Imagine this scenario: You go to your local movie theater to watch the premiere of the next great film. Beyond the popcorn aroma and soda gulping are the exist treasures often unrecognized by devoted moviegoers: the posters for upcoming films. Fastened to the walls and accented by dimly lit electric bulbs, movie posters display a colorful array of stories within a single frame.
What was previously a cinematic luxury has turned into a trivial form of advertising. Currently, movie posters merely serve to promote notable actors appearing in the film. They’ve become less of an art form and more of a celebrity showcase.
But it was not always this way. The first known movie poster was made in 1895 for a French film titled “Cinématographe Lumière.” As pioneers of filmmaking, the Lumière brothers wanted to present their series of shorts to a larger audience. They contacted Henri Brispot, a French painter, to illustrate posters that could be pasted on walls. Coincidentally, the posters showed people clamoring into the screening: a motif that would inspire the future of filmmaking.
With the advancement of filmmaking came the rise of movie posters. Early Hollywood made movie posters in the style of traveling advertisements, similar to the marketing of circus acts. The 1940s introduced the use of characters within the poster, albeit as the only featured details. Artists of the ‘50s and ‘60s incorporated minimalist designs into their posters, and ‘70s designers prioritized photography over illustration. The ‘80s would give rise to the standardized modern-day usage of movie posters, which has been both beneficial and detrimental for movie studios.
A popular term for the issue that plagues modern movie posters is “floating head syndrome.” This refers to the tendency to use the faces of lead actors “floating” in front of a darkened background. Popularized by photo editing software, it became easier and cheaper for movie studios to implement, as they could now avoid paying artists thousands of dollars for carefully drawn portraits. Despite the convenience and low cost, it resulted in generic designs that seem artificial when compared to illustrations.
The recent trend has obscured what constitutes a good movie poster. The over-saturation of faces and bodies on these posters buries the emotional connection we can make with movies. Rather than depicting a narrative or telling a broader story from a minimalistic viewpoint, studios now cut production corners to submit a visual celebrity roster too large for any poster to contain. If anything, they damage an art form intended to entice and excite its beholders.
So what makes a movie poster great? The answer varies from person to person. Some may like an emphasis on a wide range of colors. Others suggest that the inclusion of symbolism is appealing, as it makes the poster akin to a trivia game or a puzzle. A select few value movie posters as collectible memorabilia for aesthetic decor or larger collections. Others, like myself, appreciate them for all these purposes.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, the creative director for Indika Entertainment, James Verdesoto, discussed the importance of color schemes in developing effective movie posters. For example, a movie poster with a white background and a red title signifies that the film in question is comedic. This allows the eyes to focus more on the smaller details of the character’s actions rather than the negative space within the poster. Movies such as “Hitch” and “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” use this technique. Although commonly recognized, another strategy is to add yellow to the posters of independent films. Because these films have smaller budgets compared to wide-release features, independent studios use yellow to easily grab people’s attention.
The most noteworthy movie posters layer information beneath a first glance. While it’s easier for illustrators to draw exactly what happens in a film, the most creative posters portray themes and symbols that only become more clear after a closer look, often with prior knowledge of the story.
For example, the movie poster for the 1982 film “The Thing” cleverly illustrates the ambiguity of the extra-terrestrial antagonist. For those unaware, the film follows a research team stationed in Antarctica that’s being hunted by a shape-shifting alien. The poster shows a figure that resembles a person with a heavy coat on, yet the bright light covering their face doesn’t show if they are actually human. This alludes to the fact that the alien can morph into anyone and anything; it could even be lurking within the group of researchers under a human disguise.
Another tremendous and more recent example comes from the exalted animated film, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” In its poster, the protagonist Miles Morales appears to be flying upwards, but the background makes it appear as though Morales is actually falling down. However, Morales’ raised right hand symbolizes his carefree personality and courageous attempt to save someone. The background also subtly acts as an indication that Morales and his life will significantly change as if his world has been turned upside-down.
Movie posters are an integral part of filmmaking. They can illustrate the themes and ideas of a film without spoiling the plot. They can also mix all sorts of eye candy to entice viewers and inspire critical analysis. The current trend of “floating head syndrome” compromises the beauty of a movie poster; it grinds down the art form onto a platter marinated with a careless, collect-them-all mentality.
Starting from a simple idea, movie posters evolved into a creative approach for marketing films and condensing the adroit craft of storytelling into a single frame. Seek to learn what makes movie posters great so you can appreciate their complex arrangements and subtly utilitarian beauty.
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