Now that the retro trend for horror film posters has been firmly established, it becomes interesting to see who manages to come up with a less common typographic solution. The sci-fi horror flick The Mind’s Eye, about a deranged doctor hunting down two people who were born with incredible psychokinetic capabilities, eschews the usual suspects. Instead the designer went for the squarish ITC Bolt Bold™ font – a contemporary of the currently very hot ITC Benguiat® and ITC Serif Gothic® typefaces – to complement the painted visual in trashy 80s B-movie style. The Friz Quadrata™ typeface, which regained its popularity as well due to the retro horror wave, also makes an appearance as the supporting typeface.
Further throwback ’80s art made its way to the poster for the supernatural comedy Ghost Team, in which a man obsessed with the paranormal teams up with his depressed best friend, a misfit nephew, a cable access medium and an overeager security guard to mount his own investigation into the beyond. The poster by The Refinery looks like it was ripped straight off an old VHS box – a style that seemed fatally dated merely some years ago but ironically is much sought after these days. The Art Deco display capitals seem charming at first sight, especially the quirky ‘G’ and ‘S’, but the letters are marred by design mistakes. The lack of optical correction make the horizontal strokes seem too thick. This is a remnant of naive times when the term ‘geometric sans serif’ was taken too literally, and letters were drawn with ruler and compass.
The wood-type inspired extra bold sans serif on the poster for psychological horror thriller Sun Choke (also by The Refinery) is fraught with similar problems. While the uncommon narrowing of the spine of the ‘S’ is consistent with this vintage style, the letter leans back to the point it seems to topple over. The widths of the individual letters are inconsistent, with a very narrow ‘U’, ‘N’, ‘H’ and ‘K’ compared to the ‘C’, ‘O’, and ‘E’. Because it is so tight, the diagonal on the ‘N’ looks too heavy. The optical correction also is inconsistent, as the ‘O’ has quite a bit of overshoot, but the ‘U’ hardly any.
Despite all these technical shortcomings in the typography, the poster actually looks great. Fair enough, the designer went really out of their way to make the type look as un/refined as possible. Yet it somehow suits the artwork – a striking double-exposure reproduced with circular rasters in pure cyan and magenta. The image treatment conjures up the psychedelic experiments fueled by mind-expanding drugs in the ’70s. It is an effective visual metaphor for the emotional and psychological turmoil experienced by the main character Janie.
The international poster for the French thriller Disorder, about an ex-soldier with PTSD who is hired to protect the wife and child of a wealthy Lebanese businessman while he’s out of town, is also a very strong design. Sometimes it helps to look at things sideways, and P+A quite literally did that. They flipped the type vertically to create tension in what could have been a fairly mainstream poster. Heavily saturating the tightly cropped photograph made Matthias Schoenaerts’ bullet-proof vest turn cyan. By reprising this vibrant hue in the type running vertically over his face, they achieved a complementary-but-not-quite colour scheme that is very intense without the annoying shimmer. The typographic composition may look simple, yet it is very thoughtfully integrated into the image. Normally I would scoff at the dated technique of excessively spacing the compressed sans capitals (Berthold Akzidenz-Grotesk Medium Condensed Italic). However this sin of the ’90s makes the letters end up in the exact right spots on his face, and their italic angle perfectly matches the Belgian film star’s features.
While less intense, the original French poster by Silenzio still manages to conjure up a sense of dread. It shows Schoenaerts on his way to bring Jessie and her child to safety, but from the back, with a focus on the gun in the back of his belt. Just like Sun Choke above, the entire poster is printed in cyan and magenta. This sparse treatment makes the image look over-exposed by the searing sun, and adds to its urgency. The original title Maryland is set in the ITC Avant Garde Gothic® typeface.
Just weeks ago Sony Pictures and Escape Artists hired Taylor Sheridan, the writer of Sicario and Hell Or High Water, to script a remake. I am curious to see what the marketing collaterals for the remake will look like.
At some point too much is too much. I have become quite tired of the ‘horizontal bands’ posters for romantic films, and the ‘photo mosaic’ alternative for the ‘floating heads’ got old really fast, but did they really have to combine the two for Emily & Tim, a look at a tumultuous marriage spanning over half a century? This design just heaps cliché upon cliché, with overzealously Photoshopped faces and laughable facial expressions by half of the actors. Fair enough – it’s not the customary Linotype Didot® but the ITC Bodoni™ Seventytwo typeface, even the correct optical size! And yes, once again the architectural sans serif Gotham plays second fiddle in this forgettable effort, to no fault of its own but out of sheer lack of imagination.
The ‘horizontal bands’ and ‘floating heads’ are two of the genre clichés I discuss in my presentations about movie posters – next month at Adobe MAX San Diego! Another topic in my talk are the almost-lookalikes, designs that are nearly identical. The poster for Blood Father is the latest addition in this peculiar list of plagiarism, both accidental and intentional. In the action thriller an ex-con reunites with his estranged wayward 16-year old daughter to protect her from drug dealers who are trying to kill her. This one-sentence synopsis leaves little to the imagination, and had LA take the familiar route. Mel Gibson, brandishing a gun, leans into a dirty car door for cover. Instead of flipping the Compacta™ typeface sideways like in the poster for Disorder, in this case the image itself defies gravity to emphasise the dramatically outstretched arm. By doing so, the artwork becomes dangerously similar to the Italian poster for Bullet To The Head, though I am pretty sure this was unintentional.
Before you start crying foul, the similarities between the poster for war comedy War Dogs and Scarface are absolutely no coincidence. The war comedy is based on the true story of David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, two young men who secured a $300 million contract from the Pentagon to arm America’s allies in Afghanistan. In the blurb on their website Bond elaborates on the artwork:
“Partnering with Warner Bros., we worked to tease the unbelievable true story of two very unlikely gun dealers by paying homage to one of the most infamous dealers in film history. As does their story, this art contrasts the bright day-glow flare of Miami Beach against an incredibly dark American dream.”
More posters have referenced the iconic split black-and-white design of the Scarface poster. When my original blog for FontShop BeNeLux vanished into the depths of internet limbo my review for American Gangster disappeared along with it; Legend was discussed last year. The wood type-inspired distressed display sans serif is the FF Kipp® typeface. It offers two levels of roughness for the edges, and two layers of irregularities to overlap the letters with, for a more textured look. It is a shame that these extras were not used in the poster, as it would have lent more intent to the irregular letter forms.
We linger a little longer in the war genre with the thriller Anthropoid, also based on an extraordinary true story. Operation Anthropoid was the mission during WWII to assassinate SS General Heydrich, the main architect behind the Final Solution and the Reich’s third in command after Hitler and Himmler. The stylish key-art by Bond reminded me of last month’s design for Shelley, yet with an inverted colour scheme. On a blood red background the bottom of Heydrich’s black silhouette delineates the skyline of the Czech capital Prague, with the armed agents offset against it. The faceted display sans anchors the typography to the military sphere, as the character shapes are inspired by the lettering used on the vehicles of the U.S. military.
Yet another true story was at the basis of the crime thriller Imperium, about an idealistic FBI agent who becomes an undercover Neo-Nazi to take down a radical white supremacy terrorist group. The up-and-coming analyst must confront the challenge of sticking to a new identity while maintaining his real principles as he navigates the dangerous underworld of white supremacy. As they explain on their website LA wanted to keep the Aryan references to a minimum. Daniel Radcliffe’s shaved head is the only hint of the monster he must become. True to this film genre the primary typeface is a square sans serif. While International TypeFounders, Inc.’s Banque Gothique adds condensed styles to Bank Gothic, the classic by Morris Fuller Benton, this is a different typeface. Bourgeois Condensed Bold has been enthusiastically adopted by the film world. Jonathan Barnbrook’s excellent family comes in two widths and four weights with matching italics, all available in surprising alternate cuts too. It graces an ever-increasing amount of film posters, providing a nice alternative to some overused fonts.
Many people – including myself – lament the exaggerated use on photo editing software in contemporary film poster design. It focuses too much on producing countless minute variations and encourages clients to request endless pixel pushing, often at the expense of actual design and lay-out, and strong visual storytelling. Yet in the right hands the current digital techniques also allow to create richly textured and layered artwork that would have been otherwise impossible to achieve.
I Am Not a Serial Killer is a nice example. In this horror thriller taking place in a small Midwestern town, a troubled teen with homicidal tendencies struggles to keep his own inner demons at bay as he hunts down a supernatural killer. A number of story elements are trapped within Christopher Lloyd’s portrait that morphs into a sinuous blot, like blood seeping into paper. Its shape is reminiscent of a Rorschach ink blot test, an appropriate metaphor. The rough brush script is very well done, striking the perfect balance between order and chaos. Ironically the sign at the bottom right of the artwork is set in the Brush Script™ font, the stylised rendition of an idealised brush script. The supporting typeface is Franklin Gothic™.
A similarly layered poster was created for the fast-paced, high concept thriller _Level Up. Over the course of a day, a 20 something layabout has to navigate an increasingly strange and sinister London in order to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend. Again the story of the film is told within the silhouette of the main protagonist. Sadly the artwork doesn’t reach the level of sophistication of the previous poster, and comes across as a lesser effort. The typeface is an unexpected throwback to the mid-’80s. Modula was one of the most recognisable, and one of the most exciting early typefaces from the iconic Emigre foundry, who were pioneers in the world of digital type. I don’t like the connections that were added between the letters at all; they interfere with the spacing between the letters and disrupt the flow of the text.
The poster for the comedy Morris from America is an obscure typographic in-joke, insofar that I wonder if this was done on purpose. The romantic and coming-of-age misadventures of a 13-year-old American living in Germany were typographically translated into Gothic 821, Bitstream’s interpretation of Berthold Block Extra Condensed. This quintessential German poster type in the compact extra bold sans serif genre is set in America’s signature red, white, and blue. Well played, designers at Ignition, well played…
We end this episode with an all-too-familiar problem in typography and design: how do you express a specific culture without falling into the trap of cultural appropriation? The family drama Fatima tells the story of a Moroccan single mother who has two daughters to support: a 15-year old teenager in revolt, and a 18-year old who is starting medical school. Using a faux Arabic font is widely regarded as insensitive. One of the best options is to search for a typeface design that shows a more subtle resemblance with the Arabic script. A classic choice could be the Ondine® typeface whose letters were originally cut in black construction paper by Frutiger; a contemporary one Ale Paul’s Seashore with its long bottom-heavy strokes and swashes. The references are even subtler in Lust, the face on this poster. Only the swash on the capital ‘F’ and the curled terminal on the ‘a’ could be interpreted as a nod to Arabic calligraphy. The supporting typeface is Hannes von Döhren’s awarded and popular Brandon Grotesque.
As always, keep an eye on my Twitter account for the announcement of the next episode.
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