Already a familiar image from the 2008 book by Suzanne Collins, and its two sequels, which feature other works by O'Brien on the covers, the image of the mockingjay pin is searing.
"Something about the pose," O'Brien, 47, said the other day, while sitting at a table in the UArts' Illustration Department with Mark Tocchet, the department chair. O'Brien, who now lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son, has worked at the school for two decades, now teaching Mondays on South Broad.
"It's elegant because of the way the wings are displayed," O'Brien says. "The head bowed is a less proud position. He is turned back into the circle."
"When it's right, it's right," Tocchet says.
Fans of O'Brien's art will recognize the mockingjay - in the book, a combination of the mockingbird and the fictional jabberjay - as O'Brien-esque in the way it nails a complex subject, yet leaves the viewer both enlightened and questioning.
Is the bird landing, or taking flight? Is it hunting, or fleeing? Helpful or defiant? How can grace and aggression, freedom and disobedience, tension and escape, strength and vigilance, be embodied so seamlessly in one imaginary bird? Can it be both beautiful and lethal? Is it, in fact, Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of these young-adult novels?
In the book, the mockingjay and the circle image is first a pin, given to Katniss just before she is taken away as a Tribute, one of the youths destined for fight-to-the-death battles in this futuristic tale of a society of haves and have-nots, all fixated on the Hunger Games, the nightmarish ultimate reality show, shown live on television. Actual mockingjays play a role as well.
O'Brien had done many previous book covers for Scholastic Inc., where his wife, Elizabeth B. Parisi, is an art director (that's where they met). Parisi collaborated with designer Phil Falco on the overall Hunger Games book cover design against which O'Brien's mockingjay is set.
In the story, the pin follows Katniss beyond where she thought she had left it behind. Similarly, the image O'Brien drew for the book has lasted all the way into the movie that premieres Friday. When Lionsgate set out to create its own image for the movie, it considered other O'Brien work, but ended up back with his original gold bird done for the Scholastic book (Scholastic holds the copyright for the image).
Now, the image can be seen on posters (the ring is engulfed in flames, but the bird is the same) and, says O'Brien, who saw the movie with his wife at the Hollywood premiere, it was included in the beginning of the film. Millions of people have already viewed it as the spine-chilling end to the film's official teaser on YouTube, in which Katniss shoots an arrow that then becomes the arrow that spins O'Brien's ring around before landing in the mouth of the golden bird to freeze in his original pose. The ring and bird are set ablaze (though not consumed) as the trailer flashes The Hunger Games title. The image survives.
In addition to preserving his original art, the icon links the movie back to its book roots in a powerful way. (And, naturally, a souvenir pin is available for purchase. The officially licensed replica pin by NECA is available for $19.99 on eBay.)
O'Brien said his UArts students were intrigued by his work and encouraged by his success in a commission-dependent field that's somewhat narrowed by publishing-business trends and the black-and-white e-ink of the Kindle (iPads and color e-readers bring illustrations back into play).
"I think it's important to have an instructor that's in the game," O'Brien said. "I didn't have a teacher that went to Hollywood."
In Hollywood (where his spouse wore Calvin Klein via T.J. Maxx and O'Brien wore John Varvatos, if any illustrator-groupies are keeping score), O'Brien said, "Every person there had read the book."
"I've done postage stamps, covers. I've never had an illustration that was so universally recognized," he said.
Added Tocchet, "It's a ubiquitous illustration of 2012. It's become a moment in time."
For a slide show, stories, and more on "The Hunger Games," go to www.philly.com/hungergames.
Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @amysrosenberg.