Growing up in the 1980’s, there were only two ways of finding out what cinematic marvels were heading to theaters: the trailer and the poster. While the trailer benefits from actual footage, music and dialogue, the poster (or "one-sheet") stands completely on its own. A singular entity, as unmoving and unapologetic as Kubrick’s foreboding monolith from 2001. Its just a 27 x 40 inch print sporting an image and title, set behind clear glass and encased in a glossy frame.
In the decades prior to Photoshop, immensely talented illustrators were responsible for the vast majority of movie poster art. Their work demonstrated incredible understanding of color, composition, contrast and negative space. The viewer's eye would be taken on a journey of discovery, as thought was put into leading their focus from one element to the next. Of course for most people, this experience was an unconscious one. And that was the point. The casual viewer would only know if they'd like it and if they wanted more. However, for an active viewer, for example, a budding young artist obsessed with cinema, this experience was nothing short of revelation.
In the LA suburb where I grew up, the local AMC’s faux marble facade was my MoMA. It was imperative that I arrive to showings early enough to walk the entire gallery from end to end. I devoured each poster as if it were some sacred scroll of archaic knowledge. It was at that AMC, while in line for Tim Burton’s Batman, that my eyes bore witness to posters for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ghostbusters II, both of which had released only a few weeks prior. Like tea leaves, they foretold a summer for the ages.
While theatrical posters shone bright with glamorous promise, it was in the neon wash of the video store that their true fates awaited them. Suddenly the poster, like Alex Murphy in Robocop, was reborn. Its new body, a thick armor protecting mechanical innards, served the public trust as VHS box art. The stakes were simple: attain some semblance of icon or cult status or risk bargain banishment. Sometimes a film was lucky enough to have a full size print on the wall, plastered among an overlapping sea of battle worn brethren, but increasing its odds for survival nonetheless.
It was sensory overload and I couldn’t get enough. This battle royale of artistry and finance was my first real exposure to graphic design on a conscious level. These posters communicated a strong individual identity. Even at a great distance, it was fairly easy to tell one property from another. Each artist infused their work with a distinctly unique sense of emotion, atmosphere and character. Every trip to the theater or rental place was a masterclass in branding.
The 70’s and 80’s were also a booming era for genre defining horror films. As a small child roaming my local rental spot with well intentioned parents, I was kept far away from the their grim and grisly isles. Luckily the shop walls gave me a glimpse into these forbidden worlds. High above me, these visually daring forms seemed threatening and aggressive. These works stood in sharp contrast to the more attractive covers found in other sections. These weren’t invitations, they were warnings. Their provocative imagery stayed with me and are no doubt responsible for turning me into the passionate horror fan I am today.
While so many iconic horror posters were forever scorched into my memory, House was always one of my absolute favorites. The uncluttered illustration so efficiently communicates the film’s premise while tapping our fears of unwanted intruders. It’s one of many posters here that I could easily draw from memory.
As 80’s became 90’s, illustrated posters began to fade away. I would dash into a theater lobby, ready to be amazed and inspired, only to be met with horribly butchered production stills. Heads of actors so perversely attached to stock photo bodies that anyone giving it more than a glance would surely see the painfully awkward results. Stock hands resting, ineptly out of scale, co-star’s shoulder. Romantic leads forcing smiles as they happily embrace with arms that aren't theirs.
There was something unnatural at work here. Something so blatantly rushed. Something devoid of passion or even the slightest shred of artistic integrity. This was the horrific byproduct of sped up production cycles and tighter marketing budgets.
This practice of creating generic images by way of Frankenstein's monster continues to lumber after us to this very day.
The two leads’ heads look awkwardly askew and out of scale as their stock bodies lean against each other, back to back, telling us it’s quirky, pleasant and unchallenging at any possible level of brain functionality. If one or both of the leads’ friends disapprove or encourage the proceedings, their heads will sometimes be creepily poking in from the sides. Occasionally they instead use a close up of the couple, the man evoking smug confidence or confused buffoonery and the woman always coy and touching her mouth, implying she's most certainly orally fixated. Sex sells people. More often than not, the lighting will be visibly inconsistent throughout the many individual pieces used to build the actors.
Older romantic comedies did not fall victim to this contrivance. Woody Allen's Annie Hall presented a simple still image, from the film, of the two leads interacting in a very natural and believable way. His follow up, Manhattan, used a black and white landscape shot featuring a snowy New York river bank with two lovers on a bench, silhouetted and small against the grandeur of the city skyline. The typography was both classic and timeless, like Manhattan herself. The poster made no reference Annie Hall or the Oscar it received for Best Picture. It's fair to say, Manhattan's elegance would not have survived today's marketing meetings.
Drama, Comedy Drama or Slice of Life
Commonly sporting a 2x3 grid layout: actors in each top two panels, title taking up the middle two, and, actors in each bottom panel, all trying to tell us these people will grow together and affect each other and you’ll probably identify with at least a couple of them. Definitely, Maybe employs a 3x4 grid, putting the title in the bottom most row while the lead actor occupies the entire middle column, boldly defying expectations. Maybe, not really. While real world based films tend to consist of people standing around talking and interacting, that obvious fact doesn't need to be the focus of the marketing. Atonement, for example, is a rich and meticulous film with recurring writing motifs and a crucial scene set in a library. There's a wealth of imagery there just waiting to be employed.
Poorly framed leads, their colors drained of saturation, buried behind texture and debris filters in order to communicate that very serious events are unfolding in a very serious time. Even the Man of Steel isn't strong enough to escape this fate. All of these properties have very different stories to tell and worlds to explore. If only the marketing had capitalized on those aspects instead of relying on the overwrought 'grim and gritty action flick' aesthetic. Its especially disheartening to see the Harry Potter series coast down this road, considering the original boasted a Drew Struzan.
The Borrow, Flip and Crop
Sometimes they directly lift a concept, pose, color palette and all, from fairly recent films with similar target audiences. Of course, they flip the image the opposite direction and then zoom in more, hoping that will keep anyone from noticing.
Popular actors will often be given similar treatments even across properties with absolutely no connection to each other. Some sort of Hail Mary attempt to tap into your unconscious and remind you that you’ve enjoyed them before, so you’ll probably enjoy them again. Note how that the last one was for Star Trek and is, by all accounts, indistinguishable from the Jack Ryan campaign. These are the voyages of the U.S.S. Money Maker; its mission, seek out new wallets and boldly go where literally everyone else has gone before.
Let's take a look at Marvel Studios' posters, they're trend setters, right? Marvel Comics has given careers to some of the greatest pop artists of the 20th century. Comics are all about composition and dynamic poses. With that legacy for inspiration and the ridiculous amounts of revenue these properties drive, they have everything they could possibly need to generate some truly ingenious posters.
Marvel Studio's Multi-Billion Dollar Franchise
Based on Black Widow's pose for Captain America: Winter Soldier, there must have been a deleted scene of her dancing at Coachella.
Or... they to consist of poorly framed leads, their colors drained of saturation, buried behind texture and debris filters. The more characters involved, the faster these compositions fall apart. There is little, if any, consideration for negative space or breathing room. Scale and proportion are haphazardly employed to accommodate additional characters, but not enough that they create any sense of impact or depth. Without any discernible eye path, my focus darts chaotically from element to element without purpose or intent, overwhelmed and retaining nothing of value. There's branding and there's boring. This is the latter. What makes this instance especially frustrating is the fact that it's just such a missed opportunity considering the decades of brilliant art that could have provided inspiration.
Its a hell of a thing to watch an art form slowly wither and die. Luckily, there happens to be one genre out there with loads of experience bringing things back to life.
In the 90's, horror was mostly down to Freddy and Jason sequels and the rash of teen slasher franchises trying to capitalize on the success of Scream (while failing to grasp its emphasis on satire). It was 2004’s Saw that gave the genre the jolt it desperately needed. When the film’s combination of clever premise and social commentary yielded over $100 million at the box office, the fledgling franchise instantly seared dollar signs into the eyes of producers.
Looking to capitalize on Saw's success, Hollywood was on the lookout for innovative, untested (see also cheap) young talent.
Saw’s marketing had nearly as much impact as the film itself. The first film's poster showcased a device attached to a would be victim’s head, the likes of which had never been seen outside a Vatican inquisition. Its sequels went against expectation, choosing vibrant lighting and white backgrounds, an aesthetic choice that has been copied to death by a number of other films.
In the years since, emerging masters like Ti West, David Robert Mitchell and Ted Geoghegan have explored a return to tradition in their heavily retro styled films. Having grown up with icons like Carpenter, Argento and Fulci, this new generation of indie auteurs have proven exceptionally talented at employing classic techniques to explore modern subtexts. Their passion for vintage horror aesthetics even informs their proclivity for classic fonts, synth music, and compelling poster art.
More and more indie horror directors are seeking out real artists to produce their theatrical posters. Even when a photo solution is employed instead of an illustration, the finished work recalls the originality, cleverness and fundamental skills that made the glory days of the one-sheet so special. Like the video rental stores of yesteryear, film websites are a mass of tiny posters all competing for a user’s attention. A truly unique identity communicated through a carefully composed image can easily stand out against the grey mass of Hollywood banality. Its an effective tool for niche market films that otherwise rely on festival reviews and word of mouth to reach their intended audience.
These posters showcase a return to the essential fundamentals of design while embracing, and highlighting, the uniqueness of the films they represent.
House of the Devil's composition pulls the eye in to the sharply defined house before leading it up and to the left, through the less defined flames, into the folds of a woman's shirt, weaving up through the violently scratched typography whose angles direct the eye to its final resting place: a woman's fire lit face. We Are Still Here could be accused of using a similar base composition, however this illustration's flames fully engulf the negative space, imply a three column, vertical layout while partially revealing three ghostly antagonists, their eyes ablaze with unearthly light. The title treatment recalls using one's finger to write hidden messages in the condensation of a fogged up mirror. Their color palettes are also distinctly different, as We Are Still Here favors rich, vibrant shades when compared to House of the Devil's faded shades of orange and yellow.
Mitchell's It Follows received two posters: one illustrated and one photographic, each establishing sense of urgency from two opposing points of view. The illustrated poster puts the viewer with the lead actress. Her wide, fearful eyes tell you something is approaching from behind the car and it's most assuredly not friendly. The photographic solution shifts the viewer to the antagonist's point of view as it closes in on two young lovers, too engulfed in hormones to perceive the imminent doom set upon them
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and the all female directed anthology XX employ stark graphics with only a couple of colors each to quickly state their purpose. Wyrmwood succeeds at balancing the graphic and illustrative approaches. Its dark, comic art-esque illustration sits against a light grey background, recalling an aesthetic often found in satirical genre films like Bartel's Death Race 2000, communicating the film's tongue-in-cheek tone.
The above gallery demonstrates the strength of compositions with the patience for negative space. They immediately grab the viewer's attention by focusing on a palpable emotion, threat, or conflict. Without so much as a teaser trailer, imminent danger has been established, creating a feeling of urgency and motion. The subjects of these films don't have time to stand around in an undefined, debris strewn location while endless filters are applied. Their lives are at stake.
This is the art of movie poster design done to perfection.
While it hasn't caught on much with the big studios, IMAX has been encouraging a return to real artistry with exclusive posters handed out at advanced and opening night screenings. These promotional one-sheets often put the official theatrical versions to shame.
A selection of IMAX exclusive posters.
Of course, it's never all bad. In the last year or so, marketing for big studio films like Del Toro's Crimson Peak, Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, Fincher's Gone Girl and Nolan's Interstellar have made a solid effort to differentiate themselves from the crowd. Crimson Peak, in particular, recalls the artwork of vintage John Saul and J.N Williamson book covers. Considering the sheer volume of films released each year, so many of them immensely successful franchises, there is a disappointingly small percentage of quality designs.
Clients and colleagues have often pointed out the recognizable influence of cinema present in my work, an influence I'm sure I wouldn't be able to shake even if I wanted to. I was exploring theater lobbies and video stores long before I attended even the most rudimentary design class. Through movie posters, I came to understand not only the value of strong design fundamentals, but of communicating something real, something tangible, something with an emotional core that promises an unforgettable experience awaits.
While illustrated posters have had their status relegated to kitschy, nostalgic niche, the demand for them continues to grow. Sites like MondoTees and Society6 are full of incredible artists who produce original prints based on iconic works. It's only a matter of time before the big studios once again see the value, both artistic and monetary, in producing quality, frameable one-sheets.
I've yet to abandon my ritual, I still treat theaters like a branch of the MoMA. Sure the exhibits are overflowing with generic templates and paint by number photo treatments, but that just makes the discovery of even one tantalizing design that much more inspiring. I hold out hope for the day I enter a theater and once again find a collection of modern masterpieces, each one ready to transport an audience with its own unique vision.