Film Poster as Art

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It’s no recent event that the cinema poster has been widely regarded as a form of art in itself – an indelible and flawless tool in order to help (and sometimes destroy) the career of a movie. But posters in general must be conceived, in all their form, with the concept and ideas of the film it embellishes, without betraying them. “It’s like the bottle of a perfume”, states Garrick Webster, from the Creative Bloq website, which specializes in design and art in general. “And it’s always much better and inspiring when posters are hand-made, without the use of Photoshop and other image manipulation tools”, he says. “Iconic films had their posters made like that, which in a way explains the fact why so many of them have stuck to the emotional memory of millions of people.

The poster for “My Friend, Kolka! (1961), by Miron Lukyanov.

Originally, film posters were produced for the exclusive use by the theaters exhibiting the film the poster was created for, and were required to be returned to the distributor after the film left the theater. In the United States film posters were usually returned to a nationwide operation called the National Screen Service (NSS) which printed and distributed most of the film posters for the studios between 1940 and 1984. As an economy measure, the NSS regularly recycled posters that were returned, sending them back out to be used again at another theater. During this time, a film could stay in circulation for several years, and so many old film posters were badly worn before being retired into storage at an NSS warehouse (most often, they were thrown away when they were no longer needed or had become too worn to be used again). Those posters which were not returned were often thrown away by the theater owner, but some found their way into the hands of collectors. Beginning in the 1980s, the American film studios began taking over direct production and distribution of their posters from the National Screen Service and the process of making and distributing film posters became decentralized in that country.

Beyond the American film poster, another one which calls attention because of the way it was originally made were the Russian ones. Important productions and/or classics from the cinema of that country – like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and My Friend, Kolka! (1961), two examples that cober distinct periods of this art – had their posters made and/or sketched to express with high fidelity the ideas of that particular film, the first one a political and innovative piece of art in terms of montage (several times imitated by others) and the latter a juvenile drama which would bring happy songs for the youth. In Russia, by the way, that a certain discrepancy was even more evident when it came to producing these objects. After the break from the Soviet Union in 1991, many artifacts related to soviet life – from posters to gadgets – were discharged, destined to be forgotten. Founded in 2012 The Moscow Design Museum has been collecting objects from this time (which would end up in a book published in the United Kingdom years later, the Designed in the USSR). These movie posters, made between 1957 and 1966, in a general way coincide with the so-called Kruschev Thawing, a period of ever-growing liberalism which followed Stalin’s death. “They reflect their time too”, says the Museum director, Alexandra Sankova. “In those days design had an artistic expression that reflected the thawing and the dreams of a new world, more open, which was coming along. Romantic films and suspense thrillers were hugely popular, but the soviet people loved the comedies more than anything – they’ve become classics of the genre and many people still know them by heart.” In a general way as well the Russian art is very rich, very expressive , with a strong use of color palette that goes beyond the movie poster, even though this object in particular (the poster) is a well-known example of the way of thinking, the aesthetics and the constant revolutions which are a main part of the country’s history. “From any place, but much more from Russia, which has always have this big history with pamphlets and posters”, says Sankova. 

Throughout the years even Bollywood movie posters – the equivalent in India to Hollywood itself and which produces the double of the American industry – have become a fetish and a collector’s item. Many of such productions have a fascinating history in the cinema, but this is not all. Like its equivalent in the United States, the Bollywood film posters are an important part of this industry, and the only outdoor source for the promotion of these films. Naturally, in a country known for its vibrancy and energy, the posters needed to be more eccentric. Bollywood has an extensive tradition in terms of art – taking the movie poster manufacturing as serious as the fun essence and escapism the films would bring within themselves and which form their appeal. Hand-made for instance in the 1950s, they evidently followed 21st-century’s tradition of moving to digital, with their art and completion made in the computer. But have not lost their charm.  

As one can imagine, there are many types of movie posters – from the well-known lobby cards that embellished the movie theater halls of those enormous 1920/30/40 palaces, using all types of design and information in order to sell the picture, up to the teaser posters that evidently do not reveal much about the product. There are also the character posters, very common in the 1940s, usually painted and bringing the main actors in important and/or crucial scenes of the movie. Nowadays the character posters use photographs of actors dressed as their characters, and are done to promote the picture way before the official release.

José Luiz Benício in his atelier.

And what about the movie posters for Brazilian films?, you might ask. “Brazil has always been recognized for having a diverse and high quality cultural production, being an exporter in some segments, like soup operas. The design for movie posters is not left behind”, states Marcelo Mello Macedo, the author of a semiotic study about Brazilian movie posters, enphasizing two important films from different periods of time – Pixote (1981), by Hector Babenco, and City of God (2002), by Fernando Meirelles. And when it comes the production of movie posters in the country it is mandatory the reference of Brazilian artist José Luiz Benício, one of Brazil’s greatest illustrators in the 20th century, with a vast production not only for the cinema, but also in the editorial and advertising departments, graphic material for movies, many of them award-winning pieces. Among his creations, movie posters for box-office hits such as Independência ou Morte (by Carlos Coimbra, 1972), Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (Bruno Barreto, 1976) and The Kiss in the Asphalt (Bruno Barreto, 1980), besides many films for Brazilian comedic troupe Os Trapalhões. In 2007, the Brazilian Film Academy gave him an honorary award for his body of work. 

Another Brazilian firmly established in the art of movie poster design is graphic artist Fernando Pimenta, the creator of illustrations for many of Brazil’s screen successes, like Bye Bye Brazil (by Carlos Diegues, 1979), Bonitinha Mas Ordinária (Braz Chediak, 1981), Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar (Arnaldo Jabor, 1986) among others. All of them very creative, with a little bit of madness and a good dose of emotion. To complete, another one deserves attention: graphic designer Rogério Duarte, the creator of posters and vinyl covers for the Tropicália troupe. From Po Art with elements of Brazilian popular culture, Duarte has done “a truly visual antropophagie which is indebted to the 1922 modernists from São Paulo.” It is his creation the poster for Glauber Rocha’s second feature film, the famous Black God White Devil (1964), released two months after the military coup in Brazil. Its thematic would cast another look on the Northeast sertão, treating themes such as the cangaço (the traditional bandit of the region), the powerful landowners of rural areas, the sanctimonious, and the so-called Cordel literature. More recently artist Marcelo Pallotta has been up high among the poster producers of the 21st century. At 50 years of age and a 20-year career span, the designer counts among his work about 150 movie posters for films such as Carandiru, The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, City of God, and The Second Mother. His first work ever was for Beto Brant’s Belly Up, in 1997. Another proof that the art of the movie poster design has been alive and well. On time: the poster that illustrates this article is from the classic French film L’Atalante (1934), by Jean Vigo, with the art made by Michel Gondry.  

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