SDCC 11: Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster


Just when you thought our coverage of Comic-Con was over, in sneaks another post! Don’t you just love surprises?

At the Los Angeles Film Festival, I carefully read the descriptions of each movie, judging which would be interesting enough for a review and which ones would just be plain fun. I had a carefully-arranged schedule to see as many movies as my schedule would allow, arranging them in order of interest, location, and time slots. All that consideration went out the window for one film, though: I made time to see The Innkeepers based on the poster alone. Doesn’t that little section of it in the header look enticing? There’s just something about an illustrated poster that really brings a sense of wonder to a movie, and it’s becoming more and more rare to see such pretty posters out there.

There are still some poster artists out there, and they have a lot to say about the way the process has changed over the years. While none of the people who spoke at Comic-Con had anything to do with The Innkeepers, you might recognize their work from Blade Runner, Labyrinth, and The Empire Strikes Back. Hit the jump to see Andrea Alvin, Steve Chorney, Matthew Peak, Lawrence Noble, and James Goodridge speak a bit about the history and present direction of movie posters, and to see some of the most gorgeous illustrated posters ever in the gallery.

John Alvin created some of the most iconic posters in existence, with design help from his wife, Andrea. John’s first movie poster was Blazing Saddle. Mel Brooks wasn’t happy with a single poster design he was getting, and John decided to take a gamble. He created a poster full of jokes and handed it in. Brooks loved it, and so did the public: once the posters went up, they were immediately torn off the wall by admirers, and every time they went back up they were taken off just as quickly. The poster was as much of a hit as the movie itself.

matthew peak

In some instances, the posters made such a big impact on audiences that they determined the success of the movies themselves. New Line Cinemas wasn’t very big when Nightmare on Elm Street came out, and the poster was so cool that it garnered more interest for the movie than it otherwise would have. Interestingly, the only directive for designers Bob and Matthew Peak was to make a picture of a girl with monsters in her hair. Reading the script gave them the idea to add in Freddy’s metal fingers, now the most iconic part of the series.

Generally, the artists were given a rough cut of the movie, and after watching it, they drew a few different designs based on their impressions of the film. Their goal was to entice the audience, promising an interesting story without completely giving the story away, and they were encouraged to draw their interpretation of the movie and shy away from just recreating one of the frames. After the initial designs were done, they were altered bit by bit, often by different artists than the originals. The studios usually had some preconceived ideas about what they wanted in a poster before the sketching began. For Labyrinth, there were at least twelve different ideas going around, being tweaked by different artists as they made the rounds, and it took a long while before the final poster was chosen. One of the original ideas involved a similar picture of David Bowie on a wooden door, with the faces of the other characters carven into the frame. Many other movie posters had a similar start, with many hands in the pie before everything was finalized.

For Lawrence Noble, the movie posters that worked best had a different process. His favorite creations were made when he was given total freedom, and they weren’t changed much after the fact. For Empire Strikes Back, for example, his only directive was “myth and legend.” There were very few details about the movie, and he had to go off of his knowledge of A New Hope. While changes were made to the Empire Strikes Back poster, this wasn’t always the case. With Time After Time, he spent six weeks on a sketch, and that ended up being the final product, with no changes whatsoever. 

steve chorney

The modern process is very different from what it used to be. James Goodridge does a lot of more current posters, including Inglourious Basterds. He designed the poster for WALL-E, and all he had to work with was a paragraph-long synopsis. There was no mention of EVE at the time or any details of the plot: just a tiny sampling of what the movie would eventually be. Most of the posters he has to do have a similar set-up, with just a tiny synopsis and nothing more. Many other artists just receive synopses as well, and they’re expected to work quickly. It’s much easier to group actors together in Photoshop than it is to create an original painting, but studios will often give artists the same amount of time for both. What’s worse is that the artists often have to accept this tiny time frame: most of the work they do is in the concept stage and never sees the light of day, but many projects with obscenely short deadlines are guaranteed to be published.

While movie studios used to want the creative interpretation of an artist, they now want a close-up of an actor’s face and not much else. It’s true that it’s often in an actor’s contract to have their face on the poster, but they could easily be included in a more interesting way. The most mediocre piece, the least offensive, is usually the one the studio wants. While there are still original illustrated posters out there, they’re becoming more and more rare, but here’s hoping they won’t entirely disappear.