Slices from the posters for the films posters for Us, Greta, The Hole in the Ground, I’m Not Here, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Black Mother, Knife + Heart, and An Elephant Sitting Still

ScreenFonts #1: A New Home

By Bald Condensed

When I started writing about type and typography, I decided to use pop culture to explain how type works. The result was ScreenFonts, a series that combines movie poster reviews with font recommendations, which has appeared in spots around the Internet almost nonstop for the past thirteen years. For ScreenFonts’ premiere on Adobe Create Magazine, I’ll look at posters for Us, Greta, The Hole in the Ground, I’m Not Here, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Black Mother, Knife + Heart, and An Elephant Sitting Still. In many of these, the typography cleverly hints at the movies’ themes.

THE DUPLICITY OF US

© 2019 Universal Pictures. Poster design by LA.

After his critically acclaimed (and commercially successful) directorial debut Get Out, Jordan Peele returns with another horror thriller. Us follows a family whose beach vacation is ruined by the sudden appearance of terrifying doppelgängers. In LA’s theatrical one-sheet (27" × 40", the common film-poster size in the United States) Lupita Nyong’o takes off a mask that looks exactly like her, revealing her terrified expression with bloodshot eyes and tears streaming down her face. This visual metaphor for the evil-twin theme is deftly mirrored in the typography: two superimposed scripts struggling for dominance. Merging two or more typefaces was fairly common in the 1990s, at the peak of grunge. These days, the use of this technique as a shortcut for creating new type designs is frowned on, but as a one-off for this poster, it’s a valid and appropriate typographic solution. To achieve a similar effect, try combining a constructed, low-contrast script like Parkside with a finer, more calligraphic design from the Bluemlein Script Collection, and then experiment with relative size and overlap.

© 2019 Universal Pictures. Poster design by LA.

LA’s teaser sheet (a term for an early promo poster with a basic image or design that doesn't reveal too much) zooms in on the golden scissors wielded by the doppelgängers. More than their weapon of choice in the movie, the scissors—composed of two identical halves facing opposite directions—symbolize the duplicity of the characters. The supporting typeface is Caslon; Adobe Fonts offers many digital versions of the enduring classic that gave birth to the adage “When in doubt, use Caslon”—notably the versatile Adobe Caslon and Matthew Carter’s distinguished Big Caslon.

© 2019 Universal Pictures. Poster design by LA with art by Caelin White.

Caelin White—who recently joined Erik Buckham at Palaceworks—created the gorgeous black-and-white art for this painterly teaser by LA. In an email, White told me that she didn’t have much to go on because the film was so secretive. “The idea of a black dot in an all-white painted canvas immediately popped in my head,” she said. “I thought a Rorschach blot motif would be a cool way to show the duality of Lupita’s character—one happy side and one angry side.” It is remarkable how White managed to achieve an ethereal, impressionistic effect with such strong, expressive brush strokes. Bodoni Italic is a good match; its simple, refined letterforms don’t interfere with the painted art.

HOOKED ON GRETA

© 2019 Focus features. Poster design by P+A (left). © 2019 Focus features. Poster design by Bond (right).

More subtle typographic games crop up in the campaign for psychological thriller Greta, in which a lonely widow befriends a sweet, naive young woman unaware of the widow's dark and deadly agenda. In P+A’s inventive painted one-sheet, Isabelle Hupert’s affectless eyes foreshadow her evil intentions, as Chloë Grace Moretz is very literally on her mind. But it’s Bond’s teaser sheet that makes us understand how clever the choice of typeface is. The sans serif sporting the slightest suggestion of serifs is the typographic equivalent of the fish hook, a metaphor for how the widow reels in her unsuspecting victim. Alexon RR is very much a product of its time: sans serif typefaces with tiny, sharp serifs were popular mainly in the 1970s and ’80s. Angie Sans is similar, but with increased contrast and a softer finish more in tune with contemporary tastes. See also Civane.

PLAYING WITH OS

© 2019 A24. Poster design by P+A.

Two more posters play with type. P+A’s poster design for the Irish horror thriller The Hole in the Ground defies the rules of conventional typesetting. Arranging Zuzana Licko’s iconic Mrs Eaves as a rectangle set in forced-justified capitals, the designer enlarged the O to represent the hole of the film title with the initial THE nested inside. The difference in spacing of the small IN and THE is barely noticeable because they are neatly aligned with the letters H and LE above them. Despite the unusual placement of the words and the inconsistent tracking, the title reads correctly with no problem. Mrs Eaves has three sizes of capitals. Besides the capitals and Small Caps, it also offers the rare Petite Caps that are as tall as the x-height. This allows adventurous mixed-case setting: capital forms alternating with lowercase forms.

© 2019 Gravitas Ventures.

I wasn’t going to include the workmanlike key art for I’m Not Here until I noticed that it also focuses on the O. Or rather, doesn’t focus—the letter is blurred to signify the main character’s struggle with his tragic memories. Engraver’s Gothic is generously spaced across the entire width of the canvas. Quite a few sans serifs have similarly wide styles, like Benton Sans Wide and Ingra Wide.

THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND

© 2019 Netflix. Poster design by Rhubarb (left). © 2019 Netflix. Poster design by Rhubarb with art by Akiko Stehrenberger (right).

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is based on the best-selling book and true story of William Kamkwamba, who, at age thirteen, found a way to save his family and village in Malawi from famine. Rhubarb’s theatrical one-sheet features the wind turbine he built from blue gum trees, bicycle parts, and random materials collected in a local scrapyard. Interestingly, the painted poster by the wildly talented Akiko Stehrenberger takes the opposite approach, focusing on the end result instead of the windmill itself. In an email, Stehrenberger explained that the cornstalks in her painting are a constant theme in the movie. “It’s what drives William to find a solution for bringing water to the village via electricity,” she wrote. “I also felt it was a good way to suggest the wind.”

The poster shows Kamkwamba looking up, partly obscured by crops blowing in the wind. Having some of the stalks in front of the movie title adds dimensionality to the art. The typeface is the custom Netflix Sans, a modern take on the neo-grotesque genre. If you feel like venturing off the beaten path, try Forma or Aktiv Grotesk. If you’re really adventurous, give Heimat Sans or Navigo a go.

A LOVE LETTER TO BLACK MOTHERS

© 2019 Grasshopper Film. Poster design by Midnight Marauder.

In an email, poster designer Midnight Marauder told me he explored two avenues for the documentary Black Mother, Khalik Allah’s loving and lyrical ode to Jamaica. One solution interpreted Allah’s visual poem as a richly textured collage akin to Peter Beard’s art. “While they responded well to this design direction, those posters revealed too much,” Marauder said. “There were too many notes: You could stare at the artwork and see pretty much every frame of the film. Nevertheless, they were fun and liberating to design, like giant puzzles, so I want to try to develop this style in the future.”

He came up with a few simple, straightforward options as well. One of them became the final key art: a high-contrast black-and-white photograph on a vibrant orange ground of a black mother, radiant and brimming with self-confidence. (Key art is the iconic image at the center of a movie’s marketing campaign.) To complement the striking but sparse key art, Marauder chose Spartan, Mergenthaler Linotype and ATF’s American answer to Bauer’s massively popular Futura. If you like the simplified letterforms of geometric sans serifs but want to steer away from the usual suspects, try contemporary alternatives like New Hero or Urbane.

A KNIFE TO THE HEART

© 2018 Kinologie. Poster design by Le Cercle Noir.

The blood-infused Un couteau dans le cœur (Knife + Heart) tells the story of Anne, a producer of third-rate gay porn, who gets caught up in a strange murder investigation. A crow kissing star Vanessa Paradis in Le Cercle Noir’s theatrical one-sheet references the single crow feather found next to each murder victim. The dreamlike, highly symbolic image bathes in an otherworldly purple-pink glow. Add to this the neon treatment of the film title and you’re thrown back to the hedonistic heyday of Seventies auteur cinema. The compressed sans has a peculiar deco-inspired shape for the K that also appears in Komu A.

© 2019 Altered Innocence. Poster design by Alphaville.

Almost exactly a year ago, Midnight Marauder formalized his collaboration with illustrator/painter Tony Stella as Alphaville. Together they create sophisticated painted key art, like this alternate poster for Knife + Heart. Stella skilfully built an upside-down actor stack capped by the crow around the bloodied murder weapon. As with the previous poster, Marauder’s thoughtful typography here recalls neon letters. Piccadilly—among the winners of the Letraset International Typeface Competition in 1973—is a neon-tube interpretation of Broadway-style lettering, in the same way that Neonstream and HT Neon mimic neon scripts.

ELEPHANT IN THE MIST

© 2019 Kimstim Films.

© 2019 Kimstim Films.

I end this episode with the Chinese drama Da xiang xi di er zuo (An Elephant Sitting Still). In this furious tale of nihilistic rage, four protagonists turn their backs on their lost former lives and set out on a journey to find a circus elephant said to be sitting still, seemingly oblivious to the pain and tribulations of the world. The posters translate the deeply human, deeply moving story into visual poetry. One of the main theatrical one-sheets shows the four figures, literally facing away from the world, silently observing the titular elephant emerge from the mist; another exudes a crushing melancholy, with all four standing or sitting in a desolate landscape, indifferently facing the audience. The split-screen design visualizes the act of abandoning one’s life, only showing the backs of the characters’ heads. Finally, the wonderful two-tone poster is reminiscent of mid-century experiments: a black-and-white image of the four superimposed on a silhouette of the landscape, interrupted by forceful calligraphy traversing the entire width of the canvas.

The marketing campaign is a beautiful yet flawed example of multiscript typesetting. Using a rough, rhythmic script to match the Latin characters with the shape and texture of the Chinese logograms makes the translation seamlessly integrate with the original film title and director credit. Unfortunately, the spacing of the Latin is all over the place—the word Sitting in particular falls apart. This makes me suspect a subpar free font was used. For a professional textured brush font, look no further than Flood. The stylized Banshee adds a little swing.

Despite my best efforts, I’ve been unable to find a circus elephant to stare at in my immediate vicinity. Instead, I guess I’ll stare at more film posters in preparation for the next episode of ScreenFonts. Can’t wait? Search for the hashtag #ScreenFonts on Instagram and Twitter for my succinct film poster commentary.