• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: My First and Last Movie Poster Design


It took forever, but I typeset all the Stymie Bold type on a Phototypositor and line-spaced it by hand.

When I got my first job as an art director at the New York Free Press in 1968, I was 17 and couldn't design my way out of a non-repro-blue-lined-graph-paper layout pad. It took two weeks just to master the different outcomes of one- and two-coat rubber cement. It took even longer to understand that headlines, text, pictures (photostats and halftone veloxes) had to align on that graph paper grid. I did not know the first thing about type or typography, or that typefaces came in different styles and weights and had different names (other than Elite and Courier, which I understood because I took a typing elective in high school rather than wood or metal shop). Other puzzlers included: What were knock-out, drop-out, white-out, overprint, surprint or duotone? And forget about ascenders, descenders, X-height. I'm still not certain.


I knew nada. Nothing!


And I had to learn it all pretty much on my own. My self-esteem depended on it. This was a divine test. I was mysteriously plucked out from a group of two other (probably more qualified) contenders to be the art director of a real newspaper, all because fate willed it to happen. By pure chance I was hanging around waiting to show someone my drawing portfolio when the job became instantly available; obviously it did not matter who filled the position. I got the job.


"How much is the pay?" I asked. "We'll discuss that in a few weeks," replied Jack, a shifty-eyed, nervous fellow, who introduced himself as the publisher. I had no idea what a publisher did.


The only advice I got on my first day was to go through old copies and more or less copy what had already been done. I also copied what I saw printed in Art Directors Club annuals and PRINT magazines, which were in the former art director's office. But without possessing the basic paste-up and mechanical skills, I could not efficiently mimic anything.


Nonetheless, I did what I could. The paper continued to be printed on time every week; it was amazing I was not fired. After around four weeks, Jack announced my salary would be $50 a week—that is, when they afford to pay me, which was usually around every other week. So, my salary ostensibly amounted to $25 a week, minus withholding taxes that I'm certain Jack withheld for himself.


"You're getting the hang of this," said Sam, the editor, who became the boss after Jack left the office unexpextedly to deposit the week's advertising checks in the bank and never returned. Sam's compliment gave me the confidence to continue trying to do better. I suppose I could have taken a class at the School of Visual Arts, especially since I was already enrolled there in the comics art department for a brief time. But, ahem, it never occurred to me that they taught art director classes. I was never a good student anyway.


Jump ahead five years: I had been introduced to the wonders of graphic design. I had garnered enough intuitive skill and received knowledge to be a capable, if not decent, art director-graphic designer. I had a résumé, too. By 1974, I had worked as art director for over a half dozen different newspapers/magazines doing covers, page layouts and house adverts (i.e., graphic design). Some of my things were pretty OK and others better than OK. My bar was not too high, not too low.


That's when I did this poster (remember, dear reader, that this story is about the poster above) for an indy "adult" film called It Happened in Hollywood. It was my first poster design (and my last until decades later I "art directed" a few subway posters for SVA).


I had forgotten about this poster until recently I was interviewed for a scholarly study on the "adult entertainment industry" in New York City during the '60s and '70s (I've lived long enough that I am an expert?). The film was mentioned in passin by the interviewer—a Harvard professor, no less—who said he had just looked up the poster on Google. Although it did not list my name as designer, after he shared his screen, I confessed, "Yes, I not only designed the poster, in fact, I designed the entire ad campaign." It's not as bad as I had thought. It was downright OK! Seeing the poster triggered memories of my innocence.


It was in my final stretch as art director of Screw magazine, just months away from joining The New York Times, where I was hired as Op-Ed art director. My last official act at Screw was to design this poster for its first movie. Of course, I knew that film posters came with limitations: they required that all the credits had to have contractually determined sized type. They also needed a defining, iconic image, title treatment or both. I wanted to make a poster that was defining, iconic and witty. This would be my swan song to the "adult entertainment industry."


A year earlier I'd convinced Screw's owners to buy a Phototypositor, which I used to set all the credit type (Stymie Bold) under the photo. However, I ordered the circus typeface for the main title from Photolettering Inc., which a year or so earlier refused to set the word Screw, which we were going to use as a new logo (they objected to its "obscene" purpose). There was no sketch. I pasted everything up at full size on a board taped to my drafting table, using my trusty T-square.


The black-and-white still was from a high-budget scene where the actor, Peter Bramley, a former art director of the National Lampoon, plays the part of the daring young man on the flying trapeze who wears a codpiece with an enormous dildo attached. In the scene he floats through the air with the greatest of ease, aimed at heroine Flo Zeasely's derriere.


Immediately before the scheduled printing, I recall, we were informed by a distraught "adult entertainment industry" distributor that this image would never be seen in public unless the dildo was summarily removed. Incapable of using an airbrush, I hastily painted over the offensive prosthetic with gray gouache. If you look closely on your Retina screen, you'll see the rough brush smear. Although the poster was printed, it was never posted (eventually most copies were trashed) and my hope of becoming the next Saul Bass was forever dashed.

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