Drawing on the Quiet Moments of a Movie: Interview with Poster Designer Michael Boland

Film poster design by Michael Boland for “We the Animals”, 2018, directed by Jeremiah Zagar

Films have tremendous power. Film poster and cover art is a way to communicate that power. Good film poster and cover art is able to communicate that power in an honest way that honours the film as an extension of the film experience and not just as a sale tool. I like to believe that good film poster and cover art is designed more for the film than for the market.

My recent conversation with film poster designer Michael Boland reinforces my belief. Michael is a frequent collaborator of The Criterion Collection, and their passion for and knowledge of film, their well-established presence on the market and sophisticated audience allow them the freedom to be creative in their cover art designs and film packaging, and to easily depart from the “tell them the story in an image” approach and team up with the most talented designers who have the skill and liberty to reposition and bring a new sensibility to classic films which have seeped into the popular consciousness. Moreover, in a time of social distancing and when the future of the movie theaters, a vital experience for us as society, remains uncertain, the print designs and movie packaging play a tremendous new role: physical engagement with the audience. Beautiful cover art and packaging show commitment to the art of cinema, to the visual language or cinema, and to an audience for whom the experience of watching a film goes far beyond online streaming.

But it is probably the film posters for new releases, the one sheets as they are called in the poster design world, such as We the Animals (2018), The Painted Bird (2019) and The Tribe (2014), that bring an even bigger appreciation for Michael Boland’s work. Because they have the ability and power to help shape the visual identity of certain directors and contemporary worldwide cinema. His subtle yet arresting and cohesive designs build interest without revealing much. Their main source of inspiration is looking at the film and the director’s vision. They look into the quiet moments of the films to reveal their strength. In a time when everything is on display, this less is more approach shows faith in the audience’s rediscovering of what it is like to be curious, to ask questions the poster raises, to go beyond the surface, to get immersed into watching a film. That’s the beauty of good film poster design.

In our interview, Michael reveals why he doesn’t work with too rigid of an original idea or concept, which is the film poster that has impacted him the most and why he hopes we never lose the privilege of going to the movies.

Film poster design by Michael Boland for “These Birds Walk”, 2013, directed by Omar Mullick, Bassam Tariq
Cover art by Michael Boland for the Janus Films release of “Blood Simple”, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, 1985

We the Animals is a film I haven’t yet had the chance to watch, but ever since I saw your film poster I have wanted to see it. Do you remember when it was the first time that a film poster made you want to watch a film you had’t yet viewed?

Make it a point to see We the Animals. It is a remarkable movie and one that I had to constantly remind myself was fictional. Sometimes you see documentaries that feel like scripted movies, but this is the other way around. Great film, and that always makes it more exciting to work on the poster.

​I love movies and get excited by new films for the same reasons that we all do. It is a favourite actor, telling a great story or bringing a beloved piece of literature to life, or merely a unique visual experience. If there is a movie that interests me, I will probably go no matter what the poster looks like. Since I was young and art became the path I knew I would follow, I have wanted to create art for film. I intended to become an illustrator, and so I enjoyed looking at the technique of someone like C. Michael Dudash on Bill Gold’s Pale Rider poster or the great Richard Amsel.

​So I would like to change your question around a little bit and tell you the poster that impacted me the most, two actually. They were the companion images of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins for Silence of the Lambs. It is credited today to BLT Communications, but I believe at that time that they were Frankfurt Gips and Balkind.

​That poster seemed to me to be a watershed moment. It revealed that movie promotion could be so much more than recreating a moment from a film or only showing the actors side by side, prominently and clearly. That poster had an attitude. It made a statement and had such a strong point of view and sense of style that I recall very clearly being stopped in my tracks by it, and I loved that there were two of them, quid quo pro. I don’t think I had ever seen anything quite like it, and looking back at it, I think it continues to influence me.

”If you are going to see a Spike Lee joint or a Tarrantino film,
they are so established that you have a pretty good idea
of the types of worlds you are going to visit. When they first
started, those posters helped sell what their visions were.”

What makes a good movie poster?

The answer to that is so subjective! I also think it is hard to qualify beyond, something engaging, true to the film, smart, and with a clear point of view and message. All very abstract terms, but I think they all lead to art that engages the viewer and converses with them on some level.

When does the work of the film poster designer come into play, especially in the case of a new film? How important is it for you to watch the film first? And how challenging is it if you don’t?

I HAVE to watch the film first. In some instances, I can get away with just watching a trailer, but if I am doing a full exploration leading to key art for a cover or a one sheet, I find it almost impossible to adequately explore appropriate concepts and ideas without being able to contextualize characters, plot and locations. I also use the time spent watching a film to make grabs that I can either use in the art or reference later on.

I think that with a new film, the key art is essential in establishing its footing. In the case of a new or young director, I think it can help define multiple aspects of what the experience is going to be. If you are going to see a Spike Lee joint or a Tarrantino film, they are so established that you have a pretty good idea of the types of worlds you are going to visit. When they first started, those posters helped sell what their visions were.

More and more often, I work directly with directors who head into festivals with a poster as well as their films because it is an important element in the sale of their film. It helps distributors visualize more quickly the potential audience and what type of niche it might fill.

Film poster design by Michael Boland for “The Painted Bird”, 2019, directed by Václav Marhoul

How big a role do existing photographs of actors or screen grabs play in creating a new image? What is the design process like, from the jumping off point of inspiration and then the creative direction it takes from there?

Everyone almost always wants the presence of the actors, and the marquee value of those actors and how the film is to be marketed will affect how recognizable they need to be. After some initial conversations regarding the film and the audience the art is targeting, I will create a range of ideas, and within that range, those considerations will be explored. Sometimes a simple graphic solution is so powerful that likenesses can be less important than the resulting overall impact.

There are a couple of factors involved when it comes to the raw images used to create a piece of art. The biggest hurdle is the sheer size of a theatrical one sheet. Those dimensions require a very high resolution, and that ideally means good on set photography or perhaps a photoshoot of some kind. For me, it is rare to have either of those. Therefore, grabs are another resource and work very well for the smaller proportions of a package or cover art. 4k resolution has been a game-changer when it comes to poster design, but even then, sometimes grabs work beautifully, and sometimes they don’t, and I never know until I start.

Another consideration is that if I have access to a good photoshoot, the emotion present in a scene in a movie can be missing in that staged environment. You have to pick therefore and choose your priorities and how you intend to use your images, specifically those of the actors.

​Given all of that, I don’t work with too rigid of an original idea or concept. I like to let the images, grabs, photos help dictate where things lead and what you can ask of them so that the art feels organic and not composited or worked in a way that lacks emotion or feels alien to the film itself. As I mentioned earlier, I make grabs as I watch a film and those can be used in the design as an actor’s image, setting a location, or as a textural element. Regardless, the grabs help me revisit that world as I work to make sure I communicate the tone, colours, and overall vibe of the film.

”I think that subtleness of pose was unexpected and created the need
to know more. That is the fundamental purpose of good key art.”

Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry is an upcoming Criterion Collection release. Kiarostami was a filmmaker who didn’t make up extraordinary stories and extraordinary worlds in his movies, but he looked for ordinary lives in exceptional moments. He liked making movies that showed by not showing, that left questions unanswered, that did not explain, that worked up the viewer’s imagination, and was against the kind of cinema that didn’t ask the audience to think. Taste of Cherry, too, entrusts much of its meaning to the audience, yet there is a sense of isolation that lies at the heart of the film. What is it that you felt you needed to convey with your cover art?

That is a good summation of Taste of Cherry, and I would add that it was also an examination of self and destruction of self. Badii is pursuing people who will help bury his body following his suicide (I don’t recall the reason for his despondence, which is not the reason for the film’s journey; as you say, it is the director’s unanswered question.) In addition to his request, the film is built upon resulting conversations between three passengers and Badii. They discuss right and wrong, and what it is to exist. That is where we found our inspiration for the cover.

​There is a scene in the film where the lead character, Mr. Badii, sits at a construction site surrounded and enveloped by the dust in the air. Criterion art director Eric Skillman and I loved how much distance and melancholy that dusty haze conveyed, but we did not want him seated. It was simple enough to recreate that texture and colour through stock art. Then, into that environment, I placed instead Badii standing with his hand extended as he talks with one of his passengers. That detail felt as if it could be interpreted as his asking to be saved, and it became another unanswered question open to interpretation to the viewer and similar to how the director worked. I think that subtleness of pose was unexpected and created the need to know more. That is the fundamental purpose of good key art.

Cover art by Michael Boland for the Criterion Collection release of “Taste of Cherry”, directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Film poster design by Michael Boland for “These Birds Walk”, 2013, directed by Omar Mullick, Bassam Tariq

That is good key art. One of my favourite artworks of yours is Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin). The film happens to be one of my all-time favourites. Where do you start when working on such a film, a visual metaphor? What was the biggest challenge?

I also love Wings of Desire, and it is just as beautiful and poignant a film today as on its theatrical release. I also just love black and white cinematography. The challenge with that film, as with many Criterion or other classic titles, is how to be true to the film while bringing a modern sensibility to familiar images.

​We explored numerous ideas and depictions of Bruno Ganz’s Damiel, but ultimately settled on that image of him overlooking Berlin for its powerful conveyance of his love and loneliness. The expression of his pose just speaks to the themes of the film so strongly. It was among a handful of original photography stills that I received upon beginning the process. It is one that you often see in its original form and has been used in other iterations. I made a few aesthetic choices that I thought would enhance its impact; I introduced clouds and increased the sense of distance between the angel and his city as well as softening the tone in the sky. Both of those things I felt increased his isolation and repeated the great shift in scale that I recall in the film. It was present in the original poster design where Damiel sits upon the shoulder of the statue at the top of the Berlin Victory Column. I can’t take credit for creating the typography as it comes from the title card of the film itself, but I felt that it was a personal element that was missing in some other uses. The overall effect was to make Damiel more iconic and seems to be a shift that has created a connection with people.

I suppose this was an example where the design lived in the choices made and the sensitivities to how it all related and less to a unique and new vision.

”I do very much like the drama and power that
can be found in the quiet moments of a movie.
I think I do seek those out. To me, they are like the
downbeats in music, or the negative spaces in painting
and offer the opportunity for conversation with the viewer.”

That dusty haze image you used for Taste of Cherry reminds me to some extent of your cover design for Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterpiece, Ugetsu, with its misty cinematography being part of the film’s ethereal beauty. But your work on Ugetsu also reminds me of Wings of Desire, as another example of a film where you drew on certain sensitivities of a visually powerful film.

Years ago I was surprised when a friend told me that he could always tell my work. I never thought I had a very identifiable stylistic approach, but perhaps it is on display in your examples and in something like my work on the films Risk or Beauty and the Dogs. I do very much like the drama and power that can be found in the quiet moments of a movie. I think I do seek those out. To me, they are like the downbeats in music, or the negative spaces in painting and offer the opportunity for conversation with the viewer that I spoke of.

Cover art by Michael Boland for the Criterion Collection release of “Wings of Desire”, 1987, directed by Wim Wenders

You are a frequent collaborator of The Criterion Collection and you have worked on such classics as the aforementioned Ugetsu (1953), or Sansho the Bailiff (1954), again by Mizoguchi, or Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1056). Do you believe that the wonderful work of the likes of Criterion, of restoring and releasing these films and building momentums with the help of talented artists who do the cover art, will also bridge this gap between today’s public and online streaming? And how does the design process differ when you are working on a film poster than when you are doing cover art?

When working on cover art, specifically art for a Criterion release, you have the luxury of their reputation as skilled curators of great films, as well as the value of their restorations and added features. Those two things elevate the home video experience and make Criterion’s releases their own new entities and not derivative of the original films. I think that with that came the willingness, maybe even the need, to take chances and depart from simply reworking existing key art, because in some ways, these are new versions of beloved films.

Having that core audience then allows you to take some risks and explore some of the more subtle emotional connections to films without the same regard for marketing needed for a broad general audience. From the top-down, Criterion is less committed to marketing a movie than they are with presenting art that is a true and fresh representation of the film. Eric Skillman and Sarah Habibi (ed. note: Criterion’s head art director) have assembled an incredible stable of artists that I am proud to be part of.

The fresh take that we work to present for these films does, I think, translate to a general audience and helps to seduce new audiences to take a chance on a classic. I believe that this brings me back to my thoughts on the poster for The Silence of The Lambs in that the Criterion covers as a whole show us what design for film can be. I think they have influenced the way theatrical one sheets and imagery for online streaming are evolving.

How important is it for you, as an artist, that your imagery stands as artwork in its own right?

I hope I am understanding the meaning of your question here.

I think there are, broadly, two schools of thought in designing a piece of key art. One would be recreating or depicting an important scene or moment from a film. And the other would be creating something which taps into the themes or tone of the film and presents them in a new iconic form.

​Regardless of which one you choose, I believe that the hand of the artist should always be present. It should not overwhelm and become just personal expression, but without the designer’s personal perspective, it is just a pretty picture that is probably without any real depth or significance.

Film poster design by Michael Boland for “The Great Beauty”, 2013, directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Film poster design by Michael Boland for “24 Exposures”, 2013, directed by Joe Swanson

How big a part does hand-work and digital, respectively, play in your designs?

Ten years ago, I would have said it was 25% hand-work to 75% digital, but those percentages have slowly all gone over to the digital side. Even as little as a year ago, I would still paint things and scan or photograph them. Now, between stock and programs like Procreate, it is all digital all the time. It is rare for anything to happen “by hand,” which is weird to acknowledge.

Do you miss drawing by hand? Are the tight deadlines one of the reasons for this complete shift to digital?

I can’t say I miss drawing by hand. I don’t think I was doing that much of it anyway. Most of my work is photo manipulation on one degree or another.

​I think the transition to digital was really just because of ease and fluidity. There is no break in the thought process anymore. You are just reaching for the next tool to create what you imagine. Plus the ability to do, undo, and redo work when working digitally is an incomparable advantage over traditional means.

Was there any hand-drawing on We the Animals? It seems that way.

We the Animals was one of the last traditionally hand-done pieces, the title and scribbled burst.

If you could choose one classic film to make the official poster art for back in the day, which one would it be?

Well, it can’t be something with existing exceptional art like Rosemary’s Baby or a film for which Saul Bass created the art, because that would be way too much pressure…

​I would love to do an action movie, a big budget extravaganza. But for lack of a better answer, I will stick with my first choice whenever I get a call from Criterion about a new project and go with Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980).

Poster design by Michael Boland for “The Tribe”, 2014, directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi


”That giant screen, totally immersive, people cheering or crying
in shared emotions… It just can’t be duplicated and seems
like exactly the type of connection that is missing in our lives.”

Do you ever watch a film just for relaxation?

I have to admit that after watching two or three a week at times, I do tend to choose shorter episodic television experience to unwind. It is hard to invest the time sometimes.
​That being said, I absolutely love the experience of going to a theater, and I go as often as is possible. I hope we never lose that privilege.

I think that’s been on everyone’s mind lately. Because movies still need cinemas and our fascination with the big screen lingers. Would you care to share a memorable experience from going to the movies?

I had to think quite a while about which would be my favorite memory. I realised that they all speak to the powerful connection movies make with us and between us.

Waiting in the rain or cold was necessary before you were able to reserve tickets in advance, but you were with your friends, maybe you made a few new ones while on line, and the anticipation of would you get in was all part of the moment. The doors open and you walk in, stopping at the concession stand before finding your seat. The lights finally dim and the film begins. It was all a ritual that can’t be duplicated and it is a commitment that you all made together to the movie you are about to see.

That giant screen, totally immersive, people cheering or crying in shared emotions… It just can’t be duplicated and seems like exactly the type of connection that is missing in our lives.

Website: thebolanddesignco.com / Instagram: @thebolanddesignco

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