ScreenFonts: Gravity, Bad Milo!, Captain Phillips, The Fifth Estate, Carrie

  • Fonts in Use
Fonts in Use, ScreenFonts | Yves Peters | November 19, 2013

I have a real treat for you this month. It is a rare privilege to see a poster design come to life. We open this episode of ScreenFonts with a process video by Kevin Tong. It shows the live creation of his illustrated poster for the universally hailed cosmic thriller Gravity. Sit back, relax and enjoy the video after the jump. If you happen to hear some crackling and popping sounds accompanied by a faint whiff of burnt neurons – yup, that’s your synapses frying.

The poster by Kevin Tong was commissioned by Mondo in Austin, in conjunction with the studio and team behind Gravity to be released as a piece of collectible art.

How did you approach the design? It is quite peculiar as it has no right side up.

Kevin Tong | “When I started the poster, I watched as many trailers as I could to understand a film I hadn’t seen yet. If I asked, I could have seen it early, but it seemed like too amazing a film to initially experience it on a computer. The imagery is a straightforward depiction of events in the film, but the part I tried to make special was the lack of orientation. Even early on, I knew the film was going to be wondrously dizzy and would capture the disorientating effects of space.”

This lack of orientation is echoed in the typography. The typeface is reminiscent of the square sans serifs that are often seen on posters for action movies.

Kevin Tong | “I used a font called Summit that was designed by Luke Lisi. When I started the poster, I knew that I wanted to have a modern and functional-looking font, reminiscent of NASA with hints of science fiction. I was toying with designing my own lettering when I saw Luke’s work. It was exactly what I needed, so I purchased it pretty much to use on Gravity. It’s so good, I’ll definitely use it on other projects. As for the diagonals, I stretched those out to create a split screen image, playing up the different dynamics of the film – both the emptiness of space and its dangers.”

The movie poster for The Dirties does a pretty good job at setting the scene for Matt Johnson’s awarded feature-length debut. It tells the story about two best friends filming a comedy about getting revenge on the bullies at their high school, but one of them isn’t joking. The rasterised black-and-white photograph seems to refer to both the classic portraits of students in vintage school yearbooks and the graininess of amateur video footage. Typographically speaking the design is a non-event. I see in the distressed Helvetica Condensed a gratuitous and desperate attempt at making an incredibly bland typeface less bland. “Ooh, let’s grunge it up. That’s what the kids do these days, isn’t it?” Yeah, two decades ago, you morons.

The typography, pre-grunged, works better on this almost clinical minimalist poster. Since reading Brandon Schaefer’s razor-sharp analysis of the phenomenon of minimalist posters I have become more critical about this trend. So how does this particular example hold up? Quite well I must say. You need no previous knowledge of the movie to get what it is about – a row of school lockers, one of them splattered with blood, hints at bullying in school with a very sinister twist. So that is one for the “win” column in my book.

Instead of going for a phoned-in Wild West-inspired display face, the designer of the movie poster for Running Wild: The Life of Dayton O. Hyde took an unexpected road. Colossalis is a striking 1984 design by Italian type designer Aldo Novarese, combining normal “round” counters with flattened contours. Interestingly, even though the typeface is (retro-)modern and industrial in spirit, it conjures up the same atmosphere as the classic wood type designs from yesteryear. The supporting face is the ubiquitous and more obvious Rosewood Fill, popular for its slightly awkward character shapes as it is most often used without the ornate overlay (ironically the actual design).

This is a surprising twist. Usually films have photography-based posters with the occasional illustrated variant. However every single design I found for Bad Milo! is illustration-based. The artwork for the main poster was created by UK-based illustrator Paul Shipper. Shipper drew a strangely endearing scene, turning the bizarre and sickening theme of the film on its head. His detailed, beautifully textured, and subtly angular drawing style with vibrant highlights proves he is a worthy competitor for the undisputed master of illustrated film posters Drew Struzan.

Although Paul Shipper doesn’t explicitly mention it, he seems as much a disciple of Struzan as Mark Landry who is both an illustrator and a screenwriter. Landry designed the grindhouse exploitation-style poster in collaboration with the film’s director Jacob Vaughan. On the one hand the drawing style is trashier and – dare I say? – a little less accomplished than the previous poster. On the other hand the poster does a better job at conveying the mood of the film and at providing visual clues about the storyline. However distasteful it is, having three of the characters emerge from a toilet bowl does the trick.

Akiko Stehrenberger takes the humorous route with her tongue-in-cheek artwork for Bad Milo! The horrible little monster, wearing sunglasses and riding a skateboard with part of the main character’s bowel around its neck, immediately reminded me of the mischievous – and deadly – Gremlins from my childhood.

The last variant, a minimalist poster, gets the concept of the movie across with a bloodied, partly shredded toilet roll. The movie titles in all four posters look custom to me, but our FontLists of rough brush scripts and cartoony scary scripts should get you on your way.

As you can tell from my sole contribution to Fonts In Use up till now I don’t mind going literal (and conceptual) in my own design work. Beryl Firestone does so too with her movie poster for A.K.A. Doc Pomus. The documentary about the legendary Doc Pomus (real name: Jerome Felder) who wrote such hits as Save The Last Dance For Me, This Magic Moment and Viva Las Vegas was outfitted with a poster made to look like the close-up of an LP. The orange-red and off-white colour scheme of the record label, the black-and-white inset photograph and the simple geometric letter forms of Futura perfectly work together to mimic the look of a vintage record.

Again it is disheartening to see how the addition of a floating head often devalues a design. The teaser poster for Captain Phillips is tense and gritty, and everything a poster for this type of thriller should be. The framing of the image suggests it was taken either accidentally or stealthily – one of the crew members observing from a hiding place how the pirates climb aboard. As it may even take the viewer a second or two to decipher the scene in the mostly darkened photograph, the poster efficiently sets the paranoid tone for the story.

Unfortunately inserting Tom Hanks’ portrait in the oppressive dark area – which proves to be so efficient in building up the tension in the teaser poster – largely neutralises said tension in the main poster. Gone is the feverish tone, the feeling of fear and uncertainty, the anticipation of the cat-and-mouse game between the pirates and the captain, and that is really a shame. The narrow straight-sided display sans in both posters is Tungsten.

Almost every single month while preparing the upcoming installment of ScreenFonts I curse my obsessive-compulsive side that forces me to go through every single movie poster of the past month (over one hundred for this post). However this systematic search on Metacritic invariably makes me find some beautiful, wondrous or plain bizarre designs. One of the arresting posters for October is this gorgeous artwork for the documentary The Institute. The poster is not credited on the IMPAwards website, but the early to mid-20th century German/Swiss photo-montage style, desaturated colour palette and exclusive use of Futura leaves little doubt this is the work of Mark Weaver. You may remember the celebrated New York-based art director, designer, and illustrator for his amazing sleeve design for How To Destroy Angels, featured on The FontFeed three years ago.

When I contacted Mark Weaver he however had a slightly different story to tell. He did indeed create the original illustration in 2009 for a poster promo that the Nonchalance people were putting up around San Francisco. It had nothing to do with the film. In fact Mark had no idea they were even making a documentary about their Jejeune Institute project until people started tweeting and emailing, asking if he made the poster or if someone else was emulating his recognisable collage style. It seems Nonchalance repurposed the image for the movie poster and designed all the typography, so technically Mark didn’t design the poster. Because he never set up any usage rights for the image Mark is not sure if he can do anything about it at this point. At any rate it would’ve been nice of them to reach out to him and ask it if would be OK to use the original illustration in a movie poster.

Just as arresting, but for very different reasons, is this movie poster for the low budget black-and-white science fiction / corporate conspiracy thriller / family dramedy Escape From Tomorrow. Shot guerilla-style in Disneyland this movie obviously is looking for controversy – the official movie website even has a ticker counting the “number of hours since release that we haven’t been sued” by the mighty Mickey Mouse company. What, the bloody Mickey Mouse glove and signature lettering style didn’t give it away? Almost one and a half month of absolutely no reaction? It must be disappointing for the makers of the film, probably banking on some high-profile free advertising, that Disney apparently doesn’t give a rat’s… errr… mouse’s ass.

Once you start noticing similarities between certain movie posters you get the impression you see more and more of them. That is why discovering this alternate poster for All the Boys Love Mandy Lane immediately raised a red flag. After I Know Who Killed Me, I Can Do Bad All by Myself and Colombiana, this is the fourth face-in-a-brightly-coloured-flower-on-a-black-background that has been featured in ScreenFonts, and the second red one since Colombiana two years ago. Could there really be a finite number of film poster themes, and are the poster designers slowly but surely running out of possibilities? The movie title on the other hand is wholly original – it was written by hand.

I am afraid I was so fixated on the archetypical posters for romantic comedies with horizontal bands that I failed to recognise this possible parallel (no pun intended) trend. The movie poster for The Fifth Estate seems to belong to a movement in film poster design where the main protagonists also are positioned in horizontal areas. Yet in this case it’s not the two people that will eventually fall in love (or reconcile or bond in any other uplifting way) but the two antagonists that will face off. Maybe I should examine this further to see inhowfar it actually is something recurring or just some disparate examples. Gotham fulfills its duty as the new ubiquitous movie poster typeface, the successor to Trajan.

Whereas most people compare remakes with the original films to see how well the new version holds up against the original, I am of course intrigued to see the differences in how they were marketed. The original 1976 poster for Stephen King’s Carrie is a triumph of campy B-movie exploitation. Strangely the poster already gives away most of the film, as we see Carrie both before and after her terrible powers manifest themselves. The wavy movie title indicates this is the heyday of photocomposition with its optical distortions; the supporting face is ITC Korinna.

It gets even crazier with this alternate version on the left with ITC Souvenir. It injects psychedelic colours into a stylised rendition of Carrie with the small burning house at the bottom looking like it comes straight out of a cartoon.

The stylish version on the right reminds me of the controversy four years ago surrounding the alternate poster for Precious that seemed to be a rip-off of Lanny Sommese’s 1987 Rape Line poster. This even earlier design also features a shattered female silhouette with a hand with outstretched fingers at her crotch. I doubt there is any relation, but it still made me do a double-take.

The teaser poster on the right for the remake aims to be classier but ultimately also is a lot blander. Gone is the excitement of the outrageous original, replaced by a painted-by-numbers horror design using – how could it be anything else? – Trajan.

The variant on the left is somewhat better. The blood is less excessive and subtly juxtaposed against the single tear. Fracturing the movie title set in Gill Sans typographically visualises the broken, torn soul that is Carrie.

The sole reason why I added this last series of posters for Toad Road is because they are outright gorgeous. They perfectly capture the dark, disconcerting mood of this “portrait of contemporary youth culture, where the lines between reality and fiction are blurred with often frightening results.” Don’t expect any clever analysis from me, nor comments about the wood type-inspired skyline sans. Sit back, relax and enjoy these beautiful designs. We’ve come full circle.

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4 Comments:

  1. The Carrie remake poster made me do a double-take when I saw it. Is it a new trend or just a rip-off of last year’s Evil Dead remake poster? Hmm.

    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-0Gy4L18Sdro/UKwAOvJky0I/AAAAAAAAQlY/v2akHiJuTvk/s1600/evil_dead-poster.jpg

    Posted by Zach on Nov. 20, 2013
  2. thanks for this great article!
    just letting you know that i’m a HER not a HIS :)

    Posted by Beryl Firestone on Nov. 21, 2013
  3. Oh noes, simply assuming you are a man makes me look like a horrible sexist pig – far less lovely than the one on your website. ; )
    Joking aside, terribly sorry about the mix-up. I had no idea what gender to attribute to your first name as I had never heard it before. Belgian non-native speaker and all that, you know. Fixed. : )

    Posted by Yves Peters on Nov. 21, 2013
  4. Thanks! All feels right in the world now.

    Posted by Beryl Firestone on Dec. 3, 2013

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