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ScreenFonts: November 2017

From gritty to ethereal, beauty takes many forms. This episode of ScreenFonts features posters for mother!, Woodshock, Flatliners, Battle of the Sexes, Marshall, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Bunker77, and Wexford Plaza.

After I finished rounding up the artwork for this installment of ScreenFonts, I realized that I went for posters that I simply found beautiful. This varied selection proves that beauty can be poetic, unsettling, witty, dignified, carefree, heartbreaking, quirky, and even gruesome. Let’s dive into this exploration of aesthetic enjoyment.

mother!

Poster for Mother!
© 2017 Paramount Pictures. Key art by James Jean.

When its first teaser poster was revealed last May, mother! instantly set a dramatic tone—this film is not for the faint of heart. I mean that quite literally: James Jean’s beguiling artwork depicts Jennifer Lawrence presenting her heart in her bloodied hands, freshly torn from the gaping hole in her chest. Your senses scream as they struggle to make sense of this lovingly painted scene; the unfathomable horror creates an almost unbearable contrast with Lawrence’s angelic expression. The lavish flourishes of the blackletter type reinforce the film’s not-so-subtle religious overtones, lending this image of ultimate sacrifice an almost sacred aura.

Poster for Mother!
© 2017 Paramount Pictures. Key art by James Jean.

James Jean’s equally gorgeous second poster, unveiled in August, focuses on Javier Bardem. If we extrapolate from the religious symbolism, the flames suggest that Bardem is the (evil?) antagonist to Lawrence’s saintly presence in the original teaser.

The artwork features breathtaking calligraphy by David Chang, who told me via email that Protozoa Pictures hired him to give Bardem lessons in Spencerian penmanship for the film. They also commissioned Chang to do the calligraphy for the film logo and title sequence. After three or four rounds of locking down a minuscule style for the main title, Protozoa asked Chang to try doing some film-credit names based on that style. This led Chang to write out the entire list of credits with a ruling pen and sumi ink. His calligraphy was then used to create the sequence.

Poster for Mother!
© 2017 Paramount Pictures. Key art by LA.

Chang’s masterful writing also graces LA’s theatrical one-sheet. Again, the artwork keeps the audience guessing as to what the movie is about, but drips with dread and despair. It’s all about setting the atmosphere. Transforming Lawrence into a mannequin, with glassy eyes and cracked and chipped porcelain skin, foreshadows her helplessness in an unfolding tragedy.

All-lowercase italic Adobe Garamond appears as the supporting face. Retype’s gorgeous Guyot—available in Headline and Text optical sizes—would offer a timeless, slightly more calligraphic take on the Garalde model; Richard Lipton’s Meno suite would crank up the calligraphic feel even more.

Poster for Mother!
© 2017 Paramount Pictures. Key art by BLT Communications.
Poster for Rosemary’s Baby
© 1968 Paramount Pictures. Key art by InSync Plus.

Tributes to classic posters can be tricky because they tend to veer toward straight-up plagiarism; take, for example, the countless Saul Bass rip-offs in existence. BLT Communications’ teaser, however, adroitly pays homage to InSync Plus’ classic one-sheet for Roman Polanski’s horror drama Rosemary’s Baby (also a Paramount production). From the few details I know of mother!’s plot, a thematic connection exists between the two films that justifies this fine tribute.

Woodshock

Poster for Woodshock
© 2017 A24. Key art by Kellerhouse Inc.
Poster for Woodshock
© 2017 A24. Key art by Kellerhouse Inc.

Neil Kellerhouse—possibly my favorite contemporary film-poster designer—also excels at setting an evocative mood. The thriller Woodshock tells the story of a haunted young woman as she spirals downward in the wake of profound loss, torn between her fractured emotional state and the reality-altering effects of a potent cannabis-like drug. Kellerhouse translates Kirsten Dunst’s disintegrating psyche and drug-induced hallucinations into eerie, dream-like imagery and blurred, luminescent green typography. The letters immediately reminded me of FB Reactor, Tobias Frere-Jones’ creation for the seventh issue of Neville Brody and Jon Wozencroft’s legendary experimental typographic publication FUSE.

Flatliners

Poster for Flatliners
© 2017 Columbia Pictures. Key art by Concept Arts.

Concept Arts’ teaser for the sci-fi horror film Flatliners is somewhat in the same realm. The division between life and death is visualized by elongating the I upward and morphing it into a flickering electrocardiogram. Diffusing the grayscale portrait into brightly colored ghostly images symbolizes the titular medical students’ ventures into the afterlife.

Neue Haas Grotesk performs well here, but other very thin sans serifs are worth investigating, too. Marvel at Vinter Thin’s delicate contrast; pick Dinamit Thin for its wide proportions; consider Bigcity Grotesque Hairline and Allium Thin for narrow options. Arboria Thin and Mostra Nuova Thin tap into European art deco, while Benton Sans and Interstate Hairline are rooted in American tradition.

Battle of the Sexes

Putting four of the posters for Battle of the Sexes in sequence shows how a simple, powerful concept often works better than plastering the stars’ faces all over the artwork. The biographical drama recounts the 1973 tennis match between then-world–number–one tennis player Billie Jean King and former champion and serial hustler Bobby Riggs.

Poster for Battle of the Sexes
© 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures. Key art by Empire Design.
Poster for Battle of the Sexes
© 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Empire Design’s theatrical one-sheet on the left plays off the star power of the two leads. Emma Stone expresses both amusement and disbelief at the sheer machismo with which Steve Carell draws attention to himself. Apart from the tennis racket pictured on the backdrop, the poster gives little clue that the film is about a legendary sporting event. The nondescript sans serif doesn’t add much, either.

The second poster, on the right, is already an improvement. The scene from the movie is relegated to the top third of the canvas and simplified by turning the background monochrome green. A tennis ball with a lighted fuse reinforces the movie title and helps the audience understand the importance of this historic match.

Poster for Battle of the Sexes
© 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Poster for Battle of the Sexes
© 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

In the poster on the left, converting the photograph to grayscale and overlaying it on the background color further improves the design by reducing visual noise. Yet it still distracts from the crucial tennis-ball bomb, which is why the best poster is also the simplest one: with the movie still removed, the tennis ball, ready to explode, takes center stage and perfectly synthesizes the film’s plot.

Clever references to both tennis and the 1970s surface in the art. The dirty yellow background, with its white border and fold marks, gives the poster a vintage appearance, while the creases nod to the lines on a tennis court. But the supporting face, ITC Bauhaus, is a typographic anachronism—Benguiat and Caruso’s faux-Bauhaus design only launched two years after the events depicted in the movie. The dot-matrix printer typeface of the film title mimics the characters on an electronic scoreboard. When it comes to grid-based typefaces, Petr van Blokland recently released the definitive modular family—his impressive Bitcount comes in 300 (!) styles, with the potential for endless variations.

Bunker77

Poster for Bunker77
© 2017 Endangered Spirit. Key art by Manheim.

Another film about sports in the seventies—the documentary Bunker77—chronicles the wild, brief life of that era’s most controversial surfing star and international playboy from Los Angeles, Bunker Spreckels. Call me a numbers geek, but I noticed intriguing twenty-year jumps here. For this superb theatrical one-sheet, Manheim adopted the graphic language of nineties deconstructivism, which is two decades ago, and two decades after the events depicted in the film.

This stylistic reference makes sense. The 1990s were the heyday of iconic designer David Carson—also a celebrated surfer—whose experiments revolutionized magazine design and championed the sort of grunge typography seen here. The freeform, hand-assembled photographic composition and artfully distressed Benton Sans conjure up the main character’s rebellious spirit.

Marshall

Poster for Marshall
© 2017 Open Road Films (II). Key art by Blood & Chocolate, with photography by Brian Bowen Smith.

We go even further back in time, to the 1940s, for Marshall, Reginald Hudlin’s film about one of the early cases of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. Blood & Chocolate’s theatrical one-sheet plays it cool and classy, letting Brian Bowen Smith’s dignified portrait of star Chadwick Boseman shine. Tightly cropping the image at the top and bottom creates a tension that amplifies Boseman’s strength and resolve. The simple, all-caps typography is excellent, taking full advantage of the canvas’ architecture and playing to the strengths of ITC Franklin’s forceful, quintessentially American gothic letterforms.

The Killing of A Sacred Deer

Poster for The Killing of a Sacred Deer
© 2017 A24. Key art by Vasilis Marmatakis.
Poster for The Killing of a Sacred Deer
© 2017 A24. Key art by OTMentertain.

Vasilis Marmatakis has created some fabulous, idiosyncratic artwork for Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimoshorror, the high point being his heartrending posters for The Lobster, which I mentioned in last month’s episode. Marmatakis’ main theatrical one-sheet for The Killing of a Sacred Deer constitutes yet another excellent exercise in understated sadness. By stretching the upper part of the picture to fit the proportions of the canvas, Marmatakis has created associations that infuse the scene with new meaning. On one hand, it makes it seem as though the ground is falling out from under Colin Farrell’s feet as he contemplates the empty hospital bed. On the other hand, the upward motion could conceivably take on a religious meaning: the soul of the recently departed rising up to the heavens. OTMentertain’s international poster is a purely formal affair, an arresting photographic composition quite literally trapping Nicole Kidman and Farrell in the sinister teenage boy’s head.

As usual, Marmatikis’ typography is underdesigned, a combination of the new de facto movie font Gotham and the old de facto text font Times. If you’d rather not conform to the norm but like this particular typographic style, consider Proxima Nova paired with Starling.

Wexford Plaza

Poster for Wexford Plaza
© 2017 LevelFILM.

Rather unexpectedly, the final poster confirms a hunch I expressed in the last episode of ScreenFonts. Using purple and pink artwork for movies about women getting into trouble seems to have become a thing. Here’s how IMDb summarizes the dramedy Wexford Plaza: “A misunderstood sexual encounter unravels the life of a lonely female security guard and her deadbeat paramour.” Granted, the film may be low on violence, but it sounds like it still ticks many of the right boxes for what I’ve come to view as a new trend. The faint background pattern of sex-toy icons and the text message bubble coyly allude to the plot.

The glowing outlined capitals reference signage commonly found in strip malls like the titular Wexford Plaza. This neon effect is best achieved with letters that have rounded stroke endings, like DINosaur, New Rubrik, or New Zen. Neon Stream is Zavier Cabarga’s interpretation of a retro neon script.

Now, I just hope my own life doesn’t turn purple and pink anytime soon. The Leftovers are coming right up, and we’ll reconvene next month for another generous serving of film-poster typography.

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 humankind.