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The Art of Movie Posters

Joe Strike looks into the art and artists behind classic and contemporary movie posters.

Its next to impossible to think of Raiders of the Lost Ark without recalling Richard Amsels whip-wielding portrait of Harrison Ford, but illustrations for movie posters are becoming a lost art. © Paramount Pictures.

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 cant see it, you cant 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.

Its happening all over again; this time to the illustrators whose artwork graced a generations worth of movie posters. Its next to impossible to think of Raiders of the Lost Ark without recalling Richard Amsels whip-wielding portrait of Harrison Ford, and Bob Peaks nightmarish image of a blood-tinted Marlon Brando for Apocalypse Now is equally unforgettable. Rick Meyerowitzs in-a-nutshell rendering of Animal Houses plot and characters is as iconic as the film itself but dont 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.

Bob Peaks nightmarish image of a blood-tinted Marlon Brando for Apocalypse Now is unforgettable. © Paramount Pictures.

I wouldnt call it a trend away from illustration. Id 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 theres no room for anything else. I used to have two or three projects in the studio at any one time, Id be painting a couple a month. Now Im down to a couple a year and its because of the change to computers. Computer guys are in there generating ideas for posters. I cant compete because I sit down and draw them. Not only that, if the director or producer says change that color, its 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 its 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, theyd 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. Theres no leap of faith necessary. If you illustrate Spider-Man, its clear hes an illustration, as opposed to a guy whos actually on the precipice of a building 1,000 feet up in air. If its photographic, youre gonna get a wow factor you wont get from an illustration. The general trend is people are more visually sophisticated today, theyre aware of special effects. When they see an amazing scene instead of going wow, thats unbelievable, they think, wow, great special effects.

Drew Struzan, responsible for this memorable image of Michael J. Fox and his DeLorean for Back to the Future, sees the studios running away from movie poster illustrations as fast as they can. © MCA Universal.

New York illustrator Steve Brodner agrees, and disagrees. While things are more sophisticated technically today, theres much less sophistication in terms of subtlety and how you express things. I think thats happened to commercial art in general as well as movies. I dont know why it changes. Like a lot of things, the corporate world wasnt smart enough in the old days. They hadnt 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.

Brodners poster illustration for Warrens Beattys 1998 political satire, Bullworth, instantly communicates the films 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 Bullworths 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 films 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.

Steve Brodners poster illustration for Warrens Beattys 1998 political satire, Bullworth, instantly communicates the films premise of a sedate politician refashioning himself as a white rapper. © 20th Century Fox.

Animal Houses 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 theyre full of photos or realistic, detailed illustrations not cartoon drawings. I believe art directors now are so sophisticated and just as talented as theyve ever been but theyre 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 publications popularity to the explosion of 1960s cartoon-illustrated movie posters. Meyerowitz goes back even further, tracing Mads 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 magazines legendary founding editor]. Artists like Wally Wood and Jack Davis were illustrating a young Jewish guys fantasies and Jack Davis became the avatar of that style.

Brodner suspects the craze began with Daviss 1963 poster for Its 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.

Mad magazine is cited by most artists as a primary reason cartoon-illustrated posters exploded in the 60s. Mort Drucker of Mad was even hired to create the one-sheet for American Graffiti. © MCA Universal (left).

The movie industry wasnt 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 1966s The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming that caricatures the movies 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 (Mads go-to guy for movie parodies) brought his instantly recognizable, jazzy style to the poster for an actual film George Lucass 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 isnt funny. It didnt make me want to go to movie, but I guess enough people did.

BLTs Nung sees the Mad style as locked in a period. Now its total camp, nostalgia. When you see that kind of look today, its trying to parody something about the era. Nung may be thinking of last years poster for Richard Linklaters Bad News Bears remake, an illustration of the ragtag team deliberately reminiscent of Jack Daviss 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 theres no rhyme or reason.

Recent films like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe continue to use the classic action poster template where images from the film surround the heros portrait. © Disney Enterprises.

One reason for the switch may be the increasing importance of DVD sales to a films 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 Meyerowitzs 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 films anarchic spirit, the cascade of cast photos on the Its a Mad Mad Mad Mad World DVD doesnt 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 heros portrait. Even Struzan admits, there are some really good posters being done on the computer.

According to Nung, theres a lot of illustration going on now, but you dont see it. Digital work based on photographic materials is where illustration is bound. Were using a lot of 3D assets models, rendering and the like. When its done well, theyre 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 youd like it and make it available in any angle, all in the confines of the computer, then Photoshop it into the actors hand.

I love Apocalypse Now, Bob Peaks work. But I think that esthetic can be applied to what were doing. Its still evolving, how to take sensibility of that era and make scenes beyond the photographic materials they came from. Its a digital world now. Music, art and what we do in advertising is digital. If youre doing an action picture, its unbelievable how good it is. If you do a wacky scene, youre better off if its 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.

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Joe Strike, aka “The Miscweant” has written about animation for the New York Daily News, Newsday, New York Press,, and for more than a decade, Animation World Network.