In this series, Jahan Singh Bakshi talks about the relatively under-appreciated art of poster design and how it shapes our perception of a movie.
Movie posters are a unique niche in the world of graphic design – because they fall somewhere in between the realm of design and art. They require a certain sensibility; an aesthetic that feels cinematic. It’s no surprise then that there are design agencies that exclusively work on poster and publicity campaigns for films.
In Hollywood, they actually have awards for outstanding poster art and film campaigns. Admittedly, the bar is set much lower in our country, especially in mainstream Bollywood. Back in the days of the hand-painted posters, we produced some beautiful poster art, but now in the digital era – while we have had some good posters cropping up sporadically, it’s actually tough to recall a single flat-out stunner. Of course, except for the stunningly awful ones like these.
If we went by this early teaser poster of Dangal, we might’ve thought that Bollywood’s highest grossing film ever is about man with a passion for multani-mitti face packs. Sultan’s first poster was a disaster of epic proportions, quite literally. Every part of Salman Khan’s visibly assembled body looked like it arrived from a different planet. And while proportion is not Himmatwala’s strong suit either, special mention must be made of its title design which was probably meant to evoke an 80’s retro vibe but ended up looking like a MS Office WordArt template.
What’s terrible is that these were all big films from big studios featuring the biggest stars of Bollywood. Surely they didn’t lack the resources to turn out a halfway decent, respectable poster. What happened? We’ll never know, but such extreme shoddiness should never have seen the light of day.
So what really makes a great movie poster? There’s no one answer to this, but to kick off this column, here’s a quick guide to movie posters and how to appreciate them better. To start with, let’s break down movie posters into their most common and basic elements:
The Hollywood Reporter defines the term Key Art as “the singular, iconographic image that is the foundation upon which a movie’s marketing campaign is built.”
Of course, some films can have multiple Key Art images. These images literally hold the key to any film’s poster campaign. We see these key images not just on posters, but also adapted to create hoardings, newspaper advertisements, DVD covers, Facebook banners and so on.
How do you boil down an entire film’s essence into one powerful representative image? That’s the challenge of creating great key art. The best key art creates conversation, instant identification as well as lasting recall value.
Even if one were to remove all the text from these posters, one would recognize the films immediately. Whether it’s Tom Hanks on a bench, Joaquin Phoenix’s piercing blue eyes against that red backdrop, or the absolutely haunting image of Jodie Foster with a death’s-head hawkmoth covering her mouth, these are unforgettable, iconic images.
The title design is quite simply, the logo of the film. It’s the key typographic element of any poster and also sets the tone for the kind of film you are supposed to expect. A film can have multiple key art images, but will usually have only one logo, which makes it all the more crucial to the branding.
A lot of work goes into title design – especially when it comes to large tent-pole and franchise films – since the logo is used over many years in many films. In fact, we often see a film’s logo revealed before we even see its posters. Fonts are usually heavily customized, even custom-created for such films.
Fonts and type communicate a vibe and evoke emotion. They can make a film look epic or intimate, give it gravitas or humour, make it look cool or uncool. Certain types of fonts are like simple shorthand for a certain type of movie; while a few like Trajan, have been overused to death.
The Fantastic Beasts logo is what you’d expect for the fantasy franchise – ornate, rendered in 3D with strong serifs, spikey details and a serpent to give it that fantastical and beastly quality. The Drive logo is one of my favourite title designs in years, bringing back an outdated, derided font like Mistral and rendering it in hot pink, giving it an ultra-chic, retro-cool edge. Lastly, the surprisingly clean logo of Zero uses an unfussy serif font in silver-grey caps, outlining the O with a rainbow hue on one side. Placed against a starlit skyline, it evokes a very Disney vibe for a film that seems to be a romantic fairytale.
BILLING BLOCK (AND COMPANY LOGOS)
Usually, it’s only the actors, director and producers who get prominent credits that are placed near the film’s title or on the central part of the poster. The rest of the credits go into the block of text known as the Billing Block. The billing block and the company logos are usually the least conspicuous part of a poster, typically set at the bottom of the poster and at the corners, respectively.
And yet, if you remove the billing block and logos, they become conspicuous by their absence. They’ve come to become part of the very grammar of poster design, and it’s unfortunate that they’re often treated as an afterthought. In some cases, billing blocks can be used in radical and unconventional ways and transform into one of the central visual elements of a poster.
The posters for 27 Dresses and The Illusionist use the billing block as part of the image itself, constructing Katherine Heigl and Edward Norton’s bodies with the type. And in the poster for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the billing block is neatly used to frame the poster – a choice perhaps made necessary by how busy the central image is.
Not all posters use or require a tagline – but the combination of a compelling image with a clever, punchy or powerful line always works wonders. In some cases, taglines can become the central element of a poster, especially in teaser posters for keenly anticipated films, where it often overrides or even replaces the title.
The posters for David Fincher’s The Social Network not only gave us one of the greatest modern movie taglines, it also kicked-off a trend that became increasingly tiresome as dozens of movies crudely copied its tagline and iconic typography style – large type strewn across a mugshot. The teaser poster for Gone Girl omits the title completely, instead trusting the audience to get the hint. And the poster for Shawshank Redemption strengthens the impact of its image with an uplifting, quietly powerful tagline.
PULL QUOTES/FESTIVAL LAURELS
Pull quotes and festival laurels are usually seen on posters for independent films, which benefit from the added credibility that comes from the stamp of approval from a critic, filmmaker or film festivals. These are the additional bells and whistles we employ to draw in an audience.
The poster for Buried uses review quotes to convey a sense of depth and claustrophobia and the poster for Whiplash uses them as an imposing background, effectively shining a spotlight on the film and its protagonist. Meanwhile, the well-chosen quote for A Ghost Story effectively sets the tone for the film with three words: ‘Lovely, mysterious and cosmic.’
Movie Posters are an art because they can have a life independent of the films they represent. If done right, they can be as memorable as movies, or even outlive them. I’m hopeful to see a lot more freshness and innovation in India’s film poster scene. Because great films deserve great posters. And bad films- well, they need them.