Design and Layout • Inspiration ScreenFonts #6: Slicing Letters


See how movie poster designers carefully select typefaces—and then slice and dice them.


In this episode of ScreenFonts, I’m torn between two opposite points of view—my awe and respect for the considerable effort it takes to create a well-designed, performant typeface on one hand, and my conviction that there should always be room for experimenting and straight-up messing with even the most impeccably crafted letterforms on the other. Let’s take a look at what designers did with the type in the posters for Hatsukoi (First Love), Always In Season, Gemini Man, Ad Astra, The King, Célébration (Yves Saint Laurent: The Final Show), Gisaengchung (Parasite), and Monos.

© Well Go USA Entertainment. Poster design by Palaceworks, Inc.

Replacing and Removing

One of the most straightforward things one can do with letters is replace one or more with nonalphabetic shapes to reinforce or alter the meaning of the words they spell out. Palaceworks, Inc. used this strategy in their vibrant theatrical one-sheet (27" × 40", the most common film-poster size in the United States) for Hatsukoi (First Love). To reflect the darkly comedic violence in this crime drama by legendary Japanese director Takashi Miike, the photograph was turned into an explosion of colors, making the actors resemble cartoonlike characters. The blood spatters covering the bright yellow movie title make abundantly clear what kind of story the viewers should expect.

Having the heart icon stand in for the letter ‘O’ is a logical choice—it’s the emoji equivalent of “LOVE” and, as such, reinforces the meaning of the word. Even though the symbol is not a letterform, our brain automatically sees it as such, allowing us to read the title without any problem. Not just any heart shape would have worked; its design matches Compacta’s straight sides and tight, minimal curves.

These formal attributes make the typeface very forgiving of extreme compressing and stretching, as evidenced by the trailer. They are also found in typefaces like Countach and Address Sans.

© 2019 Multitude Films. Poster design by Caelin White.

Caelin White—half of Palaceworks, Inc.—designed the exquisite, harrowing key art for Always in Season as a personal project. (Key art refers to the iconic image at the center of a movie’s marketing campaign.) In an email, White explained that the woman pictured in the poster is Claudia Lacy, the mother of Lennon Lacy. His tragic (and suspicious) death figures prominently in Jacqueline Olive’s documentary.

White made a powerful statement by replacing the ‘O’ in the movie title with a noose. This substitution not only works visually—the round shape is a perfect proxy for the missing letter—but also conceptually on many levels. Eschewing sensationalism, White kept the noose empty and positioned it literally in the back of Claudia Lacy’s head. The emptiness is a metaphor for the physical and emotional absence created by her son’s death, a devastating loss she will carry with her for the rest of her life. The noose plays a dual role—it also becomes part of the infamous photo of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in 1930. The tense rope draws a metaphorical straight line connecting current racial violence to this historical act of racial terrorism, implying that little has fundamentally changed over the past century, despite many apparent changes. By removing the bodies of the victims, the underlying message of the man facing the viewer while gleefully pointing at the empty noose becomes even more chilling. The image stops being about this specific lynching; it becomes a sickening warning to all African Americans that this happened, is still happening, and can happen again.

While it became quite popular in the heyday of dry-transfer lettering, the weathered Caslon Antique was originally released as a metal typeface in 1896. Three Islands Press publishes historical typefaces with authentic-looking worn letterforms.

© 2019 Paramount Pictures. Poster design by BLT Communications.

You can also remove a letter altogether and create something out of nothing. In Gemini Man, Will Smith faces his younger self in an intense game of cat and mouse. This concept is typographically mirrored—pun intended—in BLT Communicationsearly poster for Ang Lee’s action thriller. Instead of replacing the letter with something else, the ‘N’ in Gemini is conjured up by making the distance between the two ‘I’s in Gemini exactly as wide as the ‘N’. The two opposing triangular counterforms complete the letter by omission. Rift or Korolev Compressed have similar sleek, narrow letterforms.

© 2019 Twentieth Century Fox. Poster design by Works Adv.

Cutting and Slicing

Figuratively cutting corners by literally cutting corners off of existing letterforms to create “original” custom logos or typefaces is often the target of disdain—there’s even a Tumblr devoted to this dubious practice. Nevertheless, removing parts of letters can still be a viable way of customizing a movie logo. While the modified ‘R’ succeeds in lending Ad Astra’s logo a futuristic look, the typeface it is based on is underwhelming. Century Gothic is a reworked copy of a copy—a digital version of Twentieth Century Gothic, Lanston Monotype’s answer to Futura, redrawn to match the letter widths of ITC Avant Garde Gothic (which explains the very narrow ‘S’). I would suggest recreating the logo by using a stronger design like Ysans, for example.

While the typography they had to work with leaves much to be desired, Works Adv did a nice job with the teaser sheet (the early promotional poster featuring a basic image or design that doesn’t give too much away). The warped image of an astronaut floating in pitch-black emptiness successfully conveys the sense of mystery and adventure central to the film.

© 2019 Netflix. Poster design by Bond.

A different cutting technique involves removing the hairlines in a serif face to produce a stencil design, as seen in Bond’s theatrical one-sheet for The King. The hyperdetailed portrait of a somber, pensive-looking Hal—wayward prince and reluctant heir to the English throne, clad in battle-worn armor, face and hands covered in soot—reflects the internal and external conflicts he is struggling with. The incomplete letterforms seem to symbolize his unreadiness and unwillingness to assume the role he is being thrust into. Butler Stencil was digitally slanted for the movie logo. Because this modification typically distorts curves and causes undesirable shifts in weight, a better alternative might be to start with an italic design—like Utopia Display Italic, for example—and then cut away the unwanted parts.

© 2019 Kimstim Films. Poster design by Midnight Marauder.

Creating a sans serif face by lopping off the serifs in a serif design often causes a strange, undefined sense of familiarity. Midnight Marauder’s key art for Célébration, documenting French fashion legend Yves Saint Laurent’s final show, features the system font Myanmar (a.k.a. MN Latin). This Latin counterpart for a number of Indic fonts bundled with Mac OS X looks like Times with amputated serifs. In a private conversation on Twitter, Midnight Marauder told me that the typeface was a last-minute switch at the request of the filmmakers, because they used it for the domestic poster.

“It was a tricky project,” Midnight Marauder wrote. “The screen grabs from the film were a variety of different lo-fi camera and phone shots. There weren’t that many good ones, and the image quality was pretty bad. On top of that, these were Yves Saint Laurent’s final years: he was quite ill and isn’t looking very good in the documentary. Plus, he chain-smoked, hence the cigarette.” Midnight Marauder distracts the viewer from the source material’s poor quality with unusual cropping of the movie still. Having YSL’s head bleed off the page can be seen as a metaphor for the tragic fact that he is “on his way out.”

Sans serifs with a pronounced contrast between thin and thick strokes commonly get associated with high-end fashion. Your Adobe CC subscription includes Minerva Modern, Quiche Sans, and IvyMode. IvyMode offers an extended range of ligatures and an exciting selection of combining and  interlocking capitals for sophisticated typesetting of titles, headlines, and logos.

© 2019 CJ Entertainment. Poster uncredited.

Recombining and Recreating

Typographic chimeras were big in the nineties, at the height of the grunge boom. Affordable type-design software allowed novices and experts alike to deconstruct existing typefaces, cutting apart the characters of two or more different fonts and recombining them into hybrid designs. This strategy was used in the theatrical one-sheet for Korean tragicomedy Gisaengchung (Parasite). The movie title was created by grafting serifs onto Gotham bold sans serif letterforms. Combining two typefaces is a clever typographic metaphor for the movie’s central theme: families from two extreme ends of the class spectrum in modern-day South Korea cross paths, with the family of the unemployed Ki-taek ingratiating themselves into the lives of the wealthy and glamorous Parks. The censor bars covering the eyes of both families (black for the poor family and white for the rich one) reference director Bong Joon Ho’s commentary on identity and social class.

While the poster exists in a few variants, I chose to show this version for how the tagline “misplaced familyhood,” set in Adobe Garamond, is flawlessly positioned in the image, centered in the shadow cast by the awning, with the curve of the final ‘D’ grazing the separation between the glass door and the brick wall. On a final note, there are existing typefaces from the grunge period that would have been perfect for this film, notably P. Scott Makela’s iconic Dead History.

© 2019 Neon. Poster design by Sander Brouwer.

© 2019 Neon. Poster design by Sander Brouwer.

In an email interview, Dutch designer Sander Brouwer explained that he got involved with Colombian drama Monos because it was a coproduction between multiple countries, the Netherlands being one of them. “Director of photography Jasper Wolf and colorist Laurens Orij—both Dutch—were already on board through that coproduction portal when I was approached,” Brouwer wrote. “Development of the typography was well underway when I started to collaborate on the title design with the great Cooper & Gorfer, two amazing artists/photographers hailing from Gothenburg, Sweden.” Brouwer subsequently created the promotional materials for the festivals, the art for Mica Levi’s soundtrack, and finally the theatrical posters for Colombia and Argentina. “From the initial title designs to final theatrical posters, the project spanned a period of two years.”

Two of the posters reprise scenes from the film. “Director Alejandro Landes wasn’t looking for an idea or concept, but wanted to focus on emotion: how does the artwork make you feel?” Brouwer wrote. “While Monos deals with war, it is not this big spectacle where heroes fight for survival on the frontlines. It is a contemplation of the physical and mental aspects of adolescence, seen through the window of armed conflict. The movie homes in on the emotions of child soldiers serving under an absent leader, caught up in an abstract war. The flare shooting up in the sky feels like a magical shooting star; the image of the kids wading through the river and marching through the jungle almost comes across as playful and adventurous. I wanted to focus on that conflicting balance.”

© 2019 Neon. Poster design by Sander Brouwer.

© 2019 Neon. Poster design by Sander Brouwer.

The third poster is an abstracted image of colored smoke released by a smoke grenade. “It is a powerful element in the film”, Brouwer wrote. “When seen through the eyes of the children, this object of war becomes a totally awesome, playful, and colorful thing. There’s an energy to the image that resonated with both Alejandro and me. Even though it wasn’t really commercial, the visual has been used on various promotional materials in Colombia, from standees to press passes.”

The final poster was part of a triptych used for festivals and the Colombian premiere. “With this series, I played up the gold aesthetic and the iconic and poetic imagery,” Brouwer wrote. “This one felt like the main image somehow. It is pretty literal: losing your mind in the jungle playground/war zone. The main protagonist’s head—Rambo, played by Sofia Buenaventura—transitions and fades into the trees where the rest of the pack stand in a slightly playful way, like monkeys.”

© 2019 Neon. Billing block designed by Sander Brouwer.

For the typography, Cooper & Gorfer wanted to create something tangible that had an adventurous aesthetic. They hand-cut two separate versions of each character from large pieces of black paper cardboard. Each glyph (a glyph is a representation of a character) was then photographed over a gold-painted surface to create a link to traditional gold-leafing, which is deeply rooted in Colombian culture and gave the typography an adventurous feel. The photographs were then imported into Adobe Photoshop, where they were isolated and positioned by hand, each glyph in its own layer (except for the opening titles of the film, which were laid out manually and then photographed as a whole).

“We worked on the layouts like monks, tweaking and animating the characters for the film titles using Photoshop and After Effects,” Brouwer wrote. “The scale of the project made us consider turning the photographed and cut-out images into a working digital font with a variable randomizing the position and rotation of the glyphs. The pressure to reach the first deadlines and the authentic feel of the human touch—where everything is done by hand—however, made us move forward with what we had, manually positioning every single glyph. Building the poster’s billing blocks and the scrolling end titles took us ages, but it was well worth doing it."

Witnessing such dedication and perseverance is almost enough to make me tear up. Best wishes for the new year! I hope you find plenty of design information and inspiration in the 2020 installments of ScreenFonts.

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