Figure 1: L’Arroseur Arrose (1885) – This poster focuses more on the experience of watching a film, rather than the film itself.
I recently turned in a research paper about science fiction and horror movie posters for my History of Graphic Design class. Not only did I get an A on the assignment, but the teacher asked if he could use it as the model paper for future classes. (Of course I said yes!)
I want to share, but 3000 words is a bit much for one post. So I’ll be splitting it up into a series of posts, starting with this one:
Introduction: Two Designs Enter, One Design Leaves
If you tossed all known forms of graphic design into the Thunderdome, and sat down with a tub of popcorn to watch them fight it out, movie poster design would have a good chance of emerging at the end, covered in the blood of its enemies. Of course, it would depend largely on what criteria were used to determine the winner.
The movie poster would have a huge advantage, were you to judge such a contest on public adoration. People love movie posters. They represent the dream of any marketer: advertising so effective that people yearn not just to look upon it, but to display it for others to see, and are even willing to pay for the right to do so.
Were you to judge such a contest on importance to an advertising campaign, the movie poster would be a fierce competitor against the mighty logo. Similar to a logo, the poster is the lynchpin of a film’s advertising machine.
The Birth of an Art Form
“Even though everybody hates the Americans, they’re still watching American movies.”
Figure 2: Trip to the Moon (1902) – This might just be the first “floating head” poster. More on this later.
My discussion will revolve mostly around American movie posters, specifically those of the science fiction and horror genres. Cinema may have been born in France, but by the 1920’s it had grown up and moved to California. (Sklar 4) This is not to say that Europe ceased making movies, but that Hollywood has long been the nexus of the film universe.
By examining the trends of science fiction and horror movie posters throughout the years we can use those genres as a lens to look at movie poster design as a whole. As a basic foundation, a brief history of movie posters in general, as well as cinema it self, is in order.
Jules Cheret, famed pioneer of posters, gave birth to the movie poster with an 1890 lithograph advertising the short film Projections Artistiques. (Learn About Movie Posters) The films from this period more closely resemble today’s home movie than the blockbusters on the big screen. The art form was so new that people were entertained just by watching a picture move. The posters for such films reflected this. (See figure 1)
The novelty of watching moving pictures for the sake of seeing pictures move faded, and before long films began to tell stories. In the early 1900’s, a magician by the name of Georges Melies saw the potential for trickery in the new medium and developed the first special effects. (Encarta) His innovations gave birth to narrative filmmaking. His Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon) is an icon of the birth of the modern film, and is regarded as the first Science Fiction movie. (Dirks) The poster for this film represents the film rather than the theater going experience. (See figure 2)