Hugh Kretschmer behind the lens

For the photos accompanying Gabler’s piece, we worked in some details for our more eagle-eyed readers, like Mr. Baghead’s driver’s license:

… and the name of the grocery store where he shops for his kale and organic yogurt:

… and, of course, the family dog*, who is equally ashamed:

As for the cover, we went with the old “pockets-like-rabbit-ears” (RIP B.I.G.), making this sad character even sadder. I really hope he gets it together …

Till next time, true believers!

*No animals were harmed in the making of this cover. It was fake.

(Under the Cover archive here)

Creative Director’s log: January 26, 2016

11:45am: I’m on my way to the White House. We’re scheduled to photograph President Obama at 2:45. We have five minutes. FIVE minutes.

We’re not allowed in until 1:00pm but the photographer and crew want to get there early so we can get all of the equipment through security. Better to be early than late ...

I was told POTUS hates photo shoots. This needs to go smoothly.

Washington D.C. has been hit with a massive snowstorm that changed the shoot date and shut down the government … it also gave me major anxiety.

The photographer is coming from NY; thankfully the roads are clear.

11:55am: There they are. The photographer Ruven Afanador and his crew. They’re all wearing the same outfit. Black suit, black tie, white shirt. They look like the Reservoir Dogs of photographers.

We make it through security pretty quickly. I guess the snowstorm was a good thing. It’s a slow day at the White House.

12:20pm: We’re early, so we hang out in the Briefing Room. It looks a lot bigger on TV. There’s some chatter amongst the camera operators that Nancy Pelosi might come out to make a statement. Maybe Joe Biden!

Guess not. Nothing happening today, folks. The camera men and women pack up and go home.

I get a granola bar from the vending machine.

1:00pm: Clock is officially ticking. I text the press assistant to see if we can start setting up. She comes to get us and we follow her to the Diplomatic Reception Room where we’ll be doing the shoot.

1:18pm: It’s a short walk to the Diplomatic Reception room. Apparently this is where they take the White House Christmas photos. Cool.

I put my coat down on a chair that’s probably worth three times my salary. Someone quickly asks me to take my coat off of said chair. No problem.

Ruven and crew begin setting up. It’s kind of like that show “Chopped” when the clock starts and everyone runs to get ingredients. One guy is unrolling cords, one guy is setting up the backdrop, another guy is setting up lights. They’ve clearly discussed a plan of action beforehand.

1:45pm: Lights and background are set up. I’ve been talking to Ruven over the past couple of weeks about what we need to get from the shoot: a cover, interior opener, and secondary black and white options.

We don’t have a lot of time, so the plan is to smoothly transition to three different set ups.

First set-up: white backdrop with POTUS’s foot on a small wooden box

Second set-up: POTUS sitting on a stool in front of a warm gray backdrop while the white backdrop gets moved off-set

Third set-up: POTUS stands in front of the gray backdrop with his hands resting on a makeshift table top.

We practice the choreography of the shoot.

WH grounds folks yell at us for hitting the chandelier with the white foamboard backdrop. Oops.

We go over the plan with the press assistant and show her some test shots. They look awesome.

2:00pm: I’m hungry. Good thing I got that granola bar earlier …

2:05pm: Goldberg’s here. He’s scheduled to interview POTUS after we wrap. Says he could’ve done this whole photo shoot with his iPhone.

Now we wait …

A few people from the White House come to check in. We go over the plan. Make some small talk.

Suddenly there’s was a loud “POP” from one of the battery packs that power the giant lights. A power surge. Everyone looks around, like “what the hell was that?” Ruven didn’t flinch and assures Obama’s people that it happens, not to worry.

I think to myself if that happens while POTUS is in the room, we’re all dead.

2:25pm: We’re told POTUS could be here any minute. There’s a Secret Service agent! He sees me looking at him and then he gives me a look that says “I see you looking at me.” I look away.

2:30pm: Damn, I’m thirsty. They couldn’t give us water?

2:45pm: POTUS glides into the room. Right on time.

I was expecting that bald guy from the State of the Union to come in and say “ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States!” or ring a bell or something, but he just walks in and says “Hey everybody!”

I quickly introduce myself. “Hi Mr. President, I’m Darhil Crooks, Creative Director of The Atlanticjksnalsdfvoanvanfvbiporefnv”

“Nice to meet you Darhil!”

We head over to the set. POTUS shakes everybody’s hand and gives a “nice to meet you!”

2:46pm: Ruven is a pro. He quietly instructs POTUS what to do. He shows him where to stand for the first set of shots on the white backdrop and starts shooting.

Ruven: “Excellent … wonderful … no smile, Mr. President … perfect … excellent”

2:47pm: POTUS moves about two feet to his right and sits on a stool with one leg up, one on the ground.  At the same time the white backdrop is moved out. The tabletop is moved in. Just as planned, it’s a beauty to watch.

Ruven: “Excellent … wonderful … perfect … excellent”

2:48pm: POTUS moves back to his left, rests both arms on the tabletop.

Ruven: “Excellent … wonderful … perfect … excellent”

We’re done. Less than five minutes.

2:49pm: President Obama says “Wow! These guys are efficient!” Then he says “all right, who wants a picture.”

I run over like a little kid. I tried to be cool, but hey, it’s the President…

From left: Mario Jimenez, Me, POTUS, Ruven Afanador, Ricardo Beas, Christopher Leung

2:51pm: That’s a wrap.

POTUS thanks everyone and says “All right Jeff, let’s go to work!”

They dart off to the Oval Office. Ruven follows them. He has one minute to get some shots of the interview.

As the crew begins breaking down the set, Ruven returns and we review some of the pictures. They look amazing.

I thank the White House folks. A couple of “nice-to-meet-yous” and a few high-fives. Everyone is happy.

Time to go. What a day.

3:10pm: Finally, I get a sandwich. It’s delicious.

(See all Under the Covers here)

54,000 miles. Three years. That’s how long Jim Fallows and his wife Deb had been working on this month’s cover story (coming soon). Their goal was to fly to every corner of this country and find out, first hand, what is “going right” with America so that maybe we can fix what was wrong.

As you can imagine, the results were … complicated. America’s a big place with different problems, different people, different resources. Kind of like … kind of like … a puzzle. Yeah! A puzzle!

America is like a puzzle that’s been pulled apart (or broken apart). The question is: Can America put the pieces back together? That’s the concept for our cover image. For the photo I reached out to the brilliant team of Adam Voorhes and Robin Finlay.

I told them the basic idea and sent over the piece. After reading a draft they sent over some sketches. First the sketches of the original concept:

Then, a few more iterations:

We settled on the puzzle with the hands. From there, some refined sketches:

“More hands?”

“Hey, can we add a plane??”

“Ok. No plane. Let’s start shooting.”

“Nice. Let’s move some hands.”

“Looks good!”

“Hey. What’s the cover line? ‘Can America Put Itself Back Together?’ or ‘The Good News About America’”?

(Informal office poll)

“’Can America Put Itself Back Together’ it is.”

“Ok, cool.”

“Logo. Blue or white?”

“Red?”

“No.”

“White it is … ”

“Ok, let’s ship it.”

“Ready to ship!”

“Ready to ship?”

“Yeah! Ship it!”

“Well done everyone. I’m taking tomorrow off … ”

As The Atlantic’s creative director, I’m responsible for the most visible page in every month’s magazine: the cover.

Unlike most Atlantic covers, this month’s “Election 2016” issue isn’t illustrating one particular story. It is a combination of David Frum’s “The Great Republican Revolt” and Peter Beinart’s “Why America is Moving Left.” Each writer takes a look at what the insurgencies from both the right (Donald Trump, Tea Party) and the left (BLM, Occupy) will mean for the Republicans and Democrats in the upcoming election and into the future.

Every month, the editors and I have a meeting where we refine what we’re trying to say with the cover. What’s the idea? The term that kept coming up for this cover was “political seismic shift.” In other words, the political ground has shifted underneath each party’s feet, shaken by these outside forces. The establishment on both sides is losing its footing. After we figure out what the idea is, we then try to figure out how to illustrate it.

For starters, we wanted to use an elephant and a donkey. It’s a cliché, but sometimes clichés work. We talked about maybe having a split in the ground making its way towards the elephant and donkey, but that could be interpreted as a split between the parties, which is already, obviously, the case.

Then I started thinking about cartoons. More specifically, Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote. Take this classic scene, for example:

You know something terrible is going to happen, but the real beauty is in between bad things happening. The anticipation of the other shoe—or in this case, boulder—dropping is what makes this scene so funny. The goal was to capture some of that for the cover.

I wanted the image to show what it looks like after the “earthquake.” The damage was already done, the ground around the poor animals completely destroyed, their footing less secure. They’re about to fall. Maybe they’ll both get stuck on a branch and be OK. Or they’ll bounce off of said branch, go flying into the air, hit their heads on one of the falling rocks and so on and so forth. Who knows?

I sketched out the idea during the meeting:

The elephant and the donkey are trapped on this tiny, crumbling mountain … together. Instead of Wile E. Coyote’s “Help” sign, the elephant is holding an American flag.

Once everyone got on board with the concept, it became time to put it together. We obviously couldn’t wrangle an elephant and a donkey to sit on top of each other, then place them on a crumbling land mass. So, I reached out to Justin Metz, CGI genius. We found some perfect photo reference for the animals and he put together the rest.

After a bit of back-and-forth on the facial expressions (“not too cartoon-y,” more worried) and scenery (blue skies, more crumbling rocks), we had a finished illo. Add some words, and we have …

… a finished cover.

Thanks, Chuck Jones.

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