Artist Andrew DeGraff came of age in the “be kind, rewind” era. His childhood movie memories involve the tactile—chunky VHS tapes, behemoth push-down VCR machines, worn spots in the carpet where he’d sit. But movies were just one of DeGraff’s boyhood fascinations. The other? Maps.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that in his new book, Cinemaps: An Atlas of 35 Great Movies, DeGraff brings together these two interests in a format that’s made to hold on to. From the industrial atmospherics of Metropolis to Mad Max: Fury Road’s “guzzolene”-huffing high, DeGraff’s maps—meticulously detailed 9- by 12-inch works that track a film’s major characters—span nearly a century of film. Each movie map is accompanied by an essay from writer A.D. Jameson, thoughtful pieces that explore the journeys our favorite films can take us on.
To perfect his illustrations, DeGraff literally spent days re-watching films—up to 1,000 hours on the Lord of the Rings trilogy alone. (Spoiler alert: It takes a while for him to enjoy them again.) His maps reveal our favorite films as dynamic, complex organisms—simultaneously aging and timeless—and give fans an imaginative new route into the films they love. Jameson’s essays match this high bar; his words never encase these oft-dissected films in amber, instead gazing upon them with fresh insights.
Rainbows of color whittle down in DeGraff’s rendition of Predator, showing the individual, color-coded paths of the monster and those tracking it through the jungle. The bustle of teen movement blurs together in The Breakfast Club or Clueless. Bloody blots punctuate each kill in Jaws. And when characters travel together, DeGraff renders their journeys with dashed lines, as with the eponymous ape and Ann Darrow in King Kong, or, cheekily, Kane and the Xenomorph in Alien.
Cinemaps displays an archaeological dedication to what DeGraff calls “the nostalgia for the reality in which we viewed those films, and the people we shared them with,” a sentiment to which Indiana Jones would tip his fedora. I spoke over the phone with DeGraff and Jameson; our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What’s the key to designing maps that trigger just enough movie memories without filling in every last detail?
DEGRAFF: I try to be very objective with movies as a dataset. I wouldn’t say “Easter eggs,” but there are little things in each space that maybe viewers forgot about. As each film has its own logic and scope, I make my own firm set of rules at the beginning and draw to reach those.
My mantra is to make everything as important as everything else—meaning that trees and other background elements all have a uniform sense of air, so that when readers relive movies in their heads, they have subjective space in which to put that memory. If that sounds like psychobabble, I’ve been sitting with these maps for a long time and trying to rationalize this crazy thing I do. Like, I’m really putting a lot of thought into a scene in Predator. But that’s really it—making rules and sticking to them.
What criteria do you look for in a film besides it being a favorite?
DEGRAFF: There definitely has to be a deep love for the film, a quality that speaks to me. If not, then watching something 50 times just becomes labor-intensive. For a charity show, I created maps of the first six Star Wars movies. Watching The Phantom Menace multiple times was a little painful.
Beyond that, I think about how much work I have to do to hold the whole movie in my head. The Star Wars movies do a lot of world-jumping. People forget about the Battle of Hoth at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back or the scenes on Tatooine at the start of A New Hope. Those moments come to people, but not necessarily as immediate images. If a story travels enough, it’s tricky to remember the episodes contained within that story. And that usually means it makes a fun map.
How did the maps inspire you to think differently—from an analytical perspective—about a collection of much-talked-about films?
JAMESON: I had three goals: 1) Don’t assume readers have encyclopedic knowledge of these films even though they are popular; 2) Recall great moments and characters as I would talking about a movie with friends after I’ve seen it; and 3) Try to offer interpretations or observations I hadn’t seen—something cool, offbeat, non-obvious, counterintuitive.
All of this inspires my hope that even if readers have seen a movie 1,000 times, there’s a secret nugget or kernel for them to find in Cinemaps. I was influenced by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, one of my favorite authors, who also wrote film reviews. When you read Borges, you feel like you’re being let in on a great secret about the universe—that there’s something strange going on. I wanted to take very familiar films and make them feel enigmatic and fresh, even while recounting those familiarities.
How does re-watching a film over and over again fundamentally change the way you see it?
DEGRAFF: It certainly changes your idea of film structure as you remove surprises and see directors’ and editors’ manipulation of story. It’s sort of like pulling the film out into a straight line and then recombining it into map form.
Watching films this way highlights when characters disappear for significant portions and then come back. Sometimes there’s a reason. Sometimes there’s not. Sometimes it doesn’t really make sense. But a good filmmaker understands how far you can stretch that, and that’s something I’ve found interesting to observe: There are big jumps that we, as viewers, often buy into because we buy into the story.
How did re-watching with an eye toward the spatial aesthetics of maps reveal new aspects of the films to you?
JAMESON: One of the first pieces I wrote was on The Shining, and my essay took advantage of the fact that it was shot on the same soundstage as, and right before, The Empire Strikes Back. A lot of the sets were physically constructed on the exact same spots. The Shining is about lingering effects of evil and traumatic events—and it just seemed a very happy coincidence that in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke is on the planet Dagobah and senses an evil presence there. Of course, it’s a vision of Darth Vader, but I like to think he senses the lingering smoke from a fire set in The Shining, and that maybe in the photograph at the end of The Shining, you can see Yoda too.
Now, I could only do that for those films. The game was to find something like that for each one. Thinking about them spatially colored how I saw them. With Jaws, for instance, you see very clearly in Andrew’s map what I perhaps only just felt or sensed before: The first half of the film takes place entirely on land, and the second half takes place entirely on water. Struck by that, I noticed how the film begins with a campfire scene and ends with waves lapping the beach very gently at dawn. All of a sudden, the film is a ghost story around the campfire.
Is it difficult to revisit a movie once its map is done?
DEGRAFF: It’s usually about a year before I enjoy watching the film again. It took a couple of years for me to go back to The Lord of the Rings. I lived in nine hours of Middle Earth for two months. I sang the soundtrack in my sleep. If I did start watching, within 15 minutes, I was in…I wouldn’t say trauma, but fatigue, thinking back to the 1,000 hours spent on it. You do get burned out on a movie, but after a couple of years, I’m excited to watch it again.
Many of your maps cover epic journeys across vast terrain. Then there are small-scale comedies like Clueless, Rushmore or The Breakfast Club. What do comedies say to you about movement and place?
DEGRAFF: I have a really interesting time mapping comedies. They move characters and construct scenes as a series of vignettes, as opposed to a sort of more standard adventure. I find it fascinating to try to shrink down that scope. You think nobody’s really going anywhere and they’re all kind of staying in the same place. In actuality, there are so many vignettes and characters that the maps almost become visual chaos.
In a weird way, that mirrors the structure of films that suit teenagers well—a scattered, unfocused quality I find quite telling. Most people’s stories of their teenage years would not be clean, linear progressions but more of a frenetic, scrambling existence. It brings back a different set of feelings that hit closer to home in a cringe-worthy way. Even if you weren’t an L.A. country club kid, you see kids doing stupid stuff and say, “Ah, that was me.”
Numerous genres and decades are represented in Cinemaps. Did you sense any through-lines across the titles?
JAMESON: Previously, if you asked me whether The Wizard of Oz was influential, I’d have just reflexively said “Sure.” Now I realize how pervasive that influence is, and in places I never really noticed, like Star Wars: A New Hope. In the beginning, Luke lives with his aunt and uncle in a dry, dusty land that he’s desperate to escape. He’s Dorothy longing to get away from Kansas. And in The Empire Strikes Back, Cloud City keeps changing color relative to its position to the sun, much like the Horse of a Different Color changes color. Plus, Oz is a happy place where they sing the day away but that also harbors a dark secret. Hidden in its recesses is a terrifying Wizard in a dark chamber of smoke, fire, man and machine. George Lucas had to be thinking of that when he was writing Darth Vader.
Metropolis and Mad Max: Fury Road as bookends is a really happy coincidence, too. Both are about people who live on high and have everything, and how they reduce the people below to bodies that are strapped to clocks (as in Metropolis) or to cars (as in Fury Road).
These are just really amazing echoes to me that feel like you’re seeing living history. I watch a lot of Star Wars and Star Trek fan films in which people recreate environments and try to live inside of them. Professional filmmakers are like that too, in a lot of ways. They’re influenced by settings that they grew up watching, and their films are their chances to make their own versions of that.
Are there any films you’ve wanted to map but just couldn’t crack?
DEGRAFF: No, but that’s only because I haven’t put in the time necessary to crack them. When I have a book project, it’s all-consuming, and it makes my wife angry when I accept them, but I love doing them. I’d like to do a map of Inception, or of The Holy Mountain, because it’s just bananas.
Anything is possible. It’s just the trickier ones take more time to plan and think out.
Which is your favorite map?
JAMESON: I think Andrew outdid himself with the Wizard of Oz and the Lord of the Rings maps. The Labyrinth map as well; that film really lends itself well to map representation. Andrew’s map really changes the way you see that movie.
He’s not just recreating things we see on-screen. He’s doing a lot of genius-level work to reassemble these places. You can construct impossible space in film that you can’t when laying something out. So while the maps are extremely faithful to the films in many ways, they’re also kind of ingenious—taking shots, scenes and locations that don’t necessarily exist in three-dimensional space and cohering that into a single image. Andrew understands he’s making a visual image that has to work as art, and there’s an importance to getting tone, color and style just right to capture how that art should feel.
Let’s talk film and nostalgia. Of whom and what do these maps conjure memories for you?
DEGRAFF: Certainly my mom and my brother, with whom I went to the movies a lot. I remember walking out of Back to the Future into the rain-drizzled parking lot of the Crossgates Mall in Albany, New York, which, like many malls at that time, looked almost exactly like Hill Valley’s Twin Pines Mall in Back to the Future. And I was just thinking, “That could have happened here!”
I remember watching The Shining for the first time at my friend Colin’s birthday party. We were in eighth grade, watching in a basement in the middle of the day while other people played ping-pong or listened to music. I just sat in front of the television in a well-lit basement, freaked out by this deeply disturbing movie. I don’t know that I actually even finished it at the time, but I was struck by its ferocious beauty.
The maps that really hit me are the ones that make me yearn for, and take me back to, that time when I hadn’t yet seen the movie—a new experience to enjoy. I grew up during a time when people like Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and John McTiernan had taken in all the great European masters and legendary science-fiction and were ready to play with all of that on their own terms. They were asking for much more out of popcorn movies, and I genuinely think it was—without even knowing I was witnessing it—a kind of revolution in film.
Nick Rogers is an award-winning film critic and features writer who has written for the Chicago Tribune and Copley News Service. He last wrote for Playboy about great modern-day creature features. You can find his latest work at Midwest Film Journal.