Poster design in Australia is an integral part of any film marketing campaign, but is not without its difficulties, as Simon de Bruyn discovers.

If you ask Australian key art designer Jeremy Saunders what makes a good movie poster, most likely he’ll quote from the best. “My job is to distill the film into that ‘single, reductive, seductive image’, as Saul Bass once put it, and incisively communicate all the myriad facets of the film through a uniquely beautiful design,” he says.

“This is a lovely idea, but it bears absolutely no relation whatsoever to what really happens. Because no matter how high-falutin’ I like to make it sound, the poster is a marketing tool, and not to be confused with art under any circumstances. It exists to sell tickets.”

Although the remark is self-deprecating, it also highlights the (not always considered) reality of movie poster design. If films can be described as a fine balance between commerce and art, then movie posters that define and promote films are a microcosm of this idea. And for their designers it’s all about getting the balance right. Movie posters are part of what distributors call key art – a broader term that encompasses all promotional artwork for a film, and which is getting broader to include designs for website pages, DVD packaging and phone wallpapers. Most distributors have their own teams of in-house designers, but often they’ll call in someone like Saunders to add something different to their key art.

“It’s usually necessary to run through a bunch of ideas, because the distributors and the producers and the director generally each want to go in a different direction, so initially I try to create a design that each party is happy with, and then once everyone’s happy they’ve been listened to I can stride off wherever the mood takes me,” he says.

“You rarely get it right first draft, it’s like writing. You’ve got to work through stuff and really hammer ideas into the ground, not least because otherwise you get comfortable and just end up repeating yourself. There’s enough of that going on in this industry as it is.”

Saunders has earned the right to be so candid, having designed posters for films such as Candy, Romulus My Father, Home Song Stories, Little Fish, Suburban Mayhem and a range of foreign indie titles. One of the most recent key art projects Saunders worked on was The Square, the suburban film noir directed by Nash Edgerton, which opened weakly amid a field of US blockbusters and came to rest at just over $300,000 in box office takings. In the wash of industry analysis that followed, most notably in Jim Schembri’s Age blog, the poster came under some scrutiny and was earmarked by as one of the reasons why the film didn’t “connect with audiences” due to its lack of recognisable actors in the image.

“I’ve been fortunate to work on some projects where we tested poster designs in front of audiences and some of the comments and conclusions that came back from those were quite shocking and challenging,” he says.

“One thing that’s pertinent to The Square was that if people saw a person’s face on a poster and didn’t recognise them, this was actually likely to put them off investigating the film. So it was perversely important not to have David Roberts or Claire van der Boom on the poster. [The film’s producer] Louise Smith gave me my first poster design gig – for a short film starring David Roberts! He wasn’t on that poster either.

“I would have kicked against putting Joel Edgerton on the poster even though he is a recognisable ‘bankable’ face, because you’re simply lying about the film. To their credit no-one ever asked me to. So I packed my lunch and headed off to a more conceptual place,” he explains. He says he worked closely with the filmmakers and Roadshow on a range of posters for The Square, each time trying to capture the mood of the film. There were two other potential posters that were even more conceptual, but neither really had the filmic quality of the one they used. Despite the criticism he remains proud of his final work.

“It’s a dark, noir poster because it’s a dark noir film. It’s not fucking Bratz. I just wanted to say this is the story of a guy, an anonymous everyman; he could be you, really, and he’s in a dark place. If you look at the lighting, something’s not right about it, and of course there’s the shadow which people don’t notice immediately, but on a pre-cognitive level they know that something’s off. The aim was to create this air of uncertainty and unease about the guy on the poster,” he explains.

“I think I’m pretty hard on myself most of the time about my work and particularly on this film because these guys are my friends, and they’d made a really good film, so I put a lot of pressure on myself. I think the poster actually expresses the themes and ideas in the film pretty succinctly. Are there things I’d do differently in hindsight? Probably. But in the end I’m more proud of it than I’ve been proud of a design in a long time.”

Bitter & Twisted director Christopher Weekes, who pays the bills by doing VFX work and graphic design, designed all of the posters for his debut feature – mocking up some versions with cast faces, but eventually coming back to the image that had already been used widely by Odin’s Eye Entertainment at international markets and festivals. He empathizes with Saunders’ battle to represent a film’s whole tone in a single image.

“I think posters tend to provoke the strongest and loudest arguments about ‘what works’ and ‘what doesn’t work’ in film marketing. It’s so difficult to compress a ninety minute story down into one single image that matches all the necessary criteria – something that both reflects the tone and intentions of the film but also manages to stand out and generate interest when placed next to hundreds of other competing images,” he says.

Michelle Morley, a former art director at Singletons ad agency now working as a freelancer with Creative Hub, designed the poster for Men’s Group. Unlike The Square, this poster was less about compositing different elements into one image, than touching up a solitary on set photo. She says she was drawn to that particular image, as it evokes some of the film’s key themes.

“I like when a theme from the film has been captured in one shot, as long as it’s not a staged shot. The Men’s Group image was taken on set and stood out as emotive and intriguing image,” she says.

“I tried to pull and extract bits of the image out and drop other things in the background, as well as use a polarized effect as I wanted it to look a bit weathered and grainy; and not too clean cut, as the film certainly isn’t. I wanted to extract the darkness and crevasses and creases in the image.”

Weekes believes film posters should almost be able to stand alone from a film, and tell its own story that still resonates after an audience has seen it. “You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can pick a film from its poster. It should tell its own story. A good poster should be something that gets you curious about a film the first time you see it, then remind you what it felt like watching it once you have,” he says.

This article appeared in IF #114 October 2008

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