ScreenFonts #1: A New Home
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
HOOKED ON GRETA
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
THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND
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
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
ELEPHANT IN THE MIST
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.
May 15, 2019