The Art House: The Trials and Tribulations of Minimal Movie Posters

The Art House

Unless otherwise noted, all work flying under the minimal movie poster banner contained within comes from my own archives (aka CD-Rs filled with past projects that I’ve tried to sweep under the rug with little success). I use them for the sole purpose of not pointing fingers at anyone in particular and inadvertently causing hurt feelings. Enjoy!

It’s 1905. A German artist by the name of Lucian Bernhard, reacting to the visual excess of Art Nouveau, begins stripping out the unnecessary in favor of the essential. Others slowly follow in his path, and a new minimalist sensibility to design is born. Coined Sachplakat (object poster), posters designed in this vein often exerted a beautiful clarity lost to advertisements concerned primarily with the ornate. They had no unifying style, but their strength, lying in their ability to communicate both simply and directly, left its mark on over a century of poster design.

Lucian Bernhard (left), Peter Birkhauser (right)

Hop to England, the 1960s, and a change in the way covers are being handled arrives at Penguin Books. Stories, rather than German products, are being sold, giving artists working under the publishing giant license to use simple and suggestive graphic tricks rather than play towards the literal. They could express a deft sense of wit clearly to engage the viewer and communicate an idea without having to rely on the ornate or the obvious. There was a visual link shared between many titles, but the most successful evaded the trappings of style.

Germano Facetti (left), David Pelham (right)

And now, years later, we’re surrounded by their descendants.

In the late 2000s, the internet became inundated with fan made posters for classic and contemporary films. Much like Berlin at the dawn of the 20th century, they were a reaction toward more than a decade of visual overabundance in movie advertising. What was unique, though, was the way they pulled from the past. The design approach and the ideas they drew inspiration from remained resonant, but the physical remnants of the work itself had visibly aged. Books and posters were bent and worn, caked with dirt and scratches that only came from personal use. Yet to anyone stumbling on these in a time rife with glossy one-sheets lacking conviction, devoid of soul, this was a new way of seeing: Design could be executed simply, with few, flat colors, the door to wit being blown wide open. A modern response against the busy, lifeless complacency being doled out by film advertising was born.

Blogs began to cover these personal projects, and the more people began following along, the more joined in on the fun. Assembly lines seemed to spring up everywhere: films were put through the minimalist meat grinder, and a false sense of accomplishment was granted to anyone who could spend a bit of time in Photoshop.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, 2009

You didn’t have to be a world class artist to put together a film poster that would attract the attention of well-known sources; there were ways of getting around an inability to draw that could be embraced by a large audience. Granted, there was no guarantee that the results would be brilliant, but it’s infinitely easier to emulate the cut paper and jagged inked edges of someone like Saul Bass than it is the hand painted mastery of Drew Struzan. You could make something others would hold up as a success without having to invest time into understanding what you yourself as an individual could offer up, riding a proven formula that caused minimal scarring or growth along the way. The unique voice that a person is capable of offering to the world, squandered; all of the work and introspection that comes from working through influences to get to some core sense of understanding design, lost.

Plenty of artists throughout history have stood on the shoulders of those that came before them. You learn by copying, and the path to growth rises from breaking down and rebuilding the things closest to your heart. These experiences change not only you, but the work itself - influences meld together, the direction of your intuition changes. It takes time, but the work becomes better, more of an extension of yourself, and less of a borrowed suit you put on to impress your friends.

The Wizard (2009), The Grudge (2009) 

In the past, the majority of this process occurred in private. The dirty work kept itself behind a curtain, shared only when someone of notable fame published a book that touched on their formative years. But the internet has given people the ability to share and our attitudes towards privacy have changed as a result. Our culture overindulges in pulling back the curtain of our lives for others to see; we’re more connected now, less cautious of what we put out into the world, and how that might follow us. Minimal movie posters, for some, are this process unveiled - people learning how things work, warts and all, in a public forum. What seems to put this process into a state of arrested development is the lack of information available about why the designers of yore made the decisions they did. Aspiring designers instead find no shortage of internet journalists and commentators raving about how great every piece of work of its kind is. This doesn’t breed successful designers but non-self reflecting individuals that, while capable of great talent, are stymied by being encouraged in the wrong direction.

The Man With the Golden Arm (Saul Bass), Big Fish (thesis project, 2006)

Rather than understand how a cover for a jacket worked, or why a Saul Bass poster uses such off kilter lettering, the visual language was, over time, pillaged in the most shallow way possible. A poster for Groundhog Day could look no different than a poster for Schindler’s List, despite the vast tonal differences between the two films. Everything that made these films so compelling in the first place was being drained, empty pieces of design left in their wake. Traffic, notoriety, and a promise of earning a little money seemed to become synonymous with minimal interpretations of beloved films.

There are no absolutes in design, and condemning anything that even remotely resembles the championed efforts of minimalism is disingenuous and naive, doing a great disservice to any work that makes an honest effort at communicating visually in a similar fashion. Judgement by association. More than enough professionals have made their ignorance plain by calling the approach creatively bankrupt, holding one person above all others as the pinnacle of achievement and writing off any other attempts as shoddy mimicry. But isn't that how all of this began? Mimicking the past? That’s something that people tend to be lazy about admitting; context barely exists, and no one stops to think what that might mean for the young, starry eyed designers out there that hear that they too can become noticed without leaving the confines of their bedroom.

It’s easier to complain than it is to teach. A snide remark here, a rant there - this adds little to the proceedings, being a rung below the worst minimal movie poster on the effort ladder. All from the people most qualified to educate and inspire change. The cycle continues to perpetuate itself: another poster, another professional acting snotty, so on and so forth. Maybe they don’t believe it’s worth their time, that an internet meme is beneath them, but it isn’t: not when it’s influencing the way people see, think about, and approach film posters. It’s a discussion worth having, because there’s still power in less being more if used properly. There’s no need for it to be continuously scrubbed of its strength by overexposure and a community's inability to teach or inspire.

Beetlejuice (2008), The Seventh Seal (2009) 

A line in the sand should be drawn to help others understand the functional differences between a contemporary movie poster used to announce a film’s presence and the minimal, fan made pieces that surround the internet. The former has to do so much more than the latter - without the benefit of hindsight, it has to consider not only what it’s going to say but how to say it both effectively and interestingly enough to get butts in the seats. The latter, well... design is a two way street - a conversation between the viewer and the object. No one likes being on one side of the conversation, and minimal movie posters naturally lend themselves to a dialogue with a large group of people because they often trade on a pre-existing knowledge of a film, placing at the forefront an image that is in some way tangibly connected to the movie. It doesn’t have to communicate a new story, a tone, an idea about the plot or its characters; all of that work has been done both by countless personal viewings or a specific title’s oversaturation within the culture. All that’s left is an image that is roughly the visual equivalent to an in-joke, something exclusive that people understand and feel clever about recognizing. And that’s why, more often than not, the posters themselves are considered more highly than contemporary one-sheets: people like feeling good about themselves, and a minimal movie poster can act as a conduit for a personal sense of accomplishment.

Jaws (official US one-sheet, left; minimal mockup, right)

There has been no shortage of criticism lobbed at the way many modern film posters are marketed and handled, and while many are certainly justified, reducing the visual landscape solely to posters with stripped down graphics, flat colors, and the occasional modernist homage is not the best response. It’s trading one set of bad practices for another. A world of uniformity rather than diversity - celebrating similarities rather than the differences that make every film unique.

Maybe it’s all for naught. The proliferation of minimal movie posters may just be a symptom of our hyper-connected culture, where skimming and soundbytes reign supreme and quiet, drawn out contemplation is discouraged. When society is constantly barraging itself with information and graphics at a startlingly intense rate, can you blame so many for latching on to something that both shuns excess while keying into our ever decreasing attention spans and diminishing ability towards more creative thinking? Or has modern life just become so uncertain that people find comfort in retreating to echos of the past, to times when things were perceived as being simpler or more beautiful than they are now?

Henry James once said, “Nothing, of course, will ever take the place of “liking” a work of art or not liking it: the most improved criticism will not abolish that primitive, that ultimate test.”

Perhaps, in the end, that’s all that matters.


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