ScreenFonts: Watchmen, Sunshine Cleaning, Slumdog Millionaire, Duplicity, The Great Buck Howard

I hope you all enjoyed a happy Easter (and Easter Monday for us Europeans), and possibly some time off last week and/or this one. My wife and I are just back from a week in Egypt, just enough to recharge our solar batteries. The FontFeed seems to have dozed off a little during my absence, so let’s remedy this with a brand spanking new episode of ScreenFonts. It looks like I’m getting back on track with the movie poster reviews – we’re exactly halfway April and here’s the overview of the March releases.

I don’t know if I brought this up yet – as I confessed in my TypeRadio interview at TypeCon2005 NYC I am an avid reader of American comic books. Legendary author Alan Moore’s limited series/graphic novel Watchmen is one of the seminal works in that field. I have yet to find out how faithful and/or relevant Zack Snyder’s movie is as I didn’t get the chance to see it yet, but the character teaser posters do a very good job at translating the comic book covers to the movie poster format, with the recognisable vertical Watchmen logo in yellow Futura Condensed to the left. It struck me that however much I dislike this farce of a face I have to admit the logo actually looks really good. This may have to do with Corey Holms cleaning up the original logo – read his recent interview on LetterCult (thanks Dion).

The trade dress of the comics has been subtly updated: the black bar behind the yellow logo is gone, and the characters partially cover the letters, adding dynamism and depth to the design. The only thing I can’t figure out is… why does the word Watchmen run upwards in the original comic book covers, but top-to-bottom on the movie posters?

Both the “general” teaser poster and the official movie poster abandon this concept and have the Watchmen logo horizontally oriented. The teaser poster actually is a quite successful combination of the cover art for the 1987 U.S. (the broken window) and 1995 U.S./UK/Canada (the blood-stained smiley) collected editions of Watchmen, published by DC Comics and Titan Books. Yet I can’t shake the feeling it would’ve looked much stronger with the vertical logo. The main movie poster is a fairly generic ensemble shot of the movie’s protagonists. I guess some persistent marketing bozos had a hand in this disappointing and overly commercial take.

:: U P D A T E ::
Andrew Percival, Senior Vice President and Creative Director at Mojo, LLC. was so kind to send us some further explanations about the rotation of the Watchmen logo.

In an earlier iteration of this campaign look, we were experimenting with trying to contain all of the type elements (the title, the date, the studio logos, urls, etc) in a column on the left of the posters, leaving only the copy line to float dimensionally across the remaining space – marrying both the graphic novel’s sensibilities and the type treatment of the film’s opening title sequence.
 
To do this we swung the title around 180 degrees and moved it up giving us a pleasing horizontal at the bottom of the title allowing for the date etc to fit in comfortably below. This also had the added value, that the title was now more legible. With the characters obscuring much of the logo, to have the title read more conventionally top to bottom, and have the key part of the title – ‘WATCH’ – be much more visible, was a real advantage. All good so far.
 
Where it was a little compromised was when we were asked to move the studio logos and date away from the title and to blow it up, so that it ran top to bottom, to further aid legibility. No longer was the rationale for the title rotation evident, and thus for some people, like yourself, it may have seemed a slightly surprising choice.

The movie poster for Tokyo is equally disappointing, at least to me, and for what most may call a futile reason. Let there be no mistake – I do like the concept and general look. Brightly coloured neon signs are very effective at conveying the bustling atmosphere of the metropolis, and the tasteful colour scheme nicely unifies the design.

Yet unlike the idiosyncratic and beautiful design for “Tokyo” (does anybody know if this is a typeface or a custom designed logo?) Helvetica which is used in the surrounding signs is completely miscast and doesn’t say “neon” at all. No need to exaggerate – please stay away from designs that are too literal like Harlow or Santa Fe –, but simply using a sans serif typeface with rounded ends already would’ve worked a lot better. And for a clever contemporary interpretation of neon-style typography I highly recommend Jonathan Barnbrook’s Echelon.

This is fun. The movie poster for Sunshine Cleaning takes a scene from the movie (check the trailer) and substitutes the bloodied mattress with the movie logo. Not only is the movie from the producers of Little Miss Sunshine; the poster as well is reminiscent of that one, with the same narrative approach and clean colour background. The typeface is ITC Century, the one with the half serifs inside the “h”, “m”, and “n”.

As far as posters for horror flicks go the movie poster for The Last House On The Left isn’t bad at all. The saturated black and white picture of the house looks almost like an illustration, and emanates the right amount of menace. Yes, I know it’s that tired old Trajan again, but the stacked setting in white and red with the blood splatters is just right.

Slumdog Millionaire has a very colourful and kinetic movie poster. It cleverly combines several elements from the plot to provide a narrative structure for the poster, giving the viewer a very good idea what the movie is about. The scintillating colours are gorgeous, and subtly hint at the buoyant Bollywood style. The typeface used for the movie logo is a bit of a dud. Crackhouse has been overused in the previous decade. Furthermore I’m not sure stressing the slum aspect by using distressed type was the best choice. I’d have preferred something flashy and more television game show-ish. Or maybe even go all the way and pick an Indic-looking display face? Pulling this off without getting corny may be a little tricky, but I think the more stylised designs like Mata Hari, Modakshar or Indoo are viable options.

It’s always surprising to see how adding a tiny detail to a specific typeface can immediately conjure up the right connection. For example I’m pretty sure nobody would have second thoughts when seeing a movie title set in all caps Stymie Black. Yet add the little bunny head as a dot on the “i” in Miss March and suddenly the title at the top of the movie poster is unmistakenly recognisable as the logo on a Playboy magazine cover – needless to say that last link is not exactly SFW. I really like the immediate impact this simple and straightforward solution has. The image is standard comedy fare, but that’s all right with me. It is what it is.

Juxtaposing the carefree image of the three brothers playing on the swings with the harsh reality of two brothers at war with the third as a spectator lends the
movie poster
of Brothers at War a wistful, melancholic mood. The top part exudes an innocent joie de vivre which is accentuated by the almost posterised image quality with deep greys and heavy black, turning the three boys into exuberant silhouettes. Maybe I’m looking too much into it, but my interpretation is that the two brothers letting go and jumping off the swings are the two that leave the security of their homes to go to the front, while the third one hangs onto his swing and stays behind.

I have a natural aversion to anything that relates to flag waving and patriotic imagery, but just like with the poster for Crossing Over the American flag is very tastefully integrated into the overall image. Unlike the latter poster the typeface is well chosen this time. Alternate Gothic is a true American gothic which is commonly used in the military, both for lettering and in the recruitment campaigns in recent years (together with the ubiquitous ITC Machine, Interstate, Klavika, United, and others).

I have the impression the United Nations finally accepted the “one movie starring Clive Owen per month” quota proposed by Hollywood, similar to the “one movie starring Jude Law per month” quota of two-three years ago. Naw, kidding aside, Duplicity has one classy movie poster. The slanted bands featuring the high-contrast portraits of the two leads are nicely positioned in a sea of white, with tasteful all cap typography and subtle orange accents. The design is clearly contemporary but has a pleasant nostalgic sixties feel about it. Sticking the small type underneath the movie title was an excellent idea.

I’m not so hot for Century Gothic, although I am starting to warm up to it. The fact that its design is slightly rough about the edges makes me prefer it to Futura. The type does seem to slide off the poster a bit though.

I find the movie poster for Sin Nombre both beautiful and striking. The movie title combines a slightly weathered Neue Helvetica 97 Black Condensed with Linotext, set in all caps. The uneven setting and minor spacing problems caused by this unusual pairing lend the title an “authentic” atmosphere that nicely complements the cinéma vérité style image. Having all the text grouped with the movie title in the top half creates an image with two clearly separated focus points; the other one being the group of people sitting on top of the train wagon at the bottom of the poster. The solemn gaze of the woman in front and the barely perceptible sadness in her eyes irrevocable draw the attention of the viewer. Subdued yet powerful stuff.

I don’t have much to say about The Great Buck Howard, except that I find the centred structure of the movie poster impeccable. It is conceptually perfect – the only off-centre element is the “law school dropout [who], much to the chagrin of his father, becomes the new assistant to an illusionist in decline”, illusionist who is at the centre of attention, and quite literally in this poster. The aforementioned decline is hinted at with much humour in the somewhat derelict marquee at the top. Plastic Helvetica caps? In this particular case it is a must, over-the-top “WA” kerning an all. Great job.

This is a tad unfortunate. The movie poster for 12 Rounds basically is 21 Grams meets The Bourne Ultimatum with a whiff of 16 Blocks. Even the two large digits are identical to the ones in the 21 Grams movie title. It is set in one of my favourite compressed sans display faces, the somewhat lesser-known and mighty fine Aurora Condensed.

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17 Comments:

  1. Posted by dion-b on Apr. 16, 2009
  2. Great info; thanks for that, Dion! I’m adding this to the main article.

    Posted by Yves Peters on Apr. 16, 2009
  3. great article. i love the buck howard poster. beautiful.

    Posted by mishka on Apr. 16, 2009
  4. great post as always. i think slumdog should have been hand-lettered. it’s all about writing your destiny (and the check!). :)

    Posted by k on Apr. 16, 2009
  5. i think slumdog should have been hand-lettered. it’s all about writing your destiny (and the check!). :)

    Actually this is a great suggestion; that would indeed have been the most appropriate solution. I once reviewed the poster for Hotel Very Welcome which had letters that looked cut out in paper, also a possibility.

    Posted by Yves Peters on Apr. 16, 2009
  6. Fantastic as always sir!

    the poster for 12 rounds looks so familiar to me, but I could never quite pin it down to what movie.. now Im thinking it was a combination of a couple :)

    And as odd as it might sound, the lowercase at for the Brothers at War poster feels misplaced.. it might be the lesser of two evils, but I wonder how it would have looked if it was still smaller, but capitals, instead?

    Thank you as always!

    Posted by Alex Charchar on Apr. 18, 2009
  7. Thank you very much. Combining movies and typography is a great topic.

    Posted by Flxb on Apr. 18, 2009
  8. hey!
    FIrst time visiting your blog and I only can say

    Chapeau!!

    I already added it into my favourites

    Regards from Spain!!

    Posted by octavio on Apr. 21, 2009
  9. Whenever “2″ and/or “1″ are featured on a movie poster there seems to be an unwritten rule that states that they have to be slanted and coloured red. Or is it just me?

    More evidences:
    http://www.imdb.com/media/rm1571200256/tt0349903
    http://www.imdb.com/media/rm1155108864/tt0478087

    Posted by Winter on Apr. 21, 2009
  10. Slumdog should have used the type they used for the ending credits. Would have looked much better.

    Posted by Sully on Apr. 21, 2009
  11. Hi there,

    I dig what we are doing here, this combo of Movie and Typography is really exciting. You right about the fact that many, many, times some “marketing bozos” make the last call and tear down a fresh concept in a movie poster.

    Posted by Mauricio Rams on Apr. 21, 2009
  12. Hey i just realized that the neon signs look more like hongkong, tho tokyo does have neon signs but these designs are more like the old sch neon signs typical of HK, plus there are more Kanji than the other alphabets, reducing even more the japanese feel, there’s too little katagana and hiragana

    Posted by Marcus on Apr. 21, 2009
  13. Whenever “2” and/or “1” are featured on a movie poster there seems to be an unwritten rule that states that they have to be slanted and coloured red. Or is it just me?

    There are a number of obvious trends in movie poster land, and you could very well be onto something here. I’ll keep that in mind for future reference.

    Slumdog should have used the type they used for the ending credits. Would have looked much better.

    I haven’t seen the movie yet – I’ll catch this one on DVD – so I don’t know what the end credits look like. What typeface or lettering was used?

    And welcome to all the new readers; thanks for the compliments. Made my day. :)

    Posted by Yves Peters on Apr. 22, 2009
  14. tokyo does have neon signs but these designs are more like the old sch neon signs typical of HK, plus there are more Kanji than the other alphabets, reducing even more the japanese feel, there’s too little katagana and hiragana

    You just proved they’d better have hired someone like you as consultant for the poster design. Very interesting – I wasn’t aware of any of this!

    Posted by Yves Peters on Apr. 22, 2009
  15. That expanded lowercase type on the “Buck Howard” poster reminds me distinctly of “Catch Me If You Can,” another Tom Hanks success.

    Posted by Erica Endicott on Apr. 22, 2009
  16. That is Univers Extended. Catch Me If You Can uses Neue Helvetica Extended on its poster, and the opening title credits do wonderful things with Ray Larabie’s Coolvetica (a nice idea but not so very well drawn font) and Jason Walcott’s Hellenic Wide.

    Posted by Yves Peters on Apr. 22, 2009
  17. While we’re on the subject, check this glorious Simpsons spoof of Catch Me If You Can with a dash of James Bond at the end. ;)

    Posted by Yves Peters on Apr. 22, 2009

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