ScreenFonts: Inside Llewyn Davis, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Saving Mr. Banks, The Wolf of Wall Street

Two days ago the nominations for the Oscars were announced, yet still no sign of any typography-related categories like Best Movie Poster or Best Title Sequence. On the IMP Awards website the nominees for the 2013 Internet Movie Poster Awards have been revealed; we will know who won this Tuesday, January 21st. The categories I look most forward to are Bravest Movie Poster and Worst Movie Poster, for obvious reasons. Talking about bad movie posters, according to Yahoo! Movies 2013 was a bizarre year of movie ad controversies – racist artwork for The Sapphires and on the Italian posters for 12 Years A Slave, an unnaturally slimmed-down Melissa McCarthy for The Heat, a poster for the biopic Diana at the entrance of the Paris tunnel where she tragically died in the fatal car accident, and the funny incident of a homo-erotic fan-made poster for Thor 2: The Dark World mistakenly making it into a theater in Shanghai.

I am sorry to disappoint you: I have no such juicy bits in this installment of ScreenFonts. Only one minor controversy, yet as it turns out it is not even a genuine one. Appearances can be deceiving, and the particular case of White Reindeer proves you should never jump to conclusions (something I have been guilty of myself, so I am not pointing any fingers).

The image of a young Bob Dylan wandering through New York City with his guitar is engraved in our shared cultural consciousness – remember I write from a white male European/Anglo-centric perspective. By referencing this iconic imagery the movie poster for Inside Llewyn Davis takes a clever shortcut to the viewer’s understanding. With a minimum of means it gives a maximum of information, effortlessly establishing the theme of the movie.

The eclectic letters are made to look like a hodge-podge of two or more similar-yet-not-identical wood type sans serifs, as if the print shop used leftovers from different typecases. This enhances the DIY, shoestring-budget visual language often associated with folk music. Christian Schwartz explored such “willfully uneven” typographic texture with Local Gothic which includes a random feature. In contrast it is a shame repeating characters on this poster are identical because it contradicts what the designer was trying to achieve. Manually mixing letters from typefaces like ATF Franklin Gothic, Clearface Gothic, Alternate Gothic and so on would have yielded a more authentic-looking result. The movie title is one of those compact sans serifs with an unfortunate enlarged I. Why? Not only is it unnecessary; if it is indeed an artificial small cap it makes no sense to not have the name of Llewyn Davis capitalised as well. Weird…

Breakfast with Curtis tells the story of an offbeat community of bohemians who welcome an introverted, young neighbour named Curtis into their world. I love the playful assemblage in the collage-like alternate poster, merging hi-tech – technical drawing and processed photography – with lo-tech – silkscreened background and visible pieces of tape holding the artwork together. The typeface reminds me of Pennsylvania, another one of Christian Schwartz’ faces.

The festival poster for White Reindeer was illustrated by Anna Bak-Kvapil, and art directed by director Zach Clark, who also selected the typeface.

Anna Bak-Kvapil | “The director had a very clear idea of what he wanted for the poster, right down to what outfit Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman) should be wearing. I’m always happy when someone is really specific about what they want, so for me it was just a matter of making a few suggestions. I thought it would give her figure a little more intention if she was holding something symbolic to the film; Suzanne eats candy canes throughout the movie, so a candy cane seemed like the ideal simple prop. And I wanted the whole piece to subtly feel like a Catholic prayer card, since the film wrestles with issues of morality and redemption, hence the light blue color I always associate with the Virgin Mary, and the slight suggestion of a halo around Suzanne’s head, formed by the snow and echoed by the Christmas lights. The illustration has an innocence to it that doesn’t even hint at what the film is really about (murder, orgies, strippers, coke). It’s a portrait of someone the second before their life falls apart, it’s Suzanne on the threshold of trauma and transformation.”

The loose, elegant brush script on the poster is Imitation by Harold Lohner, an interpretation of the hand-lettered titles of the film Imitation of Life, (1959, directed by Douglas Sirk, art-directed by Richard H. Riedel). Originally a lowercase-only face, it spawned two alternate versions with capitals. The first set of capitals is based on ImageLine’s “Dance of the Brush”, which in turn appears to be have been inspired by the work of Charles Bluemlein; the second set re-imagines the titles of another Lana Turner/Universal soap opera Madame X (1966, directed by David Lowell Rich, art directed by Alexander Golitzen and George C. Webb).

The beautiful main poster – lovely coloured-in black-and-white atmosphere – was designed by Brandon Schaefer, whose designs surfaced on ScreenFonts a number of times this year.

Brandon Schaefer | “White Reindeer tells the story of a young woman whose life is thrown into chaos after a tragedy befalls her leading up to Christmas day. It’s funny, and cleverly plays with the holiday in which it is set, but there’s a darkness to the humor that distances it from the saccharine-filled mush that sits at the heart of most yule-tide classics. And there’s a fair amount of cocaine.”

“The idea for the poster is fairly straightforward – cocaine lines as a Christmas tree, a way of pulling together two disparate elements together in a way that hints at what the film itself sets out to do in its own way. Bob Gill’s approach to design as idea has been a huge influence on me, and for once it was nice to be able to work out a solution that felt simple and inevitable.”

Brandon Schaefer | “Months after it was finished someone pointed out to me that my artwork bore a resemblance to a poster for Filth, where a character climbs a ladder of cocaine. After searching out the poster, while I didn’t feel that my design was a copy, I can appreciate the idea that multiple discovery doesn’t just hold true in science, but also design. I found the same to be true when BFI released a book jacket for The Shining that independently shared some DNA with a poster I’d done a year before. The same thing occurred years prior on a poster re-release I did, with a package design coming out months later running with a similar theme. Maybe the strangest example is stumbling upon a Heinz Edelmann poster from the 1960s that looks like the long lost twin to one of my ‘Berberian’ comps.”

“I think many people out there are often too ready to dismiss something as theft. Maybe because the internet offers so much at our fingertips that it is hard not to be cynical of other people’s motivations, especially when barely a week goes by without someone sharing a story of how their work has been compromised. I try to be open-minded, though, because in my experience, weird coincidences do occur.”

On the subject of multiple discovery – completely unrelated but very funny is the uncanny resemblance between one of this month’s posters in the extensive marketing campaign for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, setting the main character in all kinds of adventurous settings, and last month’s superb design for Diana. Made me smile.

Most of the posters for Venuto al mondo (Twice Born) are unremarkable at best and not very good at worst, with Trajan and Gotham in their obligatory roles. The one exception is this delightful design by Paris-based independent graphic design agency Le Cercle Noir. The olive-tinted photograph on the virginal white background is not only very classy, it somehow infuses the image of Emile Hirsch embracing Penelope Cruz with an undeniable melancholy, increasing its emotional impact. The positive/negative all-caps setting of the movie title at its bottom is suitably elegant; the delicate features of Bodoni adds to the refinement of the poster. Personally I would have preferred a contemporary Didone for a change.

Typographically speaking this second case of a so-and-so main poster and a fabulous alternate design is far more interesting. The poster for the Cannes launch of The Selfish Giant was designed UK agency All City Media. The gritty neo-industrial setting of the film is deftly transformed into stylised, retro-looking graphics in primary colours that seem to come straight out of an annual report from the sixties. Instead of resorting to the obvious Helvetica or Futura, All City Media decided in favour of a contemporary alternative. Replica performs the same function as a classic neo-grotesque or geometric sans, yet its subtly squat features and cut-off corners at the bottom of the ‘A’ enhance the industrial look of the artwork. This makes me very happy.

The idea of attaching a Mickey Mouse shadow to Walt Disney and Mary Poppins to P.L. Travers on the movie poster for Saving Mr. Banks is kind of cute. What intrigued me though was the Trajan alternative which I eventually managed to identify as Anavio.

The identifier “Trajan-alternative” is particularly appropriate in this instance, as for some reason the movie logo was recreated using Trajan. To achieve a similar typographic image the legs of the ‘K’ and the ‘R’ were extended. I have no clue why this was done instead of simply using the original typeface. By doing so it becomes apparent how much alike both type designs are in terms of basic structure, yet how the design details make them two distinctly different typefaces.

Another exceptional collaboration between a filmmaker and this time an actress is the subject of Liv & Ingmar, the documentary relating the 42 year long relationship between legendary actress Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman. The rigid geometry of ITC Avant Garde Gothic belies the poetic imagery of the movie poster. Stylistic alternates for the ‘A’ and ‘V’ were used to nest the ampersand snuggly between the two names. It makes sense but the end result looks a little forced.

Ahí va el diablo (Here Comes The Devil) gets a great vintage-looking movie poster conjuring up the horror classics from the seventies and eighties. The typographic lockup is solid, perfectly scaled and positioned in relation to the ominous silhouette of the mountain with the two children on top, and the forest of outstretched hands mimicking flames at the bottom. It is weird to notice how my opinions change about certain typefaces – I was never a fan of the ITC faces from that period, but the more I see it used well, the more I’ve come to appreciate ITC Serif Gothic. In small doses, and only in appropriate situations of course.

More flames – in their efforts to outdo each other, designers for the entertainment industry continually devise new visual effects to crank up the awesomeness of the marketing collaterals they create. Not content anymore with mere sparks that have prettified many a poster for an action flick these past few years, the movie poster for Bollywood action extravaganza Dhoom: 3 one-upped the competition by setting the actors on fire! What is going to top that!? Lava hats?

47 Ronin by Matt Ferguson

The fourth Poster Posse (Phase 1 and Phase 2) at Blurppy – the ongoing project by the self-proclaimed “purveyor of pop culture” that yielded some great alternate designs for Pacific Rim last summer – “tackles the supernatural, demons, samurai and Keanu Reeves” with a series dedicated to 47 Ronin. My favourites this time around are by Midnight Marauder, Doaly, and Matt Ferguson who relied on his trusted Futura for the typography.

47 Ronin by Midnight Marauder

47 Ronin by Doaly

I feel a teensy bit let down by this installment of the Poster Posse. Yes, most of them have great illustrations, but some are lacking in the design/typography department. For example the astonishing art Paul Shipper produced doesn’t take away that he conveniently tucked away the typography really small in the right-hand bottom corner. That is not poster design, that is a cop-out. It is also a shame that the brush scripts some designers used to reference Japanese calligraphy are of inferior quality – in my opinion the best typefaces to simulate this still are Gizmo and many of the brush scripts by Timothy Donaldson.

The rather bland theatrical poster (floating heads! dramatic poses! more fire!) uses a slightly customised Bank Gothic.

I am with Stephen Coles on this one. Not only is this poster for The Wolf of Wall Street unimaginative, the typography is surprisingly poor for such a high-profile movie, the new collaboration between iconic director Martin Scorcese and teen-heartthrob-turned-major-movie-star Leonardo DiCaprio. I fail to see the reason to have a yellow field surrounding the movie title set in all-caps FF DIN. It immediately conjured up associations with road works, rather than the stock exchange which is the setting for the film. The typographic lock-up seems hastily thrown together, and – just like Stephen observes – there is some unnecessary squooshing of type involved.

Even though they are much better designed, these minimalist posters look a bit gratuitous. Literally playing off the movie title by integrating a wolf silhouette… Come on, admit it doesn’t really add anything substantial. Instead of making me go “Aha!” these two designes elicited a meager “Meh…” from me. The typeface is ITC Century.

We end this episode in true FontShop style with this second batch of yellow-and-black movie posters, for Grudge Match. Nice concept, however the execution falls short. The coloured-in black-and-white treatment of the photos matches the visual style of vintage boxing posters. Unfortunately it makes half of the actors in them barely recognisable. I also don’t buy the choice in typefaces. Instead of going for Helvetica they would have been so much better off with a chunky wood-type inspired face in various weights and widths like Rhode or Titling Gothic, or something grittier like Garage Gothic.

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