Design and Layout • Inspiration ScreenFonts 8: Letters and Light

The previous ScreenFonts looked at posters that were literally painted. In this follow-up, I focus on artwork where the painting happens figuratively.

It’s important not to be reductive about the concept of painting in movie posters. Some designers find novel ways to suggest painting with light, emulating classic art movements with photography; others play with letters and words to create variations on ASCII art. And Illustrator can become a powerful tool for imitating airbrushed art.

Honey Boy

© 2019 Amazon Studios. Poster design by La Boca.

Honey Boy is Shia LaBeouf’s account of his complicated relationship with his father during his chaotic childhood and early adult years, as he struggled with mental-health issues. Call it cinematographic catharsis: LaBeouf penned the script as a form of therapy for PTSD during his court-ordered rehab. Award-winning independent design studio La Boca created two remarkable posters: the “rotatable head” version was used as an official alternative poster; the “handstand” version announced a public/open competition run by Amazon to design a poster for the film. In an email, La Boca’s Scot Bendall revealed that Amazon Studios’ initial brief was actually for one poster, but in the end, two were chosen from the initial roughs they presented.

The “handstand” poster portrays LaBeouf’s father in his rodeo clown outfit performing one of his signature stunts with his feathery partner-in-crime, Henrietta LaFowl. The world’s first daredevil chicken also makes an appearance as the counter for the ‘O’ in the title treatment. While the wonky letterforms trample on every imaginable type-design rule, the lettering—custom work by Scrap Labs for the movie’s title sequence—is exactly what the film calls for and looks great in context. Bendall explained that the unusual paint-by-numbers style of the art was achieved by using a combination of Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop: “We follow a similar process for the majority of our images. The basic outline is drawn in Illustrator, and then transferred to Photoshop for coloring and refining.”

© 2019 Amazon Studios. Poster design by La Boca.

The “rotatable head” poster referencing the duality of Noah June’s young Shia LaBeouf is a fantastic take. Because the text is completely rotatable, too, this is a rare example of a poster that works in either orientation. “The concept of a rotatable happy/sad face isn’t new, but we thought it would be a good solution for this film considering the duality of the moods expressed,” Bendall wrote. “However, we knew there would be challenges to get the illustration working effectively, so initially we sketched quite a lot to test different elements. From this, the basic outline of the head was drawn in Illustrator and then transferred to Photoshop for airbrushing. Once in Photoshop, there were further stages of experimentation with color and shading, mostly to help the image rotate clearly. The shading is all done using a Wacom Intuos within Photoshop. We realized at this stage that the image was more successful when simplified, so we removed certain elements we’d already drawn, including a pair of glasses and hair.”

© 2019 Amazon Studios. Poster design by La Boca.

Akiko Stehrenberger’s official secondary poster works both in the literal and the figurative sense. The strings on the puppet are a nod to how LaBeouf’s father pulls his strings, but also reference the wirework stunts Shia did from a young age. Director Alma Har’el asked for a completely different typeface from the rest of the other posters, something with an old Barnum & Bailey circus typeface feel, a typographic choice that’s perfectly in tune with the film’s subject matter. Stehrenberger chose Jim Parkinson’s Modesto. Based on a lettering style popular with sign painters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this type family evolved from letterforms Parkison developed for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus logo.

© 2019 Amazon Studios. Poster design by Akiko Stehrenberger

The Report

© 2019 Amazon Studios. Poster design by LA

© 2019 Amazon Studios. Poster design by LA.

You can make the type match the art, but you can also have the type be the art. There are different ways to paint with text. For example, you can take advantage of the different densities of the characters in a monospaced typeface to build your image—a ‘W’ has a higher stroke density and produces a darker building block than a comma. Another technique is to change the typeface weight in continuous text to alternate shadow areas using bold and black weights, with lighter parts in thin and light weights.

LA took a different approach for The Report, with varying results. To reference the redacted reports at the heart of this crime drama, based on a true story, densely set text was used as a texture for the actors’ portraits. The main poster is the least successful of the two. Instead of changing the weight of the typeface to make the image appear in the text, a photograph was used as a mask. Because the type is packed together so tightly and the contours sharply defined, the effect looks rather ham-fisted. The version with the lone Adam Driver works much better. Evenly spaced lines of text, delicate rendering of the different shades of gray, and a thoughtful repartition of floating lines of text breaking through Driver’s silhouette lend the artwork a more sophisticated appearance.

The typeface used to create the images is Times New Roman, a direct reference to the standard fonts used in government documents and reports. The movie title is clever: Alternate Gothic on top of a censor bar, with the word “torture” blocked out in red, but just readable enough to allow the viewer to fill in the gaps.

The Lighthouse

Why, you may ask, include P+A’s posters for The Lighthouse in an episode dedicated to painted artwork, since they clearly use photography? Because (a) they are gorgeous designs, and (b) the image for the teaser poster draws on influences from emblematic art movements, using photography as if it were painting. The pronounced contrast between light and dark recalls the chiaroscuro technique popular in seventeenth-century baroque paintings; the dramatic cloud formations and tumultuous ocean have nineteenth-century romanticism written all over them. Notice the blink-and-you-miss-it appearance of a mermaid’s tail breaking through the waves.

The main theatrical one-sheet features large portraits of the movie’s stars while still avoiding the “floating-heads” trap. Having them bleed off the canvas at opposite sides opens up real estate at the center of the poster for the movie title and other textual information. The choice of typeface is fitting for the setting of the film, a New England island in the 1890s. The Walden Font Co.’s Oldkirk channels typical nineteenth-century serif types, complete with irregular, worn-down features.

I don’t have irregular, worn-down features. No, I like to picture myself as having been gently polished by time—it’s all a matter of how you phrase it, really. I only ask that you exercise a little patience while I gently polish the next episode of ScreenFonts until it’s fit for publication.

© 2019 A24. Poster design by P+A.

© 2019 A24. Poster design by P+A.

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