New forms in film poster design

As posters move from the printed realm to the digital, how are their designs being influenced by new forms such as social media and gaming?


A few years ago, posted 8 Actors Who Look Exactly The Same On Every Movie Poster. I'm easily distracted by a nice short list, so was drawn in by the blatant linkbaiting. But as well as providing a few chuckles, it flicked some little switch in my head and changed the way I perceive posters.

It wasn't so much about actors pulling their particular actor faces, rather the repetition in the design. Tom Cruise's nose must be shown in profile if at all possible. Jackie Chan's fist is always bigger than his head. Bruce Willis will invariably be tilted to the right.

And now I'm always on the lookout for these patterns, tropes, the ebb and flow of the cliché tide. For example, I now know that any film based on a Nicholas Sparks novel must have a side-on shot of the male lead clasping the female lead's head in his hands, and be about to kiss her, and preferably they're being rained on, or at least near a body of water. Why do I know this? Why do I need to know this?

What intrigues me, is that somebody does need to know this. These trends don't happen by chance, it's all very deliberate. People make these decisions. Film marketing relies upon familiarity and the reassuring comfort of homogeneity: You liked that? Well this looks like that. Watch this!

The art of the film poster has changed considerably over the last decade. It used to be that a poster was, in rather simplistic terms, a big printed thing that you stuck onto a big solid thing. But now all of that has changed. Think of the posters you've seen recently. How many were actually traditional ink-on-paper-on-wall? Chances are that most of them weren't posters at all, not in the traditional sense. They were merely jpegs; rectangles of marketing real estate on one of the many screens in your life.

The fact is that "poster" doesn't mean "poster" any more. Although the basic purpose (get bums in seats) remains the same, the divergence of print and screen sizes has changed the whole idea of how film posters are designed. These days, posters are pasted into tweets as much as they are onto billboards. Complex illustrated tableaux simply aren't going to cut it any more. It makes sense that designers are looking to other digital lexicons for the most appropriate visual language to satisfy this multitude of formats. And this is where we find new patterns emerging.


There are few pieces of design I love more than Akiko Stehrenberger's poster for Michael Haneke's Funny Games. An extreme close-up of Naomi Watts, her eyes full of panic. It reveals little about the story, everything about the character. It's about bringing the performance and the appeal of the star right to the very edges of the poster. There will be bleed.

Just a few years ago this was quite a radical design. Now, it's one of many. If there is a star, their face will be there, front and centre. Big faces are big, and it's easy to see why. These head-shots allude to the social network profile pics we see every day, and are often seen at the same scale. A simple portrait of a star fixing your gaze is still an incredibly powerful image, even if it is a thumbnail. Blue Steel goes a long way.

You don't even need to have the title of the film on there. In many cases, it's deemed less significant than the tagline, which will be plastered across the star's face in as a big a type as is possible without completely obscuring them. If the web loves something more than mugshots, it's soundbites. Everything looks like an Ed Ruscha painting now.


Rather poetically, one of the best examples of this approach is for a film about the person who made us all look like this in the first place. Neil Kellerhouse's poster for The Social Network has Mark Zuckerberg effectively imprisoned within his own profile, gazing out from behind a cage of text.

(The modern confusion of text hierarchy can lead to odd situations where the tagline becomes the most important identifier for audiences. For example, somewhere between big screen and small, the title of Edge of Tomorrow has been entirely sidelined in favour of "Live. Die. Repeat." The film has become a bumper sticker.)

While some faces are pushed right up to the lens, other are turning away from it completely. The centre frame, almost silhouetted, back-to-the-camera motif is everywhere right now.


There are comparisons to be made with Caspar David Friedrich's 1818 painting, Wanderer Before the Sea of Fog, but the real influence here is Lara Croft's bottom. With years of third person gaming under our collective belt, we are now so accustomed to the visual language of Tomb Raider and Grand Theft Auto that we think nothing of seeing protagonists from this perspective. Give audiences a hero they can get behind. Literally.

But to completely obscure the star of the show is a risky move, and it shows a lot of confidence with audience's recognition and loyalty to the franchises in question. A big comic book costume helps. Turn Batman around and he still looks like Batman. Turn Benedict Cumberbatch around (as on the Star Trek Into Darkness poster) and all you're left with is Benedict Cumberbatch facing the wrong way and looking a bit lost.


The Cumberback™ seems to work though, as it's found its way onto one of Empire Design's posters for new Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game. On another, he's facing the right way and we get a big close up portrait (complete with intrusive tagline). All bases covered. Perhaps this sort of campaign is the best approach for all those walls and screens: try a bit of everything.

These trends will pass, but the era of the poster as a simple printed artefact is definitely behind us now. Soon we’ll be squinting at Bruce Willis leaning on our watches.

Originally published in MacUser. See also: Rob Alderson on the death of the printed poster. 



This is incredible. Myself and the wife and the boy have managed to juggle schedules in such a way that we now have a week off. I'm not entirely sure how we did this. Sorcery may have been involved, souls bartered, something dark and unnatural that will one day tear us asunder. But hey, a week off is a week off. 

And it's not just a regular week off, watching Columbo and painting our toenails – we're going on holiday. I've heard whispers from other freelancers that such a thing is possible, but always assumed it was an urban legend or perhaps a meme I didn't understand. Yet here I am with my lovely family, on a train bound for Keswick and peaceful lakeside frolics. 

Not travelling with us today: the computer, the inbox, the admin, the reading, the writing, the tweets, the pins, the job. For the next seven days, I am not a designer. 


Oh now this really is very nice. I don't know why we don't do it more often. The rental cottage is delightful, the sun is shining, the scenery is … I mean, it's all very … did I … did I turn my computer off? It'll be okay, won't it? It's not as if it'll just burst into flames without me there. But now I think about it, did I send that email with the thing about the thing? And what if I've received an urgent and meaty brief that needs immediate attention? Was my last pre-holiday tweet inadvertently massively offensive? Did that invoice get paid? Ack, what the hell am I doing all the way out here in the middle of this damp nowhere, ignoring my livelihood? 

I shouldn't worry, I'm sure it's all fine. Maybe tomorrow I'll just check up on things.


Just. Just is a snake of word. Could you just do this one job? Could you just pop in for a meeting? Sir, could we just have a word about the airline’s dress code? Just has no place being on holiday. Just should've stayed at home. And yet here I am, pacing the shores of Derwentwater, waving my phone around to get a half-decent reception so that I can just have a quick look at my inbox. 

This professional itch is taking far too long to scratch, and there’s only so many rocks I can precariously perch upon. In my head I can hear the computerised mantra from Duncan Jones' Moon: searching for long-range comms … searching for long-range comms … signal failure on long-range comms. The view from Friar's Crag is all well and nice, but if I can't get a steady 3G signal then damn it all to picturesque hell.


The Pencil Museum! Cumbria may be one enormous phone network oversight, but if anything can distract and bring joy to a wandering designer, it's a critical mass of stationery. Pencils! The world's biggest pencil! Colour pencils! Espionage pencils concealing tiny maps! More pencils! An enormous and horrifying pointillist portrait of Chris Evans made of nothing but pencils! Pencils!

And do you know what's particularly brilliant about the Pencil Museum, aside from the pencils? The wifi. I don't know if it technically constitutes loitering, but we've certainly dawdled in the gift shop for longer than is considered acceptable, leeching as much broadband as possible. Sure enough, important emails have appeared. Important emails that I can do nothing about. Never mind, I'm on holiday and I've got souvenirs that I can doodle with. 


Cheese. Mostly cheese.


Somewhere, somehow, another email crept through. Maybe I crossed a ley line or something? Anyway, I've been asked to chip in on a quick vox pop thing for a design website. Quick is almost as evil as just, but I have this unbearable need to please. Fortunately, whilst getting well and truly lost in the wilds of slightly-outside-Keswick, we came across a nice little cafe with the holy trinity of coffee, wifi and Victoria Sponge. It's another slight deviation from the plan of a week away from work, but I simply couldn't live with myself if I left a pop un-voxxed. I'm not a monster.


Homeward bound. It's been amazing, but work seeped into the rest and play. Only now, travelling in the wrong direction, do I feel completely distanced from all those things I was meant to leave behind. When we get in, maybe I'll pop online and book us another holiday. Just a little one.

Originally published in Creative Review.


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Expect to be distracted by concrete, dinosaurs, modernist toys, magazine design, comics, scotch eggs, fatherhood, urban sprawl, holes, inky smells, stationery, difficult art, umlauts, aquatic robots, spaceships, Lego (never "Legos"), abandoned places, Fincher, Kubrick, Spielberg, cities, wilderness, more dinosaurs, fonts, etc. 

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Jurassic Park and effective restraint

With Jurassic World fast approaching, the Onion AV Club has looked back at the original film, with an interesting article comparing Jurassic Park the book to Jurassic Park the movie. It argues that the latter succeeded because it shifted the focus from the adults to the kids, both on the screen and in the audience. Basically, fewer spilled intestines. 

JP artwork by Sam Wolfe Connelly for Mondo.

JP artwork by Sam Wolfe Connelly for Mondo.

One interesting little fact pops up In the piece: of fourteen minutes of dinosaur effects in the film, only four are CGI. For a film that is considered to be a major turning point in computer effects, that's rather astonishing. Just think how pixel-laden big films are these days, barrages of computer effects that just blur into noise. Four minutes. 

At the time of its release, a lot of fuss was made about the film's revolutionary CGI. Given how well they stand up two decades later, it was of course justified, but all of that hype detracted from how Spielberg was using those effects. He wasn't playing with the latest toy just for the sake of it (a bad habit that contemporaries such as Robert Zemeckis, George Lucas and James Cameron have fallen into); he only used CGI when it was absolutely necessary. There's a whole lot of model work, animatronics and puppetry in there too – it's the blending of it all that makes it work. Using the most appropriate effect to get the shot to tell the story, that's all that matters.  

And those shots are used with incredible restraint. Technical difficulties on Jaws taught Spielberg how to be economical with effects and spectacle, and that really pays off in Jurassic Park. It could've just been shot after shot after shot of dinosaurs dinosauring, but it isn't. Rather than show you the great big awesome thing every time, Spielberg points the camera the other way. He's more interested in showing people responding to what's occurring off-screen. It's about combining action with reaction, and keeping the story focussed on the characters rather than the events. 

(This approach pops up in numerous Spielberg films, most notably War of the Worlds. It isn't his greatest film, but it's a masterclass in concealment. There is enormous, terrifying action throughout, but we're not allowed to look it. We hear it, we glance at obscured reflections of it, we see the aftermath of it, we watch as people watch it. The entire film is a call to our horrible, horrible imaginations. Of course, this is all very apt – the invaders ultimately succumb to an unseen enemy.)

To delve deeper into what Spielberg was doing on and off screen, it's well worth tracking down the fantastic The Making of Jurassic Park. I'm surprised it's not back in print – it deserves to be expanded and given the chunky, hardcover treatment of the recent Star Wars making-of books. 


Jurassic World hits cinemas on 11 June.