ScreenFonts: October 2012 Part 2

I suppose American FontFeed readers are recovering from yesterday’s food coma. Due to my changing personal situation this year was the first time I celebrated Thanksgiving, taking care of most of the cooking, so I have an idea how you are feeling now. If you are not that much of a sports fan, here’s some more movie poster reading – including three more micro-interviews – for a lazy stay-at-home day.

It doesn’t matter whether I find an abundance of posters worthy of inclusion or just a measly few; for every episode of ScreenFonts I trawl through dozens of designs. Initially, when I started this series four years ago I used the monthly listings on IMDB for reference. These had a good dozen films in wide and limited release per month. Since IMDB abandoned its backwards searchable monthly overview pages I had to look for another source. As I already was using the album releases on Metacritic for My Type of Music, it made sense to also refer to that website for ScreenFonts. The listings on Metacritic however feature a lot more films. For this episode for example I had to look up the posters and all the variants for almost 100 films (93 to be exact). You could wonder if it is worth the effort. Yet if I hadn’t put in the hours of research I would have missed some supertasty designs, like last week’s retro The Paperboy, the moody alternate posters for Hotel Noir, the illustrated posters for The Sessions and Dust Up, the insanely detailed The American Scream and the dazzling Pusher. So colour me crazy, but I will continue doing this for the time being.

I am terribly sorry to have to start on a downer, but the main poster for Hotel Noir is rubbish. Trying to give the audience some clues about the storyline with photographic inserts is one thing – for example it works well in last week’s poster for Argo – but dumping half the film in movie stills on the poster makes the designer look desperate. I don’t know where to look first nor what to make of all these scenes in this confusing design. The typography doesn’t offer any relief neither. There are so many things going wrong with the movie title: the extra bold compact sans serif is squooshed, the director’s name and movie title are not of the same width, nor are they properly aligned, nor are they properly centred, nor are they correctly aligned with the images above and below. And yes, that is a straight apostrophe. Oy oy oy…

Fortunately it’s not all bad. Hotel Noir also has four delightful downloadable character posters. These were officially commissioned for the backers of the Kickstarter campaign to get the film in theaters. Designed by Adam Juresko of No Supervision, the two-colour designs overlay the high-contrast black-and-white portraits of Felix (Rufus Sewell), Hanna Click (Carla Gugino), Swedish Mary (Malin Akerman), and Sevilla (Rosario Dawson) on a strikingly angular smoke pattern. The typography evokes the typical vertical hotel signs: the film title is set in the stressed sans Oil Can from the Lost Type Co-op and framed by a subliminal rectangle. Splendid moody work. Adam Juresko explains:

This one pretty much made itself. A black and white (hence the greyscale tone of the posters) crime noir film! I had a lot of fun making these, and Sebastian Gutierrez was really easy to work with. The technique was pretty standard: drink 13 cups of coffee, assemble various images, repost and reposition said images over and over and over until it starts to look cohesive, watch episodes of Gilmore Girls, completely throw out everything I was working on for the last 4 hours and start all over again till finished.

I always find it intriguing to see how “foreign” (as in “non-American”) film posters are adapted for the American or international market. The heist film Dodookdeul (The Thieves) drastically changes mood between the two versions shown above. The South-Korean original poster looks exotic to my European eyes because of the colourful setting, easily recognisable as an Asian (shopping) street. For the (IMnsHO dumbed-down) anglicised version this background was Photoshopped into an anonymous urban scene with high-risers that could be in any major city in the world, with a desaturated colour palette. What’s more – one of the ten members of the band of thieves, shown at the very left in the original poster, was inexplicably cropped out of the image.

Typographically speaking the change is a little more successful. The slanted square shapes of the original Korean Hangul syllabic blocks have serif-like details that make them match well with Serpentine in the anglicised version. I do prefer the weird op-arty fill in the former over the fake embossed golden shine in the latter.

This retro-looking international version relies on Futura Display to bring home the vintage atmosphere. Personally I would have tried to have the left side of “The” line up with the division between the two photographs above the film title, but overall a nice colourful design.

The only thing I want to mention about this version of the movie poster for Holy Motors is: it is wrong. The film title set in Futura capitals should be mirrored: the vantage point and visible construction elements tell us we are looking at the back of the neon sign. Plus that neon sign looks very fake. By the way, that is one inconsistent suite of posters they’ve got, with besides Futura Gotham, ITC Avant Garde Gothic, and Arial all competing with each other.

As Fun Size is a Halloween-themed movie, the studios went all out on the movie poster and chose… orange over red for the extra bold sans serif! How shockingly astute! I had a tough time identifying the type: Priori Sans Black is quite an unusual choice compared to the customary Futura Extra Bold, Gill Sans Ultra Bold, Kabel Black, Flyer Black Condensed et al.

The movie poster for Chasing Mavericks catapults me back to my days at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK) in the late 80s/early 90s, when the photocopier was a design student’s best friend. Even the colour palette reminds me of the painstakingly crafted and assembled Neville Brody-inspired posters. I couldn’t find which typeface the square display sans is, but it definitely looks inspired by something like ITC Machine.

Funny I mentioned Akiko Stehrenberger last episode, because this awarded illustrator / designer / art director is featured twice this month. While the main poster for The Sessions is a rather bland mainstream design, Akiko’s illustration infuses a welcome warmth and humanity into this alternate design. While her contribution to this poster was merely the illustration, and some of the type she illustrated was replaced by a hand-drawn font, the project below is entirely her creation.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Akiko Stehrenberger about her illustrated poster for Dust Up.

Ward Roberts, the director of Dust Up, contacted me for the poster. I wish I could say that he sought me out directly, but it was passed over by a friend who thought this would be more up my alley than his. The downside is that my friend originally really underbid the job, but the upside was that Ward was such an absolute delight to work with!

Ward wanted an “Exploitation meets Spaghetti Western” influenced poster. This seemed an appropriate direction as his film is campy, kitschy, and extremely violent. Because my taste in movies ranges from high brow / conceptual to low brow that doesn’t take itself too seriously, I knew making the poster would be a lot of fun. I came up with a few different options, covering the styles requested by Ward. He expressed interest in the three-wheeler and the red-and-yellow color palette from the opening credits, so we went in that direction. Ward asked me to include the bad guys in the illustration, but I talked him out of it for two reasons: (a) due to budget and timing, it would have well exceeded what could be illustrated with very little; and (b) I’m really into ‘less is more’. As we see the three with their weapons drawn, this clearly implies a battle without showing the kitchen sink. Ward was open to my suggestions and had the knowledge to understand them, which made the whole process go very smoothly.

For the typography I looked at dozens of Spaghetti Western film posters, but the main reference was from A Fistful of Dollars. I decided to draw the letters by hand with that feeling while adding more hard edges to make it a bit less cartoony. I also referenced Blow Up for the feeling of an old billing block.

The best thing about doing this project was that Ward not only kept me up to date with the success of getting his film shown across the country, but he sent me a picture of himself holding the printed poster. This made me step back and remember there is a human being attached to this; that someone devoted their time, money, and lack of sleep to make this film come to life. Because I work so much for poster shops and studios, it often feels like a machine. This photo reminded me there is a human being involved. Seeing it made me feel absolutely honored to have created the poster!

Another illustrated poster, but in an entirely different style, is the movie poster for The American Scream. Johnny Sampson art directed, illustrated and hand-lettered the incredibly intricate design. Discovering this poster made me want to know all about it. Not only was Johnny so kind to reply to my questions, he even sent me additional images of the poster in several stages of production, allowing us a sneak peek into his creative process.

Initial sketch

Director Michael Paul Stephenson approached me because of the promo work I did for DESTROY!, a feature he has in development. He sent me a rough edit of The American Scream, and after watching it, I told him where I wanted to take it. I think the only concern was whether or not I could fit it into my already busy schedule.

For those who don’t know, the movie centres around four different home haunters. They are the ones in your neighborhood that go way overboard for Halloween. It’s really fascinating. What struck me was how their enthusiasm for this holiday has consumed their lives to the point that their houses are saturated with skeletons, zombies, Chuckies – you name it – all year round. I wanted to capture the near-claustrophobic conditions they endure in the pursuit of their passion, especially the family of the main character Victor.

Partially inked poster, and detail of the non-photo blue pencil drawing

Because this poster was originally intended as screen prints, the brush and ink approach serves that process well. I’m kind of old fashioned when it comes to creating my designs or illustrations. When possible, I try to do everything by hand. And fortunately, I think that hand-crafted aesthetic compliments the DIY nature of the haunters in the film. I submitted one sketch, and after approval, I dove right in. I showed Michael pencils as I was drawing it. Throughout the process I took suggestions for elements to include. But once the inks were inked, there really wasn’t too much room for revisions (and there weren’t any).

The printed poster next to the original art.

The pencils took about a week to complete, inks took about two 12 hour days. The original art is 16″×24″, non-photo blue pencil on bristol paper. It was inked with a number 0 Series 7 Windsor and Newton sable brush. My thumb and index finger tips were numb for a couple days after completion. The final poster was printed by DL Screenprinting, 2 colors on 24″×36″ French Newsprint Aged Dur-O-Tone paper.

Details of the original art for The American Scream

I’ve always been fascinated by hand-painted signage, and in Chicago where I’m based there’s no shortage of it. Lately there’s been a resurgence in the craft, and one among many notables is New Bohemia Signs in San Francisco. I watched a video about Damon Styer, the proprietor of NBS, and as he was talking about his craft, I saw a book on his table titled The Art of Hand Lettering by Helm Wotzkow. I bought a copy online and have been studying it ever since. The first chapter is on Roman majuscules and minuscules. I was reading that while working on the poster and it seemed like a good fit. My lettering is by no means perfect, but again, I think it serves the narrative of the film.

The logo for the website uses one of these typical old-style “gothic” display faces often found on vintage horror movie posters and pulp covers. In this particular instance it is Gans Lath Modern from Fundicion Gans; for a beefier interpretation take a look at Macbeth.

“Say, for Orchestra of Exiles – what is the proper typeface for epic, inspirational stories again? Is it Trajan?”
“Isn’t it Gotham these days?”
“I can’t remember…”
“Argh, what to do?”
“Oh whatever, let’s just use both.”

To be honest I have no idea how often this happens (maybe material for a new research?). The poster for this year’s British remake of the Danish contemporary crime noir Pusher looks like an upgrade of the original design. The 1996 poster works rather well, with the main protagonist menacingly pointing two guns at the audience. The graphic treatment of the image – slightly out of focus, high-contrast black-and-white on a flat red background – reminds me of alarm situations in submarines in the war movies of my childhood. It efficiently conveys a sense of claustrophobic dread. Unfortunately the off-centre typography with tilted FF Confidential (a stroke was added to make it bolder) negates the symmetry of the photograph.

When I say upgraded I mean it looks like London-based design agency Hoo-Ha examined the original poster, kept the things that worken fixed those that didn’t in the poster for the British remake. By making the type perfectly symmetrical and vertically optimising its placement in the image the “man pointing two guns at audience” motif becomes so much stronger. I also really like the decision to inverse the image and have Nicolas Winding Refn brightly coloured against a black background. Filling his shape with a dazzling street scene in pink and purple, full of lights and movement, and locating the vanishing point at the centre of his chest creates an interesting tension between the static pose and the dynamic “fill”. Furthermore the perspective reinforces the threat emanating from the two guns.

All the type is set in Alessandro Butti and Aldo Novarese’s classic wide square sans serif Microgramma / Eurostile Extended. As there are quite a few very good contemporary alternatives this is not my favourite solution, but it works. Akira Kobayashi designed the improved version Eurostile Next.

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