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ScreenFonts: January 2018

Defying legibility conventions. Shattering images. Subverting any sense of scale. Turning the world upside down. This episode looks at posters for The New Radical, The Shape of Water, Foxtrot, Kaleidoscope, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Downsizing, The Phantom Thread, and Happy End.

The creators of many of this episode’s posters played with convention, deliberately breaking the rules in order to magnify the impact of their artwork. I wanted to take a closer look and explore why these surprising interventions had been made. I found that, far from being mere artifice, they were conceptually sound and added something significant to the visual narrative.

The New Radical

Poster for The New Radical
© 2017 The Orchard. Key art by John Albrecht.

Once in a while, I chance on a poster that looks like it belongs in a gallery of contemporary art. The hypnotizing typographic texture that John Albrecht, a preproduction artist who infrequently designs posters for films, created for the documentary The New Radical is one such poster. In an email exchange with me, Albrecht explained: “The brief was very open; no strict guidelines other than [director] Adam [Bhala Lough] and the producers ultimately wanting an overall vibe that felt in sync with the world of the film—the deep web and cryptocurrency.”
Hoping to arrive at an enigmatic yet simple image, Albrecht experimented with repeating and distorting the title (set in Univers); digital artifacts hint at the documentary’s crypto nature. The result gives the impression of Matrix-like computer code raining down in the colors of the American flag, attacking the establishment and chipping away at the status quo. Because the shower of mutant type ended up being a little too, uh, cryptic for the purposes of promotion, Albrecht vertically centered an intact title in a black box. Fans of neo-grotesque typefaces like Univers should take a look at Neue Haas Grotesk, the truest digitization of Helvetica—the ultimate face of the International Style.

The Shape of Water

Poster for The Shape of Water
© 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures. Key art by James Jean.

On the heels of last month’s gorgeous/grotesque teasers for mother!, this episode features more of James Jean’s magical art. Instead of putting too much emphasis on The Shape of Water’s amphibious protagonist, Jean shies away from sensationalism by hiding the creature’s face behind the female lead as they lock in a tender embrace. The meticulously rendered fish scales create patterns that beautifully offset the smooth skin of his partner and the soft, swirling lines of the bed of seaweed the couple is lying on.

Even though the story is set in the 1960s, the pronounced art-deco overtones of Neutraface harmonize well with Jean’s richly detailed illustration style. Eagle’s lightest weight would have been lovely here; Arboria or Mostra Nuova would have given the poster an even stronger deco flavor.

Foxtrot

Poster for Foxtrot
© 2017 Filmcoopi Zürich. Key art by Tomer Hanuka.

Another illustrated poster that jumped out at me was Tomer Hanuka’s haunting festival poster for Foxtrot. The art quietly howls with despair as the father mourns his son’s death at a desolate military post. Hanuka told me via email that he does a lot of movie posters, along with visual development for animation and editorial work. He got involved in Foxtrot through his brother—also an illustrator and a cartoonist—who created semi-animated sequences for the film.

Hanuka revealed that Foxtrot filmmaker Samuel Maoz had a very clear idea of how the poster should look and feel. “The main character is a tragic figure, and the black X mark on his face is a motif that repeats in the film,” Hanuka said. “The look is intentionally ‘drawn’ in the sense that it’s not photographic, relating to a section in the movie that is based on one of the character’s sketchbooks (the part created by my brother Asaf).” Tobias Frere-Jones’ Gotham has understandably played the role of default movie-poster font for a while now. The proportions of the black X covering the protagonist’s eyes, though, beg for a slightly wider typeface. Dinamit might have been a better choice here.

Kaleidoscope

Poster for Kaleidoscope
© 2016 IFC Midnight.

The stunning one-sheet for the psychological thriller Kaleidoscope, about the destructive relationship between a middle-aged man and his mother, is quite inventive. Slicing up two photographs in narrow vertical columns and interweaving the slices generates a fascinating, ambiguous double image. The stern black-and-white version of Toby Jones has a menacing air, like a malevolent alter ego sliding into his own loving scene with Sinead Matthews. How exactly the two images interact, with seemingly random elements like missing slices or wider fragments breaking through the columns and disturbing the modular rhythm, is a master class in photo collage.
I wish the vertical strokes in the title’s minimalist square letterforms matched up with the columns in the photographs. A fracture with a vertical shift in the O mirrors the duality of the image. Agency FB and Clicker are less minimal but still very square, with a similar vertical thrust.

Poster for Kaleidoscope
© 2016 IFC Midnight. Key art by Julian House.

Julian House’s alternate poster shows influences from both Saul Bass and the Polish School of Posters. The image treatment creates the impression that the characters are appearing through fractured glass. This not only echoes a motif in the film, but also makes an oblique reference to its title, which is treated similarly. It makes the typeface hard to identify, too. But there’s a good chance we’re looking at Bureau Grot, David Berlow’s powerful interpretation of classic English grotesques in five widths, five to six weights each.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Poster for Star Wars: The Last Jedi
© 2017 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Key art by LA.
Poster for Star Wars
© 1977 Lucasfilm Ltd. and Twentieth Century Fox. Key art by Tom Jung.

As becomes blockbusters these days, Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise, is promoted with a galaxy-spanning marketing campaign boasting a flotilla of printed and digital collateral. Two posters caught my eye. The first is LA’s teaser. Rey, the film’s female protagonist, channels Luke Skywalker’s iconic pose, light saber held high, from Tom Jung’s seminal one-sheet for the original Star Wars, which was retroactively subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope. (I don’t care for that revisionist nonsense, by the way. Seriously. It’s just Star Wars. The first epsiode.) Besides sporting the original logo—initially only used in the teaser, not in the theatrical one-sheets—the artwork also reprises ITC Serif Gothic to anchor the new films to the first trilogy, not the Trajan-clad ill-fated second trilogy from the 2000s.

Poster for Star Wars: The Last Jedi
© 2017 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Key art by Matt Needle.
Poster for Star Wars
© 1977 Lucasfilm Ltd. and Twentieth Century Fox. Key art by Howard Chaykin.

The contemplative print Matt Needle created for the Poster Posse goes even further back in time. Rey’s serene pose, staff in hand and back turned to the audience, conjures up both martial-arts cinema and Westerns, two genres that had a major influence on the original Star Wars films from the 1970s. Because Needle wanted to create something with a distinct retro feel, he used the prerelease version of the Star Wars logo. The peculiar letterforms can also be seen in the forty-year-old artwork by Howard Chaykin, who illustrated the first ten issues of the Star Wars comics series published by Marvel in 1977.

Downsizing

Poster for Downsizing
© 2017 Paramount Pictures.

David Graham designed this witty teaser for the sci-fi comedy Downsizing, a social satire in which people shrink themselves to five inches tall to limit their impact on the environment, allowing them to live in affluence. When I asked him about it, Graham clarified that this poster was never produced for a studio. “It was just a passion piece I created for my portfolio, after reading a brief description of the movie. I came up with the concept based on an idea that I had for another project (Ant-man) that never came to fruition.” The piece has been on Graham’s website for half a year or so, but it’s recently gained popularity, even popping up in some Best of 2017 lists. After my movie-poster talks, I sometimes get questions from the audience asking how to break into this specific professional niche. Graham’s strategy is clearly one possibility.

The extremely narrow sans serif is URW’s Bee, which, next to Univers Ultra Condensed, is the most common typeface for the tiny credits at the bottom of film posters. Truth be told, I’m not particularly fond of this design, with its awkward rhythm, closed apertures, and unexpectedly wide capital M. Take a look at Antenna Compressed, Titling Gothic Skyline, Amplitude Extra Condensed, or Agenda Ultra Condensed for alternatives with better balance and readability.

Phantom Thread

Poster for Phantom Thread
© 2017 Focus Features. Key art by eclipse.
Poster for Phantom Thread
© 2017 Focus Features. Key art by eclipse.

Set in 1950s London, the romantic drama Phantom Thread tells the story of Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by the young, strong-willed Alma, who becomes his lover and muse. Eclipse’s teaser and main theatrical one-sheet gorgeously evoke the spirit and aesthetic of mid-century fashion magazines. A lovely desaturated palette evokes the colorized black-and-white fashion photographs of yesteryear, and exudes a restrained sensuality.

Consistent with the vintage look, the chiseled capitals with refined serifs appear hand lettered. Similar architectural qualities can be found in Grand Central. Both Throhand and Phaistos convey period pen lettering, while Matthew Carter’s revivals Big Caslon and Big Moore carry a similar vintage air. And for a sharp look, you can’t go wrong with Lukas Schneider’s sparkling, pointed Damien Display.

Happy End

Poster for Happy End
© 2017 Sony Pictures Classics.

I know nothing about the backstory of the mysterious poster for Happy End, a family drama set in Calais with the European refugee crisis as the backdrop, or who made it. It immediately grabbed me when I was browsing possible candidates for this episode, yet I can’t say much about it. Contrary to the other posters for the movie that focus on the family or the setting in Calais, this one literally flips a grainy black-and-white photo of the infamous “Jungle of Calais” refugee camp on its head. This inversion creates an alienating, somewhat disconcerting atmosphere that makes you pause. It also lends the title Happy End a strange, bitter aftertaste, just like a Michael Haneke film should.

And this is my happy end. The year is off to a pretty good start—our world hasn’t been flipped completely upside down yet. Come back later for The Leftovers, and then meet me next month for a new edition of ScreenFonts.

Bald Condensed, né Yves Peters, is a Belgian-based rock drummer known for his astute observations on the impact of letterforms in the contemporary culture-sphere. A prolific writer on typography, he has a singular knack for identifying the most obscure typefaces known to humankind.