Type Essays

ScreenFonts – January 2016

February 01, 2016 by
Yves Peters
Yves Peters

Our monthly review of movie poster typography looks at the posters for The Big Short, In The Heart of The Sea, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Revenant, and others.

Because I wanted to squeeze in a long overdue new installment of My Type of Music this episode of ScreenFonts is a little later than planned. Just after the weekend, here are some posters for recently released films that caught my attention.

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

I seem to detect an air of typo-nostalgia in the posters that stood out amongst the movie releases in December 2015. Film poster designers often retreat to the safety of mainstays, but this time there are quite a few typefaces that actually look vintage. In the poster for The Big Short this goes beyond the typeface, as the entire design seems mired in the 60s. The recognisable period style is somewhat of an anachronism – the story is set in the mid-2000s, just before and around the credit and housing bubble collapse. The poster is built around bold arrows framing the four main actors in full colour against monochrome backgrounds. Even though I like this graphic motif, it does send a confusing message to the viewer who may think this is either a remake of a half-a-century-old movie or a story set in that period.

The typography is very agreeable, with the classic engraved font Monotype Engravers™ in a starring role. Its pronounced serifs and chiseled features confidently carve the letter forms in the pristine white background. For some reason BLT Communications deemed it necessary to beef up the character shapes by adding a stroke. I normally don’t like this practice, yet the shapes hold up really well. The supporting type is a bit of a hotchpotch. As the Univers® typeface was used for the tagline I would have chosen the customary 49 Ultra Condensed Light weight for the credits instead of URW Bee. And I find the Times® typeface for the author reference a strange choice for adding another serif face to the mix that doesn’t play too well with the others.

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

There is something different about the collaterals for In The Heart of The Sea, the story of the sinking of a New England whaling ship by a giant whale in 1820 that inspired Herman Melville’s classic 1851 novel Moby-Dick. Instead of going for the obligatory Trajan™ typeface for epic films, the designers at Works Advertising chose another engraved font: the far less obvious Classic Roman™. The typefaces share similar backgrounds – the design of Trajan is based on letters cut in stone (after having been painted with a flat brush), and Classic Roman on letters originally engraved in metal. This difference in material lends them a subtly different atmosphere. While both possess a specific type of elegance coming from gestural movements, its paint brush roots make the letters in Trajan look more supple and fluid. There is more tension in the curves of Classic Roman, a remnant of the forceful yet controlled manual pushing of a burin across a metal plate. Selecting Classic Roman was a clever move. Because the distinct 19th century feel of the typeface situates it in the right time period, Classic Roman serves the artwork better than the timeless Trajan.

© 2015 Factory 25 – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2015 Factory 25 – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

Another design that flaunts its seniority so to speak is the Carlton™ font. It graces the illustrated poster for Christmas, Again, the tale of a heartbroken Christmas-tree salesman returning to New York City in the hopes of putting his past behind him. The art does a great job at suggesting the storyline of the main character living in a trailer and working the night shift. The source for the Carlton is over a century old. In 1908, the German Flinsch type foundry in Germany released Ehmcke-Antiqua, a typeface designed by Prof. F. H. Ehmcke. It was subsequently distributed by the Bauer type foundry in Frankfurt am Main, best known for their Futura® typeface. Carlton was the version by the English Caslon Letter Foundry of this model. After the typeface fell out of grace due to hot and cold metal typesetting becoming outdated technologies, this classic design was revived by Letraset in the 1990s. Refined, with striking, classically proportioned capitals and a peculiar lower case, its letter forms capture the spirit of Central European type design during the first third of the 20th Century.

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

Our second illustrated poster is for Uncle Nick, a “comedy of inappropriate behavior, uncomfortably interrupted trysts, and a monumental over-serving of ten-cent beers”. I may not always be so kind for Trajan, lamenting its unimaginative application as the de facto default in countless movie posters. Yet purely as a typeface it is an accomplished design, unlike this train wreck. As its name suggests, the freeware font Assassin is what you might call a ‘fan font’. Whenever something becomes a pop culture phenomenon – a book series, a television show, a movie series, or in this case the Assassin’s Creed game series – overeager yet misguided fans will try to reproduce every aspect of its visual identity. This often includes attempts in turning the letters in the logo into a font. Understandably, most of the times the quality of these fan efforts is appallingly bad, with clumsy curves, poor spacing, no kerning, and extremely limited character sets. At FontShop we occasionally create Fontlists for specific fan bases. For example my Star Trek Fontlist has every single commercially available typeface connected to the Star Trek franchise, detailing how and where exactly they were used.

To come back to the artwork, the lovely illustration by American painter and comic book artist Phil Noto deserved so much better. He is currently drawing Marvel’s Chewbacca series, which is the perfect segue to the next poster in line…

© 2015 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2015 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

I thought to have written all that I wanted to write about the typography of Star Wars in May The Fonts Be With You, my detailed breakdown of the lettering and fonts in the posters of the Star Wars movies, so I didn’t expect any collateral for Star Wars: The Force Awakens to appear here. The marketing team for the Chinese market however decided otherwise by causing an online controversy over their redesign. Even though he is one of the main three protagonists, black actor John Boyega was considerably shrunk down on the Chinese theatrical poster. Not only that, you’ll also notice that both black actress Lupita Nyong’o and Latino actor Oscar Isaac went missing, just like Chewbacca the Wookiee, in favour of some space ships and the BB8 droid. Unintentional? Unlikely.

© 2015 Argot Pictures – Click the image to see the complete poster on Women in Film / Portland.
© 2015 Argot Pictures – Click the image to see the complete poster on Women in Film / Portland.

The Winding Stream tells the story of the American roots music dynasty, the Carters and the Cashes. The chromatic hand-drawn movie logo references the 50s and 60s, when they were at the peak of their success. The movie collaterals were created by multidisciplinary creative studio Band operating from Portland, Oregon. The Winding Stream was the first project for this (now discontinued) collaboration between artists and designers Zach Yarrington and Josh Doll.

Zach Yarrington | “Most of the custom lettering was done by me, with assistance from Josh Doll for a big part of the project. We devised the entire brand identity together, as well as an initial campaign that helped raise over $50,000 through crowdfunding, something we are proud of. We wanted to capture something that felt western and could be recognised as going hand-in-hand with ‘roots’ music, the term used in the film to refer to country music. However we didn’t want it to feel ‘old’: director Beth Harrington was looking for something contemporary since she had taken time off to make the film and needed a fresh start. We used various weights of the Neutraface and Linotype Centennial® type families for assisting fonts and body copy.”

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

The poster for the documentary Orion turns one of the most popular effects in photography on its head. The silhouette of Jimmy Ellis of Orrville Alabama – an unknown singer plucked from obscurity, masquerading as Elvis back from the grave – is filled with bokeh. Those typical blurred specks of colour and light are usually in the background, providing a nice contrast with the subject that is in focus. Here however they are the central motif, sharply delineated by the contours of Ellis’ body separating the darker bokeh texture inside the silhouette with the red one outside it. It is a poetic, inventive way to conjure up the sequined costumes and stage lights, simplifying the body and background and drawing the attention of the viewer to Ellis’ masked face. The movie logo with integrated stars is set in Bureau Grot, David Berlow’s extensive multi-width, multi-weight interpretation of the archetypical English nineteenth-century sans.

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

The Futura® typeface was designed by Paul Renner in 30s Germany to embody the future of typography – simplified, geometric, rational. It fits really well the retro collage style in primary colours on the posters for the As Mil e Uma Noites trilogy, an epic adapting a number of chapters from Arabian Nights to modern-day Portugal. Despite its vaunted geometric modernity, ironically the seminal Bauhaus typeface is really starting to show its age, especially when compared to more recent examinations of the genre.

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

Almost thirty years ago, the legendary typeface designer Adrian Frutiger already recognised this, and decided to update Futura for the second half of the 20th century. The name of his Avenir® type family simply is the French translation for the Italian Futura, or ’future’. It is used very well for the Japanese bloody, brutal crime drama Kawaki (The World of Kanako). The poster cleverly avoids showing explicit violence by stylising it. A big splash of red ink forms a striking contrast with the otherwise immaculate canvas behind the female lead dressed in a pristine school girl’s uniform.

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

What, did we have the whole Clockers controversy for nothing? Didn’t anybody learn anything? Then what is this!? This is not a “tribute” to Saul Bass. This is not “homage”. This is not “inspired by”. This is lazy, derivative crap, pure and simple. Stop it, just stop it! Seriously…

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

We end this episode with the superb promotional campaign for hardcore western The Revenant. While I couldn’t get a confirmation from him yet, I am pretty sure it was designed by the slightly fabulous and obscenely talented Neil Kellerhouse. I seem to detect his eye for composition and refined typographic taste, delicately balancing Alternate Gothic No. 3 against the icy blue. Fiery sparks from a campfire intrude the image from the left. Especially the teaser poster is of singular beauty. The poetic image distills the story down to a desolate landscape with a tiny mounted figure crushed beneath an oppressive, stonecold sky that takes up more than three quarters of the canvas. Add to this the asymmetric typography and a stylish white border, and you get a poster that is to die for.

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Header image by Antony Ruggiero
Trademark attribution notice
Engravers is a trademark of The Monotype Corporation and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Times is a trademark of Monotype Imaging Inc. registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. Classic Roman is a trademark of Monotype Imaging Inc. and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Carlton is a trademark of Monotype ITC Inc. and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. ITC Serif Gothic an Linotype Centennial are trademarks of Monotype ITC Inc. registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and which may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. Avenir and Univers are trademarks of Monotype GmbH registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and 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. All other trademarks and copyrights are the property of their respective owners.

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