Type Essays

ScreenFonts

February 27, 2015 by
Yves Peters
Yves Peters

Our monthly review of movie poster typography looks at the posters for A Most Violent Year, Taken 3, Blackhat, Mortdecai, and Son of A Gun.

Contrary to last month’s Grammy Awards who also honour music packaging as well as music videos and film, the Academy Awards continue to completely ignore film posters and movie title sequences as evidenced at this past Sunday’s Oscars ceremony. Last year Art of the Title (consider becoming Patreon like me to support this fantastic labour of love) asked The Oscar Question. In this eye-opening article Ian Albinson talked to some of the top title design talents in the world about the absence of a Best Movie Titles category at the Oscars. Together with them Ian tries to figure out what could be the reasons for this omission – the Emmy Awards for example do recognize Outstanding Main Title Design, and SXSW have their own Film Design Awards for Excellence in Poster and Title Design. To be continued, I hope…

Like the name of the website implies film posters enjoy their virtual celebration on Internet Movie Poster Awards, the resource I have been using since the very beginning of the ScreenFonts series. Besides more conventional categories like Best Drama Movie Poster, Best Funny Tag Line, or Best Character Poster Set (for the sublime Inherent Vice collaterals illustrated by Steven Chorney), the 2014 edition also has some offbeat awards. Unfortunately my favourite category Bravest Movie poster “given to a film's main poster that does not give in to the overpowering urge to show off the faces of their big name stars” seems to be missing this year. The Worst Movie Poster Nominees lists almost exclusively cringe-worthy Photoshop disasters, while the Not So Serious Awards hand out some the silliest prizes, like the Best Subliminal Halo Award for St. Vincent, or Poster Most Likely to Confuse Those Hanging it Up Award for Corey Holms’ festival poster for Big Significant Things.

© 2014 A24 – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2014 A24 – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

In that same category the Most Blatant Cleavage Award goes to the poster for A Most Violent Year “for trying to market the film based on more than just Jessica Chastain’s acting talent”. Which was funny to discover because I recently tweeted just that. The new directives for cropping film posters and album covers on FontShop News made this voluptuous eye-catcher even more prominent in my cut-out of the film title. Titillation aside, the poster does a great job at conjuring up New York City in 1981, the most dangerous year in the city’s history. Even though the atmosphere is retro, the typography makes the poster noticeably contemporary thanks to the use of a modern stencil interpretation of the Caslon No. 3 font. Compare this for example to the artwork for American Gangster that safely sticks with the Monotype Baskerville typeface.

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

Even though you probably wouldn‘t tell at first sight, the typography on the movie poster for The Search for General Tso is unexpectedly appropriate. Given the subject matter of the documentary I feared to be confronted with a cultural stereotype, one of those racially insensitive chop sooey fonts that are sadly so prevalent in the logos of Asian eateries. But no, the Dynamo font is far removed from any alternative I would have thought of – maybe a calligraphic design referencing the elegant brush strokes of Chinese calligraphy, or abstracted interpretations of the Chinese ideograms. Yet I think the Art Deco design by K. Sommer – originally released by Ludwig & Mayer in 1930 – nicely hits the spot. I may be reading too much into this, but the half-serifs on the capitals make their shapes look like highly stylised brush strokes. Plus I can perfectly see the bold geometric shapes as plexi lettering above a restaurant.

© 2015 Twentieth Century Fox – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2015 Twentieth Century Fox – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

The French teaser poster for Taken 3 incorporates the image of Liam Neeson in a stencil version of Compacta. Turning the colour picture into monochrome red makes the ‘3’ substituting the ‘E’ come out just enough without making the title break up.

© 2013 Kino Lorber & NDM International Sales – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2013 Kino Lorber & NDM International Sales – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

I discovered that two of last month’s posters I quite liked were created by Matt Frost, a designer whose work I was not familiar with yet. The first one is the international poster for French murder mystery/comedy P’tit Quinquin (Li’l Quinquin) which is a definite improvement on the original French poster.

French film posters have always been very hit-or-miss for me. There are many wonderful and surprising designs, not only in the alternative/indie circuit, full of French elegance, sensuality and whimsy. Mainstream productions however often have very poor collaterals, especially when it comes to the typography which I often find predictable and/or boring (how much Eurostile, Impact or Futura Condensed can you handle?), or just plain… weird. The original poster for P’tit Quinquin is a good example for this – I cannot make sense of the use of Apple’s system font Monaco, tightly tracked, all in capitals with lowercase ‘i’s. I don’t know if that was the designer’s idea of “cutting-edge” or “concrete typography” or whatever they had in mind, but it falls flat.

Matt Frost demonstrates how you can significantly improve a design using basically the exact same elements at your disposal by using Photoshop with restraint and a more sensible typography. Dropping one of the children from the original movie still and having the boy in the middle closer to the camera creates a classical triangular composition with a clear focus at the centre. The cow hanging from the helicopter which is barely noticeable in the original still is moved to the side to both avoid interference with the three children and make it more prominent. The cow’s back is added to the yellow police tape in the foreground as an additional narrative element. Matt also replaced the sky with a sky and rainbow he photographed in Pensacola, Florida in 2009, and “made the colours pop” (didn’t think I’d ever write this). The cherry on the cake is the chalkboard-like lettering that thematically connects the typography to the youthful protagonists. I wish the film title had been actually hand-lettered with a drawn shadow line, not an Illustrator distortion of probably a freeware font, but hey, I am not complaining.

I am not saying Matt Frost’s interpretation is the pinnacle of film poster design. You can clearly see it’s a Photoshopped concoction, yet ultimately the artwork does so much better what it needs to do for this type of idiosyncratic comedy.

© 2014 Music Box Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2014 Music Box Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

Matt also worked his magic on the poster for Germany’s submission to the 2015 Academy Awards. Whereas the original artwork for P’tit Quinquin was merely a bit lacking, the original theatrical poster for Die geliebten Schwestern (Beloved Sisters) was simply unusable, a godawful mess of bad Photoshop and tracked Futura typeface. More importantly, the inane image in Walt Disney colours misrepresents the film’s subject matter in my opinion: the aristocratic sisters Charlotte and Caroline both fall in love with the controversial young writer and hothead Friedrich Schiller, and – defying the conventions of their time – decide to share their love with Schiller. Having Schiller as the focal point of the poster is not as bad as the infamous Italian posters for 12 Years a Slave putting the white co-stars in the spotlight at the detriment of the African-American lead, but still betrays poor judgement. Matt favours an intimate scene full of sensuality, and in a clever move has Schiller’s head run off the top of the artwork, thus switching the focus from Schiller back to the sisters. This results in a more accurate visual narrative, and a more authentic-looking poster. The delicate features of italic capitals of the Linotype Didot font are a lovely match for the subdued hues and the tender imagery.

© 2015 IFC Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on the Shock Till You Drop website.
© 2015 IFC Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on the Shock Till You Drop website.

Dark Summer is a perfect example of the current malaise in the horror film world. Its posters are examples of two major trends in this genre, trends that unfortunately seem to be heading towards dead ends. The main theatrical poster succumbs to the Trajan typeface trap. The original and most popular digitisation of the classical Roman capital – the subject of The Eternal Letter, a new book edited by Paul Shaw – has achieved the dubious status of “the movie poster font”. More and more designers shying away from this overused classic has relegated the majestic capitals to B-movie fodder. This is the main reason why the font has gradually become the default for horror flicks and the likes.

The other trend is an obsession with the 1980s, considered by many as the heydays of horror and gore. Instead of reinventing the iconic posters from that time period and turning them into something new and meaningful, those nostalgic designs are almost indistinguishable from the posters of yore. Though they almost always look great, they fail to further the field by obsessively referring to the past. This has caused a resurgence of many favourites from the 80s like the ITC Serif Gothic typeface or the ITC Souvenir typeface, or the Friz Quadrata typeface on the first movie poster for Dark Summer. If not for the laptop you would never know it advertises a film released in 2015, so perfectly does the artwork emulate the classic 80s style. This whole retro wave was nice while it lasted, but maybe it is time for the industry to move on and explore new horizons.

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

The poster for Black Hat combines actual stills from the crime drama in horizontal bands to allure the potential audience. The top image advertises the star of the film; the bottom two hint at the setting and the type of movie – Indonesian dancers and shadowy men with machine guns. It’s all done quite artfully with a stylish, limited colour scheme and surprisingly little (if at all) Photoshop. The cold, blueish white of the luminescent film title is a nice foil to the warm yellow and golden brown of the images. The mechanical shapes of letters look like the ones you find on luggage tags and information screens in airports, a reference to the travels of the main protagonist from Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta. Related FontLists are Squares on a Grid, Dots on a Grid, and LCD, LED, Scoreboards & Other Electronic Displays.

© 2014 Maiden Voyage Pictures, Archer Gray Productions, TideRock Media, Soaring Flight Productions, MindSmack Productions – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2014 Maiden Voyage Pictures, Archer Gray Productions, TideRock Media, Soaring Flight Productions, MindSmack Productions – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

Gravillis Inc. produce consistently good work, such as this series of character posters for the naturalist drama Little Accidents. Each of the main players – a surviving miner, the lonely wife of a mine executive, and a local boy – get their moment in the spotlight. The dreamy atmosphere in the masterfully cropped images in twilight hues is enhanced by the sinuous shapes of the italic Linotype Didot typeface.

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

Talk about contrasts. The tag line “Sophistication has a name” has me baffled by how little refinement is found in the typography for Mortdecai. As insanely successful as the typeface may be, I would not exactly use the rational and clean letter forms of the FF DIN font on the teaser poster to convey sophistication. Their technical appearance is completely at odds with baroque imagery. What an odd and unfortunate typographic choice.

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

The same applies to the (pardon the pun) basic character shapes of the Basic Commercial font on the main theatrical poster. Even if the art director/designer insisted on using a sans serif, a wide engraved sans or something from the Sweet collection would have fit the tone of the artwork much better. Plus I am not so sure about that gradient and three-dimensional effect.

© 2015 Lionsgate
© 2015 Lionsgate

Even though there are quite a few things wrong with the typographic treatment I found in some teaser campaigns (the leg on the ‘R’ is too limp, what’s up with those serifs on the ‘C’, and please kern that ‘CA’ pair) its Belle Epoque style looks far more appropriate.

© 2014 Rook Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on the Rook Films blog.
© 2014 Rook Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on the Rook Films blog.

If you want sophisticated typography, look no further than the lovely teaser poster by renowned designer Jay Shaw for the erotic S&M drama The Duke of Burgundy. The luscious swashes of Bookmania are part of the Sexy Type Fontlust (oops, Fontlist, that was genuine typo! :D ) I compiled at the occasion of my Creative Mornings talk in Minneapolis last Spring. Even though it is the most recent digital interpretation, Mark Simonson’s take on Bookman is the most true to the original, featuring all of its swashes and ligatures and more. Jay however used the ITC version by iconic type designer (and jazz drummer) Ed Benguiat. With its generous x-height and sandpapered curves his interpretation looks even softer and meatier, with the curvaceous legs and arms (and swashes and terminals) of the letters longingly reaching for each other as a metaphor for the interlocking bodies of the two lovers.

© 2014 Séville International – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2014 Séville International – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

Let’s distance ourselves from this torrid sado-masochistic relationship to a no less complex mother-son relationship before it gets too hot in here. The only reason I included the rather average movie poster for family drama Mommy is for the clever way it uses the Monotype Script typeface to create that overly-saccharine golden pendant. Honestly, the bold connected script literally begged to be abused this way. Oh no, there I go again! Let’s try it one more time. The bold connected script just loves to have its extremities chained wide apart. Argh, I give up…

© 2014 Open Road Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2014 Open Road Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

The poster for The Loft epitomises everything that is wrong about contemporary Photoshop-led film poster design. Compare this glossy trainwreck to Saul Bass’ masterpiece for Vertigo. I rest my case.

And what are those fractures in the Neutraface typeface anyway? I have seen the original (Belgian) movie and I cannot think of any thematic link whatsoever.

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

The movie poster by The Refinery for the Jason Statham vehicle Wild Card mixes up the expectations of the audience. The energetic artwork does feature the obligatory black-and-white image of the star in action, yet in lieu of the familiar fireburst we get a flat cyan background. Which is not bad, because the poster is very efficient with Jason jumping through the dynamic diagonal type. It does remind me of the Shoot ’em Up poster. The movie title set in the stocky Neue Helvetica Extended font incorporates the playing card theme by substituting the counter of the ‘A’ with a spade.

© 2014 Southern Light Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2014 Southern Light Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

The previous poster pales in comparison with Ignition’s terrific artwork for Australian heist film Son of a Gun. This is a very strong design, combining an intense black-and-white action shot of Ewan McGregor with a great use of red and white transparency and daring typography. Fair enough, the movie title is repeated at the bottom right, but blowing it up and fragmenting it to the point of letting letters run off on the right side of the canvas and have them reappear on the left side is a pretty ballsy move. The simplicity of Trade Gothic serves this solution really well, which does not take away that contemporary alternatives like FF Good or FF Hydra would have worked just as well, maybe even better.

© 2014 Southern Light Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2014 Southern Light Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

The original Australian poster by Mark Gowing Design is also unconventional. The textured photography revealing every single hair and pore is the exact opposite of the usual artificial-looking portraits on film posters that have any emotion airbrushed within an inch of their life. The typographic treatment of the movie title set in Knockout No. 31 Junior Middleweight is again very interesting, a stacked setting in white and red with overlapping interwoven letters and simulated folds.

© 2014 Southern Light Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on Dave Foster’s blog.
© 2014 Southern Light Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on Dave Foster’s blog.

© 2014 Southern Light Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on Dave Foster’s blog.
© 2014 Southern Light Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on Dave Foster’s blog.

I serendipitously stumbled upon some more great posters for the movie. Designed by Type & Media alumnus Dave Foster under the direction of Mark Gowing Design this teaser and theatrical poster adopt a worn and weathered aesthetic. The jigsaw structure of Dave’s artwork, somewhat similar to wooden building blocks, allows for many fascinating strategies. In the teaser poster the shapes form chess pieces that assemble into a handgun; in the theatrical poster they serve as a framework for positioning the type and for fragmenting the photographs of the two main protagonists.

© 2014 New Normal Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2014 New Normal Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

Just before taking my leave I’d like to briefly come back to the horror genre we touched upon earlier on. I am not talking about what I think is the main poster for horror comedy Suburban Gothic. The painfully unfunny artwork with its poor photo compositing and garish colours looks like a straight-to-video VHS cover. Even if it was meant as satire it still is butt-ugly, and not in a good way. Furthermore the designer did something unsanitary with François Ganeau’s distinguished Vendôme old style serif typeface.

No, the typographic surprise comes from this alternative design. No obligatory Trajan nor nostalgic 80s throwback typeface, but the sensuous curves of Neil Summerour’s Lust Script font. Not exactly what I’d have in mind for either a comedy nor a horror movie (and the poster itself is not very good) but a welcome change nonetheless.