The endangered art of the movie poster
MANILA, Philippines - What compels you to watch a movie in the cinemas?
Maybe it’s the chilly trailer, condensing the horror in 30 seconds. Maybe in the spectrum between rotten and fresh, it ranks closer to the latter in Rotten Tomatoes.
Or maybe, for seemingly superficial reasons, Scarlet Johansson in a leather suit is just too good to pass off.
However, there was a time when all it took was a disruptive, compelling, hand-drawn poster to draw people to the box office. From the intricate to the iconic, posters were drawn to capture the mood and feel of the film - a visual preview for the discerning moviegoer.
In our local milieu, pop-culture enthusiasts like Lourd de Veyra and Erwin Romulo have lamented the decline or extinction of the hand-painted billboard - a predominant accent in the bygone scenes of Avenida and Escolta and, until the recent decades, at the intersection in Cubao.
Before the replication of real-life images became sharper and crisper, before Photoshop began to reign over the design industry, film posters conveyed an artistry that was a form of visual hyperbole. Incorporating bold strokes and oddly juxtaposed visuals were meant to depict a movie character’s struggle against terror, with sinistral colors in scarlet and black and deep purple thrown into the mix.
Most of today’s crop of posters hinge on a comparatively banal treatment, with a celebrity’s face occupying a sizable real estate on the poster. The focal point of movie posters has since shifted from hyperbole to headshot, leaving the delicious dirty work to the trailers.
But all is not lost - there is a movement involving pop-culture historian Matthew Chojnacki and several artists around the world who believe that two-dimensional images can still evoke emotions such as awe, fascination, terror, and excitement. The book "Alternative Movie Posters: Film Art from the Underground," which Chojnacki published in collaboration with those artists, tackles that.
How image transforms into icon
Chojnacki is a freelance writer of music and film. His first book, "Put the Needle on the Record," is a compendium of vinyl-cover art - which complemented the genre of movie posters in both their heyday.
He comes from a time when movie trailers were not as ubiquitous and as casually shown as they are now. “I grew up on hand-drawn film posters like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘Back to the Future,’” he said.
Chojnacki identifies the main quandary that movie posters sought to address during the pre-Photoshop age. “With both film and music, the same dilemma exists,” he said. “How does a musician or filmmaker grab the consumer with a two-dimensional image? It’s much harder than it seems.”
He cites the now-classic movie poster for "The Exorcist” as an example, which, he said, created a “chilling, unsettled feeling” for moviegoers. “It was a simple image that perfectly sold the film without being graphic or relying heavily on celebrity headshots.”
It took Chojnacki more than a year to scour the Internet for reappropriations of movie posters, which included callouts via social media. He selected 100 artists from over 20 countries after reviewing nearly 10,000 images. “The artists were very supportive of the project,” he said. “All were very motivated to help move the underground film-art movement forward in a collective manner.”
Some of them are Chad Kimes from the United States, Jessica Lazaro from the Philippines, and Rowan Stocks-Moore from the United Kingdom.
Kimes usually goes by the mononym Chod. He has been a fixture in the Ohio arts scene, having been commended by both the Cleveland Press Club and the Ohio House of Representatives.
“I don’t think that there is a movie that has affected my outlook on the world as much as Fight Club,” he said in the Q&A section of the book.
Heavily influenced by both horror cinema and comic books, Kimes has been drawn to art since he was 3. His clearest recollection of being drawn to art was by a book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales with Benvenuti’s illustrations. Drawn to the colors of gore, Kimes toes the line between horror and drama.
“There are a number of different ways to come about capturing the correct emotion for a poster,” he said. “The easiest is facial expressions on characters. But then you can play with things like atmosphere and composition.”
At 22, Lazaro is one of Rappler’s prized creatives. She has a penchant for things vintage, from 1980s romantic comedies to ultra-feminine silhouettes inspired by the fashion of the Fifties and Sixties. Lazaro said she went through a John Hughes phase, making it a point to watch one Hughes film every day.
Lazaro started coming up with alternative movie posters before her graduation from college in 2011. She did them for fun, while at the same time flexing her creative muscles. “Sometime last year I received an email from Matthew Chojnacki asking if he could include 'The Royal Tenenbaums' and 'Pretty in Pink' in the book he's working on,” she said.
For her posters, Lazaro zeroes in on the iconic, easily identifiable elements in the film, and re-appropriates them. “When I do posters, my goal is to recapture the film in one image such that it would trigger memories and emotions one had while watching it.”
Lazaro draws inspiration from little details such as characters’ outfits, hairstyles, the colors of the set, props. “Scenes that make you sob or laugh - these things make me want to watch them again,” she said.
Liverpool native Rowan Stocks-Moore is a freelance graphic artist, working on a range of projects from book covers to event posters. He's a huge Disney fan, also influenced by the gothic stylings of Tim Burton.
“I have a dark sense of humor, and have always liked the gothic films of Tim Burton such as 'Edward Scissorhands' and 'Beetlejuice,' so they have been a big inspiration on my macabre treatments of the Disney films,” he said.
Stocks-Moore’s artwork is tinged with the dynamics of light and shadow. His contribution to the book references whimsical stories such as "Bambi" and "Peter Pan."
“Many of Disney's films, such as 'Bambi,' feature dark elements such as murder, jealousy, and black magic,” he said. “Although Disney films are aimed mostly at children, a lot of my friends in their twenties and thirties still watch the films, and will notice references to more adult-oriented themes that they didn't notice when they were children, so I wanted to recognize that in my work.”
A lost art?
Chojnacki’s book is his tribute to the art of movie posters. Call it nostalgia, call it a fixation over things past, but he laments how most mainstream movie posters have turned into.
“Many of the traditional artistic styles are now missing in mainstream movie posters,” he said. “Most movie posters these days merely communicate the cast of a motion picture. The true "art of the one-sheet," as it existed very strongly in the '50s -'80s, is now rarely seen. Film posters used to motivate a viewer to see a film - to create intrigue and really give the feeling of what to expect from the movie.”
For Chojnacki, most of today’s movie posters, in their replication of realism, have ironically grown more ho-hum than provocative. In that sense, a movie poster has been reduced from agent provocateur to feature placeholder.
“While independent films often still create impressive posters, as do a select group of [works by] directors Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Tim Burton, almost all mainstream films are assembled in Photoshop using celebrity imagery, and this is often well-defined in an actor's or actress' contract,” Chojnacki said. “The poster artist has so many rules to work with that they are constrained into making a very diluted piece. The true art is therefore missing from these releases.”
The featured posters range from campy to cult favorites, from current to classic. Each contributing artist sought to capture the movie’s essence - the reappropriation of Kimes’ "Fight Club" poster, for instance, aims to reflect the main character's struggle against his inner demons.
Yet some works take on a seemingly different spin from the original posters. Stocks-Moore transforms Disney-fan favorite "Bambi" into a more macabre appropriation, highlighting the tragedies that befell the characters.
Lazaro cites the persuasiveness of thoughtful visual hyperbole as something that could still titillate and excite the viewer. "In an ideal world we'd be seeing work like those of Saul Bass everyday," she said. "Despite the overwhelming number of commercialized posters though, from time to time we'd still see well-thought-of posters that draw you in and make you excited about a film."
Stocks-Moore believes that, so long as moviegoing remains the culture, movie posters will still be very much in demand. “Cinema-going is still a much loved pastime, because it [has] much more to do with the experience of being with friends and seeing a film on a big screen in a communal atmosphere than just seeing the film itself,” he said.
Chojnacki agrees, adding that alternative film posters can serve as an inspiration to the current crop of studio artists and film marketers. “Underground film posters are now in much more demand than anything official emanating from the studios themselves,” he said. “Poster art is clearly back with a vengeance.” - Rappler.com
'Alternative Movie Posters: Film Art from the Underground' will be launched in major online bookstores worldwide on October 28.