What’s in a poster?

Movie-making is serious business. For you and me, it is a commodity for leisure, and like any other commodity you pick off the shelf at your nearest supermarket, a movie needs to be packaged handsomely to draw your attention to it. Though the squeezed funding thanks to the global economic turmoil in 2008-09 and the digital revolution had taken its toll on the number of movies released in 2009 (the number dropped by nearly 13% over 2008), things are brightening up now and it’s a crowded market out there. There’s one for all kinds and it is getting difficult to differentiate.

Trailers and posters are the doorways to building anticipation for a movie that may hit the screens months later; a sneak-peek into the genre of the movie and what to expect. While the former picks and chooses the key scenes (without giving away the main plot), posters are trickier: they are here to stay, long after the trailer is gone, long before the viewer is actually watching the movie. The poster sets the backdrop, and the tagline gives you the summary of a two-hour journey. Some of the posters from this year have caught my attention, and have stayed with me even when the lights from the movie had faded. It is time to explore what makes them work.

Gangster Squad: No names. No badges. No mercy.

Poster_Gangster Squad

There’s no way you can go anywhere other than where the plot wants to take you with a tagline like this. ‘Badge’ in Hollywood is synonymous with the police or some arm of the law, and the lack of it, if specifically mentioned, inevitably refers to man of the law acting outside its bounds. And of course, when one operates beyond the realm of law, mercy is long forgotten.

Tagline apart, the graphic designing of the poster is amazingly in keeping with the age. The comic-book fonts of the title and cast list is very indicative of the art deco culture of the 1940s, where symmetry ruled over artistic excesses. The key characters occupy half the poster, dressed and looking their part, with Sean Penn’s impeccably ruthless face adorning the top right corner, framed by wisps of smoke off a cigar (or gun ? or the fire from the building he gutted ?). Josh Brolin’s face exhibits a similar expression, except that the hat and the neatly knotted tie lend him the air of civility. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone complete the aesthetic aspect of the poster, both looking stunning and none giving away the crucial role they play as the story unfolds.

Mama: A Mother’s Love is Forever


Designing posters for horror flicks requires a balance between keeping things normal and not going overboard with the fear factor. Mama’s minimalistic composition absolutely steals the show. Everything you need to know about the movie is up there. Mama herself, with her sinewy, shrivelled hand and the little girl, the slight frown and barely discernible eye reflect her unflinching devotion in the face of some unseen obstacle. The brown butterflies fluttering away into the blackness are the last indication of something amiss in what apparently, looks like a little girl clinging to her mother.

The tagline, which appears last on the page, solidifies you worst fears. ‘Forever’ is not what you want to hear in ghost stories; that is the only thing that ghosts are known to do – live and haunt forever. But then the presence of “Mother’ assures that at least the kids should be having a happy ending. But then who can say, the predominance of black calls for some well-founded doubts…

Now You See Me: The closer you look, the less you’ll see.

Poster_Now You See Me

I wish they would have just completed what they began… “Now You Don’t”; it would have been infinitely simpler and more to the point. The tagline reminded me of Inception and I tensed up, preparing myself for psychological layers and repeated viewing. I needn’t have been worried though, as it didn’t turn out to be really complicated. It is difficult to relate the tagline to the concept of the movie unless you absolutely want to, but it served its purpose well. It speaks of illusions and successfully built up a suspense which paid off well at the box office (the trailers too had a hand in this). It is a line many would choose to use for various life-situations. As a catchphrase, I would say it’s a runaway success, but once the movie was out, there was little or nothing pertaining to looking and/or seeing.

This particular poster design however, is very apt. There is a weird juxtaposition of the three- and two-dimensional, making it difficult to separate words from solid figures. An illusion, almost: as also the alignment of the title, with the last two words at a lower level than the first two. There is some asymmetry in the poster, but all the faces are looking up at you confidently, and you begin to wonder if it’s you who is stupid after all.

Oblivion: Earth is a memory worth fighting for


The poster for Oblivion is every bit the window to the movie: grand, grey and conflicting. The minute figure of a gun-slinging man atop a rock outcrop, gazing out at a massive waterfall cascading down the middle of… two skyscrapers? And what is that giant ant-like contraption by his side? There is something futuristic about this poster, yet something medieval comes to the surface, something like an untamed earth.

So you may start looking for clues. Earth is a memory… this is suggestive of a life far ahead of our times… worth fighting for… clearly someone or something is trying to clear all traces of Earth life from the memory of Tom Cruise’s character. The bleakness of the scene indicates a general apathy, of cities crumbling. That still does not explain the strange waterfall and the weird machine. It is difficult the fathom the reason for the decrepit state of the Earth, the only thing to be sure of is that Tom Cruise’s character loves his home and is going to put up a fight for it. This is more or less the underlying plotline, though the causes for his actions form a different story altogether, one that cannot be gauged at all from this poster. As for setting the mood of melancholy and home-sickness, this poster does fine.

Then there is another form of creating a poster, which draws focus not to the story, but to the cast.

There is little to explain in these posters. World War Z is about (Z)ombies and The Wolverine is about the Wolverine. The visual depictions are just that: Zombies and Wolverine respectively, not a scratch more. This kind of redundancy is amazing for the impact they create. Brad Pitt and Hugh Jackman command a brand value so high, that the mere mention of their names on a moderately designed poster is worth a thousand words and pictures. Not many movies have the luxury of a well-established character or story, one that rides ahead of the movie itself. So while Wolverine is almost a household name by now, the only other thing that can draw crowds is Hugh Jackman. With Brad Pitt, I believe it’s the other way round: anything with Brad Pitt written over it, will sell like hot cakes.

Little details such as trailers, posters, taglines et al only remind us of the blood and sweat that goes into making a good movie, about how it is not made in a day and not by one person alone. It is a business like any other, and it is craving for your attention any which way. There are people working on the very concept of the movie and striving to bring to you the gist in not more than a sentence and sometimes in a few words, a tremendous feat, considering the complexity involved in even the simplest of stories. So next time when you look at a poster, look at it a bit more carefully… for it is not just a poster after all, but a sign of things to come!


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