The Art of Movie Posters
Joe Strike looks into the art and artists behind classic and contemporary movie posters.
Years ago at the dawn of the video editing age, a trade magazine quoted an old-time film editor bemoaning the new, onrushing technology. “You can’t see it, you can’t touch it,” he complained of the magnetic tape. There were no images for him to eyeball, no work print upon which symbols for fades and lap dissolves could be scrawled in grease pencil. The tools of his lifelong career — and it seemed, himself — were growing obsolete.
One wonders if that editor gave up and retired, full of resentment. Or perhaps he rolled up his sleeves, grit his teeth and learned how to edit on a keyboard and computer screen. Either way, today just about all film and TV editing is computer-based; the grease pencil has gone the way of carbon paper and manual typewriters.
It’s happening all over again; this time to the illustrators whose artwork graced a generation’s worth of movie posters. It’s next to impossible to think of Raiders of the Lost Ark without recalling Richard Amsel’s whip-wielding portrait of Harrison Ford, and Bob Peak’s nightmarish image of a blood-tinted Marlon Brando for Apocalypse Now is equally unforgettable. Rick Meyerowitz’s in-a-nutshell rendering of Animal House’s plot and characters is as iconic as the film itself — but don’t expect to see their likes again anytime soon.
Once again, technology is the culprit. This time however, the change is being driven by a new generation of executives and art directors, not to mention audiences who (as some see it) have come to expect the same degree of realism in movie advertising as in the special effects they see onscreen.
“I wouldn’t call it a trend away from illustration. I’d call it running away as fast as it can.” The speaker is Drew Struzan, the man who painted a dramatically posed and lit Michael J. Fox next to a blazing DeLorean for Back to the Future. “It started about 15 years ago, but now there’s no room for anything else. I used to have two or three projects in the studio at any one time, I’d be painting a couple a month. Now I’m down to a couple a year and it’s because of the change to computers. Computer guys are in there generating ideas for posters. I can’t compete because I sit down and draw them. Not only that, if the director or producer says ‘change that color,’ it’s very easy for them to change it on the computer. It happens very fast.”
Warren Nung, an art director with the design firm BLT Assoc. is a “wake up and smell the coffee” type of guy. “Illustration has evolved into a different form — it’s a digital world now. Music is digital, art is digital and advertising is digital too. If those guys 20 or 30 years ago had the means to use the tools that we have, they’d be using them and bringing their artistry into the process instead of drawing a concept and filling it with watercolor.”
The means are one part of the changing equation; the ends — crafting the most compelling images to sell movies have shifted as well. “From a marketing standpoint,” Nung states, “a photographic scene is a much more convincing way to sell an idea or a concept, rather than illustrating it. There’s no leap of faith necessary. If you illustrate Spider-Man, it’s clear he’s an illustration, as opposed to a guy who’s actually on the precipice of a building 1,000 feet up in air. If it’s photographic, you’re gonna get a ‘wow’ factor you won’t get from an illustration. The general trend is people are more visually sophisticated today, they’re aware of special effects. When they see an amazing scene instead of going ‘wow, that’s unbelievable,’ they think, ‘wow, great special effects.’”
New York illustrator Steve Brodner agrees, and disagrees. “While things are more sophisticated technically today, there’s much less sophistication in terms of subtlety and how you express things. I think that’s happened to commercial art in general as well as movies. I don’t know why it changes. Like a lot of things, the corporate world wasn’t smart enough in the old days. They hadn’t figured out that they would make more money if they market researched every tiny little thing. But if you do, then what you come up with must be easily understood by people with college degrees and people who have never been within yards of a school.”
Brodner’s poster illustration for Warren’s Beatty’s 1998 political satire, Bullworth, instantly communicates the film’s premise of a sedate politician refashioning himself as a white rapper by depicting a hip-hop dressed Beatty climbing out of the mouth of a larger, business suited version of himself. In the eight years since Bullworth’s release an equally memorable poster illustration has yet to come along.
“Bullworth was a fluke and not a trend as people were saying at the time,” Brodner admits. “A film’s poster is usually a corporate decision, but Beatty had creative control over the film and its promotion — it was his decision to use illustration. Warren was the writer/director/producer/star/casting director — and he fancied himself a graphic designer too. He was very much leaning over my shoulder the whole time.”
Animal House’s Meyerowitz looks at the evolution from illustration to photographic art as part of a generational change. “The art directors who hired us came out of a culture where reading storybooks and comicbooks was a main activity. They recognized the value an illustration could bring to the printed page. We were reading vivid illustrations that provided a window into the story. They would illuminate the story, the way a window would illuminate a house.
“Reading is different for a young person now. If you go buy one of those Dorling Kindersley books they’re full of photos or realistic, detailed illustrations — not cartoon drawings. I believe art directors now are so sophisticated and just as talented as they’ve ever been — but they’re missing the cultural attachment to what art can give them.”
It may be jarring to go from a discussion of high culture to Mad magazine, but almost every artist contacted for this article linked the satirical publication’s popularity to the explosion of 1960’s cartoon-illustrated movie posters. Meyerowitz goes back even further, tracing Mad’s roots to the Jewish cultural milieu of 1950s New York City, and to one man in particular. “There was a flavor to the humor to that pervaded society here in New York. Early TV humor came from the Jewish comics who played the Borsht Belt. Mad grew out of that, and out of Harvey Kurtzman [the magazine’s legendary founding editor]. Artists like Wally Wood and Jack Davis were illustrating a young Jewish guy’s fantasies and Jack Davis became the avatar of that style.”
Brodner suspects the craze began with Davis’s 1963 poster for It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. “The image that grabbed you was the Earth cracking open, and all the comedians holding on for dear life to Spencer Tracy and this suitcase of money. It told whole story in one picture and it was terrific.”
“The movie industry wasn’t doing humorous advertising until then,” a laconic Davis reminisces. “I got a call from United Artists to do a poster. They liked it and the pay was unbelievable. That really was a high point in my life.”
Davis executed an equally memorable poster for 1966’s The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming that caricatures the movie’s essence in a nutshell: twin clusters of irate Americans and Russians face each other in matching poses, while between them a teenage girl and a young Russian gaze lovingly at one another, oblivious to the surrounding chaos. In 1973, Mort Drucker (Mad’s go-to guy for movie parodies) brought his instantly recognizable, jazzy style to the poster for an actual film — George Lucas’s American Graffiti.
“There was that whole influence Mad had on movies,” Brodner sums up. “If you have a comedy poster should be funny, not just a picture of Adam Sandler with a remote control — that isn’t funny. It didn’t make me want to go to movie, but I guess enough people did.”
BLT’s Nung sees the Mad style as “locked in a period. Now it’s total camp, nostalgia. When you see that kind of look today, it’s trying to parody something about the era.” Nung may be thinking of last year’s poster for Richard Linklater’s Bad News Bears remake, an illustration of the ragtag team deliberately reminiscent of Jack Davis’s poster for the 1976 original. As Drucker recalls, “I was up for the remake, but somebody else did it. It was nice to see that at least one got through. I did a beautiful illustration for the Yours, Mine and Ours remake. The loved it, and then they went with a photograph. This is what happens a lot — there’s no rhyme or reason.
One reason for the switch may be the increasing importance of DVD sales to a film’s revenue stream: the finely detailed, densely populated illustrations of a Davis or a Drucker are close to impossible to enjoy — or even decipher — once they are reduced to the dimensions of a video box. Back in the VHS era, distributors reused the original theatrical posters; today, those films’ DVD re-releases sport original package art designed to stand out on store shelves. The “Double Secret Probation Edition” of Animal House for example, replaces Meyerowitz’s famous poster with an angled, oversized logo containing photos of the supporting cast behind a close-up of a toga-clad John Belushi that dominates the cover. While the new Animal House cover conveys the film’s anarchic spirit, the cascade of cast photos on the It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World DVD doesn’t even hint at the spectacular chaos so beautifully captured in Davis’ classic poster.
Yet “old school” poster illustration still manages to hang on, for Struzan, who still receives commissions from Europe, “where they live with art all around them and really appreciate it,” and in the new digital world. Films like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl continue to use the classic action poster template where images from the film surround the hero’s portrait. Even Struzan admits, “there are some really good posters being done on the computer.”
According to Nung, “there’s a lot of illustration going on now, but you don’t see it. Digital work based on photographic materials is where illustration is bound. We’re using a lot of 3D assets — models, rendering and the like. When it’s done well, they’re hard to detect. If you need a sword, instead of having one made you can model it in a day, render it in any material, aged whatever way you’d like it and make it available in any angle, all in the confines of the computer, then Photoshop it into the actor’s hand.
“I love Apocalypse Now, Bob Peak’s work. But I think that esthetic can be applied to what we’re doing. It’s still evolving, how to take sensibility of that era and make scenes beyond the photographic materials they came from. It’s a digital world now. Music, art and what we do in advertising is digital. If you’re doing an action picture, it’s unbelievable how good it is. If you do a wacky scene, you’re better off if it’s believable looking.”
It may be a little tricky for some to reconcile “wacky” with “believable looking.” But even as artists like Struzan and Drucker hope for a return to drawn and painted movie posters, Davis takes a more philosophical view. “The pendulum swings. My stuff is old-fashioned, old-timey. I hate to say it, but I came along when it was a good time for comic illustration.”
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.