in Profiles | 12 JUN 05
Featured in
Issue 92

Screen Print

Illustrated posters are a creative antidote to insipid commercial film marketing

in Profiles | 12 JUN 05

The design of contemporary film posters tends to be driven by the assumption that potential audiences favour the bland. Photographic-montage portraits of the major stars dominate the field, with backgrounds being reserved for the indication of genre. A bunch of heads placed against a swirly-whirly setting usually denotes fantasy, but the same set of mugshots put in a frame of plain white space could be a sign of a Stiller-esque caper. Promoting uniform experiences dressed up in so many ways, these images sell commercial film at its worst.

Very occasionally, however, marketing releases its grip on graphic style and allows an interesting image to come to light. Among the most surprising of these are the few illustrated posters that still make it to the advertising hoardings. Think of Juan Gatti’s designs for Pedro Almodóvar’s films or the cartoon image for last year’s sleeper hit Sideways – a poster that enabled a rather trite film to pose as off-beat. Not only do these designs stand out from the norm; they also stand apart from each other. The process of translating a film into a hand-drawn image is never straightforward, and the nature of the gap between what is represented on the poster and what happens on the screen is different in every case.

Contemporary illustrated film posters inevitably hark back to some indeterminate golden age, but it is important not to be too sentimental about their forebears. Hand-painted hoardings were, and in some cases still are, the product of brutal economics; the wages of the artist were often less than the cost of printing. Likewise, photographic posters only took off when the technology for reproducing these kinds of images became cheap and readily available. But even where budgetary considerations were the driving force, illustration added a dimension that is missing from most of today’s cinema advertising. Celebrated examples include the Italian watercolours of the 1950s created by artists such as Anselmo Ballester and Ercole Brini. Although they produced easily recognizable portraits of stars, both home-grown and Hollywood, these commercial painters exercised plenty of artistic licence, sometimes to the extent of dreaming up new movie scenes. Also remarkable is their attention to the details of dress – the texture of cloth as it drapes round a body, the exact number of beads on a bracelet – a concern that must have struck a chord with a style-conscious Italian audience.

Polish and Czech film posters, the best of which were designed between the mid-1950s and the late 1960s, offer an even more straightforward example of hand-crafted images being used as a means of cultural emphasis. Foreign film screenings were relative rarities and needed no advertisement, so, from the state’s point of view, rather than being promotional images, these posters were intended to recast film scenarios in symbolic, often abstract terms and thereby render them appropriate for a socialist audience. Meanwhile, for artists such as Henryk Tomaszewski and Jan Lenica, film poster design presented a rare opportunity for unbridled image-making. Sadly Eastern Europe’s film poster tradition languished well before its socialist politics: by the late 1970s Polish and Czech audiences were being lured with the same slew of market-driven images as the rest of us.

The very last outpost of the illustrated film poster was Bollywood, but latterly, even there, the traditional painted image has begun giving way to photography. India’s film-going preferences may remain resolutely local, but their graphic taste seems to be veering in a global direction. These days it seems the only place to receive a reliable dose of illustrated film action is on the pages of the famed eschewer of the photographic, The New Yorker. Of course, the regular drawings that appear on the magazine’s listings pages are not advertisements, but they do engage in the same process of reworking cinematic motifs. The pleasure of these images often derives from their literalness. Many of them are nothing more than hand-rendered versions of particular scenes, but there is something undeniably transforming about the time spent in drawing the action.

The illustrator Tomer Hanuka has contributed to The New Yorker listings for the past five years and remembers that initially it was very hard to disengage from movie poster conventions. His instincts at the outset were to create a portrait of the lead with a composite of the action in the background, but this kind of promotional image turned out to be the very opposite of what the magazine wanted. These days Hanuka watches the film in question with his sketchbook in hand, scouring it for scenes that are ripe for illustrative translation. He is less concerned with narrative than with pure cinematic form, the example he gives being the ambitious choreography of a table tennis match in The City of Lost Souls (1983). Although this may seem a bizarre way to view a film, it turns out to be a rigorous test of its worth. Commissioned to illustrate Ocean’s 12 (2004) Hanuka viewed the film several times but was unable to find a single image on which he could maintain his hold.

In April this year the independent director Todd Solondz oversaw the release of his film Palindromes accompanied worldwide by an illustrated poster. Solondz argues that he is able to get away with this kind of advertising because his activities fly too low for the radar of the marketers. No one really cares, he claims. Possibly this is true, although maintaining a tight grip on the manner in which your films are promoted can be a means of exercising directorial muscle. The most auteurial of auteurs, Otto Preminger, was famed for the vigilance with which he policed cinemas, making sure that they promoted his mid-1950s films with the authorized Saul Bass-designed symbols rather than snatched images of their stars.

The recipe for Solondz’ films is a well-known blend of parental and social abuse, paedophilia, disability and loneliness. Palindromes conforms to this formula, with abortion thrown into the mix. The poster, drawn by Kathryn Rathke in a fairy-tale style that refers to turn-of-the-century illustrators such as Sir John Tenniel, may be a means of softening the blows. It discourages audiences from viewing its heroine Aviva as a ‘Child X’, the personification of ‘issues’ (Solondz’ inverted commas). This proposition is emphasized in the film by the distancing device of having the main character, a child-hungry 13-year-old girl, played by several different actors, including two grown women and a boy. Effectively the poster acts as an overture to the film, aiming to put the audience in an appropriate frame of mind. Whether Solondz’ ploy works is for viewers to judge. But, successful or not, it is undoubtedly a much worthier strategy than piling your stars high and selling your movie cheap.