Movie posters – like hand-painted billboards – are in danger of becoming a lost art. From Reynold Brown and Saul Bass through to Richard Amsel, Bill Gold, Drew Struzan and John Alvin, some of the world’s most celebrated visual artists have worked in the medium of commercial film posters, but the ever-increasing commoditisation of movie marketing has meant that trailers, posters and other promotional materials are farmed out to giant firms who use focus groups to determine what will offend the absolute least number of people. As a result, the hand-crafted creativity of many golden age film posters is totally absent in modern promotional campaigns, and we’re left with two things: dumbed-down, inoffensive blue/orange monstrosities, and an obsession with posters showing only actors’ faces.
But that’s not to say that creative movie poster art no longer exists, it’s just not being utilised by the major studios any more. Independent film distributors continue to be adventurous with their poster designs, just two recent examples being the wonderful artwork accompanying the festival appearances of Steve McQueen’s Shame, and a series of posters for Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in its U.K. release. But even further down the chain, far away from the mainstream Hollywood machine, is a scene teeming with vitality: fan-created film posters.
The phrase “fan-created” might imply some sort of unprofessionalism, but these people are incredibly gifted artists whose passion for their subjects is obvious. Often their work is created for theatrical re-releases of classic films in a single city, adorning the lobbies of independent cinemas such as the famous Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, but just as often it is created for no reason other than the love of movies and movie poster art.
Hollywood would do well to give a few of these artists a call. It just might revitalise the promotion of mainstream American films once again.
Who have I missed? Do you have a favourite illustrator working on film posters? Let me know in the comments.
1. Ken Taylor (Melbourne, Australia)
Ken Taylor is a local legend in the Melbourne music scene for his distinctive album covers and tour posters, which he creates for local and international artists alike and can be found in street press and on underpasses all over the city. Recently he has turned his talents to movie posters, and has shown with his work on horror posters that he is a master of finding and expressing the tone of a film. Melbourne music’s loss is international film art’s gain.
2. Olly Moss (Winchester, England)
Perhaps the most well-known artist on this list, Moss’s work became so popular that his poster for Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator ended up finding its way onto the cover of the film’s Criterion Collection release, and a set of his Star Wars posters can fetch up to $8,000 on eBay. That’s an eight and three zeroes. Amazing.
3. Laz Marquez (New York, NY)
I first found Marquez through his “Hitchcock Re-envisioned” series, which was yet another Saul Bass inspired series of posters for classic films, but with every new poster he puts up on his website I am more and more impressed with his use of block colour and symmetry to represent iconic images from films. Most of his work fits into the “fan art” category and wouldn’t work as actual promotional film posters, but you can’t deny that this Aliens poster would make you want to see that movie.
4. Phantom City Creative (Toronto, Canada)
Phantom City Creative is a design studio with fingers in many pies: branding and web design, packaging, and even film titles and motion graphics. They also design series of film posters based on themes such as 80s films (Back to the 80s!) and the work of Vincent Price, which you can buy from their online store. I currently have their Vincent Price series sitting in a wardrobe waiting to be framed and placed on my wall, and the artwork, similar in style to Ken Taylor, is magnificent close up.
5. Todd Slater (Austin, TX)
Like a number of others on this list, Slater makes his living by designing tour posters for artists such as Ween, Neil Young and Phish, but occasionally he will come out with something like his impossibly complex pointillist poster for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and remind everybody just how uncreative Hollywood posters really are. Cinema lobbies would feel less like Minority Report and more like art galleries if artists like Slater were let loose on the film industry.
6. Jeff Proctor (Portland, OR)
One thing that some of the artists on this list possess is an uncanny ability to play with shading and outlines to give their posters a slightly comic book feel, only on a much larger scale, but none have a command of shading quite like Proctor. Just have a look at the fantastic two-tone on the Hobo’s face and clothing in his Hobo With a Shotgun poster, which aesthetically isn’t entirely unlike a classic film noir. Tell me he wouldn’t do some great work for Quentin Tarantino.
7. Fernando Reza, a.k.a. Fro Design Co (Los Angeles, CA)
The ridiculously prolific Fro designs in a number of styles, from work channeling the typography-focused and heavily symbolic posters of Saul Bass to more detailed character illustrations, and he seems to have a new poster or three up for purchase on his store every week. My only criticism of his work is that it just isn’t big enough; my prints of his Saul Bass tribute series (in which Toy Story and A Clockwork Orange get the Fro/Bass treatment) could only be improved by being embiggened.
8. Adrian Tomine (New York, NY)
Adrian Tomine is a cartoonist and illustrator whose work has adorned the covers of New York Magazine, the New York Times Magazine and a number of CD covers and tour posters. To date his only work in the film industry was to create a number of drawings inspired by the Yasujiro Ozu films The Only Son and There Was a Father for their Criterion Collection packages, but they are so beautiful in their minimalism that it would be a shame for him not to continue working on film art.
To see the design process behind The Only Son / There Was a Father, check out this post on Eric Skillman’s blog.
9. Chris King (Yorkshire, England)
Chris King’s work doesn’t surface nearly as frequently as most others on this list, which is a shame. With a steaming mug and a well-placed patch of blood in an endless expanse of snow, he managed to summarise Fargo far better than any of the film’s official posters do.
10. Sam Smith, a.k.a. Sam’s Myth (Nashville, TN)
Working for the Criterion Collection would have to be the pinnacle of achievement for a commercial artist interested in cinema, and Smith has illustrated a number of DVD packages in the collection as well as promotional posters for Janus Films’ theatrical film releases. My personal favourite of his work would have to be the bizarre cat illustration based on the 1970s Japanese haunted house horror-comedy House, which is so perfectly evocative of the film’s manic craziness that it makes for what surely must be the strangest, but coolest, T-shirt in my wardrobe.
Check out his blog for some brilliantly detailed rundowns of the design process behind some of Criterion’s most celebrated packages, such as Solaris, Carlos and Modern Times. (And check out Eric Skillman’s blog Cozy Lummox for more.)
Bonus: Daniel Clowes (Oakland, CA)
Dan Clowes doesn’t really count as a Hollywood outsider, since he’s a working screenwriter who has adapted his own comic books into a couple of brilliant (if relatively lesser-known) indie comedies in collaboration with Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World, Art School Confidential). But his comic book illustration pedigree led to him designing the covers for two Samuel Fuller films in the Criterion Collection, and the results are nothing short of perfection. Illustrated Criterion covers are unfairly maligned in some circles, but I bought those two films blind just so I could have that fantastic artwork on my DVD shelf (and it didn’t hurt that Sam Fuller is a director of great renown). I’d love to see more of his artwork on DVD covers in the future.