Cruisin' for Struzan: The Painter Who Changed Movie Posters Forever

The Art House

Editor's note: A new documentary called "Struzan: The Man Behind the Poster" is currently in theaters.

The Art of the Modern Movie Poster, a tomb released in 2008 that could quite possibly stop a bullet, collects “more than 1500 international posters”, making it “the ultimate book on movie poster design from the last 60 years”. It makes a hell of an effort, and gives American audiences in particular a place to experience some of the greatest interpretations of film advertising to come out of countries around the globe. But there’s a gaping hole at the center of its look at key art in the United States: one of the most influential poster artists at the end of the 20th century is almost completely absent despite being responsible for well over a hundred one-sheets while bringing to life some of the most iconic properties that continue to exist today. You’ve seen his art even if you never knew his name, and if you’re a product of 1980s/early 1990s American culture, your life has definitely been touched in some way by his work. The man was a machine, and his output was everywhere.

Star Wars. Back to the Future. Indiana Jones. American Illustrator and painter Drew Struzan has spent over thirty years lending his talents to marketing countless films, but he is known for having worked on cultural milestones that wound up changing the way movies were made. They are the films that shaped the modern day blockbuster franchise, forever shifting not only our ideas about what a series of movies could be but also the way they could be marketed and executed. It’s spectacle on a grand scale, and Struzan’s approach fully embraces these qualities while forming an intimate relationship with the audience.

"Hook" (1991), "The Thing" (1982)

His approach is literal rather than metaphorical, constructing grandiose images that aim to distill a story and reflect tone rather than exaggerate or abstract themes and ideas. If executives believe cast sells a picture, and artists strive for originality in their work, then Struzan is a marriage of these two worlds in a way rarely seen today. Actors in-character were the focus, but his style actively worked in support of the composition as a whole; heads may float, but their execution always feel’s purposeful, never arbitrary. Some of his most visually dense pieces, such as Hook, show a carefully considered architecture that binds a world together, while pieces similar to The Thing elevate a strong, central image with a clear, visceral setting.

"An American Tail" (1986), "Masters of the Universe" (1987)

There’s as much of a style at work as there is a sensibility to the way it’s employed: color, form, and technique shift from piece to piece, taking their cues from the films themselves rather than a recycling of style for style’s sake. And that is one of Struzan’s greatest talents: while the marks that come from his pencil or brush are undeniably his, they’re used in service of a story rather than being a way for a film to service his personal style. An American Tail feels as different from Masters of the Universe as Police Academy does to the teaser poster for Return to Oz. The degree of realism shifts depending on the nature of the project, with the volume being dialed up or down depending on the genre of the picture. It’s a chameleon-like ability that goes just far enough while retaining his distinct voice without compromising the vision of the studio or a filmmaker. A thin line to toe, one that many artists, designers, and advertisers fail at despite their best efforts. Drew Struzan, however, made a career out of making it seem effortless while being effective.

"Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" (Drew Struzan), "Captain America" (BLT Communications LLC)

There’s an idea of what a movie poster should be that is indebted to his sensibilities: the epic imagery, the collage of scenes...a focus on familiar faces and familiar iconography without becoming hung-up on the shaky waters that come from putting forth dense ideas or symbolic metaphors. It’s almost a shared sense of nostalgia on the part of those creating pieces for today’s pop-culture blockbusters and the people that respond to them - the posters themselves couldn’t be further from replicating the deft artistry of Drew Struzan, but there’s a spirit running through many of them that feels familiar. Be it an agency or an artist working for Mondo, his work has imprinted itself on a generation of people working in the field of film poster design, setting a tone that drives much of our film related visual culture that continues to grow with each passing day.


Further Reading: Gallery, The 50 Best Posters of Drew Struzan

The Official Website of Drew Struzan

The Art of Drew Struzan (because process and unused work are your friend)

Latest News