ScreenFonts: Ping Pong Playa, Bangkok Dangerous, A Secret, Mister Foe, Burn After Reading

  • Fonts in Use
Fonts in Use, ScreenFonts | Yves Peters | September 13, 2008

ScreenFonts a.k.a. Characters On The Silver Screen comes to the FontFeed. The very first category on my FontShop BeNeLux blog Unzipped was borne out of my work as moderator of the Typophile Type Identification Board. We regularly receive requests for typefaces on movie posters, so I gathered it was worth turning this into a recurring feature on Unzipped. Time has proven it is one of the more popular categories.

While on Unzipped I look at the posters of movies currently being released in Belgium and The Netherlands, here I’ll stick to the American releases, both wide and limited. My main focus is the type used on those posters, yet that doesn’t stop me from voicing my opinion on the overall design. When there’s nothing interesting to tell about specific posters I will simply gloss them over. I don’t see why I should put up the effort when the people who designed them didn’t try any harder.

The posters below are last and this week’s releases.

Bangkok Dangerous

The poster for Bangkok Dangerous is kinda run-off-the-mill, however the (alliteration alert! ;) tried and true technique of transitioning from black and white to bright fiery colours always looks cool. It does make the poster look like the new instalment of the Mission Improbable or The Fast And The Ridiculous series though. Unfortunately any potential dynamism in the image is neutralized by the forced pose and strained facial expression of Nicolas Cage. And tilting the text – with the movie title set in Neue Helvetica 93 Black Extended Oblique – is in no way sufficient to salvage that. Quite amusing are the remarks on the Internet Movie Poster Awards page ridiculing Cage’s need to wear wigs when doing this type of action movies. Dudes, I can guarantee you – cranial hair is so grossly overrated. Really, trust me on that one ;).

Un Secret (A Secret)

When I first saw this poster for Un Secret (A Secret) I wondered if they set the article “A” bigger and in red to stress the fact that (a) there’s only one secret in the movie or (b) “Watch out, this is the English version of the poster; the French one has a big red “Un”!” The poster looks very classy, maybe a little too familiar, although I can’t tell right off the bat where I’ve seen it before. Don’t ask me which version of Bodoni this is (I think it’s Bauer’s). There’s just too many versions and frankly I can’t be bothered to verify which one. The centered all caps setting serves the design nicely, but that’s all there can be said about it.

Everybody Wants To Be Italian

Everybody Wants to Be Italian has the movie poster equivalent of a cheap pizzeria store sign. Roughly translated: it’s way too literal, tries too hard and me not likes very much. Then again, it’s pretty rare that I encounter really good posters for recent Hollywood comedies. The movie title face looks uncannily similar to House Gothic 23, for which I have a certain fondness because it was my very first identification on the Type ID Board almost six years ago.

Hallam Foe (Mister Foe)

I’m not sure if Hallam Foe (Mister Foe) has a good poster but it sure is a very charming one. The wonderfully naive illustrations and hand drawn movie title (now that is what I call wood type :) complement the leftfield imagery very well. The childlike “This is my story” baseline may look hand written as well, but it really is a digital font: FF Child’s Play, Age Seven. As for the obnoxious angular red type; it is completely miscast and very distracting. This is a typical example where a simple unassuming typeface would’ve been perfect.

Ping Pong Playa

Scrap that remark about Hollywood comedies two posters ago – the poster for Ping Pong Playa actually is quite funny. The juxtaposition of the humongous Jimmy Tsai towering over, and yelling at, the unfortunate chubby little kid is a classic comedic device but it never fails to elicit a chuckle. This poster doesn’t pretend to be what it’s not – it is simple, straightforward and effective. It uses an extended version of Basic Commercial. Yeah, I know the exact typeface is available under a different name from The Company Whose Owner’d Rather Spend Money On Lawyers To Bully Type Designers And Small Foundries With Cease And Desist Letters Than Pay Royalties, but I’d rather suck on a dead dog’s posterior than send traffic their way. Don’t even ask… :/

The Pool

I didn’t include The Pool so much for the poster; but rather after seeing the trailer. It has tendrils growing out of Cochin, which adds a nice little touch to the obligatory text screens.

I must say the type ornamentations in the trailer are far more elegant than the illustrative bits added to the image on the poster. I reckon they’re supposed to look naive, but to me they just seem poorly drawn in some vector illustration software. It’s either too much, or not enough. The type on the poster is Jeremy Tankard’s Bliss, a typical British humanist sans in the tradition of Gill Sans and Johnston’s Underground type. Other contemporary examples of that style are English Grotesque or Agenda for example.

Whatever you may think of the poster for Burn After Reading, I think we can agree on one thing – it proves the studio has some serious cojones. Instead of showing off the high profile cast of the movie – featuring George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Brad Pitt! – they opted for a typographic poster in the tradition of the great Saul Bass. The poster’s clear structure, the intense red background, the hand cut letters reminiscent of Jim Parkinson’s Comrade, the playful black silhouettes; it all adds up to a striking, witty design. Its strategy reminds me of Ocean’s Eleven, which won the Bravest Movie Poster of 2001 on the International Movie Poster Awards website, and Ocean’s Twelve, which was amongst the Bravest Poster Nominees of 2004. The Bravest Movie Poster is a great concept, awarding those poster designs that resist the urge to plaster the faces of their stars all over the damn thing. Neat. :)

The poster for Righteous Kill is equally efficacious. Its dramatic effect is achieved by combining a crude halftone black and white picture with two forceful red paint stripes accentuating the degraded and splattered type (DIN 1451 Engschrift/FF DIN Condensed and an unidentified condensed grotesque with tiny spiky serifs). The relentless gaze of co-stars Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino lifts the design to new levels of intensity. The new pairing of these two heavyweights made me check out the poster for Heat (1995), their very first collaboration (although they both were in 1974’s The Godfather Part II, they never shared a scene as DeNiro played a young Vito Corleone in flashbacks while Pacino played his son Michael). The Heat poster is quite good but the simple fact that both actors look away, not straight at the viewer, make it far less powerful.

I never quite got the distinction between certain alternate versions of movie posters. The reason for having a Korean and a Spanish version is pretty obvious, but sometimes there are alternate posters with the exact same content, just a completely different design (and I’m not talking about teaser posters and final versions). For example The Family That Preys has a pretty lame mainstream poster that features a group shot of all the actors topped with the typographic aberration that is ITC Garamond. This one definitely is not a Brave Movie Poster. ;)

Yet the other poster is a thing of sheer beauty. A simple Matisse-like painted silhouette, combining the gorgeous profile of an African woman and an outstretched hand, divides the poster in two halves. And it is truly painted, as the strokes of either watercolours or China ink are clearly visible, giving it a very “tactile” quality. The movie title set in a condensed Garamond which I am not going to link to for the same reason as before – white with just the word “Prey” in a classy greyish blue – is thoughtfully set and positioned with care.

The Women also has two alternative versions of its poster, but in this instance neither of them is very good. The mainstream poster featuring a group shot of “the women” the movie is about is quite unremarkable. Not a candidate for Brave Movie Poster neither. The only reason I mention it is for that movie title set in Filosofia, Zuzana Licko’s kinky interpretation of Bodoni which also has a unicase variant.

Though the variant poster has potential, it ultimately fails in the execution. Drawing a female silhouette with lipstick and filling it up with womany catch words in Didot – the quintessential glam mag typeface – isn’t such a bad idea, but the end result doesn’t really do it for me. It feels a bit… flat.

If you know what The Flaming Lips are all about the trippy poster for Christmas on Mars shouldn’t surprise you too much. Helvetica was nicely embellished in a way similar to Si Scott’s stunning typographic enhancements. I prefer the black on red poster which is definitely the most dramatic, while the weird black and white image in the left one reveals a bit more about the tone and content of the movie. Or does it?

And we conclude this episode of ScreenFonts with the poster for Towelhead. The composition is great, with the type – ITC Avant Garde Gothic redrawn by hand – beautifully locking the figure of Summer Bishil into place in this artificial looking suburban setting. Substituting the “O” in the movie title with the actress’ head may seem gimmicky, but you won’t hear me complain – it works.

Oh dear. This Friday edition has become a weekend edition, and it’s nine hours later here, so I think I’ll hit the sack. ’Till next time. ;)

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6 Comments:

  1. “Towelhead” reminds me of an online discussion I stumbled on the other day where it was astutely observed that teenage-to-twenties indie fare from “Flight of the Conchords” to “Juno” is going with hand-sketched lettering for their promotionals. I don’t mind too much — the style is definitely appropriate — but it is always a little disappointing to see lazy trend following.

    Posted by Stephen Coles on Sep. 13, 2008
  2. Excellent article. I like how you explain why certain choices do/don’t work in those posters. Such critique helps me realize what to take in consideration while designing myself. I look forward to reading more of this kind of articles!

    Posted by Piotr on Sep. 14, 2008
  3. Great post! I agree 100% with your thoughts on Burn After Reading. I’m shocked that the poster isn’t a “floating head” disaster with all those huge stars. Hopefully the flick is good too.

    Posted by James Kurtz III on Sep. 16, 2008
  4. You mean these floating heads? ;) :D

    Posted by Yves Peters on Sep. 16, 2008
  5. I’ve been searching the internet for a few says now and does anyone know what the font used at the bottom of the posters is? The bit where they write the producer, cast members etc.
    I’m doing a coursework project for my A-level media where we have to create a website and movie trailer for a made up film.
    Thankyou, x

    Posted by Becca on Mar. 14, 2009
  6. The condensed sans serifs most often used for the credits at the bottom of movie posters are Univers Ultra Condensed and URW Bee. This is a classic request on the Typophile Type Identification Board, so I reckon you just didn’t look hard enough. ;)

    Posted by Yves Peters on Mar. 16, 2009

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