A movie poster is the first thing that invites a person to take interest in a movie. Someone is likelier to see a poster out on the street before even getting to watch the trailer or teaser attached to another film’s previews. It is the first step to making someone imagine what the movies is all about.
Given that premise, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to know that some artists have made a good living illustrating movie posters. In fact, there are quite a few of them who have been as iconic as their work. Some particularly notable artists are Drew Struzan, and Saul Bass.
The aforementioned designers can likely be described as advocates of two philosophies (there may be many) in illustrating movie posters. The first one, which Drew Struzan practices, is of a painterly variety where characters and scenes are drawn to show potential audiences what the movie is all about.
Drew Struzan’s airbrushed acrylics-style rose to prominence after he collaborated with Charlie White III on what is popularly known as the Star Wars “Circus” poster. This particular piece was dominated by a painting of Luke and Leia hanging by a rope surrounded by images of Darth Vader, Han Solo, the droids, and running Storm Troopers. The nickname comes from the fact that the overall composition looks like a torn posted bill on a plywood wall.
One can also recognize Drew’s hand on popular trilogies like the Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and the Star Wars Special Edition movies. He was also a favorite of Jim Henson, who tapped him for the different Muppet movies. More recently during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Drew worked on the Mallrats, Hell Boy, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone posters.
Other adherents of this concept of design are Richard Amsel (The Sting), John Solie (Soylent Green), and the Frank Frazetta, who’s also famous for his work with Conan the Barbarian comics.
The other school of thought in creating movie posters believes that the designs don’t have to be too literal. One can say that this is typical of Saul Bass’s movie poster work.
Saul Bass’s most familiar works are the posters for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and, the Natalie Wood-starrer West Side Story. An interesting thing to note is the lack of images of the film’s actors on the posters (whether as drawings or photographs). Instead, Bass tended to design around important story elements. For instance, in the iconic Vertigo poster, the central image is that of a man and woman in the middle of a spiral, which gave an impression of falling.
The way Bass used a limited palette and flat shapes recalled the look of the constructivist Russian propaganda posters that were popular from 1919-1932. However, some, like the poster for Love in the Afternoon starring Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper, were more contemporary for their time (the late 1950s) but still utilized Bass’s penchant for visual metaphors.
Other movie posters by different artists that fall under this style are for Spike Lee’s movies Clockers (this one is inspired by Saul Bass’s design for Anatomy of a Murder) and Jungle Fever (photographic but uses a visual metaphor).
As days go, it’s becoming apparent that traditional poster illustration is being replaced by digital art and photographs. Of course, other ways of designing a movie poster are legitimate and can produce good work, but the thrill of seeing pencils under the ink and paint will be sorely missed.
Still, if anyone wants to dabble in movie poster illustration and design (traditional or digital), he or she will be a welcome addition to a field that has inspired many minds to think and imagine. Should they pursue that, a large format printing company or a digital printing company with vast experience in posters is a good thing to have on the rolodex. After all, how else would they distribute their posters and show their work?