Type Essays

ScreenFonts – December 2015

December 22, 2015 by
Yves Peters
Yves Peters

Our monthly review of movie poster typography looks at the posters for The Night Before, Legend, The Hungergames: Monckingjay Part 2, The Danish Girl, and others.

© 2015 Oscilloscope Pictures
© 2015 Oscilloscope Pictures

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We start this seasonal episode of ScreenFonts on an atypically serious and dark note. The documentary What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy follows three men on their journey through Europe. Two of them had fathers who were senior Nazi officers and consultants to Adolf Hitler himself, and were indicted as war criminals for their roles in WWII. The documentary records their conversations with the third man, eminent human rights lawyer and author Philippe Sands, and together they visit the places where much of Sands’ Jewish family was destroyed by their fathers. The movie poster by The Boland Design Company brilliantly visualises the difficult subject matter. It combines two vintage portraits – one of a father with a child on his shoulders, the other of a man (the same one?) participating in a Nazi parade. The photographs were ripped in half along the diagonal, the two halves put together to form a fractured, grotesque portrait, as if he was disfigured. The treatment of the imagery is devastatingly beautiful with great attention to detail, like the different tones of the two photographs and the careful composition. The result is a heartbreaking image of ambiguous poetry, capturing both the lost innocence of childhood and the horror of the Nazi doctrine.

To lend this powerful image maximum impact the rest of the poster is left virginal white, with the movie title set in simple centered Shàngó. No loud brokenscript, but classic serif capitals inspired by Professor F.H. Ernst Schneidler’s Schneidler-Mediaeval mit Initialen. As the original typeface was released in 1936 this is a sound and historically accurate choice. So are the supporting typefaces, even though they are decidedly English. The elegant Perpetua® Italic font dates from 1928, and the square Bourgeois using its alternates reminds me of architectural lettering and gravestones from the early 20th century. The excellent typography adds a dignified touch to a poster that is a shining example of thoughtfulness and nuance, shying away from cliches in favour of quiet humanity.

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

Unsurprisingly we do find a cliche – and it is a blackletter – on the next poster, for the obligatory pine-scented and betinseled comedy of the year‘s end. In The Night Before three lifelong friends, two of whom are Jewish, spend the night in New York City looking for the Holy Grail of Christmas parties. Hilarity ensues, I guess. The typeface is not your garden-variety blackletter though. The aptly named Christmas sits somewhere between a traditional Textura and a condensed Gothic, with simplified swashes on the capitals. It would fit right in with Stephen Coles’ Fontlist of contemporary blackletter designs. Christmas is published by New Fonts, a division of the New York-based design office of Charles Nix & Associates. Last May Charles Nix joined Monotype as Senior Type Designer.

If you still need to typeset something in the spirit of whatever festivity you celebrate around this time of year, my Transatlantic partner-in-type-geekery David Sudweeks compiled this neat Festive Fontlist for all your seasonal needs.

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

Another cliche graces the one sheet for The Funhouse Massacre, a slightly less festive comedy detailing the antics of six of the world’s scariest psychopaths unleashing terror on the unsuspecting crowd of a Halloween Funhouse. Like any self-respecting carnival attraction the poster uses a Tuscan font – the highly decorative style that has many representatives in my Wild West Fontlist Fontlist. The digitisation is very sloppy though, equally poor in design and execution. Also, the one-point perspective makes no sense, as chromatic letters should adopt an isometric perspective when used in this context. They’d better have hired a professional sign painter to do the lettering on this poster.

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

We go from amateurish, wobbly contours to some of the tightest, most professional outlines in type. You don’t have to take my word for it. Kim Sowersby graduated from rookie type designer contributing to Typophile to valued collaborator, to highly-regarded and award-winning professional, to receiving the 2015 John Britten Black Pin, the highest award given by the Designers Institute of New Zealand. His Domaine Display graces the alternate poster for Shelter, designed by the New York-based studio CHIPS. The artwork lifts the image of the main characters Hannah and Tahir kissing in the rain from the main theatrical poster featuring Gotham. While the color image of the two homeless people who fall in love on the streets of New York looks pretty conventional on the main poster, the black-and-white treatment in the alternate version is unexpectedly dark. This shifts the tone from tender to threatening and foreboding. The stark white, red and black composition with big red capitals makes for a striking poster with a distinct ’70s vibe.

© 2015 The Film Arcade – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2015 The Film Arcade – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

Humanist sans serifs became a thing in the late ’80s. The trend was spearheaded almost two decades earlier by Hans Eduard Meier’s seminal Syntax, the first true example in its class. Encouraged by the success of Sumner Stone’s 1987 eponymous super family many sans/serif families with a humanist sans component were released. Even Letraset, primarily known for display type, joined the fray with the Charlotte™ Sans typeface, the sans serif companion to the Charlotte™ typeface, both released in 1992. It shows up on the poster for James White, the story of a twenty-something New Yorker struggling to take control of his self-destructive behavior in the face of momentous family challenges. Because it is set all in capitals the font was a little more difficult to identify, a common problem when few key characters show up in the sample.

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

The capitals of the FF Sanuk® typeface on the other hand are quite easy to pick out in a crowd, thanks to its deliciously tense superelliptic curves and the signature leg on the ‘R’ and ‘K’. Unfortunately the confident, space-saving sans serif is used very poorly in the movie poster for #Horror, a horror mystery about cyber bullying teenage girls inspired by actual events. Even though Xavier Dupré drew perfectly fine obliques, somehow the designer must have thought they were not sufficiently slanted, and italicised them even more for… for what? Additional drama? If it leans over even further it seems more urgent? That doesn’t make any sense. Distorting the outlines does the font a huge disservice and makes the poster look very amateurish (as if the artwork didn’t already look poor enough as it is).

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

After reviewing the fantastic teaser poster for Good Kill last summer, it is interesting to see which approach was taken for the movie poster for Drone. Instead of a fictional story, Drone is a documentary investigating the same subject: the covert CIA drone war. It offers unique insights into the nature of this new form of warfare (see the Out of Sight, Out of Mind minisite for a chilling visualisation). A far cry from from the stark “dirty minimalist” style of the Good Kill teaser, City Rain Design’s Marcell Bandicksson came up with a multi-layered high-tech image that symbolises the hidden layers of information and the impersonal, video game-like aspect of the killings. The artwork reminded me a little of the poster for Gamer I discussed on The FontFeed six years ago, which deals with similar themes. The typeface Soin Sans by Bangkok-based Thai typeface designer Stawix Ruecha would make a perfect addition to Fonts From The Big City, my Fontlist of designs inspired by, or reminiscent of architectural sans serif lettering.

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

I had another flash of recognition when I first saw Empire Design’s poster design for Legend, the story of the notorious Kray brothers and their organised crime empire in 1960s London. It uses a black/white division similar to both American Gangster and Scarface, also gangster films. Whereas in the poster for American Gangster the black/white represent the bad/good side of the law respectively, for Legend I think it symbolises the sameness/difference of the identical twins. I originally thought the marquee-style square display sans was the FF Motel Gothic™ typeface, but found out afterwards it is in fact Jeremy Dooley’s Quarca. Both designs are based on models commonly used by lettering artists in the mid-twentieth century for both print and signage. Aesthetics aside, I wish they had put a little more though into the typeface selection. A period typeface from the ’60s, or one inspired by the then-popular styles, would have better captured the era. Now it looks more like a poster for a gangster movie set during the prohibition.

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

I think the Hunger Games franchise passed up on a great opportunity for creating a memorable identity with a custom logo or distinct typeface. Instead they went for the umpteenth instance of shiny beveled Bank Gothic. It dutifully appears on the movie poster for the final instalment in the series, just like on all the previous ones, and just like on every single other epic action/sci-fi film poster.

© 2015 Kino Lorber – Click the image to see the complete poster on the official movie website.
© 2015 Kino Lorber – Click the image to see the complete poster on the official movie website.

The documentary Bikes vs Cars highlights the conflict between bikes and cars as modes of transportation in urban environments. It examines what effect this conflict has on city planning, and on our dependence on fossil fuel. While Wim Crouwel’s design of Gridnik is not really inspired by license plates, the straight, faceted shapes with rounded corners of the character shapes still have the appearance of letters stamped in metal. This efficiently connects the movie poster to its subject matter. If you are a fan of typefaces with this ‘soft’ industrial look, you may want to check my FontShop News post about license plate alphabets from this past summer and its companion Fontlist.

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

Talk about extremes – we switch from mechanical to human in the main theatrical poster for The Danish Girl, the remarkable love story inspired by the lives of artists Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe, who was a transgender pioneer. In their quest to find a very delicate and elegant typeface the designers came upon SangBleu Serif, one of the rare extra light serif face with contrast.

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

We conclude with a variant poster for the same film. The international version swaps SangBleu serif for Mrs Eaves, the interpretation of Baskerville’s work by digital type pioneer Zuzana Licko. Since the very early days of its release the typeface has been quite controversial, as it combines features commonly associated with text faces with typical attributes for display faces. In text sizes the x-height may seem to small; in large sizes some find the serifs too large. Furthermore the proportions of several glyphs are unconventional, and the spacing is unexpectedly loose. This has however not stopped this design from becoming a major success, popping up in all kinds of applications. I loved using it myself, in moderation, as it always was a very interesting challenge to get it right. This is one of those typefaces where you can show your mettle as a typographer. The many criticisms led Licko to revise and expand the design, and in 2009 Emigre released the sans/serif companions Mrs Eaves Serif and Mr Eaves. To be honest I never liked the new Mrs Eaves that much and still have a soft spot for the original. However I think the sans serif component with its two variants – Sans and Modern – is a welcome addition to the family.

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Trademark attribution notice
Motel Gothic is a trademark of Monotype GmbH and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Sanuk 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. Perpetua is a trademark of The Monotype Corporation registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Charlotte is a trademark of Monotype ITC Inc. and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. All other trademarks and copyrights are the property of their respective owners.

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