“You Can’t Really Tell the Whole Story with an Image”: Interview with Graphic Designer Vasilis Marmatakis

Vasilis Marmatakis official poster design for ”Poor Things”, 2023, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

 

Vasilis Marmatakis’s poster designs for the films of Yorgos Lanthimos have become instrumental to the power of anticipation the auteur’s movies hold and an integral part of their visual identity. The Athens-based graphic designer believes you can’t tell the whole story of a film with an image, but his images are always a metaphorical representation of the film and, at the same time, emphasise the power of storytelling and impart a sense of wonder at the world you are about to enter, a world that often leans into the surreal. The designer’s latest collaboration with the filmmaker (fifteen years on since their first, Dogtooth) is Poor Things, starring Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo and Ramy Youseff, and that has Emma play Bella Baxter, a scientist’s creation whose life changes when she steps into the world, her character arc evolving in a wildly frantic path from infant to fully grown woman and future scientist herself.

The three poster designs created by Marmatakis for the film run the gamut between minimalism (a close-up of Emma’s face with smudged eye shadow and lipstick – my favourite of them all – that is in fact transformed into something more ambivalent and profoundly crafted at a closer look – the make-up are in fact brushstrokes that represent the the male figures Bella’s life) and the Victorian-clad portrait of Emma Stone that depicts her character as a woman growing out of herself, very much attuned to the disruptive logic of Bella Baxter, while the overall image also reveals a sensibility to texture and composition. His poster art is like that. You marvel at it and admire the graphic invention and witty visual ideas and imagine the world within the film. And when the film is over you are drawn to the poster once more, curious to figure out new meanings and question your imagination.

I have recently finally had the chance to chat briefly with Vasilis about his poster art (we had previously talked about why movies still need cinemas here and why the public’s fascination with the big screen will never fade, and his very visual cinema-going recollections deeply resonated with me), about Poor Things, his working relationship with Yorgos Lanthimos, the difficulty to attach a definition to the term “artistic poster”, and the only movie poster he actually has framed in his home.

 

Official poster design by Vasilis Marmatakis for ”Poor Things”, 2023, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

 

What makes a good movie poster?

The one that makes you think you are going to see an absolutely amazing film.

 

Were there any particular artists that influenced your work early on and what was your early experience of being a graphic designer before getting into film poster art?

My entry to design was through music graphics, music videos and record sleeves. Then, a bit later, through the covers of the video tapes for rent at video clubs.

 
 

“I don’t really get any design or conceptual direction from Yorgos.”

 
 

How did your love of cinema begin?

I can not quite remember exactly, but we used to go to the cinema with my parents from a very early age. Then I used to watch LOADS of films on VHS.

 

Poster design by Vasilis Marmatakis for ”The Lobster”, 2015, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

 

You have had a fruitful artwork collaboration with Yorgos Lanthimos and, among cinephiles and film lovers, your posters have become as anticipated as the director’s films. How did you start collaborating with the director?

We met briefly with Yorgos Lanthimos when I was working in advertising and collaborated later through Efthimis Filippou for the Dogtooth poster and titles. I was co-running a studio at the time called MNP, and we were all very good friends with Efthimis who had co-written the script with Yorgos.

 
 

“I tried to explore through various visuals and typography
the notions of adulthood, freedom, oppression, sexuality,
rebirth, femininity, masculinity and power.”

 
 

What is usually the process of your working on a film together?

I don’t really get any design or conceptual direction from Yorgos. I collect all the information available, I read the script, visit the set – if possible – and acquire all the photography that was shot during filming.

 

Tell me a little about your posters for Poor Things and which were the ideas you explored for them.

You can’t really tell the whole story and meanings of a film with one image. And Poor Things has a lot of layers to work with. I tried to explore through various visuals and typography the notions of adulthood, freedom, oppression, sexuality, rebirth, femininity, masculinity and power.

 

Poster design by Vasilis Marmatakis for ”Nimic”, 2019, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

 

In the last decade or even more, the film poster has thrived, fueled by an increased craving for creative design. And when I think of your unique film posters, they truly are a window to the world waiting for us to discover, and at the same time, they seem to add a whole extra dimension to the picture. Does an artistic poster sell a film?

This is quite a difficult question:

What makes a poster artistic and what doesn’t? And what is the definition of “artistic”?

I guess after we define this (which is quite hard) then we could also ask: “does a non-artistic poster sell a film…?”

 
 

“I think corporate companies tend to underestimate
the intelligence of the masses and this results
into bad decisions including bad design too.”

 
 

I will try to refrain that. What I mean by artistic, and maybe it’s not the best word to use, is in fact something that is not mainstream, something that is imaginative and creative enough to think outside the box, that’s unexpected, original, even risk-taking, and that, most times, does not rely on a film still or a photoshopped head-shot.

I think corporate companies tend to underestimate the intelligence of the masses and this results into bad decisions including bad design too.

 

Poster design by Vasilis Marmatakis for “The Favourite”, 2018, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

 

Do you remember the first film poster that made you want to go to the cinema and watch a newly released movie?

As a kid, I remember looking at and getting lost in a poster ad for E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (designed by the GREAT John Alvin). But I think it was the tag that intrigued me and confused me more than the actual image: “He is 3,000,000 light years from home”. I guess I was trying to understand and somehow visualise what a light year is. Let alone 3,000,000…

 
 

“As a kid, I remember looking at and getting lost in
a poster ad for E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.”

 
 

There are usually no tag lines on your posters. You let the image speak for itself, leaving out any tag lines or quotes. Is this something you hardly consider or does it actually depend on the project?

This really depends on the project. Sometimes I do get a tag line from the screenwriter, sometimes I add one and then later it is taken out. I like tag lines, although they can be very risky: sometimes they can work well, but can be very tacky too.

 

The tagline on E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is definitely one that worked well. And your all-time favourite film posters would be…

I will name one as my all-time favourite and it’s actually the only movie poster that is framed in my house. Pickpocket by Hans Hillmann.

 

Poster design by Vasilis Marmatakis for ”Alps”, 2011, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

 

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Posted by classiq in Film, Film poster design, Interviews | | Comments Off on “You Can’t Really Tell the Whole Story with an Image”: Interview with Graphic Designer Vasilis Marmatakis

The Last Repair Shop: Interview with Cinematographer David Feeney-Mosier

”The Last Repair Shop”, 2023, directed by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers. Searchlight Pictures

 

Music is what has helped each of them, individually, throughout their lives, and music is what has brought them together, forming an unbreakable human bond with a transformative power.

The Last Repair Shop, nominated for Best Short Documentary Film for this year’s Academy Awards, grants access to a Los Angeles workshop where a handful of devoted craftspeople keep over 20,000 music instruments in good repair for the 80,000 LA public school children and teens. The film traces the backstories of the workshop heroes and how music has mended and changed their lives and follows them into the present, at work, where their tremendous, specialised work keep transforming the lives of the youth. Music and the instruments they play offer them a freer, more optimistic outlook on life, and room to dream. We get to know some of the students, too, and hearing them and watching them in such close relationship with their music, the feeling is that they are all heroes.

Directed by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers and lensed by David Feeney-Mosier, who has previously shot the documentary Jim Svejda: Between the Notes and whose work for the big screen and television includes films such as Frances Ha, Lady Bird and Stranger Things, The Last Repair Shop is, with lighting, colour and emotion as key ingredients, a wonderful celebration of music and human connection.

In our interview, David Feeney-Mosier and I talk about why they wanted a narrative approach for documentary filmmaking, why they thought close-ups and darker, warmer tones were more appropriate for the film, how someone’s non-filmic life will always inform their work, and why it is important for a cinematographer to trust a director’s vision.

 

”The Last Repair Shop”, 2023, directed by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers. Searchlight Pictures

 

David, first of all, congratulations on The Last Repair Shop!

Thank you!

 

What essential things had to go into the creation of the visual story of a documentary about a workshop that offers free instrument tuneups to music students?

Thankfully, the directors, Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers, and I were on the same page on our visual approach to The Last Repair Shop from the beginning. It was in fact something we didn’t even have to discuss all that much in pre-production, it just sort of organically unfolded as we began to shoot. We wanted to approach this film as if it were a more traditional narrative piece. We favored intentional shot design and a slightly stylised lighting approach over a purely verite approach. We still wanted it to feel authentic, grounded in reality, but at the same time more composed and slightly elevated. To this end, we chose to shoot on anamorphic lenses, creating a bit more of a subjective feel. I enjoy this hybrid approach to documentary filmmaking, even though, of course, it’s not always possible.

We were still coming from an observational perspective, but aside from the interviews, if we thought we could find a better angle, better lighting, or simply get a better take, we would repeat the shot until we had what we needed. This approach allowed us to create a more cohesive world for the film. We leaned into the darker, warmer tones quite a bit. We felt there was a cosiness and optimism that came from that palette, which reflected the spirit of the Repair Shop.

For the interviews, Ben and his team at Breakwater Studios have long favoured the intimacy and confessional quality of the straight-to-camera interrotron setup. We always shoot the same focal length, and place the subject more or less the same distance from camera. Those close ups became integral as we interviewed our four repair shop employees, as well as the LAUSD students.

 
 

“That service, that connection, is what is really what’s
at the heart of the film. It’s an incredible act of generosity and hope.”

 
 

There is a recurrent phrase throughout The Last Repair Shop, about children who want to play an instrument that they can’t afford and how that can change their whole lives. The most emotional component of the film are I believe the children. Did you know from the very beginning how you wanted to capture that, where these characters were emotionally?

We filmed the four interviews with the Repair Shop employees first, in 2019. We then had probably 3-4 days of b-roll in the shop. All that material (and it was a lot!) was then turned over to our incredible editor Nick Wright and his team, and they began to shape the film. It wasn’t until 2022 that we returned to interview the students. I’m not sure who had the idea, but seeing the completed film, it’s a wonderful balance to include both the repair employees and the students that are directly impacted by the repaired instruments. That service, that connection, is what is really what’s at the heart of the film. It’s an incredible act of generosity and hope. And for many students, it means having the opportunity to play an instrument they could not afford to rent privately, which of course opens up a whole new pathway for them to imagine continuing to keep music in their life, personally or maybe even professionally. All of our interviews were tremendously emotional, but to witness the interviews with the young students really brought home the massive importance of the work being done at the LAUSD Repair Shop.

 

”The Last Repair Shop”, 2023, directed by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers. Searchlight Pictures

 

Yes, there is a wonderful connection between the staff of the workshop and the students, that easily comes through, the human element. Not just the interviews, but seeing the people at work, doing that incredibly meticulous and passionate work, it’s clear how important that is and inspiring for students to continue to keep music in their lives. The documentary also shows how we can retain the human element of music in the digital age, doesn’t it?

Absolutely. The work the employees at the repair shop do is certainly very tactile and analog, but I think one of the most resonant themes of the film is the human connection between objects. Like how Paty describes her jar of toys found in instruments: “a secret communication between the kids and myself.” Or in Steve’s simple assertion that “when an instrument breaks, there’s a student without an instrument.” It’s a very direct connection, and I think in using a lot of extreme close-ups of the repair work being done we were hopefully able to highlight the physicality and intimacy of their labour. And then, in the credits sequence, we unite the two sides, the repair shop employees and the students, in this wonderful celebration of music and human connection.

 
 

“I think the look of the film came largely
when we first saw the Repair Shop itself.”

 
 

When was the first time you actually formed a vision of the film?

Going into the shoot, the directors and I did have broader discussions about how we wanted to approach the film, but I think the look of the film came largely when we first saw the Repair Shop itself. We were amazed at how trapped in time the space felt. It seemed relatively unchanged from the 1970s/80s, with a heavy, warm patina throughout. The ceiling- high shelves that filled the shop were lined with leather cases, brass instruments, and the rich mahogany tones of the string instruments. The work stations were almost entirely wood as well, and lit primarily with tungsten work lights. This again influenced us to lean into the warmer hues of the space, and carry that thought the film. Once we completed the interviews with our four main subjects, we were able to take some time to figure out what components of the shop would be relevant and impactful to focus on.

 

Right, they’s no standard colour palette in cinematography. You have to make that decision based on what you are trying to express in the story and what emotions you are looking for, and you also take into consideration the environment you are shooting in. Do you, as a cinematographer, believe it is important to draw from experiences outside of cinema to inform and bring a certain amount of truth to the work that you create?

Absolutely. Whether consciously or unconsciously, one’s non-filmic life will always inform their work. You can make specific efforts to point to references outside of cinema, whether that’s other art forms or more abstract connections. For The Last Repair Shop, music was obviously a huge inspiration. Ben is a huge appreciator of music, and Kris is a wildly talented and successful composer, so I think there was probably always a background of that going into shot design, editing, etc. A lot of the macro photography and graphic wides have a very specific flow and texture to them, and I think always felt musical to me. For the wonderful end credits sequence, Ben and Kris actually shotlisted right on the sheet music for the score!

 

”The Last Repair Shop”, 2023, directed by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers. Searchlight Pictures

 

You mentioned earlier that you wanted to approach this film as if it were a more traditional narrative piece. When I watched it, what I found interesting was exactly this feeling that this was documentary whose makers clearly cared not only about the ideas in it, but about how it looked, too. You’ve worked on other music documentaries, including the wonderful Jim Svejda: Between the Notes. How was the experience on that?

There’s actually an interesting connection there. Ben Proudfoot saw the Jim Svedja doc and apparently liked my work on it, and reached out to me. Not long after we met in 2019, we began shooting The Last Repair Shop. It was our first time working together. So I do think there is a stylistic connection between those two projects. The approach I had with director Danny Zucker on Between the Notes was certainly similar, and it was a nice collaboration. We wanted to keep the camera either locked off, or subtly moving, but never loose and handheld. Both projects are anamorphic, which I find a fun format to work in for documentary. You can have wider static shots, and still allow non-actors to have some freedom to move within frame. On The Last Repair Shop, Ben and Kris were very good at pushing me to be expressive with the camera and lighting. They are certainly not directors to shy away from bold, more stylised work. They had a strong vision for the film, and I think in the end we were able to achieve that vision. Hopefully!

 
 

“Whether consciously or unconsciously,
one’s non-filmic life will always inform their work.”

 
 

You have certainly achieved that. For the director and cinematographer and the entire team to be on the same page, to go for a singular vision is the most important thing. But every film is different, every film requires something else. Is it difficult to leave a film behind and adapt your visual language to something new with each next film?

I don’t find the transition all that difficult, mainly because what is really required of you as a cinematographer is to (hopefully) connect to the story, and to react to the scene as it develops. Your taste, or instincts, provide a throughline that stays with you from shoot to shoot. The shifts between projects are generally more technical. One project could be film, one digital, one could be very aggressive handheld, one could be locked off wides, and that can take it a bit of mental reframing, but again there are always constants, and those are more intuitive. The Last Repair Shop pushed me to sometimes work in a more stylised way than I may have initially thought to do, but this is also where faith in the director comes in. If you trust their vision, you can step out on a limb with them. And I trusted Ben and Kris.

 

Thank you, David, for taking us behind the scenes of The Last Repair Shop.

 

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March Newsletter: Hipgnosis, Joy Division and Perfect Days

Photos: 1. “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (Peter Weir, 1975) new cover art by Eric Skillman for The Criterion Collection. 2. Classiq Journal

 
 

”KOMOREBI

is the Japanese word for the shimmering of light and shadows
that is created by leaves swaying in the wind.
It only exists once, at that moment.”

Perfect Days, directed by Wim Wenders

 
 

Photos: 1. Film poster for “Perfect Days”, 2023, directed by Wim Wenders. 2. Classiq Journal

 

Viewing

Perfect Days, 2023
Wim Wenders

There are some filmmakers whose films you enter knowing that you are going to be inspired, moved, changed by what you are going to watch. For me, Wim Wenders is one of those directors. An ode to the beauty of life, to the ordinary yet extraordinary everyday, where books, music, nature, photography will always have their place. It’s incredible how an actor – marvelous Kōji Yakusho as Hirayama – can carry a film, uttering almost no words for almost three quarters of the film, so quietly, so elegantly, so powerfully. His daily routine and facial expressions are what mostly informs us. It’s my favourite role in a very long time. Watching his character you feel you are in his presence, you are fully immersed in what brings him peace, joy and sadness. You feel comfort, as a viewer, in his own physical and imaginative shelter… Him in solitude in his room, reading a book by the lamp; his modest, in means, way of living yet rich in meaning (he lives simply yet he is not a simple man – his room is lined with music cassettes and books and he has reached an understanding of the meaning of life that escapes the majority of people); Tokyo playing as a character in itself; the film opening with The Animals singing The House of the Riding Sun (Hirayama plays his cassettes every time he drives his van) and ending with Nina Simone’s Feeling Good (part of an amazing soundtrack that also includes needle drops from Lou Reed, Patti Smith and a Japanese version of The House of the Rising Sun); the black and white dream sequences that bring new sensory feelings… This is a film to return to again and again, in your mind and in viewing.

Every day, Hirayama goes to have lunch in a park. He always has his film camera with him and takes photos of the trees and their leaves in the sunlight. He often does not even look through the viewer, he just points the camera from different positions and pushes the button. Every week he develops the film and buys a new one to use. He keeps just a couple of the photos he takes every week (the rest he tears apart) and puts them into carefully stored boxes of photographs he keeps in his closet, each numbered by day or week. “KOMOREBI is the Japanese word for the shimmering of light and shadows that is created by leaves swaying in the wind. It only exists once, at that moment.” This quote appears after the ending credits, and the thing is if you had skipped the ending credits (I hate it when people do that) you would have missed it.

 

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, 1999
Jim Jarmusch

Ghost Dog, Forest Whitaker, lives above the world – in a self-built hut on the roof of an abandoned building. He is a professional killer and wanders through the city silently and unseen, becoming one with the night, his steps traced only by the sublime score by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA. He abides by an old code of conduct of the Japanese warrior caste of the samurai. When his life is threatened by a dysfunctional mafia family, he reacts strictly according to the code: the way of the samurai. There is no character like Forest Whitaker’s Ghost Dog in the American cinema. Jarmusch brings the code of gangster film to its essence, ritualising and stylising the criminal action according to his own singular vision. “Laughter is good for your spirit,” Jim Jarmusch said in an interview. ”In Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, there’s a quote from Hagakure, a Japanese text, written by an old samurai, and one of them has to do with how things of great concern should be treated lightly, and things of small concern should be treated seriously, that kind of contradiction was something I really like when it is embraced in that kind of philosophy.”

 

Helsinki Napoli All Night Long, 1987
Mika Kaurismäki

Berlin. A Finnish taxi driver, Kari Väänänen, who is married with an Italian, Roberta Manfredi, whose father is a former Mafia member, crosses paths with an American gangster and a bag stacked with money. Samuel Fuller is the American gangster. Wim Wenders is a friend of the taxi driver. Jim Jarmusch plays another character. That certainly sounds like a fun film to make, and Samuel Fuller did attest to that in his book, A Third Face (Samuel Fuller was friends with Mika Kaurismäki, Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders, and he even ended up making a documentary/road movie, Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made, with the help of the first two). Helsinki Naples All Night Long is a crazy, over the top comedy that just works because it feels so free-willing, so independent, so 80s.

 

La règne animal (The Animal Kingdom), 2023
Thomas Cailley

A fantasy and completely rooted in our time at the same time, La règne animal stares right into the eye of the 21st century mankind and says that man is not exceptional, and that believing man was exceptional opened the abyss of extinction. The story speaks volumes about our world in crisis today, about past, present and future, about the world we make for ourselves, about an entire world that is yet undiscovered and that could be right here on Earth. And it does it through a very personal story of a boy and his father (Paul Kircher and Romain Duris).

 

Broker, 2022
Hirokazu Koreeda

There is this character, Soo-jin, played by Bae Doona, a detective on the trail of two men and a young woman thrown together over a scheme of selling the woman’s baby on the South Korean adoption black market. The simple description of the plot can easily give you a very clear standing point on the subject. Which is why I found Soo-jin such an important character, this very layered character and the way she subtly unfolds as the film progresses shows you how there can be so many layers to everyone’s story, regardless of how unethical that story may appear to be. And, truly, what has stayed with me is not some monstrous act (it is by no means depicted as such) but the love and warmth the baby and the other child who joins this unlikely family receive at all times.

 

Photos: 1. Classiq Journal. 2. Vinyl. Album. Cover. Art. The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue (Thames & Hudson)

 

Reading

Vinyl. Album. Cover. Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue. I bought the book after I watched Anton Corbijn’s documentary Squaring the Circle. In the 1960s and 1970s, Hipgnosis were the most influential record-cover design company in the world. They believed that “art and advertising didn’t belong in the same bed”, as Peter Gabriel writes in the introduction, but their art sold the albums. They had an unparalleled vision, and this book attests to the boundless curiosity of art-making.

“Spare in detail, yet creating a context with scope for the imagination,” Allegro is the kind of photography book that I prefer. It showcases a selection of photographs of Anton Corbijn, the outsider who did not come from an artistic environment, and who, with no formal training, became the revered photographer of the world’s greatest musicians. He’s also been the decades-long artistic director of bands such as U2 and Depeche Mode, has created music album covers, and directed music videos and feature films, and his 2023 documentary Squaring the Circle (which I mentioned in last month’s newsletter) about none other than the aforementioned Hipgnosis, is one to watch. Now I am looking forward to seeing his documentary Joy Division.

 

Next on my list:

Directed by Yasujirō Ozu, one of the most influential books on cinema written in Japanese, first published in 1983 by Shiguéhiko Hasumi and translated now for the first time into English by Ryan Cook.

 

Listening

The album: Closer, Joy Division

 

The soundtrack: Perfect Days (2023), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999).

 

The podcast: The Better Known episode with Alexandra Tolstoy, where she discusses with Ivan Wise, the gist, six things that should be better known. Just listening to her gives you a different perspective on so many things.

 

Making

William Grill’s drawing workshops for children, something the illustrator does every March and October. Budding creativity and imagination.

Here is what Will told me I when I talked to him about educational alternatives for children: “I try and visit schools every March and October – it’s a great thing to do for me as much as it is for them! I get quite inspired by what they make, often wishing I had the same energy and freedom that some of their drawings have. I hope that my visits encourage those who like to draw, or those who are maybe less academic (like myself). It’s a shame children don’t get much time to make or draw at school, and those who don’t draw neatly aren’t necessarily ‘bad’ at art or being creative – I get a lot of pleasure seeing those come out of their shell or being proud of a drawing they’ve made.”

You can read my full interview with William Grill here.

 

Exploring

Festival de la Cinémathèque française, 13-17 March. Around a hundred films from around the world, most of them in magnificent restorations, to be rediscovered on the big screen – at the Cinémathèque and in several cinemas in Île-de-France. This year’s guest of honour will be filmmaker Peter Weir. His first films, poetic and aerial, electrified his native Australia and put Australian cinema on the map again in the early 1970s with The Cars That Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock or The Last Wave . He continued to make acclaimed films in Hollywood (Mosquito Coast, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show) without his art ever losing its singularity. Because Peter Weir is the kind of filmmaker who will not conform, as his approach is always about “the precious desperation of the art, the madness, the willingness to experiment”.

A fully restored Criterion Collection edition of Picnic at Hanging Rock with a beautiful cover art is coming out next month, but I would still very much prefer the opportunity to see the film in cinema (which movie goers will have the chance to do at the Festival de la Cinémathèque française). In that regard, I will leave here a few thoughts I wrote a few years back about the film: We do not wish Miranda to be explained, just as we do not wish the film, and what happened to the girls, to be explained. The film has endured by not answering our questions, and Miranda remains somewhere out there, this eternal youth to be dreamed about, by not being found. Gheorghe Zamfir’s haunting Miranda’s theme, “Doina: Sus pe Culmea Dealului”, takes us on this journey into the mystic, seducing us into this Neverland only accessible to those who truly believe, touching the depths of our human existence and of the mystery of life.

 

The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s newsletters: Roden and Ridgeline. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. Racquet’s Rennae Stubbs tennis podcast. Gone to Timbuktu, Sophy Robert’s podcast on the art of travel. Wachstumsversuche, with Sarah Schill. Sirene, Racquet, and Yolo Journal, all in print.

 
 

”It’s the idea of taking off somewhere with your camera
and coming back home, developing your stuff in the darkroom –
and that’s your day’s work, you encounter.”

Anton Corbijn

 
 

 

Posted by classiq in Books, Culture, Film, Newsletter | | Comments Off on March Newsletter: Hipgnosis, Joy Division and Perfect Days

“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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Jeanne par Jeanne Moreau

 
 

“Nothing will replace the anticipation, mouth ajar, when the lights
go out and the white and then black screen dotted with splinters
suddenly becomes pearly, a few seconds before the opening credits.
Cinema! Cinema! We are yours, you are our reflection.”

Jeanne Moreau

 
 

 

Read instead…in print #30

Jeanne par Jeanne Moreau is a visual and written self-portrait of a legend.

 

 

Cinema was her passion. “It was forbidden to me for a long time,” Jeanne Moreau writes, revealing that she would hung in the lobby of the small cinema on Rue Blanche, now replaced by a peep show. Looking at the film posters and photos, she tried to imagine the plots and, while she was doing her homework at the kitchen table, she could hear noises from the cinema overlooking the music school courtyard: footsteps, doors, clashing swords, gunshots, the clopping of shoes, the wind blowing, the sound of the sea, the flashes of the storm, and, suddenly, silence, sighs and voices. Invisible films that nourished her imagination (books did that, too) and reveries of love, a mythical world in which she continued to get lost even after she became an actress. One of the great actors of cinema. The mystery remained. The mystery, of her, of her films, of cinema, remains even after reading her book.

 
 

”So who are we? Elusive, always in the making,
ephemeral like the butterfly or long-lasting like
the great wines, we create dreams, we provoke
those who look at us, stuck in their solitude.”

 
 

 

Read instead… in print is about a good book about cinema or filmmakers. No discursive, pretentious analyses, no verbose scrutiny. Because the idea is to invite you to read the book, not read about it here. But instead of using social media, I use my journal. Back to basics. Take it as a wish to break free of over-reliance on social media (even if it’s just for posting a photo of a good book) for presenting my work, cultural finds and interests. These are things to be enjoyed as stand-alone pieces in a more substantial and meaningful way than showing them in the black hole of Instagram thronged with an audience with a short attention span. This is also a look through my voluminous collection of books about film that I use as research in my adamant decision to rely less and less on the online and more on more on print materials.
 
 

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