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The Art House: A New Column Dedicated to Movie Posters, Art and Design

EDITOR'S NOTE: I first became a fan of Brandon Schaefer's work when I stumbled upon this brilliantly evocative poster for Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Samouraï." I automatically bought a print – I don't even remember making the decision, my fingers just *did* it, as naturally as checking email or dismissing a pop-up. It arrived on the most beautifully textured paper, I carelessly slapped it on the wall of my dorm room, and that was that. I was a fan. Brandon's work has only grown more impressive in the years since. From Woody Allen to Ingmar Bergman (do yourself a favor and click those links), it seemed as if his lucid but unusually lush style could articulate the most beautiful part of any film, regardless of the shape that beauty took.

Naturally, I wasn't the only person who noticed this, and Brandon is now regularly hired by the likes of IFC and Oscilloscope to distill their films into a single image. He'll kill me for saying this, but he's become one of the most talented in the modern world of movie posters, and he's on his way to becoming one of the most prominent. His one-sheet for "Wings of Desire" is probably my favorite poster ever, and the framed 24 x 36 print I have in my room was the first thing my girlfriend and I agreed would come with us when we move in together this summer. From Fake Criterion covers to Mondo and everything in between, we're living in a golden age of cinephile graphic design , and I'm incredibly proud and excited to have Brandon writing about the increasingly compelling world of movie art. And perhaps he'll create a few new things for us along the way...

Without further ado, welcome to The Art House. - David Ehrlich

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You know how the first episode of a TV show often feels slightly divorced from everything that follows? This will probably be like that. Except instead of Jon Hamm, you get me, and instead of "Mad Men," you get the premiere of a bi-weekly column focused on film art. Don’t worry, you could’ve done worse. There’s a good chance, though, that if you’re reading this, you might actually care about the latter. It’s only natural: the last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in art for film, firmly carried forward on the back of an ever-expanding collector’s market (thanks, Mondo!). More than a decade of overly photoshopped floating heads has finally given way to a seemingly endless loop of unofficial works striving to put right what once went wrong.

But, this isn’t about that. Or at least not yet. While a space dedicated to film art would be remiss in not looking at contemporary pieces or trends, I’m hoping that the 9-5 that keeps me from living on the streets or joining a thuggish and immaculately coordinated gang of ne'er-do-well graphic designers will offer a larger perspective. Something that manages to be both entertaining and educational. Kind of like an old episode of "Doctor Who," except the only thing here as weak as cardboard is my sense of humor.

Which is probably as good of an introduction as I’m bound to write for myself.

I’m a working stiff. A graphic designer who, as the saying goes, is no more well known than your average electrician. These days, I spend the bulk of my time on film related work, with posters paying a large part of my bills. Now, this would be the point where another designer might start waxing nostalgic about their childhood, dovetailing into a lengthy story of how their love affair with movie posters was destined to blossom into the life changing career now before them. You know, the graphic designer equivalent of that kid who played with an 8mm camera and grew up to be J.J. Abrams. No such luck here. The only posters you could get anywhere near calling my favorite growing up were for ‘The Rocketeer’ and ‘The NeverEnding Story II’.

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One was (and still is) an incredibly well crafted piece of design that manages to make a film about a guy in a rocket-pack look even more thrilling than its already exciting premise. The other is what you hang on your wall if you’re six, love sweatpants and worship a white flying dog. What I do remember making an impression were the things I’d never covet, much less hang. One-sheets for "Child’s Play" and "The Shining" were just a few of the posters that managed to be surprisingly effective, even if they weren’t the most intrinsically detailed pieces around.

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When art critics argue over whether or not graphic design has the power to change lives, I’m the hypothetical case study dragged out in support of “duh.” Not only did living in constant fear of pictures on large pieces of paper allow me to fill my word count in a column more than a decade later (did I mention I was so scared that I used to sleep within arm’s reach of a proton pack and/or a lightsaber?), but it instilled a unique, if odd, appreciation for what design can be: a big club with spikes capable of being wielded (thanks, James).

And that’s the type of work that fuels my engine: design that aims to make you look; work that says something, communicates honestly an idea or a tone or, in the case of film, a hint at what’s to come.

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It doesn’t necessarily have to be conventionally attractive to do that, either. The poster for “...and Justice for All” calls out the hypocrisy of it’s own title; “Taxi Driver” presents an isolated man within the bustling, gritty streets of New York; “Dancer in the Dark” hints at Selma’s failing eyesight and the grim future that awaits.

Creating work that checks all of those boxes is a tall order, one I’ve tried to get better at hitting for some time. When I started in high school, I’d often wind up frustrated, figuring there was an easy way out if I just focused on making something look cool instead. This is what “cool” looked like in 2000.

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First attempt at a movie poster. October, 2000

To be fair, that’s probably more than anyone could possibly hope for out of a sweatpants-loving kid with no formal training. Try and expand upon that years later with a little schooling and something more highbrow than Ron Howard’s “The Grinch” and you get an exercise in straining the phrase “too much of a good thing” to it’s breaking point.

I’ll be brief: my last semesters of college were spent designing posters for class based off of Tim Burton’s “Big Fish”. The assigned method of research meant breaking down the film from hours to seconds into an easily digestible infographic to get a feel for mapping out narrative, with the final poster leading into “The Five Obstructions”. Again, for brevity’s sake, this meant revisiting the finished poster five times in five different ways assigned by an outside party. That was my thesis, and while I can’t really explain what exactly I was thinking when I made these (although I must’ve had a copy of "Fear and Loathing" lying around at the time), I can say that this is what burnt out looked like in 2006.

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Five different posters for “Big Fish”. 2005-2006

After a string of odd jobs involving delivering furniture and failed attempts at filmmaking, I sat down in 2008 and got myself into the habit of creating posters in my spare time for fake film screenings. There wasn’t much of a plan behind it: a steady job went out the door with a crumbling economy, and making something felt like a more worthwhile way of spending my free time than six-hour "Call of Duty" marathons. Plus, any would-be armchair design critics were bound to be a lot less hurtful than 12-year-olds calling you unspeakably horrible things over the internet for being unable to shoot straight.

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Blade Runner and M, Friday Night Film Series, 2008. The Dark Knight, Feb 2009.

A lot of those early posters were fairly simple. Growing up in New England and reading Walden one too many times can do things to a person, I guess. Had growing a neckbeard been in the cards, maybe I’d have spent more time drawing likenesses instead of trying to be un-fussy with the ordinary, or the obvious. Who knows. But the posters clicked with some people: circumstance landed my work in front of the right eyes, giving me the opportunity to work on smaller re-releases. Years passed, doors opened on wider reaching projects, and I can now do a year’s worth of “Big Fish” work in under 3 days. (But I won’t. God, I won’t.)

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Orpheus re-release poster, France, 2010. Lawrence of Arabia 50th Anniversary, Sony, 2012. Kes re-release poster, 2011.

Woody Allen sarcastically said that 80% of success was showing up, but he has a point: had there been a sizeable group of talented individuals scribbling away at their own alternate film posters then as there is now, I doubt I would’ve gotten the chance to make this into a career. The community was barely existent back then, and just “showing up” meant that at least someone was bound to take note, if only for the novelty of it all at the time. I got lucky, and have been fortunate enough to go from making my own posters for fun to steadily working on things that get more use than sitting in a special spot at the corner closet of my parents house.

I can’t say whether or not any of this work has the blunt, impactful nature of a big, spiked club – that’s not my call to make. But the process of getting it put together should’ve birthed enough insight about design, history, and everything else in between for me to try and make this column a worthwhile read for the foreseeable future. Assuming anyone still knows how to read. I don’t. Why else make pictures for a living?

See more of Brandon's work on his website.

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