Looks like the Muppets have found a new competitor when it comes to film poster satire that is actually funny. I am not talking about Tyler Perry. His Madea-themed films usually come with one or more alternate posters lampooning popular recent films or the odd cinematic classic. They sometimes elicit a chuckle from me, but I never quite seem to find the thematic connection between Perry’s film and the one it is referencing. And that is for me the crucial element that distinguishes a good spoof poster from a gratuitous attempt. No, the diminutive pretender to the Muppets’ throne in satirical reference is yellow, and square, and so are his pants.
As is customary for this type of movies the main theatrical poster and ‘regular’ colaterals for The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water are colourful and exuberant. The movie title is set in a predictable bright yellow compact extra bold sans with shiny blue rim and three-dimensional effect. However the fun really happens with three variants that reference posters from films that have been excessively hyped recently.
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50 Shades of Yellow uses the colour theme to wink wink nudge nudge at the much-maligned fan-fiction blockbuster turned bland sexploitation flick. Replacing the handsome yet tormented billionaire Christian Grey from Fifty Shades… with the clueless and asexual
ball brick of nonsense that is Spongebob turns the tagline – intended to be rife with anticipation and sensual tension – into instant comic relief. The fact that he has “pants” in his name only increases the juvenile silliness. The original Linotype Didot® italic font that expressed the sophisticated erotic atmosphere in the original poster was substituted with an italic Bodoni with an atypical tail on the Q.
This game of opposites is continued in SpongeWorld: the soft and squishy Poriferum impersonates the Tyrannosaurus Rex from Jurassic World, a creature capable of exerting one of the largest bite forces among all terrestrial animals. The dynamic, slightly angular sans serif capitals are clearly inspired by Rudolf Koch’s Neuland. They convey the archetypical “African safari” atmosphere that is also found in Font Bureau’s classic Aardvark which shares the pointy African shield-style shape of the ‘O’. The Pompeia™ font has an inline finish similar to the lettering in the logo, but is much wider.
And finally the utterly harmless cartoon character gets to pose as the heroine holding the head of arguably the most lethal cyborg in cinematic history in the The Spongenator, a riff on the newest episode in the Terminator franchise. Here a wide square display face translates the steely resolve of the unstoppable killing machine into typographic form.
While researching the typography in the posters for the Terminator movies – primarily lettering mimicking the Nasa logo which inspired the [Space] font – I stumbled upon this stunning Polish poster by Jakub Erol. It combines the Futura® Black stencil typeface for the credits with the movie title set in the compu-retro display face Computer.
[link not found] I don’t understand the choice of Caslon Antique on the poster for Sur le chemin de l’école (On The Way to School), a documentary spotlighting four children from very different locations – Kenya, Argentina, Morocco, and India – who have one thing in common: they have to travel a tremendously long distance to go to school. If the designer wanted to visualise the school theme with typography one would expect a school script or an infant version of a classic typeface, with its typical single-storey ‘a’ & ‘g’, not this anecdotal worn transitional face. While there are definitely instances that call for brush strokes or weathered type, in this context the wobbly outlines betray an approach that favours style over substance. I am bemused by some designers’ apparent fear of straight lines and smooth curves, as if any well-designed “conventional” typeface – I am using the adjective in a very broad sense here – is to be considered… what, boring?
The typography on the movie poster for the mediaeval adventure film Outcast is as ham-fisted and derivative as the ridiculously Photoshopped image – seriously Nicolas, how canst thou forcefully smithe thine opponent with thine sword while calmly gazing the viewer in the eye, about a meter above your stricken enemy? The oblique splattered and shifted red Trade Gothic® typeface is of course tributary to the posters for 300. I am not saying that Zack Snyder’s sword and sandal’s films can claim exclusive rights to this kind of typographic treatment which is revolutionary in the genre, but it is a little too close for comfort.
[link not found] Even though there seems to be a version of the movie logo set in sans serif, the majority of the Seventh Son posters are more conventional. If the sword and fantasy world has a predilection for pronounced serifs and/or engraved or extruded letters and/or metallic type, this movie title simply has it all. Not only was the ITC Benguiat™ typeface extruded in metal to make its strokes look like sword blades, the ‘V’ and ‘N’ were customised to give it a more unique appearance. It’s the next best solution in case you cannot have a bespoke movie logo created.
The three-dimensional metal look is not exclusive to (pre-)mediaeval films. The movie title on the poster for Jupiter Ascending – the new science-fiction epic by the Wachowskis, the creators of the seminal The Matrix – is styled in a similar way. The forged steel makes way for sleek chrome, and instead of accentuating the sharp serifs of the ITC Galliard® typeface, the designer removed some of them, and replaced others by wavy serifs or circular stroke endings. The centre lines enter from and exit at the sides of the letter forms, adding an unconventional dimensionality to the letters.
The metallic sheen has an entirely different function on the teaser poster for Kingsman: The Secret Service. Instead of referencing blades or space ships, the golden luster of the letters symbolises the luxury goods we often associate with our romantic notion of the world of spies and secret agents. This concept is translated to the artboard with wit and good taste by the appropriately named creative agency Bond. They imagined a wardrobe combining the finest suits and gentlemen’s accessories with an exquisite assortment of lethal attack weapons.
Unfortunately the typography is not up to par. The awkwardly spaced-out lowercase letters of the Century® Schoolbook typeface lack finesse, as does the completely miscast Lucida® Sans font whose design favours legibility over elegance. The artwork would have greatly benefited from a sharp-dressed wide engraved serif face or unapologetically wide sans serif capitals. Many foundries issued digitisations of engraved fonts that would have fit perfectly on this poster, and Mark van Bronkhorst even created a whole library consisting of engraved lettering styles from the 20th century, the Sweet Collection.
When examining the collaterals for the horror comedy What We Do in the Shadows I was particularly charmed by the artwork by Jeremy Saunders, specifically his great version B. As it was so different from the (frankly rather boring) poster by Indika that I decided to interview Jeremy to learn more about his design.
Jeremy Saunders | “This poster was for the primary domestic release in New Zealand. As an Englishman living in Australia – both countries seem endlessly embarrassed by their national cinema – it’s a constant surprise to see how much people there support local films. I think their top 5 grossing films of all time are New Zealand films – they just love seeing their own stories on screen. So it’s fun to work on what might be a smaller arthouse film in another culture but needs to be promoted as a mainstream event picture, because for that market, it is. And it’s not unusual for marketing to be reworked for smaller scale films as they move to different territories, which is probably as it should be. My career has certainly benefited from redesigning some amazing foreign films for the Australasia market.”
“Directors/stars Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement don’t need any introduction in NZ. There was a huge marketing campaign for the film over there, which meant we could afford to play it hyper-seriously because of the widespread awareness it was a comedy. This is not the case in the US, so Indika needed to make clear it’s a comedy. Plus apparently US distributors would never allow a comedy to have a black poster.”
What was your inspiration for the poster?
Jeremy Saunders | “It’s always just the film. Which I know is a terribly boring answer but the problem you have to tackle as a designer is how to best express the film in a single image. If you’re looking anywhere but the film for your primary inspiration, you’re not really designing, you’re stylising. Of course design doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are sources of inspiration and references that you can take advantage of, but the film has to remain the main focus. And this is a very silly film in the guise of a more serious one, so that engenders a very silly poster in the style of a more serious one. There was an almost free brief from Taika and Jemaine so I could go wherever I wanted.”
“The vampires in the film represent many different vampire trends. Viago is a dandy, sort of Interview with the Vampire type; Vlad is very much in the Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula vein (no pun intended); Pietr is obviously a nod to Nosferatu; and Deacon is kind of a cool Lost Boys vampire. There isn’t really one style to emulate that would cover it all. I do love that 60s–70s style of poster where they chucked a bit of everything on to give a sense of the scope of the film, and to me playing into that period feels like Hammer film horror posters – not any specific design, but that kind of busy montage and melodramatic poses. I think despite my increasing trend towards minimalism, this kind of design is the one that feels most like Proper capital-M Movie Posters. Blame it on growing up in the 70s, I guess.”
The look of the poster harkens back to the classic illustrated posters by Drew Struzan Did you use illustration techniques, or is everything done with photographic material?
Jeremy Saunders | “It’s all Photoshop. I wanted it to have a limited palette to evoke an illustrative approach, and that is a pleasing/convenient way to marry together in one visual a lot of images shot in different locations in different light. I pulled all of the colour out other than red, and applied a simple gradient mask to everything else. The result evokes a 2-strip Technicolor type effect, or maybe a cheap colour overprint.”
“I was having real trouble with the font. We wanted something ‘vampiric’ but most blackletter fonts are borderline illegible. For a while I played with hand-drawn letters that I based on some 60s Giallo movie posters, just to throw another style into the pot. Fortunately Jemaine found Michael Parson’s font Halja which is beautifully legible and has some fantastic illuminated caps all ready to go. And as someone who was self-taught, and who has never read a book on typography in my life, it’s always nice to be able to rely on a type designer to do the heavy lifting for you.”
As soon as I saw it the movie poster for The Last Five Years reminded me of Reid Miles’ stellar album sleeves for Blue Note Records. Even though it doesn’t have that touch of genius the artwork ticks all the boxes: simple red and orange colour palette, a huge number 5 cropped to almost to abstraction, expressive use of punctuation (the black slash between the two main actors’ names), and dynamic typesetting in Alternate Gothic. This probably involuntary tribute stays just far enough from the source material to remain comfortable viewing.
This however cannot be said about the poster for the latest Spike Lee joint Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. The maverick and politically outspoken film maker already was in hot water twice over allegations of plagiarism in posters for his movies. Twenty years ago Saul Bass went on record that he was disappointed (to put it mildly) with the artwork for Clockers being so similar to his celebrated poster design for Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. Then, one-and-a-half year ago there was a whole upheaval about designer Juan Luis Garcia’s artwork allegedly having been ripped off for Spike Lee’s remake of Oldboy. So am I overreacting when I find the similarity between the angular outstretched hands on this poster and Saul Bass’ The Man With The Golden Arm a little disconcerting?
And this is not the only poster this month “paying tribute” to the legendary film poster and title sequence designer. The Italian teaser posters by Frederico Mauro for Pedro Almodóvar’s Realtos salvajes (Wild Tales) unabashedly flaunt they are in the style of Saul Bass. This series even goes as far as to use the font that was modelled after Harold Adler’s lettering for most of the Hitchcock/Preminger titles. It was fun while it lasted, but I am getting a bit tired about all these posters designed to look like this or that. Honestly I would rather have designers come up with their own ideas rather than this endless pillaging of the work of their predecessors.
I prefer this monochrome design for All the Wilderness merging the portrait of the main character with the vertically tilted “skyline” of a forest. It shows that the simple act of looking at something from a different angle creates surprising new possibilities. Surprise, surprise, no obligatory Helvetica® font nor Gotham, but Novecento Sans, an uppercase-only family I wasn’t aware of, inspired by European typographic trends between the second half of 19th century and first half of the 20th.
Another design viewing things from an unusual angle is the stunning photography on the Australian poster for Eastern Boys. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with the original French theatrical poster by Aurélie Huet – a tasteful image of Muller and the titular Eastern boy locked in embrace, bodies in golden brown hues against an out-of-focus blue skyline, with ITC Blair as the main typeface (there is a kerning problem though: the ‘O’ should be shifted to the right a little). The image by London design agency This Time Tomorrow however is nothing short of magnificent. Upside-down, and shot from below, it offsets the the smoothness of the Eastern boy’s youthful skin against the time-worn Muller. The monochrome effect emphasises the brilliant composition – the diagonal created by the interlocked bodies restricts the image information to the lower-right corner and leaves two-thirds of the poster in the dark, providing an ideal canvas for the movie title set in Piron V.2.
This is how I imagine the conversation went between the junior designer and the account manager, when the designer showed up at the manager’s desk with a partly worried, partly terrified look on his face:
— “What do you mean?”
— “There’s something wrong with the movie logo. See, I converted the Trajan™ font to outlines to customise the ‘U’, but when I moved the logo on the canvas I somehow didn’t select the counters of the ‘A’s, because now they are shifted to the left.”
— “Well, the client thought the title looked really ‘edgy’, so we are leaving it that way.”
— “But it’s a really embarrassing Illustrator mistake, something only rookies do. Please let me correct it.”
— “People will think we are doing cutting-edge, experimental typography. You changed the ‘U’, didn’t you?”
— “But you don’t get it! The ‘U’ was deliberate, the ‘A’s are a mistake. The shift of the counters doesn’t even make sense. Look, the ‘R’ is fine, so there is no rhyme nor reason for the change in the ‘A’s.”
— “I am sorry, but I will not go to the client and tell them we goofed up.”
— “But the collaterals aren’t even printed yet! Now I am going to cringe every time I see that title. Come on, we can still fix this!”
— “This discussion is over. You can thank me later when you win a design award for this.”
Con drama Focus is this month’s example of how most of the times teaser posters for mainstream films are the most interesting elements of a marketing campaign. As they only need to give minimal information, they often have the freedom to push the film’s concept further and visually represent the central narrative in more innovative ways. Case in point – the typography of the movie logo for Focus does riff on the title through all of the collaterals, with a very nice chromatic blur that becomes more pronounced as the eye travels outward from the central ‘c’. Yet only the teaser poster extends the idea of “focus” to the image as well, showing the film’s stars out of focus literally behind the typography set in Biko. And yes, this is yet another case of Confused Actors Syndrome, where legal requirements turned Will Smith into a Caucasian woman and Margot Robbie became an African-American man.
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Praia Do Futuro (Futuro Beach) is this month’s example of what can go wrong when designers use a sophisticated typeface design without understanding its core concept. The art directors/designers missed the point when applying the ITC Avant Garde® Gothic font family to both the US theatrical poster and the original posters. Its popularity – besides the pristine geometric forms worshipped by hordes of beard-stroking hipsters – is partly due to the capital ligatures. They allow the tight-but-not-touching setting that was all the rage back in the days when Herb Lubalin’s sensational nameplate for Avant Garde magazine was transformed into the now-ubiquitous typeface. What was so revolutionary about these capital ligatures is the fact that some of them had part of the second letter integrated in the first letter. For example you can see in the ‘NT’ combination of the Avant Garde logo that the left arm of the ‘T’ is actually part of the ‘N’. If the designers had understood this, they would have realised that the ‘T’ in the ’UT’ combination needed to be the version missing the left arm, because the left arm is already present in the ‘U’. This also means that the inwards protrusions on the second ‘U’ and final ‘H’ make absolutely no sense. Unless they were obsessed with superficial style and simply thought: “Oh, look what lovely nubbies!”
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And finally Bluebird is this month’s example of how a generally derided poster style can still be used meaningfully. I don’t mean Erik Buckham’s beautifully simple design for Palaceworks which squarely focuses on the main character’s despair at her tragic mistake, shattering the balance of the community in an isolated Maine logging town. No, I am talking about the more elaborate but equally beautiful one sheet that manages to depict floating heads in a tasteful way. This was achieved by using a limited colour palette and framing the heads – not too many and floating far enough from each other – in the silhouette of the main character towering over a scene in the movie. The movie title, main credits and testimonial set in Tobias Frere-Jones’s delicious Garage Gothic were judiciously positioned in the dark blue area at the centre. This stylish poster is far removed from the colourful Trajan-ridden Hollywood train wrecks featuring, frankly, too many heads.
Trademark Attribution Notice Century, Helvetica and Trade Gothic are trademarks of Monotype GmbH registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. Benguiat is a trademark of Monotype ITC Inc. and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Avant Garde, Galliard and Linotype Didot are trademarks of Monotype ITC Inc. registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and which may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. Trajan is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated which may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Futura is a registered trademark of Bauer Types. Lucida is a registered trademark of Bigelow & Holmes. Pompeia is a trademark of Unitype. All other trademarks are property of their respective owners.