Moving Pictures: Topping Hollywood’s Dismal Poster Designs

The following piece by graphic designer and writer Adrian Shaughnessy is excerpted from Print’s Guide to Posters, a collection of several works by poster design-savvy graphic designers who give their two cents on the latest and greatest in movie posters, design in public policy and international poster design. (Register for Print’s eNewsletter for a free download from Print’s Guide to Posters.)

Moving Pictures: Topping Hollywood’s Dismal Poster Designs

By Adrian Shaughnessy

Being a movie buff and a graphic designer can be painful. Poster designs for most Hollywood films are dismal and formulaic and rarely show us anything beyond the state-of-the-art dental work and gym-tooled torsos of their stars.

This is hugely disappointing. Cinema is the preeminent art form of the modern era, so why should film posters be as crass as they are?

According to Corey Holms, a Los Angeles–based designer who spent over ten years working on movie poster designs and other promotional material, this sorry state can be explained by “the marketers who believe that the role of the poster is to be all things to all people. Decision by committee means that we get something no one particularly likes.”


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Studio marketing departments are not the only culprits. The demands of rapacious agents and egotistical stars handicap poster design from the start. Their insistence on hierarchical billing and micromanagement of credits ensure that most posters end up as typographic quagmires.

Of course, there is still great work being done. The posters of Neil Kellerhouse have a poise and elegance in stark contrast to the hyperventilating excess of most Hollywood offerings.

paris-texas-posterPARIS, TEXAS (DVD RELEASE) | DESIGNER: NEIL KELLERHOUSE | CLIENT: THE CRITERION COLLECTION

poster5

THE THIN RED LINE (DVD RELEASE) | DESIGNER: NEIL KELLERHOUSE | CLIENT: THE CRITERION COLLECTION

It’s not hard to see why Kellerhouse is the designer of choice for smart, youngish directors keen for posters that match the aesthetic integrity of the films they direct, such as David Fincher (The Social Network) and Casey Affleck (I’m Still Here). When you factor in Kellerhouse’s DVD covers for Criterion, it’s clear that his work ranks with the best graphic design in any area.

poster6

I’M STILL HERE (THEATRICAL RELEASE) | DESIGNER: NEIL KELLERHOUSE | CLIENT: MAGNOLIA PICTURES

and_everything_is_going_fine_xlgAND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE (THEATRICAL RELEASE) | DESIGNER: NEIL KELLERHOUSE | CLIENT: IFC FILMS

Meanwhile, the emphatic illustrations of another contemporary, Akiko Stehrenberger, offer an echo of the great film posters of the past. Her work may lack the elemental power of Saul Bass’s image-making for Vertigo and The Man with the Golden Arm, but Bass was working at a time when the poster was king, whereas today it is only one of many vehicles the film companies use to reach the public.

poster-designFUNNY GAMES (THEATRICAL RELEASE) | ILLUSTRATOR & ART DIRECTOR: AKIKO STEHRENBERGER| CREATIVE DIRECTOR: JON MANHEIM| CLIENT: WARNER INDEPENDENT

Yet Stehrenberger’s designs for the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right show that it is still possible to design posters for a mass audience without resorting to the banalities of Hollywood hype.

serious-man

A SERIOUS MAN (UNUSED POSTER) | ILLUSTRATOR & ART DIRECTOR: AKIKO STEHRENBERGER | CREATIVE DIRECTOR: ANDREW PERCIVAL| CLIENT: FOCUS FEATURES

prints-guide-to-posters-excerptSOMEWHERE (UNUSED POSTER) | ART DIRECTOR & DESIGNER: AKIKO STEHRENBERGER | CREATIVE DIRECTOR: ANDREW PERCIVAL | CLIENT: FOCUS FEATURES

poster4500 DAYS OF SUMMER (UNUSED POSTER) | ILLUSTRATOR & ART DIRECTOR: AKIKO STEHRENBERGER | CREATIVE DIRECTOR: ANDREW PERCIVAL | CLIENT: FOX SEARCHLIGHT

The poverty of most movie posters, however, has had a hugely enjoyable side effect. A growing number of graphic designers are fighting back by designing their own posters. These self-initiated works, often made to be sold online, dispense with the tedious conventions imposed by marketing departments and make bold use of quirky illustration, understated color, and typography, unhampered by flames, go-faster stripes, or other lurid enhancements.

Two Brazilian graphic designers, Pedro Vidotto and Eduardo Prox, have caused a stir in the blogosphere with their hard-boiled “reimagined” posters for famous movies. Vidotto uses recognizable graphic elements from the fi lms he selects (David Carradine’s eye patch and Uma Thurman’s samurai sword from the Kill Bill movies, or the tractor marks left by Wall-E) and renders them in stark silhouettes.

poster-3PULP FICTION | PEDRO VIDOTTO

poster-2WALL-E | PEDRO VIDOTTO

Prox is equally austere in his approach, but his use of imagery is more tangential and oblique, asking for contemplation: A stark Clockwork Orange poster uses a silhouette of a cog wheel to suggest a clock but also echoes the famous eye makeup of the film’s criminal protagonist…

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A CLOCKWORK ORANGE | EDUARDO PROX

While these alternative posters doubtlessly provide creative nourishment for the people who design them, I’m not convinced that they would work as film advertisements. There is a sense in which they are wise after the event.

Yet perhaps these examples of compressed graphic expression have a role to play in the evolution of movie watching. As cinema increasingly becomes an online activity, and as our decision to watch a film becomes based, at least partly, on thumbnail versions of movie posters on download sites, perhaps these unofficial posters—a sort of underground yin to Hollywood’s yang—have become our online guides. While mainstream Hollywood posters, with their overelaborate, cram-it-all-in ethos, suffer when reduced to thumbnail size, the new minimalist miniposters thrive in the terrain of bits. It’s unlikely that this was the aim of the artists when they made their posters, but they might just be setting the stylistic pace for the future.


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