ScreenFonts: Zookeeper, Horrible Bosses, The Ward, The Ledge, Crazy Stupid Love

Whoa, it looks like I have really arrived now. The previous instalment of ScreenFonts attracted what appears to be my first heckler – or is my memory both unreliable and forgiving? Andy Taylor, architectural and entertainment lighting designer at lighting design consultants Gasoline Design, thinks “(…) all [Yves] does is slag off other peoples work, and [I] would like to see his efforts.” Well, herein lies the problem. First of all I have never made it a secret that I consider myself an average graphic designer, observing the type and design world from the outside in. Yet does one need to be a mind-blowing artist to be allowed to critique other people’s work? As designer, writer and webfont pundit Jon Tan remarked, “(…) it’s like asking a type historian for their faces, rather than seeing critique as a craft in its own right.” Influential typography blogger John Boardley concurs: “[Andy]’s reasoning is flawed. [It’s] like saying only ballerinas have the right to crit’ ballet.” Furthermore I really try my best to avoid being too negative, and at least one person (noted identity, type and entertainment designer Corey Holms) agrees: “I think [Yves]’s critiques are fair, and he praises the ones that deserve it.” If I only discussed successful posters this would present a one-sided view, and some episodes would be quite lean (and frankly a lot less entertaining). And whatever I do I just can’t please everyone.

Oh well, I think that having my first heckler – again, correct me if I am wrong – after doing this shtick for almost three years is kind of reassuring. And anyway, thank you Andy for giving me inspiration for this introduction. Really, me, a tosser? Last time I checked I was a sexually active member of the male population, so of course I (quite literally) am. But my mom has no basement for me to do it in. ; )

I know you can “end on a high note”, but being a non-native speaker I am unsure if you also can start on one? Any which way, fortunately for Andy we kick off this instalment with a great poster (but only because I skipped Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Larry Crowne, and Monte Carlo which quite honestly are… sorry, already lost interest.)

The movie poster for the outcast coming-of-age film Terri is quite clever as it manages to break through the boundaries of conventional movie poster design. The image itself is already a great start. The desaturated photograph – it may be coloured-in black-and-white photography – and sickly colour palette exudes a very distinct atmosphere which fits the theme of the film. The image gives a good indication of what the story is about. However what I like most about this design is how it uses formal elements in the poster. Having the protagonists sitting across each other, leaning on the movie title as if it were a table, is a great find. This frees up real estate for the quotes and festival laurels, and allows for the tagline to be perfectly positioned between the two actors. The fact that the silhouettes of the characters extend beyond the coloured background and into the white border makes the design breathe.

I am not particularly a fan of ITC Avant Garde Gothic, but what better typeface than this rigid geometric sans as a substitute for a table? Plus I love that bleak, somewhat off orange.

Something struck me while observing H&FJ Gotham succeeding Trajan as the go-to typeface for collaterals for “upscale” movies, which has been going on for over two years now. The generic (adjective used here in a non-judgemental way) sans serif shapes of Gotham apparently incite the design of more interesting posters. Take for example the movie poster for dark comedy thriller The Perfect Host, which takes a very Modernist approach. The photograph as a horizontal band running across the full width of the canvas. Effective use of white space. The main text set flush right, all in capitals. One single light weight, only using different type sizes for hierarchy. Three little drops of blood punctuating the title, accentuating the threatening nature of the photograph and hinting at the theme of the film. This intelligent design works very well and looks splendid.

Does the movie poster for comedy Zookeeper look familiar to you too? It’s probably because the artwork by Arsonal bears an uncanny resemblance to The Cimarron Group’s poster for that other comedy, 2006’s Night at the Museum. It’s hardly surprising once you realise the stories are quite similar – zookeeper/night guard at a zoo/museum have zany adventures with zoo animals/museum exhibits come to life. This translates into almost identical posters. Both have the main character in uniform, standing in a defiant pose in some sort of doorway, backlit with golden lightbeams, with several supporting characters peeking from behind doors/columns. Heck, they even feature the same lion and Capuchin monkey.

Night at the Museum at least used a typeface less common for comedies – FontHead’s Allise is inspired by Art Nouveau lettering, with a whiff of Optima, but the technical quality of the design and especially the lowercase seem subpar. Zookeeper nestles itself in the cosy predictability that is the extra bold sans serif Futura Extra BoldYawn.

I have to say I kind of like the movie poster for the comedy Horrible Bosses, because it doesn’t stick too close to the formula. Each of the bosses in question is identified with vertical type in bright colours. A colour bar extends downwards, connecting their towering presences with their respective “victims” underneath. This graphic solution with H&FJ Knockout sets it apart from the usual comedy fare.

The movie poster for Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest refers to the album artwork for the now defunct conscious hip hop outfit. It fuses the black background with bright red and green graphics of The Low End Theory with the street setting of Beats, Rhymes and Life, and interprets the trademark hand drawn lettering found on all of the album covers by A Tribe Called Quest except The Love Movement. It makes for a vibrant and striking design.

Everything I write has to be read in perspective. For example, I often gripe about art directors and designers in the entertainment industry using the same tried-and-tested solution over and over. In the case of The Ward the movie poster features a hard-edged, textured photograph with a gritty Trajan, a staple for contemporary horror films. Yet you have to concede this one is properly executed and looks quite nice. It could always be worse…

… as is convincingly demonstrated by this early design, which frankly looks like a VHS cover of some 1980s straight-to-video flick. Witness how the weird purple-blue hues and clumsy typographic arrangement relegate this poster to low-rate territory.


The Ward from Gareth Smith & Jenny Lee on Vimeo.

I’d like to use the opportunity to point you to the fabulous Art of the Title, which showcases that other typographic aspect of film making – title design. A compendium and leading web resource of film and television title design from around the world, it was founded by editor-in-chief Ian Albinson. The website honours the artists who design excellent title sequences. Their work is discussed and displayed, with a desire to foster more of it, via stills and video links, interviews, creator notes, and user comments. Last month Art of the Title featured the impressive opening title sequence for The Ward, along with a Q&A with creator Gareth Smith of Smith & Lee Design. The capitals with spiky serifs used in the sequence are Alexon. Come to think of it, the face could easily have been used on the poster as well, providing some welcome typographic diversity.

We get another chance at observing the phenomenon of localisation with the promotional designs for French-Canadian_American thriller Le Caméléon (The Chameleon). The French and American versions tackle the concept of multiple identities using different approaches, which results in very different posters. On the French poster the photograph of the main protagonist is fractured into a multitude of floating squares. By creating an incomplete puzzle the image suggests that the multiple identities paint an incomplete picture of the character, with some aspects remaining secret.

Although I am not a fan of gradients and metallic effects, the movie title in a Helvetica Condensed-like compact sans serif matches the style of the poster – desaturated photography on a black background with strictly aligned white and red type set in all-caps Alternate Gothic.

I find the solution for the English version not as satisfying. Here the theme of the film is visualised by having multiple photographs of the Frédéric Fortin character played by Marc-André Grondin, with either Famke Janssen or Ellen Barkin behind him. To me this is a so-so interpretation which doesn’t really get across the nuance of the multiple identities. The rather flat greenish black-and-white pictures lack the depth and definition of the blueish, slightly threatening photograph in the previous version. And the letterspaced lowercase Century Gothic for the film title doesn’t really cut it.

Say what you want about the “folded-poster-syndrome”, but the designs are often good to excellent and exude a lovely retro charm. This particular poster for the thriller The Ledge could be mistaken for a 60s design, with black-and-white photographs on flat orange background, angular organic shapes, typography that looks as it was hand-drawn or cut out of paper reminiscent of Occupant Gothic or Fido, and a yellowed, stained poster surface. Although it wears its influences on its sleeve – Saul Bass and Reid Miles immediately spring to mind – this design by Gravillis Inc. still comes across as fresh and original. The flushed-right tagline with the little silhouette at the end, ready to jump off the ledge, is a wonderful detail perfectly embodying the story of the film.

Sometimes you find parallels in the most unexpected places. Although some comments on the IMPAwards website compare the movie poster for historical drama Snow Flower and the Secret Fan with Vanity Fair – huh!? – it strangely resembles the poster for the documentary Tabloid below. Don’t be fooled by the image treatment and typography which couldn’t be more different. When you analyse the basic lay-out and position of formal elements you notice they are almost identical. The photograph of the lead actress, perfectly centred, shows only the lower part of her face and a hand holding an object instrumental to the film – above the secret fan from the title, and below an apple as the religious symbol for the downfall of man at the hands of a woman (in this case the former Miss Wyoming abducting and imprisoning a young Mormon Missionary).

Both posters also have the same conceptually sound approach to typography. The elegant brush strokes of Chinese calligraphy are suggested by the flowing characters outlines of Hiroshige in the top poster. The bottom poster appropriates the loud and brash typography of tabloid newspapers, with roughly cut out text areas, using extra bold compact sans serifs and sturdy bracketed modern text faces. The rasterised photograph, yellowed paper and poor quality printing bring the design home.

The graphic style of the poster is successfully replicated in the trailer (unless it’s the other way around of course).

This is one of those cases where I don’t know which version came first. At the right we have what I think is the international poster for Life, Above All, a drama recounting “a touching mother-daughter relationship that reflects the modern South Africa”. The version at the left could be a festival poster, but I don’t really know. The two designs basically use the same elements, but how they are implemented makes a world of difference.

In the version at the right there’s just too much happening. Having the mother holding her child – expressing the mother-daughter relationship in both posters – as floating heads with the daughter character below looks quite corny. The dark brown border and bottom area imprisons the artwork and draws unnecessary attention to the credits at the bottom. The movie title in a distressed version of Franklin Gothic similar to Frankie and the white copy fill up any calm areas that would have allowed this design to breathe at least a little.

The version at the left however is simply beautiful, airy, with a gorgeous use of light. The generous white space, the glowing counter of the “o” in the rough brush script, the light flare and warm, somewhat overexposed quality of the photograph; they all suggest the scorching heat of the South African skies. The sweltering atmosphere is enhanced by the striking colour palette in pale yellow, orange and brown with a hint of purple that unifies the design. It also turns the blurry bystanders in the background into a rather menacing presence.

Sometimes simplicity is the key. The concept of Another Earth is subtly but brilliantly visualised in its movie poster. We’ve grown so accustomed to seeing earthscapes that it took me a fraction of a second to realise that the rising earth behind Brit Marling indeed meant there is a duplicate earth in this version of the solar system. The typographic treatment is nothing short of genius – another earth is suggested simply by duplicating the “O” in the movie title set in H&FJ Gotham.

One of the downsides of H&FJ Gotham becoming the “standard” typeface for movie posters is illustrated in the collaterals for Crazy, Stupid, Love. When researching Trajan in Movie Posters for TYPO Berlin, I confined my search to only posters that used Trajan in the movie logo itself, not the credits. As Trajan became the de facto default in the past decade and is being used more and more for the credits and small type, I would have ended up with a lot more than 400 posters. This is already happening for Gotham as well – my findings suggest that in the last two years Gotham has followed a similar evolution as Trajan in the past two decades, at an accelerated rate. In this specific series of posters this creates a design problem.

We shift our attention to the teaser poster, as the problem is much more visible here. Take a look at the film logo in the lower left corner, then compare it to the large “This is crazy” in the centre of the canvas. You’ll notice there is something… off: in the movie logo the waist on the “R” is a little higher, the “S” is a little narrower, the junction of the “Y” is a little higher, and so on. The explanation for these minute differences is simple – although they look almost the same, these are two different typefaces. All the secondary copy is set in Gotham, while the film title uses Avenir (reworked in 2003 as Avenir Next by Akira Kobayashi). The two designs are too similar and different enough to create an unpleasant tension between them – a bad combination.

How could the designer make such a poor judgement? Why wasn’t only one of the two typefaces used if they look almost identical? What happened can be explained by the psychology of the default. Overuse or perception can turn certain typefaces into default options. Typefaces who slip into that territory are not selected through a conscious process using rational parameters, but more as an automatism, because their use matches the expectations of the user. Hence the dominance of Helvetica/Arial and Times in office communication and beyond, and the omnipresence of Trajan and since recently Gotham on movie posters. This has nothing to do with the inherent quality of the typefaces, it just… happens. Although Gotham was initially used for its distinctive formal qualities and atmosphere, for many art directors and designers it has become the standard sans serif for movie posters. Thus the mismatch is simply due to the fact that in this particular instance Avenir was consciously selected for the movie logo, while Gotham was picked as an automatism for the secondary copy. The person who designed the poster failed to make the connection between the two and notice how poorly they combined, simply because their selection happened on different planes of awareness. And this is never good.

We end this instalment of ScreenFonts with the movie poster for the surreal drama The Future. It has News Gothic capitals reversed out of the upside-down head of Miranda July, in profile and against a white background. Is it good? I am not sure. Do I like it? I think so. Why? Don’t ask me!

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12 Comments:

  1. THE FUTURE is good, because it’s by Miranda July!

    Posted by Bert Vanderveen on Aug. 10, 2011
  2. A more common English idiom would be “starting off with a bang.”

    Posted by Craig Eliason on Aug. 10, 2011
  3. I wouldn’t dare after the whole “tosser” episode! ; ) : P

    Posted by Yves Peters on Aug. 10, 2011
  4. Nice post.

    My favorite posters, in an order list:

    (1) Tabloid
    (2) Beats, Rhymes, and Life
    (3) The Future

    Really looking forward to seeing all three of these films.

    Posted by AR on Aug. 10, 2011
  5. Another great instalment, The Ledge has the edge! Thank you.

    Posted by Tristan Riguet on Aug. 10, 2011
  6. Yves – keep on sharing your opinion no matter what others knock about it. Anybody can feature design and weigh in on it (in this case key art) but not everyone has a keen eye to respectfully weigh in on it in relative terms and trends which you do intuitively. Carry on!

    My issue with The Future poster is that visually I am trying to make the title align which clearly it does not, which is distracting, frankly. Add to that the snub-nosed ‘F’ leaves me feeling, well, slighted.

    Posted by Sideshow on Aug. 11, 2011
  7. Hi Yves, for what it’s worth I find your screenfonts posts extremely informative and helpful. I’m fairly new to design and typography and I find reading these is incredibly helpful with my own work, as they relate to an area I know really well, film. So please keep ‘em coming. Who cares what other people think. We’re reading this to hear what YOU think. :)
    Oh, and for me, the poster for Another Earth is beautiful in its simplicity.

    Posted by Paul Sunderland on Aug. 11, 2011
  8. THE FUTURE is amazing!!! A stunning photo of Miranda stylized as an ancient Greek statue. Together with the title it creates a really attractive contrast. Brilliant.

    Posted by schui on Aug. 12, 2011
  9. You are dead on with your guess of Alexon for “The Ward”. Gareth told me he was trying to find a good alternative to Trajan.

    The other font used in the sequence is Cyan Sans from Wilton Type Foundry.

    Posted by Ian Albinson on Aug. 13, 2011
  10. Yves – I’m surprised you didn’t compare the Zookeeper type to that of a different Ben Stiller film with a nine-letter title beginning with “ZOO” and ending with “ER”.

    Posted by Lex Kominek on Aug. 14, 2011
  11. Must say my favourites are Terri, Perfect Host for its contrast of elegance and creepiness and the Horrible Bosses poster. I know the last one is in Gotham but when I go down to the local Odeon it’s the only thing that stands out. Or was. Everything else is pictures of that bloke from green lantern in various disguises.

    Posted by Robert O'Rourke on Aug. 17, 2011
  12. I am confused – the Horrible Bosses poster uses H&FJ Knockout. Or are the posters at your local Odeon different versions?

    Posted by Yves Peters on Aug. 17, 2011

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