While gathering examples for this episode of ScreenFonts, I was pleasantly surprised to find a wealth of beautiful painted or illustrated posters, as well as two photographic compositions that look like painted art. I even had to shift some of the work to my upcoming “Leftovers” follow-up due to lack of space here.
Designers have a number of ways to cram as much information about a film as possible into a poster—think image mosaics or the oft-derided floating heads maneuver. One elegant strategy is what I’ve come to call “the Star Wars stack”: merging characters and story elements into a cluster on the canvas. Yes, I just made up that name, and Tom Chantrell wasn’t even the first to do this for Star Wars—but hey, sue me. Noted poster designers Brandon Schaefer and Sam Smith, collaborating as The Poster Boys, replied on Twitter that the Star Wars poster was referred to as “The Dirty Dozen direction” after Frank McCarthy’s art for that 1967 war story. The style, however, has its roots in a lot of the earliest posters from the 1900s.
As I pointed out in my comparison of the original Chinese poster for Journey To The West and Paul Shipper’s superior illustrated art, photographic compositions in this style usually fall flat because they fail to reach the same level of consistency. Yet, once in awhile, a designer proves me wrong. bpg’s theatrical one-sheet for Indonesian action thriller Headshot manages to achieve a harmonious composition by dramatically desaturating the photographs and using obvious fade-outs instead of trying to cover up the transitions. These fade-outs are consistent with the smoke-like hole in the main protagonist’s head, a clever metaphor for both the injury and the amnesia the young man suffers from. The splattered red lettering not only reinforces the painterly look of the poster, but also serves as a typographic warning about the film’s violent content.
Umi Yori Mo Mada Fukaku (After The Storm)
Next, we move from a photo montage mimicking painted art to a photorealistic painting. This month’s episode illustrates why Akiko Stehrenberger is a standout among this generation of film-poster designers. Instead of a signature style, Stehrenberger has a signature attitude that sees her adopt unexpected solutions tailored to the film—compare, for example, two of her award-winning designs: one for Funny Games, the other for Kiss of The Damned. Stehrenberger’s versatility and inventiveness create interesting situations: for example, although both this poster and the next have water as a common thematic thread, they could not be more different.
For Japanese drama Umi Yori Mo Mada Fukaku (After The Storm), Stehrenberger envisioned looking at father and son through a rainy window as the perfect metaphor for the film’s subject matter: a private detective struggling to raise money for child support while trying to reconnect with his son and ex-wife after the death of his own father. Instead of putting up a physical barrier, the masterful optical distortion of the raindrops imparts an air of melancholy—and also of profound human connection. The stunning theatrical one-sheet reveals a rare sensitivity and genuine empathy that is hard to find in film poster design. Just perfect.
Silas Dilworth’s Heroic Condensed stays out of the art’s way. The Skyline styles of Titling Gothic have the same compact quality, while Tasse Compressed and Antenna Compressed are slightly squarer, with airier apertures. Joost, a new arrival at Type Network, is another—more adventurous—alternative.
Although she usually presents a handful of concepts for a project, Stehrenberger only showed a single design for Donald Cried to creative director Kenny Gravillis. The character wearing glasses, she explains, offered more possibilities than merely reflecting something. Having them collect water/tears—like underwater goggles tend to do—was a simple and funny visual that mirrored the title and further distorted the protagonist’s already goofy face. Because Stehrenberger likes to keep things straightforward, this was supposed to be the piece’s only gimmick. However, the client felt the artwork needed more elements from the story: sex, drugs, and guns. Stehrenberger incorporated them as a wallpaper motif in the background so as not to have them distract too much from the main image. Still, it made the title less legible. Stehrenberger found out only after the fact that a blurred drop shadow had been added—not a solution she would have chosen.
Type Network recently came by two exciting deco-flavored alternatives to Mark van Bronkhorst’s Bovine, in use in this poster. Arbotek by José Manuel Urós is a modern interpretation of art deco, and CSTM’s eccentric Pilar has four stylistic sets that make the typeface increasingly adventurous. Mainstay Mostra Nuova also fits the (literal) bill.
Artists who don’t normally work in film poster design often bring unexpected richness to the medium. Consider Personal Shopper, which revolves around a ghost story set in the Paris fashion underworld. The main theatrical poster by inSync Plus plays up the mystery in the movie. The sheer curtains covering two thirds of the canvas and partly veiling Kristen Stewart can be seen as an almost literal interpretation of the ghost element, and also enhance the understated sensuality of Stewart’s body language as she takes off her shoes. The fine features of Didot underline the image’s sophistication; for more delicate Modern/Scotch faces, take a look at Moderno Light, Benton Modern Display Light, and Miller Banner Light. Feeling plucky? Choose Vinter Thin for an even more pronounced French-fashion look. And you’d be hard pressed to find a finer serif than Kazimir Text Hairline.
But back to painted art. Whatever the theatrical one-sheet aims to do, it pales in comparison to the absolutely wonderful variant poster created by illustrator/comic book artist Tula Lotay for Mondo. Even though this is “only” a drawing of Kristen Stewart, what we see is a genuine, whole person expressing a fully developed personality, her strengths and insecurities shining through the brush strokes. The palette is gorgeous, and the spontaneous brush lettering is the perfect solution for the movie title and actor’s credit.
God Knows Where I Am
Things start to get a little surreal here, and this approach is just right for the biographical drama God Knows Where I Am. Dan Forkin’s official key art condenses the documentary’s essence into a puzzling image. The ghostly silhouette framing the apple tree symbolizes Linda Bishop’s dissociation and eventual disappearance into nothingness. The upside-down tree lends itself to various interpretations. As she descends into insanity, becoming trapped in her own mind, Bishop waits for God to save her—hence the tree descending from the heavens. Visually, the latticework of branches mimics the nerves and blood vessels in her head, while the fruited tree reinforces the fact that Bishop survived for nearly four months on apples and rainwater. And this is where the last surreal detail suddenly hits you. The orientation of the apples makes you realize that the tree is not a rotated image—it’s actually hanging upside down, a metaphor for Bishop’s warped sense of reality.
The watercolor letterforms of the book face Bembo supply the poster with a literary touch. I’d like to see what sort of minute shifts in tone and voice would occur if this design were instead executed with Faunus, Elmhurst, Whitman, or Kopius.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter
The previous poster proves that flipping, rotating, or mirroring one or more elements can be very effective if you want to introduce a subtle level of disquiet or turmoil into a poster design. (See my review of Orphan for another example.) In the horror thriller The Blackcoat’s Daughter, two girls are up against a mysterious evil force when they are left behind at their boarding school over winter break. In LA’s theatrical one-sheet, the building providing the setting for the movie is rotated sideways and mirrorred. This forms a bizarre pattern connecting the profiles of the two protagonists, creating the gruesome impression that both faces were initially joined and are now being slowly ripped apart. It can also be seen as the occurrences inside the building invading and infecting the girls’ psyches.
The classic red serif capitals of Carlton, published by the Stephenson Blake Typefoundry in the early 1900s, lend the poster a vintage atmosphere. The architectural Grand Central, the mechanical Meyer Two, and the calligraphic Phaistos have similar period associations.
It’s often enlightening to compare an original poster with local or international versions. French horror drama Grave (Raw) tells how a carnivorous hazing ritual at a veterinary school unlocks a disconcerting taste for meat in the bright student Justine, a vegetarian and longtime believer in animal rights. Silenzio Communication’s original one-sheet singles out a key moment in the film: the prescient nosebleed that foreshadows Justine’s cannibalistic tendencies. This artwork and P+A’s international one-sheet basically use the same image—yet the typography makes all the difference and elevates the latter to a higher level. While the choice of typeface for the film title and its location on the French poster seem mostly functional, in the American version the placement of the film title over Justine’s mouth turns the white high-contrast letters into metaphorical fangs, an imaginative and strong concept. Justine’s pose and bloodied mouth give her a feral, almost lupine look in the third poster variant. The positioning of the type, turned into a stencil face by having an outline eat away at the contours, beautifully reinforces the angle of her shoulders and chin.
Bald Condensed, né Yves Peters, is a Belgian-based rock drummer known for his astute observations on the impact of letterforms in the contemporary culture-sphere. A prolific writer on typography, he has a singular knack for identifying the most obscure typefaces known to man.