“Inspiration Comes from Doing the Work and Simply Putting the Time In”: In Conversation with Film Poster Designer Brian Hung

Film poster design by Brian Hung


Film posters can still engage, allure and invite, binding the audience with the world within the film before we even watch it, hinting at the possibility of what lies ahead. In the age of Internet, instant information and movies released directly on streaming platforms, a good film poster can still sell a film, as if more eager than ever to share a passion for cinema with the world.

As the in-house poster designer for Cinema Guild, one of America’s leading distributors of independent, foreign and documentary films, Brian Hung has created the posters for more than ten films by the acclaimed South Korean director Hong Sangsoo – who has just won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize for A Traveler’s Needs at Berlin, where it premiered last week – as well as posters for the likes of Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai, Helena Wittman, Albert Serra and Kazik Radwanski. His posters are expressive representations of the films, cleverly employing an image, an idea, a motif or a concept, as well as thoughtful personal responses to the stories. Just looking through Brian’s poster filmography, you are bound to immerse yourself, with great curiosity, in the world of filmmakers from all over the world. And that, I believe, says much about the power of both film poster design in general and Brian’s particular approach to it.

Brian joins me today to talk all things movies, about his introduction to cinema as a kid growing up in Shanghai, why he starts designing a poster only after the movie is completed, how he orchestrates his design style depending on each film, and what his film work and his other métier – professional chef – have in common.


Film poster design by Brian Hung


Brian, does a poster sell a film?

It should. I think the primary purpose of a movie poster is to get people to see the movie. It’s high praise for me if someone tells me they went to see a film because they saw a poster I designed. It means I did my job.


When did you become interested in cinema and how did you get into film poster design? And were there any early influences in your work?

I grew up in Shanghai going to bootleg DVD stores and having Saturday movie nights with the family every week. At that time, that was just a routine — we would usually pick a new Hollywood film with an A-list star, and when nothing fit that criteria, we would pick a film with the most interesting DVD cover. So, in a way, I was already developing my own taste for what I liked in terms of design. I was at the time (and still am) drawn to the more “maximalist” posters from Japanese designers. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure (designed by Mr. Nobushige Wakabayashi (AKANE DESIGN)) is a stand out.

I fell into poster design while I was working for Cinema Guild. We were talking about who we should go to design Hong Sangsoo’s On the Beach at Night Alone. I threw my hat into the ring, came back with a design, and surprisingly the team liked the work. And that was that!


Hong Sangsoo has just won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize for A Traveler’s Needs at Berlin, where it premiered. Will you have the chance to view it soon?

I know someone from Cinema Guild is there and has seen it, so hopefully I do get to watch it soon!


“Comedies are way more fun in theaters.
Silence is also more powerful.”


You are the in-house movie poster designer for Cinema Guild, a New York City distributor for independent, foreign and documentary films. Such companies are doing a great job at enriching and preserving a film culture of which the promotional artworks are a huge part. Does that allow you to be as creative as you want or are there certain limitations to your design process?

There are limitations (or rather “requirements”) in any work I take on. That said, I don’t think that limitations stifle creativity at all. As I see it, the most important part of any creative process for me is simply doing the work. The poster will develop organically as I continue to work and think more deeply about how and what I want to get across. It just takes time.

What sets Cinema Guild apart for me is simply the rapport and trust that I’ve built with the team having worked with them for so long. We’re able to work quickly to commit to an idea, and we rarely back track. If we do, it’s very early on in the process and the feedback is succinct – usually they don’t have to say anything, I can feel that there’s no excitement in the room and I’ll pivot. The whole process is precise and efficient and allows me to spend time on focused work and refining it until I am satisfied or until the deadline.


Film poster design by Brian Hung


Are you optimistic about the future of movie theaters?

I am. Movie theaters have a lot to offer from a technical standpoint. Whatever I’m seeing or hearing at the theater will always be better than at home. Theaters are equipped to give you a fuller experience of the film.

From a cultural perspective (and I know it sounds corny), there’s real value to having a shared experience of watching a film. Comedies are way more fun in theaters. Silence is also more powerful. As long as everyone going is invested in the film, watching a film in theaters can be pretty magical.

Also, what’s better than getting coffee and pie after a movie? Not much.


“When it comes to deciding on the design style, it really just
comes down to figuring out what we want to communicate
about the film. I’m probably in the minority here,
but I usually don’t prefer illustrated posters.”


Your poster for Hong Sang-soo’s In Water is one of my favourite film posters of last year. Could you tell me a little about it? Is it painted? How do you decide on the exact design style you will approach for each project?

It IS painted! The film In Water is intentionally shot out of focus, making many of the scenes feel quite painterly. Some say the film is an artistic representation of Hong’s deteriorating eye condition, and, in that sense, it also parallels much of the work of impressionist painters who were also near-sighted or had eye conditions. So the team at CG decided to lean into the painterly feel of the film.

I had the scene running on a 10 second loop and painted it three different times – each one took about 1-2 hours to complete. The final poster is a scan of the last physical painting.

In general, when it comes to deciding on the design style, it really just comes down to figuring out what we want to communicate about the film. I’m probably in the minority here, but I usually don’t prefer illustrated posters. Personally, I like when the poster is evocative of both the film’s visual style and emotional tone and I think illustrated posters tend to do a great job on getting across the latter, but rarely the former.


When you say illustrated posters, what do you mean by that? Hand-made illustration? The idea would be that the poster designer shouldn’t apply a particular style or look to every type of film and that the poster should feel appropriate for the film rather than just be illustrating for the sake of illustrating?

By illustration, I mean anything drawn (can be digital or traditional). Yes. But to further qualify that statement, that’s just my approach, because I’m not tied to or known for a specific style (at least I don’t think so). My clients don’t expect me to illustrate.


Film poster design by Brian Hung


And yet when you do illustrate – Typhoon Club is a poster you completely drew by hand – this versatility of style is all the more appreciated. What was it about Shinji Somai’s film that called for hand drawing?

Shinji Somai has this punk energy in all of his films. Typhoon Club is no exception, but I think that energy runs as an undercurrent along with a lot of on screen teenage angst. As I was scrubbing through the film, I couldn’t find anything that I thought captured that punk energy. I thought of using the still of the kids dancing in the rain in their underwear, but it was important to me that we see the kids in uniform and plus, that still was overused. So, in a way, illustration was my only option for something that was going to be unique and also capture the energy of the film.

As I was playing around and doing some exploratory illustration work, one of my coworkers at CG sent over an illustrated DVD cover of Typhoon Club from when it was first released. On kind of a whim, I did a quick doodle of the kid with a bunch of pencils in his nose just because I thought it was funny and, for some reason, that initial doodle really resonated with me. It reminded me of something I would draw back in school in my notes during class. After I realised that, it just clicked and the whole design came together in about a day or two. Bubble letters to me is very middle school, so I started doing more of that. Also, I’m a big fan of bubble lettering in general, so it didn’t take much for me to go in that direction.


“On Typhoon Club, illustration was my only option for something
that was going to be unique and also capture the energy of the film.”


Have clients and the public, over the years, become more open to more conceptually driven ideas?

It depends on the film and how the client wants to market it. I think documentary film posters tend to be more conceptually driven. But in general, there’s definitely more of a public appreciation of movie posters, which allows my work to be more conceptually driven. I’m very thankful that I’m not doing any posters with big floating heads.


You have had a long-term collaboration with director Hong Sang-soo. Does that challenge you in any way differently, knowing of course that each film is different regardless of whether it was made by the same director or not?

I think that’s the key — to focus on the fact that each of Hong Sangsoo’s films are different and the poster that I do will inevitably be different as well. There was a point (at around the 5th or 6th poster) where it got into my head that I needed to do something that was completely different than anything I’ve done before. And it became more about my own ego rather than doing posters that served the film, and, as a result, the whole design process was a struggle. It’s an important lesson that I remind myself constantly of.


Film poster design by Brian Hung


Your poster for Sanhsoo’s Hotel by the River is another one of my favourites. Could you tell me a few words about it?

Thank you. It’s one of my favourites as well. I was excited to do this poster because it’s a snowy film, which meant I got to play around with a lot of negative space (Downhill Racer is one of my favourite posters). So from the get go, I had a strong idea of what the main image was going to be. There was some hesitation about not featuring Kim Minhee front and center, but the team quickly aligned that the image of the two women looking at a snowy vista was strong enough.

The real challenge was the title treatment. The team suggested that I do a big title treatment after we settled on the main image, but I wanted to do something really small (to capitalise on that negative space) and ink calligraphy-esque, so the whole poster would be reminiscent of a landscape art scroll painting. But I quickly realised that the title was hard to read when written vertically and an inky title just felt too stark. So we focused on a larger title treatment. When we pushed the title further to look like snow, the whole poster finally started to come together.

It’s one of the many posters that I went into thinking it would be one thing, and ended up being another.


Film poster design by Brian Hung


Another recent poster that stands out is the one for Our Body by Claire Simon. Which was the idea behind it?

Leah Goren did the main image/illustration. I only did the title treatment and worked on the design composition.

The team at CG wanted to do an illustrated poster for Our Body to really capture the tenderness of the director Claire Simon’s lens/perspective that didn’t really come through in any of the photo stills taken from the documentary. We started to do some research on illustrators who we could work with and were immediately drawn to Leah’s work. For the title treatment, all I did was mimic the illustration and try to give enough space for Leah’s illustration to speak for itself.


Have you collaborated in this way on other posters or do you usually do everything on a poster design: graphics, typography and art direction?

Our Body is the first where I’m only doing the typography. But usually when working with Cinema Guild, I do graphics and typography, and the whole team helps with art direction. I still take a brief and the team determines what we should push/feature.


I would like to insist on the element of typography, because it is such a big part of the film poster design, and your type for Our Body is so seamless and, indeed, in such perfect accord with Leah’s illustration, so beautifully built into the composition, that I keep returning to that poster again and again. Downhill Racer comes to mind as well, with its intimate style and the typography that so brilliantly and subtly suggests movement and speed. Have you ever designed an image to accommodate a particular type that you had in mind?

Very rarely. I tend to tailor the typography to the main image because I always naively think that typography is the easy part of the design. There’s a false sense of security that comes with picture locking the main image.

But more often than not, I end up spending the majority of my time working on the title. It’s never as simple as plugging in a font because, depending on the font, the whole format of the design can change.


Film poster design by Brian Hung


What makes a good film poster?

Objectively, it gets people to watch the film. Personally, it’s a thoughtful response to the film.


What’s the first film poster that you recall that made you go to the cinema and watch the movie?

If I’m being honest, A Bug’s Life. Flik looking through a hole in a leaf was pretty amazing to kid me. But here are some other posters that come to mind — Cure, Point Blank, Downhill Racer, Army of Darkness (Japanese Poster), Ran. Most recent poster is Dylan Haley’s design of Life Is Cheap…But Toilet Paper Is Expensive (I also bought a one sheet).


You’ve told me about some of your favourite film posters. How about favourite films?

Here are few films that I love and keep thinking about: Eat Drink Man Woman, Phantom Thread, Tokyo Sonata, In the Heat of the Sun, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Secret Sunshine.


Film poster design by Brian Hung


When does the work of the film poster designer come into play, especially in the case of a new film?

I start work only after the film is fully completed. If I’m aiming to create a thoughtful response to the film, then it makes sense that I watch the completed film to have a full idea of the film.


“I’m also a strong believer that inspiration comes
from doing the work and simply putting the time in.”


Apart from watching the film, do you do other kind of research?

I try to put pencil to paper as soon as I can rather than dwell and spend time researching. If I do research, it’s usually pretty practical and not about the film. For example, I studied a lot of Monet’s paintings for In Water.

If I’m really blocked, I take a 24hr time out and come back to it. That usually solves it for me, and then I continue working.


And you are also a chef. How does that blend in with your film work?

Having worked in high level kitchens, I try to work/design with the same emphasis on efficiency. As I’m working, I am constantly thinking if there is a more efficient way of doing something (that doesn’t compromise quality). But I’m also a strong believer that inspiration comes from doing the work and simply putting the time in. In the kitchen, that usually manifests itself through repetition and prep work. It’s often after cooking something again and again that you really start to understand the process and ingredients, and through that understanding, innovation and novel ideas begin to form. It’s the same with poster work – the more you grapple with a design and work on it, the more refined and interesting it will be.


Thank you, Brian, for this wonderful ride into the realm of world cinema.


brianjhung.com | Instagram: @brianjhung


Film poster design by Brian Hung




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