Type Essays

ScreenFonts – March 2016

March 24, 2016 by
Yves Peters
Yves Peters

Our monthly review of movie poster typography looks at the posters for The Choice, The Pack, Southbound, The Witch: A New England Folktale, Regression, Fort Buchanan, Providence, Race, Mavis!, and a whole bunch of Nicholas Sparks movie adaptations.

Posters for every single movie adaptation of Nicholas Sparks novels. I rest my case. Message in A Bottle © 1999 Warner Bros. ; A Walk to Remember © 2002 Warner Bros. ; The Notebook © 2004 New Line Cinema ; Nights in Rodanthe © 2008 Warner Bros. Pictures ; Dear John © 2010 Screen Gems ; The Last Song © 2010 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures ; The Lucky One © 2012 Warner Bros. Pictures ; Safe Haven © 2013 Relativity Media ; The Best of Me © 2014 Relativity Media ; The Longest Ride © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation ; The Choice © 2016 Lionsgate
Posters for every single movie adaptation of Nicholas Sparks novels. I rest my case. Message in A Bottle © 1999 Warner Bros. ; A Walk to Remember © 2002 Warner Bros. ; The Notebook © 2004 New Line Cinema ; Nights in Rodanthe © 2008 Warner Bros. Pictures ; Dear John © 2010 Screen Gems ; The Last Song © 2010 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures ; The Lucky One © 2012 Warner Bros. Pictures ; Safe Haven © 2013 Relativity Media ; The Best of Me © 2014 Relativity Media ; The Longest Ride © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation ; The Choice © 2016 Lionsgate

We start this episode with an old acquaintance. Best-selling author Nicholas Sparks is a one-man production line of schmaltzy romance novels that get adapted as pretty consistently poorly reviewed and equally schmaltzy movies. In a nutshell: two heterosexual people fall in love, then some hardship tests their love (illness, remoteness, war, whatever…). Not only are the storylines basically all variations on the same theme, so are the collaterals. The posters have the dubious honour of featuring in my talks about typography in movie posters as examples that keep relying on the same imagery over and over again, as you can see above. Couples sit on a beach, with the man/boy sitting behind the woman/girl wrapping his arms around her; or couples almost kiss – I am pretty sure the guy in the poster for The Longest Ride is only lifting up the cowboy hat to get better access for some smooching action – with one holding the other’s face. Occasionally add some floating heads, and water – to sit next to, to walk beside, to row on, or to be drenched by. Most of the typefaces in these designs are the typical timeless classics. In the serif department we have Trajan™ for Message in A Bottle and The Lucky One, Goudy Old Style™ for The Last Song, and Linotype Didot® for The Best of Me. The sans serifs are Franklin Gothic™ for A Walk To Remember, Helvetica® for Dear John, Avenir® for Safe Haven, and Century Gothic™ for The Longest Ride. Only two of them break the mold. The lesser-known Litera seen on the poster for Nights In Rodanthe marries the strict geometry and large x-height of ITC Avant Garde Gothic® with the Art Deco flair of Bernhard Gothic or Kabel®. And The Notebook adopted the all-caps serif titling face Largo™, an interesting vintage-looking alternative for Trajan.

© 2016 Lionsgate – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2016 Lionsgate – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

The teaser for The Choice, the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation in line, is also a hesitant departure from the formula. Not the storyline – a man and a woman who meet as neighbors in a small coastal town wind up in a relationship that – wait for it! – “is tested by life’s most defining events.” But the couple is neither preparing to lip-lock nor is the man sitting behind the woman, and the scene is photographed from a respectful distance – even though they are sitting next to water, in this case the Atlantic Ocean. The typeface is a bit of a surprise: Iowan Old Style doesn’t rank with the aforementioned “timeless faces”. Sign painter and typeface designer John Downer modeled this text family after classic revivals of the seminal typefaces cut by Jenson and Griffo.

© 2016 Lionsgate – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2016 Lionsgate – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

The main theatrical poster retreats to the warm and fuzzy safety of the familiar Nicholas Sparks ingredients. Not by any means bothered by concerns regarding consistency, the designers switched to Caslon™ Titling, with Avenir as a supporting typeface. I suppose they didn’t know what the typeface was, so they abode by the ancient adage in typography “When in doubt, use Caslon.”

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

Because it is one of the mainstays in typography, there are numerous digitisations of Caslon available to choose from. Another display cut (and one of the most striking ones) is Matthew Carter’s Big Caslon, a popular choice in editorial design. The type family is based on the three largest sizes of type made by the Caslon foundry, which look quite different from the text versions. With their generous x-height, circular round characters, tense curves, and scintillating contrast, the letters carve razor-sharp red shapes in the poster for horror thriller The Pack. Their bright colour contrasts beautifully with the blueish grey palette, and the intense amber of the dog’s eyes reprised in the windows of the house at the bottom. And yes, technically that is yet another floating head.

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

Regular readers of ScreenFonts or people who have attended one of my movie poster talks know that many film genres have their own specific typographic codes. For a number of reasons, the horror genre has embraced Trajan in the past decade. However a new – well, I should say ‘old’ – player recently popped up on specific horror posters. Because popular belief among cinephiles has it that the horror genre was at its peak in the 70s and 80s, some contemporary films adopt the look of the posters from that period, also for their typography. This is why some studios use the 80s classic ITC Serif Gothic® as some kind of an upgrade, to make the movie look more authentic. The generous geometric letter forms with small, spiky serifs seem to be the perfect combo for conjuring up an ominous atmosphere.

The typeface shimmers in a deep red gradient on the poster for Southbound. The grainy quality and colour palette of the image, surrounded by a stained, yellowed border enhance the retro look. The image itself is quite clever – five desolate stretches of highway form a pentagram. They symbolise the “five interlocking tales of terror that follow the fates of a group of weary travellers who confront their worst nightmares – and darkest secrets – over one long night on a desolate stretch of desert highway.”

© 2015 A24 – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2015 A24 – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

The collaterals for horror mystery The Witch: A New-England Folktale are a telling example of how meddling by an overeager marketing department can neuter a poster campaign. It started off so promisingly with the teasers. Three dark and brooding photos of animal heads – of a billy goat, a raven, and a hare – are depicted in minute detail at the bottom of entirely black posters. There is something about the menacing eyes, the only specks of colour against the super sharp rendering of fur and feathers in the otherwise monochrome images, that is positively chilling. I am not sure why, but this brilliant visualisation feels ‘literary’ to me, reminiscent of medieval encyclopedia and their obsessively engraved illustrations. It is so unlike most horror movie posters that it stands out from the pack, and it works so well.

Alas, I suspect some marketing people may have intervened by the time the main theatrical poster had to be produced because it is such a radical departure from the teasers. Gone is the eerie creepiness, replaced by the silhouette of a naked young woman strolling through a moonlit forest. Can it get any more gratuitous and cliché?

© 2015 A24 – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2015 A24 – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

I reached out to Gravillis Inc. to find out what typeface the great antique-looking hand-painted movie title and tagline were based on. They themselves had received the ready-made title treatment, so the mystery – appropriately? – remains.

© 2015 The Weinstein Company – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2015 The Weinstein Company – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

How about that – we’ve seen three consecutive horror posters and still no Trajan in sight. Neither on the poster for the crime mystery Regression, which tells the story of a detective and a psychoanalyst who uncover evidence of a satanic cult while investigating the rape of a young woman. Patrick Griffin’s Jupiter also resorts under the ‘classic Roman capitals’ category, but takes some liberties with the model. It offers a bunch of neat alternates, swash variants and capital ligatures to add variation to your titles and headlines. The typeface is used plainly on this poster, with the letters going out of focus at both extremities. This treatment is similar to the movie logo for Focus, discussed last year. Whereas for Focus it visualised the film title quite literally, for Regression it symbolises memories regressing in the mind.

© 2014 Les Films du Bal – Click the image to see the complete poster on UniFrance.
© 2014 Les Films du Bal – Click the image to see the complete poster on UniFrance.

I occasionally include film posters for no particular reason, simply because something about the artwork jumps out at me. This time it was the striking stencil display face on the poster for military tragicomedy Fort Buchanan that caught my eye. There are a couple of things that don’t look quite right about JHA Zucker by Jan Henrik Arnold, but it still is loads of fun. The design reminds me of faces like Cruz Stencil or the appropiately named FP Silly.

© 2016 Mainstreet Productions – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2016 Mainstreet Productions – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

There is definitely something that doesn’t look quite right about the movie title for romantic drama Providence. The copperplate script closely resembles Palace Script®, but when you examine the dodgy drawing of the letters and the crappy connections you’ll notice this is a very poor digitisation, probably a pirated version or a rip-off. While the typeface this digital font is based on was limited by the technological constraints of metal type – like I explain in my talk Metal Scripts and Digital Handwriting – these days OpenType technology allows for a seamless flow of the glyphs. This technology has restored some of these scripts to their original unleaded glory, like for example Cyrus Highsmith’s Novia or ReType’s Medusa. The supporting serif typeface is ITC New Baskerville®.

© 2016 Focus Features – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2016 Focus Features – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

The biographical sports drama Race recounts Jesse Owens’ quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history, thrusting him onto the world stage of the 1936 Olympics where he challenged Adolf Hitler's vision of Aryan supremacy. While the poster itself is not exceptional, the typographic treatment is a good example of customised counter forms. In the tightly tracked Univers® 85 ExtraBlack Oblique the silhouette of the running athlete propels itself from the ‘R’ into the ‘A’. His torso, arms and head serve as an alternative counter for the latter, with his foot and leg pushing off against the leg of the former. The actors’ names and the tagline are set in Mário Feliciano’s Flama, incidentally the very first typeface I ever reviewed for Bald Condensed, the column on Typographer.org that launched my second career in writing about type and typography. (Technically it’s my third, but although I play drums on a professional level I was never able to ‘pay the rent’ with music, so that doesn’t really count.)

© 2015 HBO
© 2015 HBO

Now that we’re talking about music – my love for album cover art led me to write several posts about the legendary Reid Miles on The FontFeed. He defined the look of the early years of Blue Note Records with his seminal sleeve designs. His fabulous cover art still has a huge influence on design for music and beyond. This influence can also be felt in the excellent poster for the music documentary Mavis!, about the legendary singer and her family group, the Staple Singers, who inspired millions and helped propel the civil rights movement with their music. Unlike other tributes, this poster recreates the spirit of Reid Miles’ iconic style without lifting any existing sleeve. It uses a repetition of exclamation marks, intense yellow and white on a black background, with the dots framing the faces of the three Staples sisters rendered in a coarse halftone (it’s almost an advertising for FontShop). The movie title is set in URW Didoni, URW’s version of the elusive high-contrast Pistilli Roman. Although there still is no officially authorised revival, many alternate characters and swashes are present in Jason Walcott’s Eloquent. It is missing that mind-blowing ampersand though, which can be found in Nick Curtis’ Spiffily NF that however has almost no alternates. We are still waiting for someone to do a faithful and comprehensive digitisation with all the whistles and bells.

Header image by Antony Ruggiero

Trademark attribution notice
Goudy Old Style, Franklin Gothic and Century Gothic are trademarks of The Monotype Corporation and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Linotype Didot, Helvetica, 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. Caslon is a trademark of Monotype ITC Inc. and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. ITC Avant Garde Gothic, ITC New Baskerville and ITC Serif Gothic are trademarks of Monotype ITC Inc. registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and which may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. Kabel is a trademark of Monotype Imaging Inc. registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. Palace Script is a trademark of The Monotype Corporation registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Trajan is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated which may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Largo is a trademark of Bauer Types. All other trademarks and copyrights are the property of their respective owners.

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