Special Edition

Generally, the graphic design and artwork accompanying mainstream cinema is quite poor. It’s rare you see a genuinely great movie poster. There are some nice ones out there, but more often that not you see the same formulaic title, headline stars named above and a montage of famous faces or some action shot taking up the rest, occasionally accompanied by a cheesy tagline.

Being a bit of a geek when it comes to films, I don’t need movie posters to sell me the latest releases. I have my friend Steve for that, who always keeps me informed of the latest work-in-progress by the people I love. So even if the posters for the forthcoming Michael Mann remake of Dirty Harry starring Michael Madsen and Gary Oldman were aesthetically repugnant, penned by an eyeless monkey using a fresh stool as a crayon, I’d still be waiting outside the cinema on release day.

This however doesn’t stop me finding myself continually disappointed by original film graphics. Just because they’re not really vital to a film’s success doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be top notch bits of design. After all, films spend months if not years in development, involving huge creative and production teams obsessing over every detail. Why then is that same attention seemingly never extended to the graphic design? Yes, I’ll go and see new films regardless, but come on – why must they dirty all that hard work by settling for formulaic tripe on every bush shelter and billboard around town?

I can only remember one occurrence where I saw a poster so effective that I went to see the film as a result, and that was the surprisingly respectable british crime thriller Layer Cake. Turns out if you stick an iron on the bonnet of a bright yellow Range Rover, I’ll be all over it like a rash.

Okay, it’s no masterpiece of graphic design, even when you get the context. I did something similar in concept – if a little less slick in its delivery – as a 17 year old BTEC student. But it works. It’s clean, punchy and sets a visual tone for the entire film. As if perhaps that artwork was an extension of the film’s creative intention. When I think Layer Cake I think of that poster, and I always will.

Unfortunately it feels like the exception rather than the rule. Generally, movie posters follow the same old cliches and I get the feeling that perhaps the graphic designers responsible vary rarely get prior access to a film. Maybe the designs are decided and set before the film has any substance, or maybe they’re an afterthought of a rush job at the last minute. Either way, it appears unlikely that the designer ever gets to sit down with the people involved and get to the bottom of what the film is all about, to get a feeling for the project, the message, the visual style – the information designers gather and collate so they can use the methods they use when tackling, say, anything else.

As a designer you need time to digest the subject. Mull over the ideas, break them down, get to grips with the whole thing. Only then will you get a design of substance. Attempt to bypass that process and the result will be superficial. Like a montage of faces, perhaps.

You only have to look at later releases of box sets and special edition DVD releases to see proof of this. Box sets and special editions are the only canvas the film industry provides where graphic designers are really allowed to shine. They’ve had chance to see the film. To get to know it, where it’s coming from and what it’s trying to do. They know the characters, the story quirks, the interesting shots, sets and locations. The small but vital observations have been made, and the foundations for great design are finally in place.

The 2004 special edition release of Reservoir Dogs is one of my all time favourites, and just goes to show how beautiful movie graphics can be when the designer has had time (a decade, in this case) to digest the film and understand what makes its fans tick. As you continue to open it things get better:

The entire inside spread features a glorious drawing of the main set of the film that runs across both discs and the insert book. It’s a wonderful panorama of the set where the entirety of the film takes place.

This level of indulgence of any movie will render true fans helpless. It’s so nice to see the on-screen world spread out so gloriously into print. Everything is well observed (although the timeline is iffy but I’ll allow for creative license) and the essence of the film is really captured. The DVD front end menu screens too are gorgeous. It’s so pleasing to see a film done justice in print – to feel satisfied that the designer has been allowed the opportunity to take an approach such a masterpiece of a movie deserves. It’s far too infrequent a sight.

There is of course some nice stuff out there. 2009′s Moon, for instance, had a wonderful poster. But it would be nice to see it happen a bit more often, as opposed to that with which we’re more frequently faced, which as a movie-loving graphic designer I can’t help but see as a catalogue of missed opportunities. The movie industry is one of the most highly creative in the world, so please allow that same creativity to reach the posters and box art.

I’m not being naive to the realities of mass-media graphic design, by the way. I know how it works. No movie studio is going to take risks on the design of their marketing material when their only real concern is bums on seats. It’s their bottom line, and the only thing they care about. Safe options are the best options when big money is concerned, and they are there to make money after all. But different and none-formulaic doesn’t have to mean risky. Balancing mass market appeal with good design adds to the creative challenge, a challenge us graphic designers are more than ready for.