ANATOMY OF DESIGN
All advertising genres spill over with annoying clichés. It’s a Pavlovian thing—the
more familiar the visual cue, the quicker the consumer responds. As long as
cognition and behavior are interlocked and repetitive stimuli produces
predictable responses, advertisers will continue to slavishly follow formulas.
When a particular cue no longer sparks recognition, another cliché will replace
it. Such is the circle of advertising life.
Movie posters may be the most beholden to tried-and-true graphic
forms. Unlike movie trailers—which can be exciting yet operate under their own
rules and conventions—standard operating procedure for movie posters (and
concurrent newspaper advertisements) is to provide surfeit information—star
billing, director and producer credit, awards and nominations, critics’ hyperbole,
title, and a trademark illustration or photograph. That’s a lot of junk for a
designer to cram into a limited area. Occasionally, this spicy jambalya has
appetizing results (see the poster silhouette of Bill Murray for
The Life Aquatic,
which is engaging, funny, and relatively minimal). Now look at the poster for
Spider, a 2002 murder thriller by David Cronenberg, which is layered with
tropes—including distressed paper background, a high-contrast silhouette of its
star, Ralph Fiennes, a scratched lettered logo, and a dramatically lit hunched
man in the street, each found in scores of other posters. It’s not bad, but it is
a textbook case of backfilling.
The ubiquitous silhouette motif is certainly familiar to any sentient being
with opposable thumbs. Who has not seen Milton Glaser’s Dylan (borrowed from a
self-portrait by Marcel Duchamp)? In film posters, the silhouette telegraphs
emotion, drama, and mystery. In
Rock School, the every-rocker silhouette serves as
a logo for passion, while in
Diary of a Mad Black Woman it suggests demure
intensity. In Bullet Boy the silhouette exudes pride, while in Ragtime it signals
history. In Spider, it is also an allusion to the behavioral complexities of the
protagonist’s troubled mind. And whenever a troubled mind must be depicted, the
surefire answer is a sideways silhouette with something emanating from the head.
The iconic standing man (sometimes with a suitcase) bathed in dramatic
streetlight or moonlight, which was introduced in 1973 on the poster for
Exorcist, is another recurring film trope, notably for horrors and thrillers.
Influenced by noir films of the 1930s and 1940s, it has been made
contemporary by frequent usage. Moreover, the specter of a lone stranger
peering into the unknown where danger lurks is an automatic anxiety trigger
and therefore the perfect evocation of a genre that, like hot food, stimulates
violent response. In the
Spider poster, the high-contrast image suggests a mind
on the edge of madness. It does so effectively because it is familiar.
The pièce de resistance of the poster, however, is the scratchy lettered
Spider. This notion was introduced by Kyle Cooper, designer of the eerie film
title sequence for the 1995 shocker
Se7en, directed by David Fincher. In this
film, a serial killer creates a scrapbook of his murders that includes shards of
skin cut off with a razorblade, which is the basis for the title narrative, and it
is this reference that inspired the lettering of the
Se7en title. From that point
on, scratchy lettering, as if made by a dull blade or sharp fingernails, has
emerged as the type treatment of choice for the horror/thriller genre. As a
consequence, scratches used to purposely distress photographs and illustrations
have also become a code for disturbing material.
Directed by: David Cronenberg
2002 Spider—directed by David Cronenberg, movie poster
This poster for the murder thriller by David Cronenberg, is layered with tropes—
including distressed paper background, a high-contrast silhouette of its star,
Ralph Fiennes, a scratched lettered logo, and a dramatically lit hunched man in
Silhouetted profile (What is on your mind?)
Small, lone figure against...