A new year, and a new episode of ScreenFonts, now on the new FontShop News.
It’s good to be back with my series of film poster reviews after a half-year-long involuntary hiatus. Its transfer to our new blog on the relaunched FontShop website ran into some unforeseen complications, but I think all the kinks have been ironed out. ScreenFonts reviews will have slightly different format from now on: instead of seeing the actual posters in the posts themselves, you can view them on external websites by clicking the horizontal cutout. There will be some rare exceptions though.
For readers who are new to the concept of ScreenFonts, this is what you can expect from my most popular series formerly on The FontFeed (and the subject of many of my conference presentations). For every installment I examine some 100+ posters for films that were released the previous month. I pick out those that I find noteworthy and discuss their design and/or use of typography or lettering. Because of the poor state of mainstream film poster design you will rarely see artwork for wide releases, but the indie scene and the world of limited edition and artist’s posters fortunately still provide enough material to write about. As I only consider the quality of the poster, notable releases may be missing from my reviews. A good/popular film with a poor poster won’t make the cut, while the poster for an abysmally bad movie may get highlighted as long as it is well-designed or interesting in any other fashion.
Even though the differences may seem minimal, Blood & Chocolate’s main poster for Before I Go to Sleep is a subtle yet definite improvement on the original teaser poster by Empire Design. By having the three vertical sections further subdivided, the design conceptually reinforces the main storyline. The repeating narrow strips represent the repetition of the main character waking up every day and remembering nothing as a result of a traumatic accident in her past. Blood & Chocolate’s second intervention – desaturating the portraits of Colin Firth and Mark Strong – finetunes their function in the artwork as they visually recede behind Nicole Kidman. Their slightly threatening appearance reinforces the notion that “one day, new terrifying truths emerge that force her to question everyone around her.”
The typography cleverly reprises the underlying structure of the artwork by applying a gradient to each letter. Sadly it is entirely set in Helvetica in all capitals – the boringest of boring solutions. This poster instantly reminded me of Rabbit Hole, also starring Nicole Kidman, which I enjoyed exactly four years ago. And, coincidence or not, I had the same Helvetica-related criticism. If you really really cannot resist her siren’s song, at least use the best digitisation available – Neue Haas Grotesk by Christian Schwartz.
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In a game of design ping pong from Empire Design to Blood & Chocolate and back to Empire Design, the concept is further improved upon with the UK quad by further elaborating on the vertical strip motif. Gone are the colours of the portraits, now slightly overexposed black-and-white, and the type resolutely takes center stage. While on the main poster only the tagline plays with the rhythm by shifting its baseline, this time the entire typographic composition is synched to the heartbeat of the poster. What the artwork loses in intensity due to the gaps between the portraits, it gains in graphic sophistication and typographic quality. The somewhat crude yet strangely elegant letter forms of Interstate perform beautifully in this setting.
Another design that manages to visually express the main theme of the film, this time in its typography, is the movie poster for Still Alice. When Dr. Alice Howland learns she is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease, she struggles to manage her life while dealing with the illness and her job, marriage and children. The dimming of the mental capacities of the titular character is tastefully visualised by the use of the lightest weight of Gill Sans in an airy setting, as if the capital letters are slowly disappearing. I am quite impressed by how well the justified setting of the movie title works, with letters of very different proportions still visually lining up vertically, and the central ‘I’s perfectly above each other. This is only possible thanks to the very light weight of the character shapes. I am conflicted about the increased space between the letters in Alec Baldwin’s name – I dislike “elastic spacing” to make type align, but to be honest I don’t really see an alternative for making this composition work.
The main poster and other official collaterals feature a clever typographic composition set in a Didone. Setting type in a transition from positive to negative is not easy to get right, and this works really well, both in vertical and in horizontal direction. The movie title is framed in the exhaust burst of a spacecraft, with the switch from positive to negative at the junction of both parts in the composite word, thus actually enhancing its legibility. The subtle shift in weight from bold to regular and back to bold proves how much thought was put in this (even though I have the impression the letters at the extremities are digitally distorted).
How could I pass up an almost entirely typographic design for this overview? We begin a succession of posters for documentaries with this design for The Barefoot Artist. The letters of the movie title “float” on top of a monochrome, high-contrast picture of Chinese-born global artist Lily Yeh. The typeface had me puzzled; it marries characteristics of different typographic classifications – a geometric sans with influences from European (neo-)grotesque and American gothic, and even a smidgen of Neuzeit. The always reliable Akira Yoshino from Typophile’s Type Identification Board came to the rescue and revealed it is LL Circular, Laurenz Brunner’s follow-up on the critically acclaimed and immensely popular LL Akurat.
I don’t agree with the tiny images within the letters. Especially the H, the hyphen and the end-T tend to disappear, effectively destroying the balance of the centred and evenly spaced out capitals. Together with the photographs in the counters of some other letters those insets create too much visual noise. It all looks a little fidgety. I feel the designer would have better stuck to one single idea – the composition as is but with all the letters in the same blue and no photographic insets, or no background image and larger letters to allow the insets to properly work. Now it’s neither here nor there.
Even more than the previous one, the movie poster for She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry completely relies on letters. Please note that I don’t call this a typographic poster, because what you are looking at is not typography but hand lettering. The distinction is pretty straightforward: “typography” uses existing characters, while “lettering” implies creating those characters on the spot. The bold, powerful artwork with its brush lettering – for a documentary about feminism, a subject close to my heart – jumped out when I was going through last month’s releases. I reached out and managed to interview both Mary Dore, the producer and director of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, and Eric Skillman, a graphic designer working mostly with The Criterion Collection. Eric not only designed the poster but also the titles for the film.
Mary, what made you decide to work with Eric?
Mary Dore | “Eric is a genius, as far as I’m concerned. I approached him because my final editor, Kate Taverna had heard of him via another filmmaker. When I googled his name and saw his brilliant Criterion covers and posters, I immediately wrote to him.”
“We’re a low to non-budget production, so we figured Eric would be out of our league. Yet when he heard that it was about the history of the women’s movement in the US he was so gracious; he said he’d be honored to design titles and a poster down the line for us! Without even meeting in person – which is pretty funny, since he lives four blocks away from me in Park Slope, Brooklyn – Eric started to work on the film with us and we had a very reasonable contract for his services. I finally met him a couple weeks ago in person at our crew party after the NYC theatrical opening; he was as lovely as expected, and I also met his wife, a historian.”
What was your collaboration like?
Mary Dore | “We had a phone and email relationship. Eric loved all the old posters and leaflets in the film. And when we were working on the title credits for the film, we went a few rounds on his design of the title credits. Eric came up with the wonderful waving letters that introduce the film – also very poster-like.”
How did the poster take shape?
Eric Skillman | “There wasn't really any brief at all for the poster per se, but this design came out of numerous conversations we had when I was designing the opening titles of the film itself (which can be seen at the end of the trailer). The lettering comes directly from those titles, which were meant to evoke a handmade/grassroots/protest poster aesthetic. For the film poster I wanted to retain that stylistic reference without doing something that looked like a period pastiche or a ‘realistic’ faux placard, as those approaches seemed a bit cheesy. This version was meant to reference a protest sign without trying to pass itself off as one. Also, the film so strongly makes the case for collective action and group history that focusing on any one woman or even a small group of women felt like missing the point. It was either this or a giant crowd photo and this felt more compelling.”
Mary Dore | “This Spring Eric gave me two versions for the poster – one a beautiful wood cut, with women protesting with the title on placards, and the other the very simple and gorgeous one we choose. There was something about the pink turning darker by the bottom ‘angry’… It just made me so happy (irony, I know) to see such an elegant and simple design, so it wasn’t a hard choice. It’s a unusual title that gets people’s attention, and Eric made that work for us.”
Pink is a very charged colour given the subject of the movie.
Eric Skillman | “Well, yeah. Actually, it starts off pink (with all of the associations that entails) but ends up a deep reddish-brown, a transition that was intended to mirror/emphasize the miniature dramatic arc within the title (from ‘beautiful’ to ‘angry’) which is itself playing with and subverting some stereotypical language. If anything, I worried that it was a little on-the-nose, but any other color scheme just felt like it was going out of its way to avoid pink. Ideally, embracing those associations gets the viewer thinking about these issues of representation and expectation even before they enter the theater, which I think would be a neat trick. I like posters that don’t just sell a film, but also prime the audience for the film they’re about to watch. I’ve certainly seen great films that I wasn’t able to appreciate on first viewing because I was distracted or was in the wrong frame of mind or just in a shitty mood that day. I like to imagine that a well-designed poster can help calibrate your mind for a film… Not so much that it tells you what to expect as it puts you in an appropriately receptive frame of mind. For this film, ‘rigorously interrogating gender issues’ seemed like a decent calibration…”
Mary, how do you look back on your collaboration with Eric Skillman?
Mary Dore | “I’ve worked with other designers before, but Eric so understood the film, and was so empathetic about what it meant, and how important it was for the team… He couldn’t have been a better person for the job. So grateful, so love the poster and all his work.”
We continue the feminist theme with the movie poster for Free The Nipple, about the efforts of an army of passionate women to decriminalize the female body. Gravillis Inc. is one of the very few studios operating in the mainstream that turn out consistently interesting, high-quality work. In this case I love the simplicity of their solution: a coarse halftone picture of a pair of breasts, with the squarish shapes of Compacta knocked out of a field of unapologetic hot pink. The two black ×’s covering the nipples symbolise the issues covered in the documentary (see what I did there? ;) ).
There is something about Scotch Romans and American modern faces that makes most designs look instantly classy. Knock it out of a black-and-white photograph with a blue-green haze to help legibility and you get delightful 70s retro yumminess. That reel-to-reel tape recorder with old school microphone and earphones plus the bell-bottom pants seal the deal. This unmistakably contemporary design shows how you can evoke a certain era without slavishly copying the graphic styles that were in vogue back then.
The typesetting on the movie poster for Concerning Violence, an examination of the most daring moments in the African struggle for liberation from colonial rule, is surprisingly sophisticated. Look at how those flush-left text blocks in different sizes of Century Expanded are positioned on the canvas. The classicist letter forms in a Modernist lay-out make this design sing. And in case you missed it, note how the tittle on the ‘i’ in “Violence” was shifted downwards so it is perfectly framed by the serifs of the ‘V’ and the ‘i’. No, “tittle”has nothing to do with the previous poster; it is the official name for the dot on the ‘i’. Grow up, you adolescent bunch. ;)
I kind of expected to see a similar poster for Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles which looks at the remarkable genius of one of the medium’s most accomplished artists on the eve of his centenary. Yet we get no image of the towering giant in the director’s seat or on stage, nor behind the camera or in the radio broadcasting studio, nor in any other predictable setting. Instead the poster shows a cut-out of his portrait in coloured-in black-and-white mischievously looking the viewer straight in the eye. Besides highlighting Welles’ unique personality, this option also avoids pigeonholing Orson Welles in any of the myriad of roles he played – literally and figuratively – in film, theater, radio and beyond. The appropriately Art Deco-tinted Aldo, a free font by Sacha Rein, somehow made me think of Nordic Narrow.
And this concludes this month’s pretty long subsection of posters for documentaries.
Another intense gaze, indirectly through the reflection of the rear view mirror this time. The movie poster of The Captive nicely conveys the paranoia of the people trying to unravel the mystery of Cassandra’s disappearance eight years after the fact. Having a simple cut-out of that rear view mirror on a mostly virginal white canvas is a great solution. It resolutely focuses on establishing a mood instead of trying to tell a story, which makes for a compelling design. There is no need to show anything more of the car, the scenery nor the actor to make the design perfectly intelligible. The loosely spaced skyline sans lend the artwork a whiff of eighties.
Whoever designed the movie poster for Pionér (Pioneer) needs to get their tropes straight, fer chrissakes! The main character running away from something menacing through a blueish narrow space indicates a conspiracy thriller, but the mosaic structure hints at an ensemble cast film. Argh, now I don’t know anymore what to expect from this movie! On what can I base my choice in cinematic enjoyment with such an confusing poster? My cultural conditioning is… slowly… unraveling…
It was fun for a while, but the trend of film posters “designed to look like something else” (insert random words like “minimalist”, “vintage”, “rock poster” etc.) is starting to wear thin. Even more, I think that the artwork for Murder of a Cat references iconic American designer Saul Bass’ style a little too explicitly. Even the film title sounds way too much like Otto Preminger’s classic. However I doubt this will turn into another Clockers controversy, now that Saul Bass is no longer with us and this film is critically panned. The typeface is Morris Fuller Benton’s classic Alternate Gothic.
It’s always disappointing when my request for information falls on deaf ears. Then again, I don’t think BLT Communicatiuons have ever reacted to any of my queries. I would have loved to find out who did the stupendous illustrations for the Inherent Vice collaterals. They prove how far superior to Photoshop noodling hand illustration can be. Dressed in rainbow colours channeling drug-fueled Los Angeles in the 1970s, the drawings of the film’s protagonists are a delight to decipher, with a multitude of details integrated into the hair and the background. Make sure to examine in detail the main poster featuring Joaquin Phoenix, with its realistic texture reminiscent of scratching away black paint on brightly coloured crayon. Then discover the character posters for Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, and the others. These are some of the best posters I have seen all year.
Let me send you off into the weekend with a healthy dose of cute. The movie poster for Le Chant de la Mer (Song of the Sea) extends the enchanting illustration style of the movie onto the canvas, with lovely hand lettering supported by a school script.
Glad to be back. Let’s make this a terrific year discussing movie posters and typography.