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The Art of the Poster

The Art of the Poster

Articles - Directing

Drew Struzan

Throughout the 1970s and even into the beginning
of the 1980s, one of my fondest memories was of my father taking
me on a weekend drive down to the Sunset Strip to look at the billboards
for upcoming films. Right before a big movie season, the skylines
of Hollywood were crowded with works of hand illustrated art that
I wished I could take home with me. Thinking back on those years
made me realize why people collect posters in the first place:
they’re great pop artifacts of their time that spark wonderful

Whether it’s a sign of the declining quality of film or illustration
in general, these days most movie posters just don’t inspire the
same artistic awe.

The film Website recently echoed my
feelings about ad campaigns. “In these days of floating-head
posters and art-monkey Photoshop jobs, it’s rare to see an original
or even remotely daring design for a movie onesheet.”

So what happened to the great poster art of yesterday? More importantly,
what happened to the great poster artists?

Drew Struzan
Legendary Star Wars Illustrator
Still Paints to Please

One of the best poster artists in cinema history,
and one of the few still illustrating ad campaigns today, is
Drew Struzan. Struzan started drawing at an early age and found
it much easier to communicate with his parents through illustrations
than with words. When Struzan made it to college, his counselor
asked him whether he wanted to be a commercial artist or a painter
of fine art. Struzan didn’t know the difference. When the counselor
explained that fine artists paint what they want, while illustrators
get paid to paint, Struzan said “I’ll be an illustrator!” But really, he’d always wanted to
be an artist. “The reason was that I enjoyed it, “ he says. “I
loved the fact that what I did made other people happy.”

Struzan: Star Wars art
a “wonderful accident”

After attending the Art Center College in Los Angeles, Struzan
got some gigs here and there and sold paintings to his friends
to make a very meager living. But after going for too long without
being able to make ends meet, he went to an employment agency,
which got him a job at Pacific Eye and Ear, a design studio. There
he began designing album covers, including Alice Cooper’s Welcome
to My Nightmare
cover portrait. “The ’70s were a really good
time for musicA0becauseA0labels had a lot of money to spend and
we had these great 12-inch vinyl discs, with a nice surface to
do the art,” recalls Struzan. Yet he was still getting paid only
$150 to $250 per album cover.

By the mid ’70s, Struzan had begun working on movie
posters, at first creating illustrations for now-forgotten big
studio bombs and B pictures like High Ballin’ and Squirm.
He says he can’t pinpoint a “big break” moment when his career
really took off because it inched forward gradually. In fact, working
on a little science-fiction movie called Star Wars didn’t
feel like a big step up the ladder for Struzan. It was just the
next poster down the line he chose to work on.

With Charles White III, a well-known airbrush
artist, Struzan drew the portraits and White drew the hovercrafts,
Darth Vader, C3PO and all the mechanical features that made up
the blockbuster’s poster art. The poster replicates a posted
bill, with tears on the bottom showing a plywood construction
site wall underneath. “It
was necessity that invented that,” Struzan explains. “They found
out there wasn’t enough room for the typography and the billing
block they had left in the design. What can we do to make more
space on a poster that’s already been printed? Let’s pretend it’s
posted, then they can put the type below the actual poster. We
painted Obi Wan down the side and stuff across the bottom to make
it wider and deeper.”

It was a wonderful accident that made a unique
poster, and the fact that it was a different design wasn’t discouraged
by the powers that be. “At the time, that was only the second Star Wars poster,” Struzan
continues. “I don’t think it upset or scared anybody. In fact that
poster remained the favorite for many art directors in town for
decades.” (It’s also reportedly one of George Lucas’ favorites
as well.)

Berkey: Creating King Kong art
caused hands
to drench with sweat

Star Wars may have changed the merchandising
for toys and album soundtracks, but it also heated up the climate
for movie poster collectors . “Posters weren’t really collectible on a wide
basis before that time,” said Struzan. “But the artwork on posters
got better and better, and posters became a force to be dealt with—to
be collected, remembered, honored and respected.”

Many stars and directors are very hands-on with their ad campaigns,
and from time to time stories make the rounds about demands they
make for their onesheet issues/53/images. (As Robert Evans recalled in The
Kid Stays in the Picture
, Warren Beatty, one of the most finicky
stars with regard to ad campaigns, demanded that the posters for Heaven
Can Wait
be redone to give him a bigger bulge in the crotch.)
When Struzan painted the poster for First Blood, the only
request Sylvester Stallone had was a small change to his image
of the gun-toting Rambo. “I have bedroom eyes,” he said. “Make
my eyelids a little heavier.”

Struzan says the best scenario in designing a poster is to watch
the film with the director and discuss everything together. But
you can often be given as little as a couple of sentences on what
a film is about, or even just a photograph or two, with which to
build an ad campaign.

Commercial illustration is not a field you should go into if you
aren’t willing to compromise your art. Working on the Star Wars campaigns,
Struzan not only had to please George Lucas, but the stars, art
directors, advertisers and merchandisers as well. But Struzan counts
himself very lucky in that he’s never been embroiled in any battles
over his artwork—and has seldom been asked to make major changes. “It’s
a different boss and a different job every day. That would drive
most people insane—and it drives me insane! But I love the chance
to do it. I love it when people enjoy it.”

Poster artists often aren’t given a lot of time to create an ad campaign
and it’s a tribute to their talent that they can put together
great art on short deadlines. Struzan designed the poster for Star
Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
in two weeks.

Independent Moviemakers
and Poster Design Today

Of all the major poster artists of the ’70s
and ’80s, Struzan is the only one who still works
regularly in the field.
“I’m very sad that many of my peers don’t do it anymore,” he
says. “There’s not enough work to go around and they’ve had
to find other ways to get along. I’m really blessed and humbled that I
can still do what I’ve always done. It’s slowed down, but it’s
still here.”

Clearly poster art has changed for the major
studios, but what about the indies? Can a small moviemaker
have control over an ad campaign, and is there any such
thing anymore as creating a film, as well as its ad campaign,
completely independently? Sure, George Lucas has the power
and the clout to get any ad design he wants, but as Struzan
points out, “Most directors don’t understand
that they can be involved in the process. They can say, ‘Part
of my contract is that I want to be involved in the advertising,’ and
they can make that part of the agreement.”

When working on a minuscule budget, it’s
sometimes up to the moviemaker to put the ad campaign together. The
, a film written and directed by Paul Duran,
came out through a tiny distributor, Outrider Pictures.
There was no budget to make a poster, so Duran put one
together himself using Photoshop, which he says “is
an anomaly in terms of what’s going on today.”

If you’re putting together your own
ad campaign, Marian Koltai-Levine, Executive VP of Marketing
at Fine Line, recommends picking the most provocative component
of your film from a visual sense for the poster and advertising,
and not to get too arty or esoteric. Also, good reviews
you can quote in the ads are crucial. “For a smaller,
independent film, reviews are the number one reason people
will go to see it,” she says.

The struggles to make your movie don’t
end at the marketing stage because, as Duran says, “It
all affects how your future is going to be. Marketing is
how films get seen and get positioned. This is what’s
gonna determine where you’re going to break out and
whether you’re gonna have to struggle with the second
one.” As for what components Duran feels a good poster
and ad campaign needs, Duran says “I think it’s
all crucial. You’ve got to convince the audience
there’s a valid reason they need to go to the theater
and see it.”

“In the production process, the advertising is the last thing that’s done,” he
says. “It’s usually very close to the release schedule, so it’s
not until the last minute that they call someone in to do the

Rather than feeling limited, Struzan enjoys the challenge of trying to
reach as many people as he can. “Painting to please people is
a really wonderful lesson,” he says. “As my skill developed,
I learned what makes other people happy. It’s a real connection
to humanity, which is something I enjoy about being an illustrator.
There’s no such thing as complete and utter freedom unless you
want to paint and not have it looked at by anybody else.”

“I think the ’80s were the era when poster art was strongest,” says Struzan. “It
started to taper off in the ’90s when computers came into it;
it took a lot of work away. People got excited about this new
medium of computers for the last 10 years to the point where
there were hardly any illustrations at all. As they learned how
to use computers, the quality of the work kind of declined.”

John Berkey

John Berkey
Illustrator of King Kong and Towering Inferno
Finds Hollywood Unnerving

When illustrator John Berkey first worked at Brown Bigelow, a major catalogue
and calendar company, he learned how to research his subjects
and put together paintings quickly. He also learned another valuable
lesson, which he took with him into movie advertising: you can’t
paint anything that isn’t pleasant to the eye. “I couldn’t paint
anything that was disturbing to anybody,” Berkey says. “I had
to make pictures that people would want to look at for a while.”

Some of Berkey’s best ad campaign art includes the remake of King
and the disaster film The Towering
, both of which feature
incredibly detailed buildings and skylines. What helps give them
their stomach-dropping feel is that Berkey is afraid of heights.
When painting the King Kong campaign, where the gigantic ape
straddles the World Trade Center, Berkey was offered a trip to
the rooftops of the buildings to make sketches—but was too terrified
to go. So a photographer went up instead and took snapshots for
Berkey to draw from. Once Berkey received the slides, he projected
them in the darkness of his laundry room and the sights of the
city hundreds of stories above the ground made his hands drenched
with nervous sweat.

Berkey was also used to working on tight deadlines. In fact, he became
accustomed to designing a poster while the film is still in production.
Often he would read the screenplay for ideas. In the B-movie
world, where a lot of poster artists started out, an artist can
be given almost nothing to work with.

In the ’70s, before we had a lot of modern conveniences, even getting
the artwork to the studio wasn’t easy. Berkey would first sketch
out an idea and send it to the studio via an early version of
the fax machine. “We take for granted what a fax machine is today,” says
Berkey. “Back then, there were two of them in Minneapolis and
they were about as big as a refrigerator!” Then, once the initial
idea was approved and the painting completed, he’d ship the original
artwork to the studio through Federal Express. “The Fed Ex offices
were a little bigger than a bathroom,” he continues. “They were
working on a shoestring then; this was before they had all the

Today, a lot of posters are put together on computers, but back in the
day when posters were completely handmade, illustrators worked
in a variety of mediums including acrylic, oil, colored pencil
and watercolor. Berkey would mix acrylic paint with casein, an
adhesive made from cheese curd. “It’s one of the strongest binders
there is,” he says. Mixed up with acrylic, it made a very hard
surface of paint that would be tough to damage. If Berkey wanted
to make changes to his illustration after the paint dried, he
would have to remove the area with sandpaper.

Berkey eventually fell away from illustrating film posters because he
found working in Hollywood could be an unnerving experience.
He wound up in the middle of a lawsuit when Universal alleged
his illustration for the film Orca was a rip-off of the Jaws poster. Berkey was able to prove to the court’s satisfaction
that his incredible illustration of a rampaging killer whale
tearing through a small fishing village was not inspired by Jaws.
But after the trial, his painting was stolen from the courthouse
and has yet to be recovered. (Anyone seen it listed on eBay?)

Berkey now lives in a small town in Minnesota, as the ways of Hollywood
often left him shaking his head. “You know, there were things
that were just funny working with movie people, that’s the only
way I can put it. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but it
was life or death to them!”

Still, he looks back proudly on the years during which he designed some
40-odd ad campaigns. “The nicest part was always seeing the finished
product,” he says. “I enjoyed being a poster artist; it was fun
to be a part of that time. I didn’t know it then, but it was
the end of illustrators working on films. I think the field of
illustration in general has kind of collapsed.”

John Solie

John Solie
You Don’t Need to See a Movie to Know How to Advertise It

Designer john solie was also no stranger to planning his poster ideas
long before a movie’s completion, especially when in the employ
of directors like Roger Corman. Solie designed a number of B-movie
posters for Corman’s New World Pictures, and with one of their
releases, Savage!, almost nothing in the ad campaign was in the
film except the star. Then the film was re-released and the hero
on the poster’s skin was changed from black to white. “Then there
absolutely nothing in the poster that was in the movie,” says
Solie with a laugh. For New World’s Tidal
, Solie painted
a gigantic ocean swell about to demolish the Santa Monica Pier—even
though the movie takes place in Japan!

In Solie’s case, he got into painting movie posters
by accident. In the ’60s, he was an artist looking for freelance
work and a friend got him an appointment at Columbia Pictures with
Lyle Wheeler, an art director who had won five Academy Awards and
worked on Gone With the Wind. Initially, he didn’t want to work
in the film business and tried to up his demands to get out of
the job. When Wheeler offered $250 a week, Solie said he needed
Wheeler said no problem. “I started working
there and it was the best, most fun job I’d ever had,” he says.

For New World Pictures, where Solie worked for four years, he had tremendous
freedom. “If they gave me as much of a free hand as possible
to do the work, I didn’t care whether I was working for a B-movie
company or a major,” he says. “At New World, I’d go to lunch
with the art director, he’d tell me the story of the movie, I’d
make a drawing on a napkin, he’d approve it and I’d go home and
do it. I never saw any of the movies, but I made the movie ads
and they made a lot of money!” MM

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