In this age of digital photo composition and technological wizardry, we may forget that movie posters started out as a purely painted art form. The first movie poster ever dates from 1895. It advertised Louis Lumière’s L’Arroseur Arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled) with an illustration of the audience enjoying the 49-second comedic short. (Previous posters focused on the quality of the recordings or the shows’ technical novelty, not the actual films.) In the 125 years since then, countless posters have been expertly painted and hand-lettered, and many early gems have become collector’s items. Take, for example, Heinz Schulz-Neudamm’s international poster for Fritz Lang’s seminal Metropolis: one of four surviving copies sold for almost $700,000 in 2005. Only many decades later, photography would be introduced and gradually take over as the main medium for movie posters. However, even now, painting—with paint and/or pixels—remains a vital presence in film-poster art.
Ford v Ferrari
Because Photoshop allows artists to reach such a high level of sophistication when creating photographic imagery, it is nearly impossible to determine whether the artwork for LA’s main theatrical one-sheet for Ford v Ferrari is an actual photo-realistic painting or simply made to look that way by judiciously using filters. Whatever the case may be, the image deftly mimics the repro quality from the sixties, the time period the movie is set in. I specifically chose to show this poster for its tasteful color palette and great use of white space (well, it’s actually a delicate off-white, but I digress). The large area of emptiness feels eerily oppressive. It seems to push down the main protagonists—Matt Damon as visionary car designer Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as pilot Ken Miles standing next to the race car—all the way to the bottom of the canvas. The layout drives home the fact that they are the underdogs in the story, defying corporate pushback and the laws of physics as they engineer a radical automobile for Ford in order to beat Ferrari at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Compacta’s bold, confident letterforms match the artwork thematically and historically. Released in 1963, Fred Lambert’s design was the first original Letraset typeface and a signature sixties display face. Coloring the two main words with the exact shades of pale blue and darkish red sampled from the image combines well with the rest of the type in simple black and lends the artwork a wonderful consistency.
It’s impossible to discuss painted film posters these days without including Tony Stella. The immediacy and raw energy of his paintings—sometimes spontaneous watercolor sketches, sometimes intricate masterpieces—are engrossing. Based in Berlin and Milan, Stella started creating handmade posters for a small Munich cinema club in the late nineties. “Even the type was hand-painted or stenciled: I had no computer then,” he told me in an email interview. “Sadly, they are all lost now. I’ve always painted, but, once I applied my art to my passion for cinema, everything came together.”
Two years ago, Stella teamed up with the equally talented Midnight Marauder to form the design studio Alphaville. “We started collaborating through our Tumblr pages and haven’t stopped since,” Stella said. “It was so much fun to react to each other’s contribution. I am always amazed at how Emmanuel (Midnight Marauder) enhances my work, as if he puts my art in the perfect frame. After a few years of doing the back-and-forth, we decided to make it official. We still mostly work on our own projects, but when we come together as Alphaville you get the best of both worlds.”
The Ford v Ferrari poster was a self-initiated project. “When we are doing a side project to get some buzz or just to practice and have fun, the process is pretty simple,” Midnight Marauder wrote in a separate email interview. “We start by throwing out a few upcoming film titles, share some research, and then Tony just does his thing. It’s spot on pretty much all the time. After I get his art, I start laying out all the text to produce the final artwork.” “The available source material was not great since the film had not been released yet,” Stella continued. “I don’t make any sketches—I prefer to let the process determine the outcome—so we usually end up with a few versions; two, in this case. I tried to get as much of the story as possible in the illustration. The real Ken Miles makes an appearance because I had but so few angles on Bale. For me it is important to switch styles, to find what’s appropriate for the film. I am always excited when I get to channel the sixties because it’s the last great golden age of illustration.”
The poster makes great use of Roger Excoffon’s Antique Olive Nord. The classic French sans serif projects power and speed; see also Excoffon’s iconic 1964 advertisement for Air France’s Caravelle and basically the entire Fast and Furious franchise. “We wanted to explore different fonts that matched each illustration, not just slap the same text on it,” Midnight Marauder wrote. “This project took us less than a week to complete, and we were pretty happy with the end result. We’re very proud that the posters are now framed and hanging in director James Mangold’s office.”
Daniel Isn’t Real
Jock’s electrifying artwork for the psycho-thriller slash body-horror slash cosmic fever dream Daniel Isn’t Real earned him the Excellence in Poster Design prize at last year’s SXSW Film Design Awards. While the three-time New York Times best-selling British artist is best known for his work in comics, he also produces key art and concept design for films. (Key art is the iconic image at the center of a movie’s marketing campaign.) His energetic style varies from vigorous hand drawing to striking digital paintings.
In an email, Jock explained his technique. “I always start with small ink drawings, done by hand, then scan them into Photoshop to play around with color ideas,” he wrote. “For Daniel Isn’t Real, I developed a few basic concepts before showing them to director Adam Egypt Mortimer and the team at SpectreVision. I wanted to infuse the image with an otherworldly quality, slightly abstract, with strong, ethereal colors. We settled on the ‘morphing heads’ concept, as it seemed to encapsulate the story and allowed for a strong lead image.”
Starting from this initial idea, Jock got to work, trying out different tones and textures. “I find Photoshop incredibly powerful for this stage of work,” he wrote. “It gives me a lot of freedom to experiment, and with a project like this, much of the problem-solving can come out of this stage. An adjustment layer can give the drawing an unexpected feel, or combining layers can often offer a whole new take on the subject. It was during this time that we lost the extra ‘demonic’ head and just had two faces.”
“I liked the heavy reds, which I guess has a more traditional horror feel, but when I hit on the more ethereal final color palette I knew that was the way to go. I used mostly Kyle Webster’s custom brushes to paint the faces and details, constantly altering the composition and type placement as I went, before settling on the final piece that everyone was happy with.” Daniel’s head—the imaginary friend—tearing away from Luke depicts mental anguish in a haunting, almost palpable way. The painting crackles with maleficent energy to match the feverish luminosity of the artwork, the type acquired a searing white glow. The typeface, Grand Central, is a wonderful example of typographic archeology. Tobias Frere-Jones researched the late-1920s capitals hand-painted on the walls of New York City’s Grand Central Station and turned them into a refined, stately all-caps typeface in two weights.
Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire)
While I understand the reasoning behind picking the brush script Fair Prosper for the domestic poster for Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), the writing looks too systematic and deliberate. Charles Borges de Oliveira is a master of sign-painter scripts, with Sarah Script and Alpine Script exuding a similar atmosphere. For the main theatrical one-sheet, Palaceworks Inc. designed an original logo that conveys the concept of an artist’s signature on a painting much more accurately. Gizmo and P22 Cézanne have similar stroke qualities and irregularities in their design.
It feels only right to end an episode dedicated to painted posters with Akiko Stehrenberger, who created the stunning official secondary one-sheet for the French romantic drama. Her artwork explores the intimacy and attraction that develop between the painter and her subject as the two women orbit each other. What at first seems like simply a flame painted with thick, textured brush strokes reveals itself to be the counterform between the profiles of the two women moving in to exchange a tender kiss.
In an email, Stehrenberger explained how she achieved the rich texture of the paint. “I started painting in thick acrylic, but it wasn’t giving me the physicality I was hoping for once I brought it into the computer,” she wrote. “Then, I used pieces of stock photography of oil paint daubs to really bring out the dimensionality.” Stehrenberger rearranged and reworked Palaceworks’ original logo to fit at the bottom of the poster. “For the title treatment, I used acrylic and photographed it. It has less dimension, but I didn’t mind that because the title needed to stay legible.” This simple intervention makes the writing resemble the way an artist’s signature might have been painted on a canvas.
Unless I spontaneously combust the next time I kiss my beloved wife, I will serve up another selection of film posters in an upcoming episode of ScreenFonts. Until then.