We’re all looking for answers. For some people it’s spiritual, for others, it’s as simple as finding meaning in their lives. Graphic designers can be a little less subtle: we’re the ones trying to figure out how the person next to us designed something so jaw-droppingly fantastic that our entire career up until that point feels like one long, drawn out con. How can you blame us? In this business, when something comes along that knocks you on your rear, you’ve got two options: sulk in a corner, or brush yourself off and get educated. If this were 1600’s Massachusetts, I suppose you could just start accusing people of witchcraft before having them burnt at the stake for their display of divine (if inhuman) acts. You wouldn’t learn anything, but it’d be one less clever person on the planet. Thankfully, this is the 21st century, so we just send polite emails asking for pointers, instead.
Still, there are more pieces of work out there catalogued in books or by websites than there are explanations of how they came to be. It’s unsurprising, when you think about it: sitting down to construct a singular narrative out of a process that tends to have the hallmarks of a Lynchian nightmare is, well, a challenge. The details are often illogical on the surface and without much discerning order. I’d say that, at the risk or heresy, it’d be easier to just chalk everything up to “magic” and be done with it. But having been and still being one of those people that revels in learning how work is put together, it’d be silly of me to at least not try to delve into what goes into putting a poster together. No one’s demanding I be set up in flames or anything. Talking about how babies are born does feel like the next logical step for this column, though. So here we go.
Late last year I worked with IFCFilms on Antonio Campos’ “Simon Killer." For the unacquainted, the film follows a recently graduated American traveling abroad whose relationships slowly bring to light his true, troubled nature. It’s an engaging, atmospheric picture that stays with you long after the credits have rolled. And when you’re putting together a poster, being able to get in that headspace, to live in that world, allows for a better synthesis of tone. These days, people seem to favor simple, witty solutions, but often it’s not about showing off how clever you are; the film itself comes first. Being able to drag a feeling out from the screen and onto a page can allow for that while bringing forward something more immersive, possibly even a bit more complex.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Every job is different. Although, there’s a skeleton to the process that tends to be the same. You discuss themes, images, feelings, and ideas - the nuts and bolts of what you’re trying to communicate - with your partners in crime (in this case, Antonio and IFC). Some then head straight to the computer; I wind up scrawling notes and sketches into notebooks and onto scraps of paper, the kind that would look like they make sense to serial killers and forensic experts. Believe me, I can barely make sense of them long after a project’s done. See for yourself:
Basically, you know that drawer that everyone has in their house filled with things that don’t have a home but just ache for a place to be tossed and forgotten about? My notebook is like that. Granted, I come back to it. And sure, it might smell a little less awful, but any idea, now matter how foolish, gets pulled out of the old noggin and stuffed in there. This might be infuriatingly cheesy and cliched, but it frees up space for other ideas to crop up while holding me back from harboring one thing for too long. Chip Kidd said it best: never fall in love with an idea. They’re whores.
There’s an honest truth in that, especially when you realize that sketching alone usually gets you a quarter of the way to the finish line, often through momentum alone. Staring at a blank page is terrifying; having several filled with barely discernable nonsense to guide you makes it less so.
Most of the key elements that made their way into the rough comps on the computer were born during that, with the main drive early on focusing on Simon himself. He’s a lonely, isolated character, and you get the sense that his attempts at connecting with other human beings are ultimately hollow. I tried blending that together with the lights and color along the Parisian night sky, playing towards his fragile emotional state and hoping to evoke something dreamy but altogether unsettling. Some of the roughs were good, others complete failures. Type and image work together, and when you’ve got large, menacing shots of the star bathed in red glowing light with the words “Simon Killer” underneath, you start to marginalize the film rather than honor it’s breadth and scope.
These are the things learned along the way. You try, you fail, you fail harder, you move on. Rarely do solutions fall from the sky fully hatched (although, it has been known to happen - in the bathroom, inconveniently enough). Sometimes you’re methodically working towards a solution; other times, it’s like play, except you’re feeling around in the dark for what you think is a light switch...that’s supposed to be at the furthest corner of the room that you can’t see. On the wall. And to the right.
This was more of the latter.
We shed a fair amount of work, somewhere in the double digits (as you usually do) and landed on two directions: the first was a very dark, yet vibrant red poster of a naked woman bathed in the blur of the city lights. A last ditch attempt at trying to bring together the relationship between sex and violence that slightly underscores the picture while being audacious enough to grab people’s attention. I’d show you, but honestly, aren’t some things better left to the imagination?
And then the final which, oddly enough, I can’t say much about. This is a process post about a design that came together at the end very quickly, Frankensteined out of bits and pieces that weren’t working as well on their own. It heavily trades in on poster cues from the 70s (entirely appropriate given the mood of the film), while pulling together ideas touched upon earlier without being burdened by living up to an image of the main character. And that’s ok. That’s what process is about: falling on your rear and learning from your mistakes along the way so that you, hopefully, wind up being able to walk in a straight line without looking like a dope.
To wrap this up, a few things. First, you’re only as good as the people you are surrounded with. Both IFC and Antonio have a sharp eye, and if it weren’t for their presence throughout all of this there’d be no poster. Obviously. But it’s never said enough how much of a difference smart, brave people can make in allowing work through the door that doesn’t make you squirm at night. Second, and lastly, for the one person out there that actually reads this, gets to the end, and asks, “Yeah, but how did you make it?” Easy: I took a picture of my eye one morning after breakfast and now it’s looking out back at you whenever you stare at that poster.
"Simon Killer" is currently playing in select theaters, and opens on VOD this Friday.
See more of Brandon’s work on his website.