The Powerful Impact of Minimalism: Interview with Designer and Illustrator Dylan Haley

Dylan Haley film poster design for the Arbelos release of “Sátántangó”, 1994, directed by Béla Tarr

A poster design has to feel appropriate for the film and the style of an illustrator or designer has to be versatile enough to communicate different films in a way that best compliments each film. But I will say this: I personally appreciate so much more a minimalist aesthetic. Not stubbornly minimalistic just for the sake of being minimalistic, but one that is enigmatic yet strong in condensing the idea of the film or in extracting one of its special qualities.

One of the best contemporary posters that fall into this category is Dylan Haley‘s for the Arbelos Films release of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó, a poster that caters to the audience not like the catchy commercial posters do, but one that has its own aesthetic identity and appeals through imaginative design, just as uncompromising as the film is. It speaks about the film within, yet can very well have a life of its own. And, most of all, it impresses because it’s this very simplicity that seems to prepare you for something visceral and profound.

I have caught up with Dylan to talk about his beautiful piece of art and other recent works, about the movie poster he would hang on his wall and about the approach he has taken with his design style since our last interview.

Dylan Haley festival poster for “Human Affairs”, 2018, directed by Charlie Birns

Your poster for Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó is one of the most striking, minimalist poster designs of the last few years. Could you walk us through the design process?

Well thank you, I am very pleased with the response this poster has had. The first thing I will say about this poster is that it was very much a collaborative process with a fellow named Ei Toshinari, who is one of the co-founders of Arbelos Films who are distributing the film in North America. Ei wears many hats, but one of them is working with me on these designs. Something that is rarely discussed is that a good design can only happen if the client says “yes”. I am the one crafting the posters, but both of us are looking at other work for reference, and, in this case, it was Ei’s idea to use the photo of the young girl looking in through the window. The two of us discuss almost every detail of the work we do. I have learned to not shy away from his input!

OK, back to the process – the film is such an uncompromising masterpiece it was very intimidating. I just tried to put all that out of my mind to start with. Furthermore, it was intimidating because the film is so long, and the story isn’t straight forward at all. There is no obvious simple way to visually sum up this film, there isn’t even really a main character. I eventually concluded the main character in this film was the shit weather, the rain and the mud and just the decay and desperation. That was my starting point. The image of the young girl in the film looking through the window was perfect as we could put the wild rain dumping down above her, and of course her expression is so powerful.

The type below I am particularly happy with. None of it was typed out on the computer, it was all taken from screen shots from the film’s title sequences and then printed out on a copy machine and then I photographed the prints. So the shapes are maybe 4 (?) stages removed from the original source. It was a little step like this that made the type start to feel like an old letterpress poster. None of the type is centered or lined up evenly, which I think contributes to the tension that the young girl is also creating with her eyes. And then of course mixing the letters in with some dirt and dead leaves that I photographed gave it the final touch. I added a lot of grain and did some contrast stuff to the whole thing. In general I try to make my posters look “not digital”, but I took this concept to heart even more than usual for this poster.

“I always think of the life the poster could have.
If it ends up framed on someone’s wall for years to come,
then what could be better advertisement than that?”

I remember that the first time I saw your poster I lingered on the typed part because I loved the element of surprise, the fact that the credits are not a separate component, and the way the dead leaves and dirt are incorporated into the overall composition, interspersed with the text. The dead nature you photographed and incorporated into the design also reminded me of one of my favourite Hans Hillmann posters, for Louis Malle’s Le feu follet. Was it an inspiration?

Yes, the dead leaves and dirt were very much inspired from the Hans Hillman poster of which you speak. Adrian Curry at Movie Poster of the Day also noticed that. Of course my version is more subdued. I’m very impressed you would catch that! The dirt and the leaves give this poster a final touch or grittiness. Well, I don’t have a problem borrowing ideas, they are out there for the taking, but there is still the challenge of making them work with any given project.

Absolutely. Because what truly caught my interest was not the possible influence, but the way it all made perfect sense in your artwork, because that’s where my interest lies ultimately, in each and every poster that tells a story on its own. Going back to your stylistic approach for this poster, is there a lot of resistance to this extreme minimalism that lets the image speak for itself, from a commercial point of view?

Ha, well, the film itself is minimal. Compared to the original poster (which I love), our poster is not minimal at all! Well, again I must sing my praises for the Arbelos team. They have good taste and they love film, and they care about good design as a means of communication. I wouldn’t say we don’t care what other people think, because we do, but the model is that Arbelos only distributes films with a certain amount of artistic integrity, and the design that accompanies those films is meant to speak to that. To try and promote Sátántangó like a Hollywood film is ridiculous.

Adrian Curry wrote something about how we showed great restraint with the Sátántangó poster to leave out any quotes, praising the film in the empty black area that covers the top two thirds of the design. The truth is we never considered it. I’m not convinced quotes really work to sell a film in the first place, and besides, they never look good. They instantly turn a poster into an advertisement. I always think of the life the poster could have. If it ends up framed on someone’s wall for years to come, then what could be better advertisement than that?

Dylan Haley film poster design for the Arbelos release of ”The Juniper Tree”, 1990, directed by Nietzchka Keene

I do believe that a good poster will have a life past the release date, and it will make you want to frame it and put it on the wall. What movie posters do you have on the wall?

I would love to boast a wonderful film poster collection, but I actually don’t own any. Our home is very small with lots of windows and there is just no good place to hang a large film poster… a bit odd actually. I won’t shy away from the question though. If I had the space, I would possibly put up one of my favourite posters of all time, which is the poster for the film Downhill Racer, designed by Philip Gips. It’s just the greatest poster ever! The movie is really good as well, but I think the poster has had a more lasting life than the film. It’s also a very minimal poster that I imagine would sit very well in a living space. I’ve been fantasising about getting my hands dirty and turning our garden shed into a studio, maybe I will have to treat myself to a copy of this poster if I ever complete this task.

“Maybe this world is busy enough, yes?
If it’s done right, a simple poster can have
more impact, just like a good folk song.”

Do you think film poster designers are prone to being more creative when they are working on a film that is restored or re-released and the public is already familiar with the film than on a new theatrical release that usually puts accent on the marketable value of the actors’ image and their names?

I think in many cases that is true, but, that being said, I have generally put the main character on my posters even if the film is an older known film. I worked on The Last Movie starring Dennis Hopper, and ultimately we had to make a second poster, because the first one we all liked didn’t clearly show Dennis Hopper’s image. It’s annoying to have to think about stuff like that, but at the same time you have to be realistic. I have done a few mock-ups on projects that don’t show any of the actors, but so far none of them has been picked. This is true on new releases as well as re-releases.

I do however think that, without a doubt, re-released films often have a lot less restrictions simply because the stakes are a lot lower, and, generally, a lot less people are involved. The most obvious example of this would be the Criterion Collection who have probably never created a Blu-ray cover that wasn’t better than the original One Sheet!

Dylan Haley film poster designs for the Arbelos releases of “Mutual Appreciation”, 2005, directed by Andrew Bujalski,
and “The Last Movie”, 1971, directed by Dennis Hopper

There is this distinctive, minimalist approach that runs through many of your latest works, from The Juniper Tree and Human Affairs to that alternative poster for The Last Movie. Is this the style you are most likely to pursue in your film poster designs in the future?

Well, yes, it seems my work is perhaps getting more minimal. Well, what can I say, I like it. Maybe this world is busy enough, yes? If it’s done right, a simple poster can have more impact, just like a good folk song. I’ve been listening to a lot of early Bob Dylan and Hank Williams and other traditional music often with just one guy or girl singing and playing a guitar and that’s it. Now I can hardly listen to any other kind of music, it just sounds like noise. I’m also constantly trying to make space in my house and clear things away… perhaps this is a “first world problem”. It’s so easy to buy things for cheap these days, but then you have to keep what you buy in the house and you can run out of space quickly. Maybe because I have a mind like a hamster on a wheel that I like to have some empty space around me.

That being said, not everything I do is SO minimal. Babylon and Mutual Appreciation, for example, show I can make things a little chaotic if the film calls for it!

“Working on a film poster isn’t really about ME and my work,
it’s about the film, and the distributor, and the filmmaker.”

Right. The design has to feel appropriate for the film rather than just be designing for the sake of designing in a certain style. Was there any handwork done on the Mutual Appreciation poster?

The Mutual Appreciation poster has a hand-drawn scribble on there with a pencil, but that is all… Also, I painted the yellow background on The Last Movie poster.

In our last interview you said you were thinking of bringing illustration more into your film poster work. How has your work been evolving in these last few years?

Ha, and so the struggle begins! I have made some attempts, but so far I have not found my voice so to speak. Maybe I am meant to simply be among the many who appreciate good illustration done by others. Funny thing about creative processes (maybe life in general), there is a tide that takes you where you are going whether you like it or not. I think free will may be more of an illusion than we would like to believe. At any rate, I have done some work that I am happy with recently, but it has not involved illustration.

So work does what it does and you are trying to follow it. What does freedom mean to you as an artist?

Yes, I suppose that is what I just said, but if I have to explain more, I will say that I find pleasure and stay interested in certain processes, and not so much in others, and I can’t really control that. And it is true that an idea can sort of pop out of nowhere and I, just as you say, “follow” the idea. But let me reel it in a little, because a lot of what I do is completely calculated and considered. In some cases, the ideas are even “borrowed” from another design. So it’s not like I am communing with spirits here. And even after the initial idea for a poster is decided upon, there is the very straightforward task of adding the film credits and just basic composition, which is not always easy and can make or break a design. So it’s like a dish that a cook prepares, a dash of this and a dash of that until it is just right.

As far as “freedom”… Well, sometimes too much freedom can be a bad thing. Sometimes an initial idea I have gets dismissed by a client and I’m not happy about it, but more often than not the final result will be much better. Working on a film poster isn’t really about “ME” and my work, it’s about the film, and the distributor, and the filmmaker. I do find my role within all of this, but the best results come when I consider the needs and goals of the project. If I want to just express myself for the sake of it, I will play my guitar and write a silly song, which is what I’ve been doing these days just for myself.

Dylan Haley festival poster for “Anne at 13,000 Ft.”, directed by Kazik Radwanski


You can find more of Dylan Haley’s work here.




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