ScreenFonts: District 9, The Time Traveler's Wife, It Might Get Loud, Inglourious Basterds, Art & Copy
I noticed something while gathering the posters for this episode of ScreenFonts. While reviewing the August releases on IMDB the small thumbnail versions of the posters were sufficient for me to evaluate which designs would get good reviews. Of course, with hindsight this is obvious, as image, structure and colour scheme are the main factors that make a poster interesting. The ones that immediately caught my attention were mostly the asymmetrical designs, the rather "bare" compositions with a strong focus point, and those with a "non-commercial" colour palette. Let's face it – typography is just the icing on the cake, as it only starts to influence your experience once you get closer. Still I consider the choice of type crucial; it can make or break a design. The right typeface reinforces the atmosphere or adds something unexpected and fresh, while an ill chosen one can seriously spoil the viewing experience and reduce a potentially good poster to a misfire design.
I think I've about had it with this cliché style of posters for movies primarily targeted at female audiences, like the movie poster for Julie & Julia – see also my rant on Unzipped (at the bottom of the post). It might make me sound like a sexist, but before you all throw a hissy fit – I have an equal distaste for macho flick posters, so chill. So, what exactly am I talking about? Horizontal bands with portraits of the actors, and type set in Didot or a similarly precious modern face. This design solution has become so formulaic that, frankly, enough is enough. Need any evidence? See below.
In this particular instance the ampersand is from another typeface: Bernhard Modern. They might as well have used that face for the complete movie logo – or any other Lucian Bernhard design for all that matters – as it perfectly suits the culinary theme of the movie. And if they want to stick with a didone so badly why not try something less commonplace, like FF Holmen or FF Danubia?
Honestly I prefer the alternate poster. It's an appealing design, simple and clear, with the two differently coloured eggs an unexpected but fitting metaphor for both the kinship between the two women and the culinary theme. This version invites multiple readings, as the two eggs in combination with the tagline "Do You Have What It Takes?" take on a whole new meaning, an uncharacteristically ballsy one for this kind of movie.
The Cold Souls movie poster has caused a bit of a commotion on the International Movie Poster Awards website. The design is striking and inventive; the Matryoshka doll motif a clever reference to both the theme of Cold Souls, "a metaphysical comedy in which souls can be extracted and traded as commodities", and the Russian elements in the movie. Brilliant poster and very nice typographical composition – just don't get me started on yet another instance of Helvetica for a "serious" movie.
Yet the image on the poster by …and company has been accused of being plagiarism of The Insight Story, an ad campaign for SonntagsZeitung by Advico Young & Rubicam, with photography by Scheffold Vizner. One can't but acknowledge the overwhelming similarities between the Cold Souls poster and the SonntagsZeitung advertisements.
This got me really intrigued, so I contacted …and company and managed to speak with creative director Etienne Jardel, who together with art director Chad Rachild is responsible for the movie poster. Over the phone Jardel explained that the Cold Souls poster originated from an abandoned concept for the HBO movie The Life Of Peter Sellers. In this instance the Matryoshka idea was used to represent the many characters Sellers mastered and his multi-layered personality. As the image eventually was not used it was reworked for Cold Souls; first quite literally as the above image shows (please note the lovely hand renditions of ITC Bodoni and the übercute school-like script Memimas). The final version uses doctored actual photographs of Paul Giamatti. …and company sent me the following paragraph that succinctly details the processes behind the scenes:
For the feature film Cold Souls, …and company provided Samuel Goldwyn Films with a targeted exploration to differentiate the film based on its unique story elements, star power and arresting visuals. The Matryoshka dolls concept provided an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the protagonist's internal journey of discovery in a striking and iconic way. To create the image, our in-house illustrator hand-painted raw Russian nesting dolls with various expressions that represent the emotional hurdles our hero must address in order to achieve full enlightenment. As the final key artwork demonstrates, our hero is seen emerging from a cocoon of his layered self.
According to Jardel both the Cold Souls poster and the SonntagsZeitung campaign were developed independently from each other and around the same period of time, meaning one cannot be influenced by the other. …and company sent me this final statement:
(…) we take our work and our responsibilities to our clients very seriously, and can assure you there was no plagiarism involved. While the simple idea of concentric layers (executed as Russian Dolls in the case of Cold Souls) is common, the final key art was born, developed and executed solely out of our consideration of the primary themes of the film itself (a man looking inward and wrestling with his soul to discover his true self) and of the film's physical setting (Russia). It was not derived from any external source.
The movie poster for District 9 goes a long way toward demonstrating how iconic imagery can add impact to a design. The stylised shape of the extra-terrestrial makes it easily identifiable and lends it a universal quality. Using it in the familiar context and visual language of the Apartheid regime proves to be a powerful shortcut in storytelling, as the viewer instantly grasps the genre and theme of the movie.
The Apartheid-inspired motif is sustained throughout the teaser campaign that preceded the release of the official poster, tapping into our collective consciousness and conjuring up the racial discrimination and repression that to this very day still infects society. As far as movie poster campaigns go I find this one very successful and well designed. The typography is serviceable and generic, but this is precisely the correct approach for the subject matter. All kinds of Helvetica from Condensed to Extended are featured on the different iterations, with a weathered stencil version of Helvetica Condensed as the primary movie logo.
I will be brief about the movie poster for The Time Traveler's Wife. It looks artificial and overly commercial, the colours are ghastly, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover Weiss Antiqua, one of the favourite underused typefaces in the dedicated FontList. It is well set with attention to detail, as you can see in the kerning of the "Tr" combination, and in the use of the dotless "i" in "Time", to have it fit snuggly underneath the arms of the "T". Is "snuggly" a real word? Do I look like I even remotely care? ;)
If you are charmed by Weiss Antiqua's delicate beauty make sure to also take a look at Berling Nova and Anziano.
A lot less delicate but equally beautiful is Eagle, David Berlow's interpretation of Morris Fuller Benton's classic geometric gothic. It is featured on the charming poster for Paper Heart, an indie comedy/documentary about love. It's a fun, slightly naive design in faded primary colours. The coloured-in protagonists in the otherwise grayscale main image add motion and volume by literally stepping out of the frame in true trompe-l'œil fashion. Lovely…
The contrast could not be any more brutal – from fluffy puppy dog love to ear-splitting rock guitars. It Might Get Loud is "a documentary on the electric guitar from the point of view of three significant rock musicians: Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, The Edge from U2 and Jack White from The White Stripes". The poster certainly isn't your typical music poster – nor movie poster actually. The contrast-rich black and white photograph is cut in half, the bottom half stuck to the top and the top half stuck to the bottom of the poster, as if the posters had been badly cut. The rainbow-coloured strip provides a nice bright eyecatcher.
Although I really like the poster, the type is not that good. Fair enough, the musicians' names in a very bold extended Helvetica caps are fitting as that's exactly what type on film strips looks like. Yet the typographic treatment of the movie title is crapalicious. Just look at it, the PL Latin Bold characters filled with a bizarre kind of gradient in poisonous green that mimics… what exactly? Formica? And enhanced with a drop shadow to boot! Urgh… Plus that movie logo says anything but "loud" to me.
As a side note – this poster reminded me of the legendary 1986 AIGA Humor Show poster by Tibor Kalman. Both the design and the designer greatly influenced me during my formative years at KASK. As Miriam Martincic so eloquently explains in her blog post of one year ago:
This poster by Tibor Kalman for the 1986 AIGA Humor Show works with the image of mistaken printing. The design includes Kalman's notes—a date and job number, test strip, a reference to the crop marks (useless in a poster that has printed so poorly), and a note to "Micheal" about how important it is that this job be done right. Rather than seeing a slickly finished product we see the back-side of design, the process, and the things that can go wrong. The banana peel is an obvious but effective image to convey the humor of a mistake. "Ops! I slipped and fell." Or, "Ops! This printed wrong." While a misprint ad (especially when dealing with a close deadline) and falling down are not necessarily funny, what both instances have in common with humor is a subversion of expectation. Neurologically, funniness is an idea taking an unexpected turn in your head—perhaps a short cut or maybe a scenic route. Humor creates a degree of surprise, a sense of "Oh!" or maybe even "Uh-oh!"
I don't really know why I like the movie poster for Spread. Maybe it's because the photograph becomes an almost abstract succession of horizontal bands, interrupted by the lead actor depicted in a rather Christ-like body position; his face – perfectly centred in the poster – almost inescapably drawing all the attention. The whole image exudes a subtle air of decadence, very fitting for the movie's theme. Just don't get me started on the movie title set in lowercaps Helvetica filled with a pink gradient.
Oh, this image is so deliciously creepy. A feeding bottle filled with blood, a fly sitting on the nipple that is supposed to be sterilised? Being the parent of three children, one of them still relatively young, I can't help but feeling queasy when being exposed to the movie poster for Grace. The design tells the right story and conveys the right atmosphere. Having the remainder of the poster empty adds to its impact, with the feeding bottle as single focal point. For once I don't mind the Trajan-like typeface, as it also has been tainted, just like everything else in this design.
It's not so common that we see movie posters inspired by comic books or graphic novels, and now we have two in a single episode of ScreenFonts. The illustrated poster for I Sell The Dead on the one hand betrays an affinity with European graphic novel culture. The rough-cut letters belong in the Hand-made, Hand-drawn, Paper-cut FontList.
The Inglourous Basterds movie poster on the other hand clearly references American comic books of the pulp variety, which is quite understandable for a Quentin Tarantino movie. The heroic yet nonchalant pose of the hero standing on a pile of defeated enemies is so recognisable. This is another textbook example of effective storytelling in a single image. Inverting the position of movie logo and tagline works really well and brings the message home more clearly. Substituting the "O" in said movie logo with Nazi heraldic imagery is a nice detail – it makes the logo more memorable and stand out more. All the type is set in a nice and chunky Clarendon.
The poster campaign campaign for Inglourious Basterds is a very cohesive one, even though there are variations in the graphic style and the typography. The images in this set of teaser posters leave no shadow of a doubt what the tenor of the movie is.
This series of tongue-in-cheek teaser posters riffs on the movie title, suggesting insults at the expense of the main actors in the movie. Alas I couldn't locate the stencil face used here. The stencil face is James Grieshaber's Super Duty Condensed Round Heavy.
Thank you Ivan Philipov for the identification
The last set of posters is my favourite, as they are beautifully executed. Offsetting the figures with desaturated skin tones and greenish grey hues against the vivid red painted bands works very well. The images just ooze pulp sensitivity – they could have been lifted straight from the covers of comic books –, and the casual placement of the logo adds liveliness and spunk to the posters in this series. And in case you're reading the comments on the IMPAwards website, the alleged similarity with the poster for Valkyrie really is far-fetched.
The movie poster for Five Minutes Of Heaven aptly illustrates that there are other ways to set up a movie poster than the obligatory horizontal bands mentioned at the beginning of this post. The cropping of the portraits of the two leads is inventive yet unassuming. The simple colour scheme and straightforward structure with most of the type grouped in the bottom right quadrant make for a very efficient design. I originally thought the type is Helvetica Condensed, but actually it's its precursor Akzidenz Grotesk Condensed.
Movies centred on design, typography, and advertising seem to be doing quite well lately. Art & Copy is the latest one, "a documentary on some of the mavericks of modern American advertising". The movie poster nicely translates the theme of the movie into a humorous image that is self-referential in an almost Escheresque manner. The swirling ampersand between the Eagle caps refers to the typography of classic advertising and graphic design in the 60s and 70s, beautifully exemplified by Herb Lubalin's legendary nameplate for Mother and Child magazine.
I just had an amusing e-mail exchange with ScreenFonts.