Remember how last episode I mentioned how it can only go up from here? We are off to a solid start.
I am starting to see Matt Frost as some kind of poster doctor. In the January 2015 installment of ScreenFonts I showed two examples of how he created improved versions of existing posters – read my analysis and comparison of his international one sheet with the original French poster for P’tit Quinquin (Li’l QuinQuin), and his international one sheet with the original German poster for Die geliebten Schwestern (Beloved Sisters). Matt Frost also worked his magic on Der Vampir auf der Couch (Therapy for a Vampire). In this Austrian horror comedy Sigmund Freud’s newest patient is a vampire fed up with his undying relationship with his wife. The insipid original poster has very little going for it – a general lack of wit, an unimaginative composition, ham-fisted Photoshop compositing, and pedestrian typography. Sure, the style of Goudy Mediaeval refers to the 500 years of marriage, but it is too literal, and lacks the flamboyance and theatricality associated with vampires – the real kind, not the sparkly wannabes who care about your feelings.
Fortunately Matt Frost came swooping in (like a bat out of hell – sorry, couldn’t help myself), took a good look at all the elements that make up the artwork, and reworked them into this much-improved design. Mining the classic iconography of vampire tales, he put the moon front and center as a central unifying element. It connects the image of the vampire with his wife and his lover and the couch-scene-with-a-fun-twist at Sigmund Freud’s, and serves as an excellent backdrop for the film title. The serif display face Desire works very well in the Art Nouveau setting of the poster – see also the frame with the funny bat motif. Matt told me he didn’t have much other than that he always wanted an excuse to use Desire. Totally unrelated – the background for the whole poster is a high res scan of a blank page from his leather-bound German 1900 edition of Goethe’s works, so it’s true to the film’s period. While the swash capitals come standard with the typeface, Matt added a tasty 3D-effect to the type. No need to be intimidated by the myriad alternates: Charles Borges de Oliveira posted a helpful tutorial on how to design with LHF Desire’s character variations in Adobe Illustrator CC.
Designing a good typeface from scratch may be hard and time-consuming work, yet successfully customising the letters of an existing typeface is no walk in the park either. This becomes clear in the movie logo for romantic drama Me Before You, about a girl in a small town who forms an unlikely bond with the recently-paralysed man she is taking care of. It’s not so much what you can do, but what you rather shouldn’t do. Let this be a word of caution to any aspiring logo designers out there: yes, you may be tempted to connect bits that stick out above or below the body of the letters to similar bits of other letters, but trust me – seldom a good idea. And if you consider extending parts of letters, stop a moment to ask yourself… why? I mean, having the ascender of the ‘b’ merge with the middle leg of the ‘m’ to form bizarre conjoined twins looks corny, and burdening that ‘f’ with a giraffe complex and chopping off the left half of its cross stroke is not exactly sound typographic practice either. I haven’t figured out yet what typeface WORKS ADV started with – the weight distribution and curve quality in the ‘e’ seem a little dubious – but they sure did mess it up.
The customisation of the type on this alternate poster for the espionage thriller Our Kind of Traitor is a lot better. While Morris Fuller Benton’s Bank Gothic still has a stranglehold on the title credit sequences for films ranging from science-fiction to action flicks, thrillers and everything in between, their posters display a larger variety of square sans serifs. One of the most popular is Agency. This other design by Benton was transformed by David Berlow and the Font Bureau from a lone titling face into an extended family of ultimately five weights and five widths, which adds to its versatility. Also, its squarish letter forms make it easier to alter and combine them, in this instance into the silhouette of a gun. The plain white background and monochrome red portraits framed by the letters lend this artwork a Blue Note-esque air.
I just realised that the posters for the last five consecutive films by Nicolas Winding Refn made my ScreenFonts reviews – Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Drive, and Only God Forgives in its previous incarnation on The FontFeed, and this month his horror thriller The Neon Demon – the story of an aspiring model who moves to Los Angeles, where her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will use any means necessary to get what she has. The original one sheet by LA and the theatrical quad by AllCity (and all the other marketing materials) consistently use the Optima® alternative Vanitas, designed by Mika Jarboe. The same typeface was also used for the mesmerising title sequences, which were recently featured on the excellent Art of the Title. The two neon tubes form a triangular shape that pops up in most of the other posters – more about that later.
The localised versions however play it fast and loose with the style, and stray pretty far from the visual vocabulary of the film. The French poster substitute the humanist stressed sans with the very different FF DIN® typeface with a stylised skull in lieu of the final ‘O’. The technical-looking sans serif also graces the Spanish and Vietnamese versions.
The black-and-white Mondo poster by Jay Shaw stands in stark contrast with the colourful ’regular’ posters. Instead of the electric blue, purple, and red and the luminescent elements, Jay chose a harsh textured approach on a pristine white background. The geometric design combining a black circle and an intricate triangular composition with Elle Fanning’s nose and lips looks mysterious, mystical, like ancient African tribal magic. The only element present in both Jay’s and most other posters is the triangular motif. When I asked Jay about it (I haven’t seen the film) he clarified that “triangular imagery is present throughout the film. To me it represents not only the trifecta of antagonists but also the overarching yonic themes.” Jay selected the ITC Caslon™ typeface, as he thought its elegance and sharpness felt appropriate for the subject.
I love the quirky atmosphere created by a quaint, old typeface in a contemporary design. This approach perfectly suits the comedy Wiener-Dog, in which a dachshund passes from oddball owner to oddball owner and radically impacts their dysfunctional lives. The idiosyncratic poster by Canyon Design Group shows the hind half of the pooch in the bottom right on a plain, mint green background. The Horley Old Style® font looks deliciously vintage, with its soft serifs, curved strokes on the ‘W’, sloping ‘e’-bar, and open loop on the ‘g’. The simple composition with the credits and movie title ragged right in the top left corner is just right. Using a dachshund silhouette for the hyphen is a lovely little detail.
Achieving the opposite – a vintage style with a contemporary typeface – is not that easy. The horror drama Shelley achieves that pretty well by evoking the spirit of the movie posters from the seventies and eighties, regarded by many as the heydays of horror. The painterly image is great and does a great job: the blood red silhouette of the pregnant mother dissolves in dripping streams of blood, engulfing the contours of a vintage pram. Underneath the elegant pen strokes of Bickham Script® spell out the movie title, with a customised capital ‘S’: the stroke that returns to the bottom left was removed, and a bizarre curly bit was added to the bottom loop. The supporting typeface is Avenir®. This is a striking visualisation of a strong concept, efficient in all its simplicity.
Another poster adopting a decidedly retro look is the horror/crime movie Carnage Park. This poster does it successfully with a yellowed background with stains, an aged colour palette, and a white border around the image. The typographic lock-up is very eighties: two words of different lengths set very tight at the same length, with the bottom ripped. This is the second instance where I almost confused the Avenir® Next typeface with Gotham, because originally Avenir didn’t have such heavy weights. The high waist of the ‘R’ however leaves no doubt.
Carnage Park has peculiar alternate artwork that looks like a bloodied, crumpled fifties postcard found on a crime scene. The transparent red silhouette in the foreground and the skull in the mountain range juxtapose desperation with impending doom. The custom inline in the Stencil™ font is not so well done. You cannot just add it by giving the characters a stroke inside the letter forms, because the optical correction in curves and angled strokes will make the inline uneven. To achieve a better result the inside shapes need to be checked and fine-tuned.
The reason why the marketing campaign for action comedy Ghostbusters has a retro vibe is simply because it reprises the classic logo from the original 1984 film. The sans serif with spiky serifs is a mystery – the design of the letters is in the vein of the ITC Symbol® and ITC Quorum® typefaces, but is neither. Telltale details are the absence of a spur on the ‘G’, the squarish spine of the ‘S’, and the high waist and narrow connection on the ‘R’. Probably a custom design, not unusual for movies from that period. Personally I prefer the glowing original version to the three-dimensional modern look of the logo.
My discovery of a special Father’s Day poster for romantic drama Captain Fantastic taught me that Shepard Fairey now has his own design studio, Studio Number One. The artwork bears the legendary street artist’s stamp: bold black-and-white portraits in line art combined with flat red and yellow iconography. The visual style of the movie title in grainy mismatched wood type is appropriate for the film’s theme – a father devoted to raising his six kids off the grid with a rigorous physical and intellectual education is forced to leave his paradise and enter the world, challenging his idea of what it means to be a parent. The style of the typography instantly reminded me of Ondrej Job’s stellar, award-winning Woodkit series of fonts. The supporting typeface is the Bookman Old Style™ typeface. The Bookman model was restored to its original glory (and far beyond) by Mark Simonson as the amazing Bookmania. Trust me, that is the only Bookman you will ever need.
I saved the poster for V paprscích slunce (Under The Sun) for last because it raises difficult questions about cultural appropriation. Over the course of one year, Ukranian director Vitaliy Manskiy followed the life of an ordinary Pyongyang family whose daughter was chosen to take part in one of the famous Korean “Spartakiads”. The ritualised explosions of colour and joy contrast sharply with pale everyday reality, which is not particularly terrible, but rather quite surreal, like a typical life as seen ‘through the looking glass’. The poster designed by Walter Werner features what I called ‘some really nice faux Asian typography’ on Twitter. I knew going in that this statement could potentially get me in trouble, given the troubled history of orientalism and how problematic it is. While one Asian Twitter user accused me of promoting orientalist typography, another one admitted seeing it as a nice visual solution.
There is a precedent for this kind of Korean-Latin typographic crossover – Hangulatin, the typeface borne out of the final thesis work in the Communication Design studies by Anita Jürgeleit at the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg, Germany. When exploring the Korean type system, Anita discovered that words are syllabified and characters are arranged in rectangles in a specified system. Fascinated by this, she started to experiment and developed a similar system herself, only with Latin characters and the German language (she later also produced an English version). This resulted in a feature-rich OpenType system consisting of about 3000 glyphs representing syllables, which is surprisingly readable and can be learned intuitively.
So to come back to this poster – is this ‘orientalist’ typography offensive? Is it an insensitive stereotype of Asian culture? If the poster had been typeset in the Kanban™ font, or Mandarin, or – Edward Said forbid – the Linotype Chineze™ typeface which was designed as recently as 2002 (!), then it would certainly be offensive. Not only is this last one a very poor typeface design, it is terribly insulting. I cannot fathom why these faux Asian train wrecks have not been discontinued yet.
The question remains if there should be room for cultural cross-pollination, giving birth to new artistic – and in this case typographic – expressions? Or should every culture remain unconditionally ‘pure’? I have the impression that in this specific case both cultures influence each other on a level playing field. Though the lettering has some issues (see Aaron Bell’s analysis in the replies to my tweet) in my opinion this contemporary solution does not “essentialise Asian culture as static and undeveloped – thereby fabricating a view of Oriental culture that can be studied, depicted, and reproduced.”
Yet, the whole time I was writing this I wondered if I am the worst possible person to comment on this poster. I am white. I am male. I am middle-aged. I live Belgium. I am the poster child for entitlement, which means I can’t possibly know what it feels like to be confronted with cultural appropriation. Everybody is empowered to defend their own cultural values, but we entitled white people should not add to the problem. So the best thing I could think of is ask a dear friend of Asian descent for advice. And maybe we should all do that – reach out to broaden our circle and ask for feedback. To see if people who have first-hand experience with such situations are offended by the things we design or write. To catch these instances before they are published.
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