In honour of the Smithwick’s Soundtrack Series, which sees BARQ and Le Galaxie perform their unique interpretations of two iconic film soundtracks, we’re taking a brief look at the history of film posters.
Talented illustrator Brian Coldrick is the mastermind behind the artwork for the Smithwick’s Soundtrack Series gig posters. As briefs go, Brian says the Soundtrack Series project was as fun as they come, and it wasn’t before long that we began discussing the role film posters play in modern cinema.
“When I got the call about working on this project I was very excited. It was a fun project and brief. Movie posters are an interesting art form,” he explains. “But I wouldn’t say they’re dying. They fell away and now they’re experiencing a resurgence as wall art.”
In modern blockbuster cinema, it’s rare that a film poster strays from the main archetypes which include ‘The Face Off’, ‘The Back-to-Back’, ‘The Giant Logo’, or ‘The Giant Face’ and ‘The Stack’.
So what’s the motive for these repetitions? Hollywood Reporter reported that it’s down to increased advertising costs. In 1980, the average marketing budget of a studio movie was $4.3 million, about $12 million today with inflation. Nowadays, they estimate that number is more than $40 million, with some films spending $150 million on global marketing.
It’s deduced that the sheer cost of advertising a film means there’s no room to stray from what’s previously proven effective.
And proven they are indeed, considering the sheer number of these film posters produced and released, with some of the reoccurring trends tracing back all the way back to the 1920s.
Take ‘The Giant Face’ trend, for example, which, just as it sounds, features a blown-up portrait of the main character. Matt Damon seems to be the literal poster boy for this method with films like Elysium, The Martian, The Adjustment Bureau and the most recent Jason Bourne franchise all making use of almost identical posters. I’m not saying Matt’s mug isn’t a selling point for these films… He’s a good looking bloke, but he shouldn’t be the only selling point.
One of the first iterations of ‘The Giant Face’ can be found in ‘Nosferatu: A symphony of horror’. Nosferatu is seen as one of the most influential horror films of all time, laying down the foundations for many tropes in the genre that are still regularly used today.
The main antagonist, Count Orlok, is the closest to Bram Stoker’s original idea of Count Dracula as they come. He’s rat-like and reclusive, not suave and sophisticated like many films since have depicted the evil Count. One of its original posters is also one of the first examples of ‘The Giant Face’ with typography. Again, this is used to signify the importance of the character to the film but done in a more artistic way.
A few decades on from the Count, the 1950s truly became the Golden Age for film artwork, especially in the horror genre. This is where modern trends were established and the influence these designers still have on film marketing in 2017 is clearly visible in every new release.
Due to the regular threat of nuclear and chemical warfare during this time period, a new wave of horror films reigned supreme: science-fiction. Whether it meant reimagining the modern world or a dystopian vision of the future, the sci-fi horror genre had no boundaries nor did the posters.
Many of the modern styles used over the past 20 years were road tested in 1950s horror and sci-fi. Brian Coldrick, who’s illustration style often leans toward the macabre, says it’s the peculiar nature of these genres that allow them to have such interesting and unique artwork.
“In horror, it’s not just about the famous person’s face. There’s an article online showing the last 10 Will Smith film posters, all of which feature only his face. With horror, on the other hand, it’s often not the big name that you’re selling but rather something visually odd, stylish or imaginative that you use to attract your audience. That’s a more fun world to work in if you’re the person designing the poster.”
One film series that has had a profound effect on film artwork was ‘James Bond’.
‘For Your Eyes Only’ in 1981 and ‘A View To Kill’ in ’85, which, although clearly action films, set the bar for rom-com posters going forward. ‘The Back-to-Back’ is the featured pose in the artwork for ‘A View To Kill’, with the late Roger Moore and Grace Jones illustrated in fine detail.
‘For Your Eyes Only’ sees early adoption of the often disputed ‘Under-the-Leg’ shot, which features in the marketing campaigns for a slew of goofy comedies.
‘The Stack’, as I prefer to call it, is perhaps the most commonly used arrangement in film artwork, which was solidified by iconic cinema in the 70s and 80s.
Artists like Drew Struzan, the man behind the posters for ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Back the Future’, ‘ET’ and many more, and Tom Jung, the creator of the now legendary poster for the original ‘Star Wars’ film, were in high demand not only for their clear artistic talent, but also for the application of the film posters as marketing tools. Needless to say, they were both very busy men during those important decades for film.
‘The Stack’, which is most apparent in ‘Indiana Jones’ and ‘Star Wars’, has become a staple pattern. Nowadays, however, it’s often digitally animated and photoshopped so that the essence and soul of the film is ever-so-slightly removed. It’s polished in order to make it more appealing to the masses, but it doesn’t have the same sense of wonder about it.
An obvious throwback to ‘The Stack’ was seen with the release of ‘Stranger Things’. The poster, designed by Kyle Lambert, had a more authentic feel to it (much like its theme song composed by S U R V I V E). Nostalgia is an easy thing to play on, but when it’s done right it can make a world of difference. Another example of this throwback in style can be seen with Guardians of the Galaxy.
While it’s clear that film posters have regressed to overused patterns and stances, often without distinguishing characters in recent decades, there are some beacons of hope.
“Culturally, people grew up with the classic painted styles, particularly if you look back at blockbusters from the 80s,” Brian explains. “People have a lot of warm feelings towards those styles. The look of those has fallen away in the mainstream, but there has been something of a resurgence.
“I went to see the new Guillermo del Toro film ‘The Shape of Water’ a few days ago and one of the main posters for that is by the illustrator James Jean. He did one recently for ‘Bladerunner’ and also did the posters for ‘Mother’ the Darren Aronovsky film.”
Brian says the big shift in poster artwork followed from the dawn of the computer age, assisted by Photoshop.
“This meant that the movie companies were looking over the shoulder of the designer, giving them photos from a shoot. Before when it had to be a hand painted piece there was a little bit more trust in their ability and creativity. But maybe studios are starting to realise that sometimes the human eye and taste is superior to a computer programme?”
The film poster as an art form may have be dying, but it’s not yet deceased. Here’s to hoping this second wind keeps blowing.
Click here for tickets to see Le Galaxie perform the soundtrack from Apocalypse Now! in either Cyprus Avenue, Cork (November 10) or Black Box, Belfast (November 24). Admission includes a complimentary pint!