ScreenFonts: Alice In Wonderland, Green Zone, Mother, The Runaways, Repo Men, Chloe
It strikes me how frequently the promotional campaigns of (mainstream) movies are ruined by the final versions of the collaterals. Take the trailers for example. The teasers that are the very first to pop up on the 'net usually live up to their name – they tease the viewer, revealing just enough to intrigue you and whet your appetite. Then, in an attempt to build up anticipation and create a buzz, subsequent trailers disclose more and more elements of the plot. Unfortunately, since a couple of years – dare I even say decades – the film studios have forgotten where to stop. By the time you see the actual movie, you have seen so much that you get the impression you are watching the final trailer expanded from one and a half minute to one and a half hour. Which ruins the experience, because there are scarcely any surprises left.
The same applies to the poster campaigns. The initial teaser posters can sometimes be very inventive, cleverly playing off story elements or spoofing familiar concepts. But as the campaign progresses studio executives infallibly insist that the "star power" of the main actors is thrown in the mix to increase the commercial appeal of the movie. It's not surprising they commonly end up with Photoshopped amalgamations of the "floating heads" variety for the final posters. Every time I check a month's worth of movie posters on IMDB I am discouraged by the many bland mainstream designs. I have to constantly remind myself to double-check on the IMPAwards website for localised versions and teaser posters. And I often discover exciting teaser campaigns hiding behind those generic theatrical posters.
What is a designer to do when asked to create posters for Tim Burton's highly personal interpretation of the classic novels by Lewis Carroll? Take a step aside and let the imaginative artistic visions speak for themselves. That's why the teaser posters for Alice In Wonderland simply feature one of the main characters each, with a repetitive pattern on deep colour as a background, and the movie logo in a corner. The dreamlike setting in the ensemble posters take the weirdness up a notch. Understandably the star of the main theatrical poster is Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter who steals the movie. This series of splendid posters accurately evokes the spellbinding atmosphere of the movie.
Just like the images on the posters, the freestyle hand lettered logo is part wondrous, part eerie. It all looks cute and lovely from a distance – the "a" even has a heart-shaped counter – but when you examine the design from up close a subtle sense of unease creeps in. It is perfectly in tune with the atmosphere of the movie. Post-Halloween Special: Scary Type.
Since The Secret of Kells was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 82nd Academy Awards, the movie has started a second life. And rightly so – the luscious, stylised animation is a beauty to behold. I just had to include the official U.S. trailer below, so you can see for yourself.
The Secret of Kells – Official US Trailer from GKIDS on Vimeo.
Strangely enough the original theatrical poster does not live up to the source material. A red gradient intruding from the top mars the beautiful art, the compressed ITC Franklin Gothic at the bottom looks out of place, and the movie logo is set in a rather unconvincing uncial face. Plus there are too many elements on the poster, all vying for the attention of the viewer.
The new poster however looks spiffy. Instead of having the complementary colours red and green clash, the colour palette was reduced to green and white (with minimal black and pale yellow). The attention of the viewer is irrevocably drawn towards Aisling's intense green eyes peering through the foliage. Her fair complexion is reprised in the movie logo and miscellaneous other type reversed in white in the image. While the uncial type used for this new incarnation of the movie title may be less historically accurate than the original version, its letter shapes are more solid and balanced, and the title works better as a logo. The end result is an intriguing and striking design.
I find it both frustrating and fascinating whenever an "extinct" typeface makes it into a contemporary design. Frustrating because I always want to know how that specific typeface was used. Was it set with a photo typesetting machine? Is this still done? Or was it set by cut and pasting an old specimen? Did someone digitise just these few letters? Or is there an unofficial digitisation flying under the radar? Fascinating because I like discovering old typefaces I wasn't aware of.
In this particular case the movie title on the theatrical poster for Green Zone is set in Modula. Type designer, Typophile, and type identifier extraordinaire of obscure vintage typefaces Mark Simonson identified this pre-digital grotesque, that is not to be confused with Zuzana Licko's classic Modula. It looks like a more compact and squarish Univers. Once I knew the name I found it in the 1992 LinoTypeCollection Typeface handbook of Linotype Laser Fonts/CRT Fonts. Those fonts were used by the Linotronic 300 Laser typesetter, a technology that as far as I know has become obsolete. That a designer would go to such great lengths to specify an obscure face for a movie poster instead of going for something readily available makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. There still are people that care. : )
Of course there also are a hell of a lot of people that seem not to care at all about typography. Or perhaps they do care, but they must be completely misguided judging by the cringe-worthy typographic train wrecks they produce. The movie poster for Our Family Wedding defies comprehension. Slapping curly copperplate script caps – probably Englische Schreibschrift – in front of Gotham (?) lowercase, and adding a line of all caps Gill Sans underneath? Whoever thought this was a good idea deserves some stern disciplining. The composition is incoherent, and the balance is non-existent. But as if these transgressions weren't bad enough already, the type was set in baby blue with a butch black shadow. I suppose the designer vaguely remembered the daring type combinations that typified design icon Vaughan Oliver's trademark style, and did a hapless attempt at imitating it. Then he/she noticed it was unreadable, hence the shadow. An utterly clueless typographic treatment.
Sometimes one single image can tell a whole story with surprisingly little means. On the movie poster for the South Korean thriller Madeo, the mother from the title stands between her son and the viewer, partly shielding him with her body. Her intense gaze – part despair, part defiance – reveals her intention to protect him at whatever cost. One can sense a childlike incomprehension in the eyes of the young man that is incompatible with his age, suggesting he could be mentally handicapped. And there you have it, the central theme of the movie in a nutshell. A powerful and efficient image.
The distressed typewriter font used for the title is a tried and trusted solution – nothing exceptional for this type of movie, but it works perfectly fine. I guess it must be some of the myriad freeware copycats of the seminal FF Trixie. It's a shame, because I would've loved to have seen FF Trixie HD Pro work its magic in this design.
The movie poster for Runaways is another example of effective story-telling, albeit less impressive. Joan Jett and Cherie Currie – the two main protagonists depicted in the image – simply ooze rock'n'roll attitude thanks to their bored look and devil-may-care body language. Although to be honest the guitar amp they're leaning against definitely helps to establish they are rock chicks.
It suddenly struck me that this is the umptieth poster I see with slanted type running upwards in the lower right corner – see also From Paris With Love, Fast & Furious, etc. Of course this location is not entirely illogical – the eye travels from top left to bottom right, so if the movie title is not at the top it makes sense to position it where the eye stops. The movie title itself is a distressed stencil interpretation of ITC Machine, that references the band names that are commonly spray painted with stencils on flight cases. FF Kipp, the type right above it, is based on a wood-type alphabet created in the 1930s discovered in Leipzig by its designer. This layered typeface has different levels of apparent distress, which can be used in various combinations to obtain the desired amount of interference.
There's a surprising sense of humour present in the movie poster for Repo Men. I don't know if it's intentional, but Jude Law's facial expression seems to put the gruesome story of the film in a satirical context. All the elements are there; the monochrome blue image treatment, the corporate logo on the coffee mug and tattooed in their necks, the blood splatter on said mug make that this is somewhat better than your average blockbuster movie poster. The designer(s) made very good use of the image's topography to position the title and other typographic elements.
The corporate theme hinted at in the omnipresent logo of The Union is very well integrated in the movie title. Heavy Helvetica caps were combined with barcodes and MICR digits to create a cool logo-like typographic design.
Repo Men is an example where the teaser campaign is superior to the final poster designs. It starts off quite poorly though, with one teaser poster looking so cartoony you could mistake it for an ad for comic books. And I guess the out of focus photograph of the two repo men in the other teaser poster is supposed to be menacing, but the quality of the photograph is so poor that it fails to achieve the desired effect.
The other two series of teaser posters however are very clever. Ignition Print exploited the theme of the film to turn out some imaginative and fun spoofs on corporate advertising. The designs look great, with the bright colours in the replacement organs and type offset nicely against the clinical white setting in one series, and the black-and-white Röntgen photographs in the other series. The only thing that bugs me is: how did the new liver end up so high up the patient's thorax in the bottom left Röntgen poster? ; )
Although I am a fan of his cinematic work – Exotica is one of the best films I've seen – the movie poster for Atom Egoyan's Chloe doesn't really do that much for me. The composition and photograph are a little too mainstream for my taste. The reason why I included it is for the presence of Standard Condensed, and for the inventive movie title. It is one of those rare occasions where an aspect of the movie is expressed in purely typographic form. The name "Chloe" in red starts as a conventional flat Futura, but progressively morphs into three-dimensional transparent plastic letters. Through the interaction with the light falling through them they end up looking like messy red smears of blood. This mirrors the descent into a nightmare that is hinted at by the Chicago Sun-Times quote at the top of the poster. Clever, intriguing, and very well executed.
I couldn't have hoped for a better design to end this instalment of ScreenFonts with. February 2009 episode; almost a year ago; September 2009; and the beginning of this year. Compared to other agencies they didn't do that many movie posters, but this may play a role in why they're so good. As the routine hasn't kicked in yet their designers must still have a fresh, unconventional approach to the medium.
This poster nears high-class editorial design, and even enters the realm of fine art as far as I am concerned. There's a definite sense of discovery at play in the intelligent, thoughtful composition. Being a Belgian, the open book on a cloudy background instantly reminded me of the work of surrealist artist René Magritte. When you look carefully you can see the two half pictures in the book are in fact from different photographs, yet together they form a touching scene. The texture, the different colours and focus of both halves, the pencil writing in the corner of the left page all add to the poetry of the overall image.
The type treatment is a true delight. The delicate pencil rendition of Snell Roundhand is so fragile, so ethereal you're afraid it'd disintegrate just by looking at it. Putting the left side out of focus provides the perfect finishing touch. And this gorgeous poster also is the perfect final note for this episode.
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