Type Essays

ScreenFonts – April 2016

April 29, 2016 by
Yves Peters
Yves Peters

Our monthly review of movie poster typography looks at the posters for They Will Have to Kill Us First, Knight of Cups, Camino, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Eye in The Sky, The Preppie Connection, Krisha, Too Late, Marguerite, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, and They’re Watching.

© 2015 BBC Worldwide Americas – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2015 BBC Worldwide Americas – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

Being a musician myself, They Will Have to Kill Us First hits too close to home. The documentary explains how Islamic extremists have banned music in Mali, a country known for its rich musical culture and its world-famous musicians. Even though they face persecution, imprisonment, and even possible execution, those musicians refuse to give up, and keep the flame alive. This chilling story strengthens my conviction that religion should remain a personal and communal experience, yet has absolutely no place in government nor legislation. Furthermore it should never be used as a justification to oppress, certainly not those who don’t subscribe to that belief. Religious freedom ends where another person’s freedom begins after all. Karl Sinfield appropriated the urgency of DIY guerilla graphics used by revolutionaries and resistance movements to suggest defiance and resolve. The eye-catching guitar/kalashnikov hybrid instantly reminded me of the iconic This Machine Kills Fascists that Woody Guthrie painted on his guitar in the early ’40s, and which inspired many subsequent artists. It is reproduced in coarse black-and-white over a flat colour background, and cleverly interacts with a distressed compact sans and a spray-painted stencil slab serif. Rian Hughes produced a great digital interpretation of this style with Payload Spraycan.

© 2015 Broad Green Pictures – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2015 Broad Green Pictures – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

P+A designed a beautiful and intriguing theatrical US poster for Knight of Cups. Cult director Terrence Malick tells the story of “a writer indulging in all that Los Angeles and Las Vegas has to offer, who undertakes a search for love and self via a series of adventures with six different women”. Once I discovered the title refers to the tarot card of the same name, everything fell into place. The Knight of Cups is represented on a white horse and wearing a cloak covered with images of fish, the symbol of the spirit, consciousness and creativity. His helmet and feet are winged, a symbol of an active and creative imagination. This corresponds to the character Christian Bale plays; however the artwork shows him upside-down. In tarot the Knight of Cups reversed indicates a situation which was initially incredibly appealing, romantic and exciting but which later turns out to be something very different, and one walks away feeling quite disappointed. It is as though you are wearing the rose-coloured glasses, or going through the honeymoon period, only to come out realising that the situation is quite different to what you thought.

The reversed aspect is reprised in the typography. The film title is overprinted on a lighter, upside-down version of itself. While the eroded letter forms of Caslon Antique may provide a conceptual link to the late 18th-century roots of divination with tarot cards, Flexion would have been a more interesting choice. Designed by ambigram master John Langdon with assistance from Hal Taylor, the family was originally developed (but never used) for the DaVinci Code movie titles. The letters were drawn according to the principle of mirror-image symmetry. As this occurs naturally in the structure of eleven capital letters in the Roman alphabet, another few letters had to be coaxed into adopting that symmetry, while others found their reflected counterparts elsewhere in the alphabet. Flexion’s mirror-image symmetry would have been a clever typographic link to the Knight of Cups reversed image, and as a bonus the letter forms would have enhanced the mystical atmosphere.

© 2015 Broad Green Pictures – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2015 Broad Green Pictures – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

One to fully embrace the iconography of tarot, astrology, and medieval illustrations is Midnight Marauder, who designed the gorgeous teaser/official announcement for the film and for its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival. The Los Angeles-based graphic designer/art director and illustrator has been working with Terrence Malick for quite some time on all his projects.

Midnight Marauder | “Terry called me up one day to discuss ideas for his film and explain the various themes to it. We talked about the mysticism of tarot cards, which is very important to the film. With one week to come up with some ideas, I went and bought a few books, one of them being Alchemy and Mysticism. Pretty much the first poster I developed was the one they ended up choosing. Adobe Caslon™ was picked primarily to stay away from anything modern: I wanted to use something simple and elegant – and of course easy to read.”

© 2015 XLrator Media – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2015 XLrator Media – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

Even though I am a fan of Jay Shaw’s work, I am less happy with his typographic treatment of the movie logo for action thriller Camino. It’s nice to see designers experiment with the classic alternates and capital ligatures of ITC Avant Garde® Gothic, but – just like on the collaterals for Futuro Beach last year – they are used incorrectly here. And honestly I hate how it turns me into an old geezer chasing kids off my lawn. “That is not a fancy ‘N’, that is half a goddarn ‘NT’ ligature, ya bunch a’ juvenile delinquents! And get the spacing in the ‘AM’ pair consistent with the ‘IN’, dagnabbit, ya lazy punks!”

© 2016 Paramount Pictures – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2016 Paramount Pictures – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

This however doesn’t mean I am a stuck-up purist. As a rule of thumb I try to avoid extending and connecting strokes of stacked letters. It often ends up looking corny or phoned in, and hampers legibility. Yet this trick works really well in BLT Communications’ poster for horror mystery 10 Cloverfield Lane. The stem of the ‘L’ in ‘Lane’ that connects with the ‘I’ in ‘Cloverfield’ and continues upwards until it surfaces in front of the house is a great idea. It represents the access to the underground shelter where the woman is held by two men claiming the outside world is affected by a widespread chemical attack. Just like in the original Cloverfield poster, the straight-sided sans serif is Klampenborg, designed by Danish type designer Henrik Kubel and released by A2-Type, the type foundry set up by the London-based design studio A2/SW/HK. This kind of tech-looking design must be a Scandinavian thing, because both Swedish designer Stefan Hattenbach’s Sophisto and Icelandic designer Stefán Kjartansson’s Reykjavík are conceptually similar.

I have been very annoyed at trailers for years now. Originally they showed you just enough to make you curious and whetted your appetite for the film they advertised. Yet these days they are merely condensed versions of the actual thing, sketching out the entire friggin’ story, revealing key plot points and spoiling any possible surprise. And it’s not only the trailers: posters also can ruin films by showing a crucial story element – think of the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand for the original Planet of The Apes. The Thai campaign for 10 Cloverfield Lane (don’t click the link!) is one of the recent examples mentioned by Benjamin Lee in his article Don't look now: why movie posters are the biggest spoilers around on his film blog for The Guardian.

© 2016 Bleecker Street – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2016 Bleecker Street – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

It is interesting how cinema reflects current events. Sometimes this manifests itself as metaphors: Godzilla for our fear of nuclear destruction, Dawn of the Dead as a criticism on unbridled consumerism. The controversy about illegal executions by military drones found its way into the film world more literally. We have seen the excellent minimal teaser poster for Good Kill with FF Magda® Clean Mono in our Summer 2015 episode, and the lavish multi-layered poster for the documentary Drone last December. In the war thriller Eye in the Sky Col. Katherine Powell, a military officer in command of an operation to capture terrorists in Kenya, sees her mission escalate when a girl enters the kill zone, triggering an international dispute over the implications of modern warfare. The focal point of the artwork is a small image of a drone. The visual lines in its structure are extended, one of them passing through the eye of a visibly conflicted Helen Mirren and connecting with the film logo. The stacked composition in two sizes of Century Gothic™ is centered around a red plus substituting for the ‘T’ and enclosed in four red corners, cleverly representing a targeting system.

© 2015 IFC Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2015 IFC Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

Another clever trick can be found on the poster for crime drama The Preppie Connection, about a student at a private school who uses his connections to establish a drug trafficking network there. Similar to the lines of coke forming a ladder for James McAvoy on the poster for Filth or a Christmas tree on the poster for White Reindeer – both in the December 2013 episode of ScreenFonts on The FontFeed – they cross out the eyes of the two protagonists in this design. Which seems a bit superfluous, as they already wear sunglasses to hide their identity, but whatever. The Stanley cutter blade at the edge of the image and the girl’s line passing behind the guy are nice details. The classic Alternate Gothic reinforces the traditional appearance of the artwork created by the white border and muted colours.

© 2015 A24 – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2015 A24 – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

The striking poster for family drama Krisha jumped out when I was going through the list on Metacritic. It never fails to work: a pristine white background with a splash – in this case quite literally – of bright colour. The blood red shape looks like a Rorschach ink blot test with the titular character’s mirrored profile. This may allude to the past demons that threaten to ruin the Thanksgiving dinner where Krisha returns to her family after an absence of ten years. The simple geometric letter forms of ITC Avant Garde® Gothic dutifully acquit themselves of their task.

© 2015 Vanishing Angle – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2015 Vanishing Angle – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

The crime drama Too Late explores the tangled relationship between a troubled private investigator and the missing woman he’s hired to help find. It is described on The Film Stage as “a fascinating study of genre homage and cinematic technique”. While the retro Friz Quadrata™ is often used to suggest the ’70s and ’80s, here it references Dennis Hauck paying tribute to the vintage era of cinema: the film is composed of five unbroken twenty minute takes, out of sequence and all shot on 35mm film. The sickly purple/yellow colour palette and almost imperceptibly tilted image can make you feel a little queasy, and John Hawkes’ head squeezed between the two words lend the poster a brooding, oppressive atmosphere.

© 2015 Cohen Media Group – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2015 Cohen Media Group – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

Mark Simonson’s masterful interpretation of Art Deco lettering Mostra Nuova Alt A pinpoints the setting of French comedic drama Marguerite in Paris in the roaring ’20s, or the Années Folles (Crazy Years) as they were known in France. Blood & Chocolate enhanced the period feel with an Art Deco frame around the image of Marguerite Dumont on stage, in front of the audience.

Both this and the previous poster demonstrate how typography can be an efficient device to define a specific period, country, culture, and so on. Yet this has to be done thoughtfully and respectfully, because it can go really really wrong as you will see in the next entry…

© 2016 Universal Pictures – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2016 Universal Pictures – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

So, how exactly does the movie poster for My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 go wrong? Oh, let me count the ways! First of all it suffered a fatal overdose of ‘too-many-concepts-crammed-into-one-design’itis. Seriously, what in Adrian Frutiger’s name is happening here? The couple and their daughter stand in front of a skyline that is completely superfluous as you can barely see it. It became unidentifiable when the left third of the poster was invaded by a bunch of secondary characters spilling out of a white margin. The acting is laughable – the father/husband looks like he is trying to suppress a severe case of flatulence, a chipboard cutout would look less wooden than the mother/wife, and the daughter in the middle has that desperate ‘please-help-me-escape-these-people-hurt-me-when-you-are-not-looking’ expression on her face. The aforementioned secondary characters all look more cliche than humanly possible, each trying their utmost best to look funny but failing miserably. Not only is the composition horrendous, technically speaking the execution is even worse. Every last inch of life has been airbrushed out of the actors’ faces, and the compositing is just so terribly poor. And look at that utterly stupid clip-art confetti falling down…

But then, the typography. Oh sure, I get it, you used the excellent Sophia by Matthew Carter to emphasise the Greek aspect of the film. Good choice: its design is influenced by Roman classical capitals, early uncials, and – indeed – Greek letter forms. But just in case we didn’t get the message, you had to change those ‘E’s into sigmas, didn’t you? Ever heard of cultural stereotyping? To add insult to injury you just couldn’t keep your grubby little fingers from playing with the horizontal scaling, you sleazy typo-pervert. Yet even that wasn’t enough, so you had no choice but add that gratuitous black shadow line. To dark blue letters. Because that makes so much sense. And still it wasn’t enough – to make the horrible ‘Big Fat Greek’ and ‘2’ stick out even more, you set ‘My’ and ‘Wedding’ in… Gill Sans®? Because… why?

I give up…

© 2016 Amplify Releasing – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2016 Amplify Releasing – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

What better way to end an episode of ScreenFonts (and wash away the foul taste the utter failure above left in my mouth) than with the latest work of Akiko Stehrenberger. This talented artist never fails to come up with posters that are innovative, quirky, gorgeous, irreverent, controversial, witty – and often all at once. Her beautifully painted artwork for They’re Watching is once again atypical, not something you expect to see for a horror comedy. It looks refreshing compared to the rather literal one sheet. In the main theatrical poster all the story elements – an American home improvement TV show visits a remote Eastern European village, but after their filming interrupts the superstitious villagers’ private religious ritual, the situation takes a turn for the homicidal – found their way into the hand-lettered illustration. So how did Akiko end up with her surprising artwork?

Akiko Stehrenberger | “I was happy the studio was willing to go a more simple route. The majority of the film takes place in a forest, so there we go with the leaves and forest ground! I fought against any shadows or other suggested elements that may make the face hard to read. In the end, I felt we achieved what we needed: a somewhat comedic approach to a horror film poster, as the film itself is somewhat comedic as well.”

Header image by Antony Ruggiero

Trademark attribution notice
Century Gothic is a trademark of The Monotype Corporation and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Gill Sans is a trademark of The Monotype Corporation registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Magda is a trademark of Monotype GmbH registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. FF is a trademark of Monotype GmbH registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. Avant Garde is a trademark of Monotype ITC Inc. registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and which may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. Friz Quadrata is a trademark of Monotype ITC Inc. and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Adobe Caslon is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated which may be registered in certain jurisdictions. All other trademarks and copyrights are the property of their respective owners.

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