Visualizing Sound: Creating the Movie Poster for 'Berberian Sound Studio'

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A friend of mine regularly reminds me that much of what designers do is destined for the landfill. It’s a sobering thought, kind of like the realization that your future will most likely involve an intimate relationship with ground mulch. Everything is finite and a lot of what propels us forward is the meaning we carve out for ourselves. Visions of being remembered in the annals of design history give plenty of people a sense of purpose in their life, while others sustain themselves on the prospect of higher wages. The more altruistic will say that their cockles are warmed solely through following orders.

I’ve never been on a quest to please, nor have I had any delusions about securing a place in the history of design. Fame is fleeting, money only lasts for so long. There’s no end goal I hope to achieve, no mountain to get to the top of or a princess to save. I’m just interested in playing a long game against myself, trying to be better than what I was capable of the day before. That momentum propels the process forward and makes these projects into a journey of exploration rather than one of just idly checking boxes off on a bucket list. Everything is best served in moderation, though, and as motivating as pushing yourself can be, using that as on its own can lead to a host of messy results. That happened both with this project and, in a case of art imitating life, to Gilderoy, the sullied sound foley artist of Peter Strickland’s "Berberian Sound Studio."

Blending together sight and sound to create a wholly unique experience, "Berberian Sound Studio" revolves around the increasing frustrations and unraveling mental state of a sound engineer working on an Italian horror film in the 1970’s. It was one of the first films that I’d worked on in awhile where I’d had some passing knowledge of its existence: it premiered months before in the UK, backed by a vibrant set of posters that either played off of the soft, beautiful imagery within the film or brought to the forefront it’s giallo roots. A pre-existing campaign often isn’t a burden when a project is separated by time, but the fresher something is in the public’s consciousness, the greater the risk there is at being influenced and stumbling onto similar lines. Pulling from the same visual well as the original would speak honestly to the look of the film, but would teeter on the edge of that well-trodden ground. Berberian offers a premise rich in interpretation, allowing for different roads to be taken without straying too far from any central themes or ideas. It’s a unique film that grants the opportunity to push oneself without worrying about getting too weird.

That doesn’t mean the process won’t go up in flames, though. This sort of did.

Many of the early sketches were an incomprehensible mess; there were sound ideas, but the driving force became less concerned with focusing on them, and more with a desire to repeatedly try stranger things. A demon made out of sound equipment, Gilderoy’s face peeled back to reveal another world within - bizarre for the sake of being bizarre, but in a way that tried to top what came before. It can be a miserable process, watching pieces not click together despite continuously attacking the problem at different angles. Things get better, eventually, but then the rigorous second-guessing begins: are these being pushed far enough? Can they go further? Do they feel too easy? Do these avenues make any sense?

Scribbling without a direction can offer a multitude of possibilities but deadlines are always looming, and too much time spent yanking your own chain is a recipe for a whole lot of form without much of the content. What’s being produced becomes too insular and alienating to an audience not steeped in design history; a case of the work having it’s head firmly up it’s own backside. A clear idea, some semblance of a path forward - those can give definition to creative chaos. Thematically, Gilderoy becoming consumed by his process, causing the subsequent unraveling of his mental state, offered a foot hole in which to reign everything in.

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Sound reels became the focus, with magnetic tape spiraling outward and becoming a chaotic mess in several versions of the poster. The foley artist is devoured by the equipment he employs, becoming a part of him or covering the gaps that would be filled by traditional facial features. Fantasy and reality collide sometimes violently within the film, so many of the pieces use rough juxtapositions between different sound waves and other shards of imagery to evoke a fragmented sense of unity. Themes and similar patterns of exploration were strewn across different ideas rather than honed in on for a single piece as a way of playing within a sandbox, rather than getting lost within a jungle again.

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Berberian revels in ambiguity, employing certain techniques and staging certain scenes in a way that makes their meaning open to interpretation. That, in of itself, offers a license to make associations and indulge in bizarre imagery. The large, looming eye that found its way into several iterations is strange, and its addition is more emulative of the film’s aims by being suggestive rather than communicating a literal idea. Grounding everything falls to the title treatment (emulative of vintage vinyl packaging) and, in the case of the final one-sheet, the familiar, vertical structure used in most modern film posters. For a film that works against convention, a case could be made that laying everything out in a way that’s overly-familiar contradicts the story’s ethos, but I see it more as a coincidental nod to a classic Argento poster.

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Now, with all of that said, this managed to be both the easiest and difficult assignment I’ve tackled lately. Both IFC and Peter Strickland were wonderful; their reception to the work out of the gate isn’t typical in this business, and at the end of the day it’s existence is owed to them.

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The rough patches only asserted themselves in my own time, created by myself, while I privately waged a war against myself to move in directions I wasn’t altogether comfortable with. The results were satisfying in the end in the face of a tumultuous process.

Here is the final one-sheet:

berberian sound studio poster

There are an infinite number of ways to solve a problem, although some reveal themselves more easily than others. That alone is enough to make anyone roll into a fetal position and call it a day. Obstructions help reel things in, though, keeping the project moving forward without going too far off the rails and spiraling out of control. The temptation is there to try so many avenues, regardless of whether you’re prepared or not, and building walls for a sandbox can be the only thing standing in the way of stooping over your equipment and thinking...

"Berberian Sound Studio" is now playing in theaters and is available to rent on iTunes, YouTube, and other VOD outlets.

Check out the previous installment of The Art House: The Beautiful Movie Posters of Post-War Germany.