The Making of a Movie Poster

I’ve been obsessed with movie posters since I was a teenager working at the local multiplex. In high school, every inch of my bedroom (including the ceiling) was covered in posters I’d managed to pilfer from my job. Even before I had an understanding of what graphic design was, I had surrounded myself with movie marketing materials (even if it made the room a little claustrophobic). I have never worked in the movie business, but film industry designers like Saul Bass have been the biggest influence on my work.

Some Saul Bass movie posters

Commercial movie poster design isn’t what it used to be. During the 50’s through the 80’s movie poster design was a real craft that produced stunning works of art. What a great movie poster can do is set the tone for the experience before you even go into the theatre (usually without spoiling the plot like most trailers do). As digital techniques became more commonplace, this craftsmanship was left behind for more typical poster design that featured enlarged collages of actor photos. You’ve all seen the “Mt. Rushmore” shot of the film’s lead actors, or the photo collage of the main star surrounded by the supporting players. Technology has had negative effect on creativity in poster design and most film posters started to adhere to the same few tropes.

In 2004 Mondo started a trend of creating alternate movie posters with independent artists and illustrators, working outside of the studio system, usually long after the film has entered the public consciousness. There’s a great podcast episode about the history of the alternate movie poster at Imaginary Worlds, if you’re interested.

Some of my favorite Mondo posters, various artists

When I began PHX Film Collective in 2018 I knew I wanted to explore creating alternate movie posters for our events. I began without much experience in this area but have created posters for six events so far and I thought I would share a little bit of what I’ve learned so far.

Some of my posters for PHX Film Collective

This was my experience in creating a poster for our Being John Malkovich event, although each experience is different.

The first step is very easy, and probably obvious. Watch the movie. Even if you’re seen it 20 times, you never know what kind of image it’s going to trigger in your mind this time.

The second step is perhaps the hardest of the whole process - come up with a concept. I think that the strongest solutions are the most conceptual, and I’ll admit that I haven’t been that successful at it with every attempt. It’s not simply enough to illustrate the characters in your style, although there are some great posters that can get by on the strength of style alone.

My design professors in college would drill into me the need to do thumbnail sketches ad nauseam before you ever sat down at the computer, but for this poster design, I saw it pretty clearly in my head.  (There have been times when I didn't, and I screencapped every image in the film that spoke to me, hoping that something would stand out when I reviewed them later).

The image that stuck with me was the various characters in the story falling from the sky and landing beside the New Jersey Turnpike when their fifteen minutes inside of John Malkovich’s head was up. Where were they falling from? How far did they fall? What was their body language like when they fell? A comical image stuck in my mind of them literally being expelled from the head of a giant John Malkovich through the ear canal, and Malkovich being only vaguely aware of it, but annoyed at the same time.

Instead of heading for the sketchbook, I was able to quickly mock up something in Photoshop using stock photography and photos of John Malkovich. Here’s the initial Photoshop image with placeholders for images and typography. (It's kind of ugly, but enough for me to see where I was headed).

I couldn’t find the perfect image of Malkovich, but I did find this series of images from an Esquire magazine shoot. (You can still see the Esquire logo on his head). The one on the left where he was squinting with one eye was exactly what I needed, but I felt like the expression he was making with his mouth didn’t communicate the right emotion, so I composited two photos of Malkovich to get the face that I wanted. I doubt you’d ever be able to tell it was from two photos.

And then, because the bowtie and jacket didn't express the right style for a grungy Charlie Kaufman movie, I gave him a naked torso, which I simply stole from a stock photo. (Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of naked people on the internet).

The images of people falling literally came from searching stock photo sites. (You can literally see the watermark if you look close enough.) But I’m only using these for reference. The important thing was that I chose stock images that would match the body language of the actors. Would Catherine Keener’s character fall differently than Cameron Diaz’s character, and if so, how?

When I decided I liked the overall layout, the next step is to customize the figures to look like their movie counterparts. The next step involves simply pasting on the head of the actor in Photoshop. (This feels like cheating, but the real work comes in the next step.)

And these don’t end up being 1:1 analogues either. For Catherine Keener, I bent her arm and added a cigarette in the final design. I tried to imagine Cusack's tie and ponytail floating upward as he was falling. The pose of the small Malkovich even changed a bit in the final version. I rarely use for stock photography for its intended purpose. Instead, I’ve found that it’s incredibly valuable for illustration reference, and hey, if you use it this way, it’s free!

Remember when I said, that coming up with the concept was the hardest part? Well, executing the actual illustration is the second hardest part, and also the most fun. It's hard because there are a lot of decisions to be made. It's fun because you get to experiment.

Some of those decisions involve what kind of clothes they will be wearing. Catherine Keener goes through a lot of outfits in the film, but which one is the most iconic? Cusack always seems to be wearing the same frumpy tweed coat, so that's a bit easier. I'm working from photo references for these.

When it comes down to doing the illustrating, I work exclusively in Adobe Illustrator, usually tracing over the Photoshop mockup. Illustrator has developed some awesome features over the years, allowing digital vector illustration to have a hand drawn feel. I have enough experience doing illustration on paper to know how frustrating it is to get that perfect mark with the pencil or charcoal. Illustrator allows you to experiment with various line widths, brushes and variations that you can get easily get lost for awhile.

Take a look at the quality of these lines! Illustrator allows you to install a variety of different brushes. For this piece I mostly used a charcoal brush. There are a few brushes pre-installed, but I would I suggest seeking out third-party brushes online. (I recently found one called Paper Tooth that I love. It simulates the tiny bit of bleed that happens when you put ink on paper). Anyway, my goal here is to redraw everything in a way that unifies all element in the design and also makes it look handmade, rather than cold and mechanical.

The next step is to refine the typography.

For the type, I settled on a font called Buckwheat TC Sans, for its worn quality and it's similarity to the charcoal stroke I used in the illustration. Everything in Being John Malkovich feels worn, handmade and cobbled together, so I wanted the type to reflect that. If I hadn't been able to find a worn typeface I might have been able to trace over a crisp font with some of those Illustrator brushes. (Don't ever be afraid to modify a font to suit your needs!)

The last step was to choose a background that didn't look so dull and cold. After experimenting I found a nice color gradient that ran from cool to warm. The film has a very cool and desaturated palette, so I didn't want to make it too warm, but I found that the warm highlight at the bottom suggested some kind of optimism.

So you can see how I took a rough mockup in Photoshop and by editing the details, transformed it into a cohesive and finished piece. None of this is to suggest that this is the absolute best way to design a movie poster, it's simply the method that works for me.

Chris Ayers