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, cracked.com 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? 

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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.

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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.

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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 essentially become a bumper sticker for itself.)

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.

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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.

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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.