Type Essays

ScreenFonts

August 21, 2015 by
Yves Peters
Yves Peters

Our monthly review of movie poster typography looks at the posters for Good Kill, Poltergeist, Spy, Insidious: Chapter 3, Dope, Love & Mercy, Batkid Begins, and others.

Hot town, summer in the city, so it’s the time to look up the literal coolness of air-conditioned movie theaters. Here are some movie posters that caught my eye for one reason or another these past few months.

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

The UK quad poster by The Posterhouse for the The Seven Five seems very appropriate for this time of year. It is as if the artwork radiates the gritty, sweaty heat of the New York summers of the 80s. The documentary tells the story of Michael Dowd, the dirtiest cop of NYC, who stole money and dealt drugs while patrolling the streets of Brooklyn. While the main poster safely sticks to a black-and-white image of Brooklyn with mug shots of the corrupt policemen, this design does an excellent job at visualising the story material. The New York skyline is reflected in a blood red, skewed mirror image composed of guns and bullets, money, and drug paraphernalia. Tungsten is a contemporary interpretation of the compact extra bold sans serifs that are emblematic of that period, like for example the Compacta™ typeface.

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

We continue with numbers – while The Seven Five is clever in the way it uses imagery, 5 Flights Up does nifty things with typography… only to completely ruin it in the end with cheap, redundant gradients and 3D-effects on the main theatrical poster. The words in the movie title in the Bauer Bodoni® typeface are stacked in a compact lockup, with the ‘5’ fitting snuggly between the ascenders of the ‘l’ and ‘h’, and the ‘up’ kind of mirroring the ‘hts’ above it. The position of the ‘5’ makes the ball at the end of its loop substitute for the tittle on the ‘i’. The Australian poster does away with the gaudy type treatment… yet slavishly adheres to the tired “horizontal bands” motif favoured by romantic comedies. You just cannot win.

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

Many words have been written about the fairly recent trend of minimalist posters. Hailed by its supporters as a fresh, surprising way of looking at movies, derided by its detractors as a cheap effect, copying the masters of poster design from the second half of the previous century, it caused an avalanche of Tumblr lists and inspirational posts of the “xx posters in the style of xx” kind. Like them or not, an excellent representative of this phenomenon is the teaser poster for Good Kill, the story of a family man who begins to question the ethics of his job as a drone pilot. The white silhouette of a drone on the red background represents the sanitised, faceless killing by the remote-controlled flying death machines. Even though the design of the FF Magda® Clean Mono font is inspired by typewriters, not display screens, the simple addition of the four corners around the movie title is all that is needed to create the right context. Fantastic poster, even though I am not sure why the designers felt the need to add a concrete-like texture to the artwork and slightly distress the type. I mean, the whole point of minimalistic design is to be – well – minimalistic.

© 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.

Another recurring discussion in cinephiles’ circles is about Hollywood’s obsession with remaking classic movies. While there are lone examples of remakes that surpass the originals – The Little Shop of Horrors immediately comes to mind – most of them lack the spirit of their predecessors. The same often applies to the posters of these remakes, and the movie poster for Poltergeist is no exception. The blueish, sideways image of the little girl reaching out towards the hands trying to burst out of a giant flatscreen television simply is no match for the eerie original poster. More than the corny digital effects – That hair being sucked towards the screen! That smoke emanating from the hands! – it is the image revealing too much that sucks all dramatic tension out of the design. No amount of Photoshop can compete with thoughtful image editing and composition, and pure atmosphere. Gone are the mystery and the suspense created the harsh black-and-white, strictly centered symmetrical photograph, and most importantly the distance from the subject. The only constant is the use of the Helvetica® typeface in all capitals – outlined on the original and extended on the remake – and that is exactly the weakest point in both posters. A redundant effort.

© 2014 microscope – Click the image to see the complete poster on the official movie site.
© 2014 microscope – Click the image to see the complete poster on the official movie site.

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I have increasingly become wary of blanket statements about design and typography, even though I have been guilty of making them myself more than once. That doesn’t mean I am not still waiting for proof Comic Sans can be used well, but I digress. When I was young and foolish – I mean even more than I am now – I was convinced a strictly centered structure could only result in a static, lifeless design. Just like the previous one, the movie poster for the French film Tu dors Nicole proves the contrary. It is interesting to see the many iterations Les Six Patates Créations investigated for multidisciplinary design agency La Cameraderie before they ended up with this simple yet powerful monochrome image. Having the knocked-out type in one vertically centered column covering the image enhances the introspective atmosphere of the monochrome photograph. The little drum kit underneath the film title set in Century No. 1 is a great detail. It references the catalyst event in the film – Nicole spends a lazy summer with her best friend Véronique in the family home while her parents are away, when her older brother shows up with his band to record an album, putting her friendship with Véronique to the test. The engraved illustration makes the artwork slightly veer towards hipster territory, yet not too much. Nice exercise in restraint.

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

A lot less restrained are the fine swashes on the capitals of Dino dos Santos’ Aparo. The high-contrast script graces the main poster by Matt Frost for Gemma Bovery, a contemporary reimagining of the debut novel by influential French writer Gustave Flaubert.

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

In a puzzling move the UK quad poster by The Posterhouse abandons the typeface from the original poster, changing it to Neil Summerour’s Lust Script. Both typefaces share certain characteristics – they are situated somewhere between script and italic fat face, and prominently feature swashes. How those swashes are approached is however very different. The calligraphic swirls on Aparo are inspired by classic penmanship, while the more constructed embellishments on Lust Script relate to high contrast serif faces. Also – Aparo is a standalone script, contrary to Lust Script which has roman companions in Lust and Lust Slim.

© 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.

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Tom Hodge does what he always does – and he does it well – with his Mondo poster for Spy. The action comedy stars Melissa McCarthy as a desk-bound CIA analyst who volunteers to go undercover to infiltrate the world of a deadly arms dealer, and prevent diabolical global disaster. I think we can all agree the main theatrical poster is coming up short on pizzaz, so this eighties-B-film-inspired action extravaganza is a welcome alternative. Using his familiar painted style Tom Hodge crams as many story elements in the artwork as possible, making sure to meet the required quota for guns, explosions, cleavage, and very fast modes of transportation. The only remaining element is the film title in Bureau Agency with added quotation marks. This poster is like an overstuffed burrito – it’s kind of wrong and may cause a queasy, uncomfortable feeling afterwards, but boy did that taste good.

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

As angular square sans serifs are considered to be the signature typographic style for action movies, Bureau Agency also appears on this fun alternate poster for Barely Lethal, about a teenage special ops agent coveting a "normal" adolescence faking her own death and enrolling in a suburban high school. Clever title, and great interplay between the tagline “Click. Clique. Bang.” and the heart-shaped arrangement of deadly weapons on the intense pink background.

© 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.

The movie poster for Insidious: Chapter 3 however refuses to play according to the rules. Instead of the Trajan™ font, customary for horror films, it features Identikal’s tech sans Neutraliser.

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

I always get a little sad when a gorgeous poster designed gets marred by poor typography. This alternate poster by The Boland Design Company has everything going for it. Set at a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf, Plemya (The Tribe)’s narrative unfolds purely through sign language without a need for employing subtitles or voice-over. This unique approach is visualised in the enchanting photography – a transparent, delicately layered image of the two main protagonists with multiple hands performing sign language overlaid on each other covering their ears, combined with a scene of three people walking in the snow. Nothing wrong with the supporting typefaces neither. The square character shapes of Bourgeois – a great alternative for more commonly used options, see above – combine well with the round, pseudo-classic serif forms of Mrs Eaves. No, my beef is with the obsessively strict square sans serif used for the title. I don’t care about the purist “true geometric” movement – in the absence of optical correction letters look just plain wrong. Here the middle arm on the ‘E’ and center stroke on the ‘R’ and ‘B’ seem too heavy, the bottom bowl on the ‘B’ seems too small, and the middle arm on the ‘E’ too low. Instead of conveying determination and purity of intent, these traits infer a lack of knowledge of, and skill in typeface design.

© 2014 Candy factory Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2014 Candy factory Films – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

I included the poster by Leroy & Rose for The Midnight Swim solely for the strange beauty of the image. The bubbles rising towards the moon in the night sky is a brilliant interpretation of the film title. This is another example where a centered approach works wonderfully well, accentuating the stillness of the image. The thoughtful spacing of the Times® capitals reveals the often overlooked elegance of its all-too-familiar letter forms.

What follows below is a series of posters that – through their typography – give nods to specific time periods.

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

I think the last time I saw Mistral® on a film poster was for Nicolas Winding Refn’s much-talked-about gory thriller Drive. Similar to the whole Papyrus debacle for Avatar, the use of the pink script on Drive’s marketing collaterals was ridiculed as a hilariously outdated pink font and a surprisingly girly, ’80s-style font (…) arguably better suited to a poster for an ’80s cheerleader flick. Here it pops up on the movie poster for L.A. Slasher, strangely enough to simulate a neon sign. Which makes no sense: the textured outlines of the letters make this font a very poor choice for neon lettering.

On a side note – examining the contours of digital Mistral is a painful reminder that no digital adaptation has done Roger Excoffon’s revolutionary script justice (yet). His dynamic, textured design was the first font mimicking casual handwriting. It was an impressive technical feat, as the typeface was executed in metal with no need for ligatures, with a texture that was optimised for each different type size.

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

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Now that we’re on an ’80s streak, check this poster for Dope, the story of a geek surviving life in a tough neighbourhood, when a chance invitation to an underground party launches him and his friends into a Los Angeles adventure. Gravillis Inc. channels the era and the locale with an extreme extra bold display face reminiscent of Milton Glaser’s iconic Baby Teeth, the inspiration source for Bebit. I don’t like the hand lettering used for the date and in the credits at the top – what’s up with those weird ‘M’s and ‘W’s? – but Cooper Black fits the bill. The translucent letters, textured like a very thin layer of dried ink or paint, makes it look as if the text was silk-screened, adding a nice physicality to the artwork.

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

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Kii Arens proves he too can channel a specific era. The American contemporary graphic designer, pop-artist, and director respectfully interprets the graphic language of Pet Sounds in his artwork for Love & Mercy, which recounts the story of Brian Wilson’s struggle with psychosis. Starting from Cooper Black™ which is prominently featured on the album sleeve, Kii adds psychedelic touches as a nod to both the time period and Brian Wilson’s experiences with alcohol, cocaine, psychedelics, amphetamines, and others. Note the beautiful chubby ampersand, similar to the one found in Goudy Heavyface, another deliciously round serif face with an even nicer italic.

© 2014 Starz Digital Media – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.
© 2014 Starz Digital Media – Click the image to see the complete poster on IMPAwards.

The movie poster for Seven Minutes by Cold Open has very much a ’70s–early ’80s vibe to it. Conceptually it makes sense. The storyline – three high school friends forced to commit a brazen robbery that quickly goes horribly wrong – is reminiscent of the classic crime films that were made back then. The high-contrast black-and-white image on the flat red graphics hits all the right notes, effectively establishing the ’70s period (see also the model of the car and the clothes on the three men). Because the grip inevitably points the wrong way, the gun integrated into the seven looks more like a submachine gun, making it a little awkward.

© 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.

Sometimes, when I catch myself reading a couple of reviews of a movie whose poster I want to show, I wonder if I should go ahead and include the poster when the film is really really crappy. But then I remember I would rather show a good poster for a bad movie, than a bad poster for a good movie (even though the latter often gives me the satisfaction of a good rant). So yes, this is Random Bench’s moody artwork for Bound to Vengeance, a rather misguided femsploitation revenge porn film. The tight lockup of the ITC Avant Garde® Gothic typeface gives a clear indication this film basically belongs to the exploitation cinema era of the ’70s. The dripping horizontal stroke of transparent red, and the texture in the background and in the letters however leave no doubt this is a contemporary design.

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

Let me send you off into the weekend with a mystery found on the movie poster for the Australian comedy The Little Death. The designers tackled the risqué topic – the secret lives of five suburban couples living in Sydney reveal both the fetishes and the repercussions that come with sharing them – with a humourous illustration. However the typeface used on the poster had me stumped, nor did I know at that time who designed the poster. Because Typophile celebrates its 15th anniversary with a reboot, I turned to the WhatTheFont! forums for assistance. After a couple of near hits user het mes suggested I’d contact Scott Geersen who designed the title sequence with the Adobe Caslon™ typeface. Scott told me the poster was made after his titles designs. While he supplied his assets, illustration and typeface specification, it was put together by someone else who obviously didn’t use the same typeface. Scott got back to me the next day to inform me that we were looking at Heldane Display by Kris Sowersby. In a direct message exchange Kris revealed that the poster was designed by Dave Foster and Mark Gowing, and told me he provided them with beta versions of the upcoming typeface. Mystery solved, and something to look forward to from Kris.

Header image by Manu Mohan
Trademark attribution notice
Compacta is a trademark of Monotype ITC Inc. and may be registered in certain jurisdictions. ITC Avant Garde Gothic is a trademark of Monotype ITC Inc. registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and which may be registered in certain other jurisdictions. Helvetica, Mistral and Magda are trademarks 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. Cooper Black 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. Trajan and Adobe Caslon are trademarks of Adobe Systems Incorporated which may be registered in certain jurisdictions. Bauer Bodoni is a registered Trademark of Bauer Types. All other trademarks are property of their respective owners.