American film poster design has a history of being dominated by agencies. “Two heads are better than one” the saying goes, and if you’ve ever caught a glimpse at the collective output of several different heads all working towards the same goal over a decent amount of time, well, it’s slightly unnerving. They’re often built to execute a single purpose: to create advertising specifically for film. And regardless of what you may say about the state of modern poster design, there’s more than enough work out there – both hanging in theatres and on an agency’s cutting room floor – to give pause at just how incredible their capabilities truly are.
Sometimes that keeps me up at night, and it can make this job look a little like that sculpture of David by Bernini: one man prepared to go toe to toe with a giant. We’re all in this together, but at the end of the day, competition reigns supreme. History is often written around the victors, and we already know who tends to come out on top. Years ago, though, awkwardly jammed into the bottom shelf at a used bookstore, was a thin hardcover by one of the other guys, a freelancer that found himself in positions normally reserved for goliaths. And the results – good or bad – were there, proudly displayed for the world to see. He’s a legend, but one who is rarely discussed in relation to design for film. His work continues to put the world back into focus when my self-confidence completely bottoms out and I consider taking up a career as a unicycling philosopher instead.
Bob Gill is an American illustrator and graphic designer. With a career spanning decades, he’s written a multimedia musical for Broadway, designed for the UN, and, well, directed a porno. At 82, he lives in New York, gets around by bicycle, and can deliver a heck of a presentation when he’s not setting magazine covers on fire. But that’s now.
From the late 1950s until the 1980s, Gill dabbled in work for film, taking on projects for studios ranging from Universal to Columbia Pictures. His most visible, lasting contributions lie in his title work for Mysterious Island, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, The Third Voice, and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. In 1957, he called Saul Bass up for advice on his first title sequence for the film Plunder Road, a thriller about six criminals attempting to make the perfect getaway across the country.
The ‘master of titles’ may have lent an ear, but the end result encapsulates Bob Gill’s approach: to solve a problem without any preconceptions as to what good design is supposed to look like, allowing for the solution itself to dictate the way it appears, and what it says. In this instance, asphalt launching forward at breakneck speeds.
His philosophy would carry on throughout his work, regardless of the medium. From trade-ads, to logos and titles, Gill aimed to say something interesting about a film rather than get caught up in what other’s considered to be in vogue, hoping that the solutions themselves would seem effortless but surprising. To him, graphic design wasn’t about white space or the latest typeface; if you looked at his work and thought to yourself that you could easily do the same, all the better.
While his key art strived for the same sensibilities, it wound up playing second fiddle to more conventional studio one-sheets, if used at all. To be clear, it’s not uncommon for there to be several cooks in the kitchen when it comes to putting together a poster: work changes hands if and when a person or team falls short of addressing the studio’s aims. Avenues are pursued but abandoned, sometimes in favor or something stronger, other times, something worse. What makes Bob Gill’s situation uncommon, beside him being the sole proprietor of his studio, is that he held on to and made readily available images and explanations of the work that didn’t make the cut.
Today, with the advent of the internet, unused work for modern campaigns have a place to breathe, but in the late 70s and early 80s, often you didn’t find designers parading around work that fell by the wayside. Gill’s belief in the strength of his work means that there’s a point of reference for what exists in the shadow of the creative process - the pieces that try something but, from someone elses eyes, don’t live up to their vision of marketing. Here are a few.
The In-Laws, a 1979 comedy, sees a well meaning dentist get caught up in the illegal activities of his son-in-law-to-be’s father. Gill’s poster, mimicking the comicstrip inspired style of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, puts the fathers into the middle of a presumably perilous situation, adding a dash of humor through word balloons. It aims at advertising a film that’s zany without resorting to being quite so literal about its intent.
The official one-sheet, sadly, falls firmly in this camp, offering up a bizarre scene divorced of it’s surrounding text that struggles to explain the film’s plot to a supposedly ‘crazy’ audience. An extreme case of telling rather than showing compared to the unused Lichtenstein inspired piece, that squarely aims at getting a smirk from an audience it treats with respect.
Set in the English countryside at the turn of the 20th century, The Go-Between follows a young boy as he acts as a messenger between two people in the midst of a forbidden love affair. Bill Gold, a designer with a film poster resume longer than my arm, handled the key art here, employing a beautiful illustration of the film’s star and the surrounding locale. The boy, a key element of the film, is regulated to sitting in-between the title treatment - a clever use in it’s own right, but running on the opposite side of the fence from Bob’s approach.
Focusing solely on the boy himself, Gill cut a photograph in motion, placing the legs at the top of the poster to convey the idea of a messenger traveling between two destinations. It’s a solution that favors substance over style, idea over tone, in a manner that feels so simple it betrays its wit.
"Nomads" is a bit of an odd one, to be honest. It may be unfair to set a trade advertisement next to a poster, as both concern themselves with two somewhat separate modes of communication, but they both speak to the same film. And in this instance, on completely opposite sides of the coin. Released in 1986 and directed by John McTiernan, it’s a horror film starring Pierce Brosnan as an anthropologist whose studies of nomadic cultures lead him to observing an urban, teenage gang with ties to the supernatural.
The one-sheet drives home the genre of the picture, playing up the demonic presence chasing after it’s star while completely ignoring the gang. On the other hand, Gill’s trade-ad throws out any semblance of ghostly occurrences, choosing graffiti as a means of signaling urban youths bent on creating mayhem. It’s a sobering comparison: a film has space to lay out it’s story over several frames; a poster, or a trade-ad, only has enough room for one. Sometimes that’s not enough, and you’re forced to choose what rings loudest to you.
Following a kidnapping, an heiress is held hostage in a beach-house on the coast of France. A film that that finds itself in the crime genre, "The Night of the Following Day" ends in a way that steers it towards something more. Much of the art plays on the meat of the plot, though, emphasizing the tense drama that unfolds over the course of 93 minutes. Marlon Brando’s face takes center stage in one, while the other paints the kidnapping among a few related but disaffected images.
They’re appropriate and engaging, selling the audience on what much of the film looks like at face value. Bob Gill’s approach eschews all of this in favor of focusing on the surreal, duplicitous nature of the film itself: the end and its reveal of everything having been a dream, which the final moments slowly begin to resemble. It’s an unconventional way of handling a poster, made more difficult by its refusal to trade on the face of it’s bankable star.
Left: Bob Gill, right: US final
"Midnight Express" is prison slang for an inmate’s attempt to escape and, appropriately, the title of Alan Parker’s 1978 film. The story centers around an American student arrested for trying to smuggle hash out of Turkey and his subsequent difficulty in escaping. Rather than use imagery typically associated with a prison escape, Gill instead considered what the most frustrating surface to climb out of would be. His answer: nothing. Blank paper.
One of Gill’s more well-known instances of work failing to settle with a client came with his three distinct stabs at the Al Pacino vehicle “...And Justice For All”. Focusing on the problems encountered by a lawyer within the American justice system, the film drives forward the picture of corruption, lies, and the power of money to destroy the lives of the innocent and protect the guilty. This allowed for some deft attempts at communicating ideas that align with the protagonist's point of view: justice defiled, justice as a prostitute that could be bought and paid for.
In the end, though, the producers felt the solutions weren’t commercial enough, insisting that Pacino be the face of the campaign instead. Which he did, with the star’s mug responding to the hypocrisy of the slogan in a way completely fitting with the character.
Left: Bob Gill, right: US final
Gill was subsequently fired, with the official poster employing similar photography but, instead, bereft of any attempts at depth. So it goes. These things begin the way most cliches do: someone walks into an old bookstore. They weave through endless stacks, looking for something but finding nothing. Then, a misplaced book catches their eye and ends up shifting their view forever.
I can’t say that the work of Bob Gill has had a particular influence on the look of anything I’ve done, but his approach toward seeing the world has had a profound impact on how I handle upcoming projects, and makes the struggle of freelancing in a field dominated by giants just a little bit easier to bear.
Bob, this one’s for you.
Bob Gill’s work can be seen online at www.bobgilletc.com