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From L’Arroseur Arrosé to Aquaman

What do the films Four Christmases (2008), How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days (2003) and Pretty Woman (1990) have in common? Well, have you seen their promotional posters?

There is no deny that films come hand in hand with film posters and when looking at the posters nowadays, there always is a certain degree of digital photography or animation involved. Have you ever thought about how artists created posters when neither cameras nor softwares like Photoshop were around?

The First Film Poster Ever

The very first piece of visual artwork that is considered to be a film poster was for the French short film L’Arroseur Arrosé (1890). Illustrated by Marcellin Auzolle, it was remarkable at that time because it advertised a specific film. Not only that, but it depicted scenes from the actual motion picture, which again very unusual back in the day.

It is worth mentioning that printing film posters has not been as easy as it is now either. Because printing and going to the theatres was pretty costly compared to now, posters were only printed limited times (and often reused). Luckily, as time went by, technology continued to develop. Thanks to this, there are a few typical features that can be associated with certain decades.

First film poster by Auzolle in 1890
Marcellin Auzolle (1862-1942) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Frankenstein and Fonts

At the beginning stages from the 1920s to the 1930s, it was popular to create illustrations by hand. Emphasis was put on scenes from the film and the main character, rather than playing around with typography. This may be due to the fact that the literacy rate during those times weren’t as high as they are now.

To be fair, there have been a few cases (as shown below) in which artists experimented with crazy typefaces, but they are definitely in the minority.

Poster of Frankenstein film from
Unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Notice that up until now, barely any artist was mentioned by name? Well, that is because poster art up until the 1940s was not appreciated as it is now. Artists preferred to stay anonymous because their works were most likely to just land in the bin (sadly).

Gold And Bass As The Game Changer

Things seemed to change in the early 1940s as Bill Gold became part of the film poster industry. He set the starting point of modern poster art by creating Casablanca in 1942. Being active until 2004, he involved himself in designs like My Fair Lady (1964), Clockwork Orange (1971) and For Your Eyes Only (1981).

From the 1950s to the 1960s, Saul Bass gained a wave of popularity with his minimalistic designs.

Minimalism: “an extreme form of abstract art developed in the USA  in the 1960s and typified by artworks composed of simple geometric shapes based on the square and the rectangle” (Tate)

With successes, like Vertigo (1958), Anatomy of A Murder (1959) and even The Shining (1989), Bass created works of art with a conceptual approach through simple shapes and colours. He put emphasis on those basic shapes and forms, building the same atmosphere as in the film.

Saul Bass' Vertigo Poster
Saul Bass [Public domain]

Photography Takes Over

It wasn’t until the 1970s when photography started to take over the film poster industry. Because of this revolutionary technological advancement, handmade illustrations just seemed outdated. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), one of the most iconic films of all time, falls into this pioneer class of photographed posters.

So, from the 1970s onwards, digital photography is essential (and also very practical) for film posters. There are countless examples for this. From classics like E.T. (1982) and Back To The Future (1985) to contemporary films like Mary Poppins Returns (2018) and Aquaman (2018) photography is always there.

This is where it gets interesting though. With all the ease digital photography comes with, examples show that this ease may cause similarities, in terms of design.

Camera | by Kaique Rocha via

Generic Posters in Genre

This holds true especially in the rom-com genre. As mentioned at the beginning, films like Four Christmases (2008), How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days (2003) and Pretty Woman (1990) share rather the same layout for their promotional posters. Both male and female protagonists stand back to back, facing either the camera or each other. The typeface then seems to be more of a decoration, while both of the actors’ names are written on the poster.

But for the most part, digital photography and technology in general has changed the film poster industry for the better. Not only does it make it easier for artists to create, but it also allows their work to become more realistic.

With superhero films from e.g. the Marvel Cinematic Universe, animation/special effects play a major role for the overall mood of the film; therefore also its poster. Visual effects have been developed in such a way that they are inseparable from these films. They seem more realistic than ever, something that handmade illustrations (arguably) cannot achieve.

Do film posters still matter today?

Well, this one is a bit more difficult. Film posters are obviously crucial promotional items, but as commonly known, print media has faced a massive decline the past few years. Theatres themselves have started to invest in TVs and screens to showcase current film schedules, posters and trailers at times. So, the tendency to stray away from print does not only apply to journalism but the film (poster) industry as well.

Leave a comment below and let me know how important you think film posters are nowadays!

What to read next?

How the famous poster from ‘Jaws’ was created – and lost, Reed Tucker

The 7 Romantic Comedy Movie Poster Clichés, Alastair Plumb

The 90 year Evolution of Movie Posters, Creative Overflow

The Evolution of Great Movie Poster Design in The Last 50 Years, Film School Rejects

The History of The Hollywood Movie Poster, Filmmaker IQ (YouTube video)

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