Monday, September 28, 2009

Epilogue for the Floating Heads

I'd completely forgotten about this until my friend Jeff reminded me. This video was made about a year ago and it nails the Floating Heads thing perfectly. Check it out.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Poster Trends: Attack of the Floating Heads (part V)

This next one, I call the Ring variation:

This could technically be a sub-variation of the Totem Pole design I mentioned previously. Though, unlike the Totem Poles, this variation is most often used for movies with an ensemble cast where no single cast member trumps another too much, in terms of star power. Looking at that Urban Legend poster, you can see that there are ways to make this variation one of the more visually interesting Floating Heads variations. The "broken glass" thing is kind of cool, if not at all original. But then you look at that Much Ado About Nothing poster and... well, that might just be one of the worst posters I've ever seen.

I don't know about you, but I've had enough. There are a few more Floating Head variations I've noticed, but let's save that for another day. Maybe. I mean, aside from analyzing the choice of font and color scheme, there's not a whole lot to read into when you look at a Floating Heads poster.

When Poster Trends returns, I'll be analyzing one of my all time favorite designs: That "Saul Bass" Look - a style I'd best describe as the complete opposite of the Floating Heads. I look forward to it.

Poster Trends: Attack of the Floating Heads (part IV)

This next variation, which I call, the Smoke Plume variation, is particularly guilty of being extremely vague in regards to portraying any details about the movie itself (also see the Abandon poster, in part 3):

Though it seems this variation is mostly used for thrillers, images as innocuous as these rely solely on the tagline to get anything about the story across. In the case of that Prestige poster, the tagline is no help at all. It's basically assuming you've already seen the trailer. Otherwise, how else would you be able to tell that it's a movie about dueling magicians? If it were up to me, a design influenced by those old 19th Century magician posters would be a really cool throwback to the era in which the movie takes place, but it would also make for a more interesting design.

Poster Trends: Attack of the Floating Heads (part III)

(click here for the Attack of the Floating Heads intro)

Looking at all these ugly posters is wearing me down. Seriously, look at these:

I mean, I've seen posters like this for as long as I can remember, but until now, scrolling through them one after another, does it really hit home just how little innovation and creativity there is in this field. Or rather, I should say, how little it is encouraged. I know there have to be some designers out there who come up with some really interesting designs, but get shot down when they present it because the studios want the actors to be more prevalent.

Take that Point Break poster, for instance. The image of those three robbers, standing on the rocks in their presidents masks with the waves breaking behind them, is a very cool image by itself. It looks fun and dangerous at the same time. But when you shrink that and have these giant heads plastered above them, staring at you, the impact of the figures is, literally, whittled down to almost nothing.

I can just imagine it:

"Yeah... it's a cool picture, but where are the stars? Why don't you go ahead and put Patrick and Keanu's heads right... HERE."

It's frustrating to think about. Because aside from being as aesthetically inept as they are, most Floating Head designs do a terrible a job of actually expressing what the movie is about, or what it feels like. Heads, everywhere, with looks of concern, of pensiveness, a smirk here and there... but what the hell is the movie like?

Screen Art: The Last Temptation of Christ

From Martin Scorsese's 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ.

Cinematographers have been inspired by classical painting for many years, but this is a prime example of just how influential those classic images can be. This shot is a direct descendant of a 16th Century painting by Hieronymus Bosch, titled Christ Carrying the Cross.

What's most impressive to me, as far as how the painting was replicated for film, is how they managed to fill the shot with actors whose faces are almost as varied and animated as the faces in the painting. Also, you can tell the cinematographer (Michael Ballhaus) used a long focal lens to flatten the depth of the image, simulating the crowded and 2-dimensional layout of the painting.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Poster Trends: Attack of the Floating Heads pt 2

In the last post I mentioned that one of the ugliest things about the floating heads poster is the fadeout around the edges of the heads. Well, there are ways around that shoddy fadeout, however. This next variation - the Stripe variation - manages to sidestep or distract from the shoddy fadeout by placing the floating heads in a stripe. The result is still, unfortunately, a generic floating head design, but the contrast of the stripe on a blank background makes it seem like a more coherent design:

Then, of course, there are slight variations on the Stripe layout that reveal even stronger design possibilities.

The Inside Man poster is my favorite of these three. I love how the text is incorporated into the layout. There's actually some hint of visual poetry going on, without infringing upon the need to sell the cast of the film.

But, in the end, they've still got those damn floating heads.

Poster Trends: Attack of the Floating Heads

Since my last post got me thinking of movie marketing, I've decided to do a series of entries that will point out and analyze different trends in movie poster design. I'll go ahead and get my least favorite poster design out of the way so I don't keep putting it off.

The dreaded Floating Heads style is easily the most commonly seen movie poster design there is, because Hollywood pays big bucks to its stars and they need to make sure they use that star power to the fullest. As a result, we have to deal with looking at arguably the ugliest, least imaginative posters around.

The intentions behind this design are simple: recognizable faces sell movie tickets. If you were a Tom Cruise fan or a Will Smith fan and had no idea what movies they were in at the time, one look at the poster would be enough to bring you in. These designs perfectly embody the business end of filmmaking. The movies are a product that needs to be sold and these faces help sell it. As you can see from the choices above, Floating Heads are always accompanied by some tiny representation of the story. A tiny silhouette or a landscape or an object. Other than that, any sort of message or impressive design sense takes a back seat.

That said, despite the constraints of this design, there can be many variations. I call this the Totem Pole variation:

Much like a totem pole, these heads are stacked from top to bottom. The order they're placed in always represents some sort of hierarchy. The biggest is either the most important character or the most expensive or popular actor in the film. This design is most commonly used for epic adventure films, which makes me think it's a throwback to the old painted designs for similar films of old:

However, back then the fact that it was handmade at least lent a sense of artistry to the piece. Now, the figures are just plastered onto the image in Photoshop, resulting in an extremely shoddy fade out around the edges of the figures. This is actually what irks me most about the Floating Heads:

It looks so rushed. And cheap.

Expectations and Movie Marketing: "Unbreakable" Retrospective

I've always been fascinated with movie marketing - what makes a good trailer, poster, and why. How much do you reveal? How much do you withhold? These things can drastically affect a viewer's experience with the film, because they create very specific expectations. There have been countless movies over the years that I've disliked simply because the marketing promised something that wasn't delivered. Though, there have also been many movies that I ended up loving in spite of the way they were marketed.

It seems that for ages the central tenant of movie marketing has stated that it's better to misrepresent the movie in favor of reaching everyone (or at least the largest demographic) than reaching the exact audience the movie was made for. Obviously, the reasoning is simple:

More asses in the seats = more $$$.

Marketing generally doesn't care if that means the audience comes out of the theater unhappy. They've already coughed up the cash, so marketing considers that a job well done. But there are cases that clearly show us how much more successful a movie could've been if it had been marketed to the right audience.

The best, and yet, most tragic, example of this is M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable (2000).

Coming right off the heels of the massive success with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan's next film had a lot of expectations attached to it before the first trailer even hit screens. When information about the movie finally started to reveal itself, people were confident that Shyamalan was about deliver yet another - if not classic - at least a solid, creepy, suspenseful film. The trailer showed us a man in a hospital (Bruce Willis) being told that he was the sole survivor of a deadly train wreck, and he didn't have a scratch. Cue the quick flashes of the disaster, accompanied by frantic clashing sounds. After some ominous slow motion walking and Sam Jackson talking like Lawrence Fishburne in The Matrix ("Are you ready for the truth?") the same thing was on everyone's mind. We wanted another Sixth Sense experience, and it appeared that Unbreakable would be more than capable of delivering it.

The problem was, Unbreakable wasn't scary at all. There was suspense, yes, but people went in expecting to be jolted out of their seats once in a while. It didn't really happen. What we saw was a very deliberately paced film about a man discovering that he was, essentially, invincible. Many of us recoiled at this, bucking the true nature of the film in favor of the empty promises of the trailer, and in a way, that terribly generic poster (more on movie poster designs, next entry), but then there were those of us who were floored at the revelation that we were actually watching a very elegant, moody, and by many accounts brilliant, superhero movie.

However, at the time, those disappointed were heard loudest. The box-office performance was dismal. Critics were lukewarm, and apparently continued to misrepresent the film, even after seeing it (Richard Corliss of Time Magazine said Shyamalan was adept at "balancing sophistication and horror" - again with the "horror").

All this because of the expectations perpetuated by the marketing campaign.

It's well-documented that Shyamalan wanted to market Unbreakable as "the story of an unlikely superhero," but met resistance from distributors at Disney, who wanted instead to portray it as a thriller. Last year, in a New York Times article entitled, "Shyamalan's Hollywood Horror Story, With Twist," Shyamalan mentioned his regret:

“I remember the moment that it happened, exactly where I was sitting at the table, the speakerphone,” he recalled in an interview from his office in a converted farmhouse near Philadelphia. “That moment may have been the biggest mistake that I have to undo over 10 years so the little old lady doesn’t go, ‘Oh, he’s the guy who makes the scary movies with a twist.’ ”

I wonder if this really was the moment that Shyamalan's career was sabotaged. This misconception of his affinity for "plot twists" has been nothing but a bane to his film career. Though, that's still no excuse for how terrible his films have progressively gotten (The Happening is one of the worst films I've ever seen - laugh-out-loud bad). Only two or three of his movies hinge on plot twists (The Sixth Sense, The Village, possibly Lady in the Water - haven't seen it) the rest simply withhold information from the viewer - information the viewer is actively seeking. A twist, on the other hand, is something that blindsides the audience. So if someone says the twist in Unbreakable was lame, they just don't realize what effect movie marketing has had on them. Dude, there was no twist.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Expectations and Comedy: "The Story of Everest"

It's been said that deconstructing why a joke is funny is a great way to make sure that joke will never be as funny again. In a lot of cases, this is true. Especially if you're right in the moment when someone's told a joke or something funny has happened, and somebody goes, "Oh my god, that's hilarious. Because we were all expecting ________ and instead ________ happened and wow, that is funny." Awkward silence follows.

But since this is a blog, far from being in the moment, and because we touched on the essence of comedy in class the other day, I've picked a personal favorite sketch that shows, rather blatantly, just how effective the manipulation of expectations can be in comedy. In a way, comedy is all about expectations. The comedian manipulates the audience to expect one thing, then either delivers just that, or sideswipes them with something completely unexpected, in such a way that forces them to laugh. Sometimes it's about diversion, other times it's about delivering exactly what you get them to expect. It depends on the context, of course. So, without further ado, Mr. Show's "The Story of Everest."

I have watched this sketch countless times and, in all honesty, I have not been able to watch it without laughing out loud, each time, and with progressively more gusto. It's slapstick, but it's very strategic slapstick.

It begins by exploiting the audience's complete lack of expectation. Thomas (played by recurring cast member, Jay Johnston) arrives, greets his parents, and begins telling his tale of conquering Everest. The audience chuckles at the folksy, super-cheesy acting of the cast, perhaps because they think the words will be the source of the joke. That's the diversion, right there. Like a magician, the writers divert our attention to something we immediately perceive, all the while carefully setting up the trick. The man is telling his story with full conviction, and his parents react to every word with gasps and awe. All the while, the man is stepping back, ever further...

When he falls, it's completely out of nowhere and our laughter comes from a very instinctual place. The pure physical prowess that Johnston displays in executing a rehearsed fall and making it look completely spontaneous and accidental is something to be admired, and it's the primary reason the fall continues to be funny for each of the SIX times that follow.

But there are other elements to be considered in the subsequent instances. The fade in/fade out, set to the same piece of music, becomes comical when repeated and allows us to recover from the last fall and sets our expectations for the next. The writers know we are expecting more falls, so they come up with different ways to surprise us, or make us wait longer than we expect. Personally, the fall that makes me laugh the hardest is probably the last one (4:29): the moment of silence right before the loud violence of the fall usually has me giggling before it even happens. The last two are the best because they're the most ridiculous, really. To fall that violently from a fixed position is pretty much impossible. Which, of course, is the most important element to the comedy: the absurd.

Mr. Show (created by David Cross & Bob Odenkirk) was all about the absurd and, at its best, it was a Master Class in Absurdity. If, unlike me, you were unimpressed with this sketch, I hope you can at least appreciate the craft of it and, further, I urge you to give a few of their other sketches a try. These guys were masters.

The Pre-Taped Call-In Show

The Audition

I'll Marry Your Stupid Ass

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Screen Art: Raising Arizona

Screen Art: Finding images in film that transcend their context.

This shot from the Coen brothers' 1987 comedy, Raising Arizona, isn't particularly remarkable in terms of color, symbolism, or the context of the scene, but it struck me when watching it that, as a freeze-frame, it could be a pretty damn cool painting.

It reminds me of something Rene Magritte might do...

It's kind of a surrealist, pop-art kind of thing. In the shot from Raising Arizona we see a serene, unremarkable landscape with an almost cartoonishly perfect sky and then something odd plastered right smack in the middle. It gives me the same kind of dreamlike feeling as the Magritte painting. Could it, too, be considered a similar form of pop-art? I think so. And if I can figure out a way to enlarge it and frame it and hang it on my wall, I will.

Mac's Trouble With Titles

First of all, I wasn't even aware there was already a Macintosh Operating System called "Leopard," let alone the new, even clunkier-sounding "Snow Leopard." This just seems out-of-character for Mac. I understand that they'd want to get away from simply numbering each of their new OS's and try something with a bit more zing, but I think giving them animal names is not a step in the right direction. I imagine they must be trying to evoke some kind of instinctual consumer response.

Some people hear "Leopard" and they think "fast," or "elegant," so in that most basic sense, it might be seen as an effective title.

But when I heard it, my first thought was an elementary school kid pretending he owns a big software company. His favorite animal is a leopard, so he goes up to his dad and tells him about his new make-believe OS (the kid probably doesn't even know what it stands for, but maybe his dad's a software engineer so he hears it around the house a lot) and says it's called "Leopard."

"Why Leopard?" asks Dad.

"Cuz leopards are cool and they're the fastest mammals on earth."

"Actually, cheetahs are the fastest. Why don't you call it Cheetah?"

The kid thinks it over a moment, and his eyes widen in excitement.

"... Yeah. Cool! Thanks, Dad!" the kid exclaims, and runs to his bedroom to draw a cheetah.

Then the Dad goes to work the next day and presents his idea for the new Mac OS title - Leopard - because he's a lazy thinker and stole the idea from his eight- or nine-year old son.

This is just an unnecessarily elaborate way of saying that I think the Snow Leopard title sounds really childish and totally unrelated to anything Macintosh. Maybe it's just me. I mean, I'm by no means knowledgeable when it comes to computer software and hardware. Nor am I more partial to Windows than Mac or vice-versa. I'm approaching this purely from a marketing perspective. For example, I think Windows recent OS, Vista, has a classy and appropriately innocuous title. Corporate-sounding, but just provocative enough to evoke some immediate feelings of peace and beauty.

Too bad that has nothing to do with how Vista actually functions.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Grizzly Bear: "Two Weeks," Two Videos

God, I miss music videos.

More specifically, I miss the time when MTV actually meant Music Television. Sure, they pretty much "killed the radio star," helped usher in increasingly obnoxious fads and more often than not you would find yourself making fun of the videos (which in itself was a fun passtime with friends), but every so often there was a video that reached iconic status and became ingrained in our culture in ways that just can't happen anymore. It was once a medium that launched the careers of some of our most unique and creative filmmakers (ie. Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze), but now it's hardly noticeable amid the cacophony of Youtube hits and misses.

But, alas, time marches on, things fall apart, etc., so now we have to just take what we can get, which, judging from these two videos alone, can still be pretty amazing.

This first video for Grizzly Bear's recent single, "Two Weeks," is the official video for this song, which means that its main purpose is to reflect the attitude of the band and, in a way, introduce them to newcomers. I think it does a pretty good job in both departments.

Grizzly Bear - Two Weeks from Suspicious Sounds on Vimeo.

If you already know Grizzly Bear, you know that they're kind of like the modern indie rock version of The Beach Boys. Their vocal harmonies and the general dream-like nature to a lot of their songs make it hard to avoid the comparison. If you don't already know them, this video sums them up pretty well as the twisted choirboys they are. The subtle enlargement and shrinking of their facial features is a particularly nice/disturbing touch. And the exploding head thing that occurs right along with the crescendo near the end of the song is just as effective.

Now, here's another video for the same song, this time made by an extremely talented fan. With no access to the band members, this guy made the video solely to serve the music. It's a real treat.

Two Weeks - Grizzly Bear from Gabe Askew on Vimeo.

There are times throughout the video when the imagery seems to be directly related to the lyrics - like early on, when we see the cars on the highway and we hear "a routine malaise" - but for the most part, the images relate to the song in the most abstract sense. It's all about the feeling, first, and interpretation, second. I really like how the birds wing flap to the beat and, later, when we emerge from the tunnel to a bright, wide open environment, right along with that same crescendo that had the guys' heads exploding in the first video. All in all, very well crafted, and, at the same time, representative of the band's indie nature, aesthetically.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Screen Art: There Will Be Blood

Screen Art: Finding images in films that transcend their context

This shot from There Will Be Blood (P.T. Anderson, 2007) is one of my all time favorites.

In this scene, the man has just unintentionally revealed information that has caused the main character to mistrust him, so his head is, metaphorically, "on the chopping block." His fate is sealed. The shot only plays out for a few seconds, but the fact that it reflects the plot point symbolically - covering everything below his neck in shadow - is just brilliant. He looks like a drawing - the way his body is so graphically silhouetted against the background in perfect profile.

Assignment: Website Redesign pt 3

Lastly, we have, one of the forgotten search engines in the Google-driven world we now live in. Though, with such an awkward and bland design, there's a good reason many of us don't use it.

Broken down into basic shapes:

And the redesign:

If your logo's going to do the Yin Yang thing, why not take it all the way and really make the screen pop? I'm sure they have enough trouble competing with a giant like Google, so they might as well set themselves apart aesthetically. Of course, there's the question of functionality: when the screen cuts to search results, would the black & red background stay? Probably not, because then the text would be illegible. But then an abrupt cut to a pure white screen with text would be pretty awkward, too. So maybe the answer would be to keep the black & red background, but put the search results text in a grayish box that would lay over the background. Just a thought.

Assignment: Website Redesign pt 2

Next up is, which is an easy target, I'll admit, with its broken links and bad HTML. But let's pretend for a minute that it didn't end up branded as one of the biggest dot com flops of the late '90s, and instead see what can be done to fix what's there.

Broken down into basic shapes:

And the redesign:

The first thing to do was bring the page up from the bottom left corner of the screen and reduce the amount of links available on the main menu. Also, I replaced the ugly rainbow design on two of the buttons with a more appropriate purple, so that your eye is drawn to them, but they're not such an eyesore. The background has been changed to a solid yellow-orange, instead of that stark, blank white, but I could also imagine a real subtle pattern in there, too.

Assignment: Website Redesign

First up is, an excellent site for impassioned movie reviews, commentary, and up to date news on all kinds of film geekery. Unfortunately, it's riddled with seizure-inducing ads and organized with a general disregard for coherence. Coincidentally, as of today (9/4/09), they're "Undergoing Massive Beneath the Hood Improvements," so at least they know there's a problem.

Broken down into basic shapes:

And the redesign:

Since its primary function is to give us news and editorials, I brought in a little symmetry and made it a bit more like a newspaper. The ads are still there, but they belong on the rims of the page, and the search bar has been moved to the top right corner, on the header, where most people would expect it to be, anyway. I decided not to mess with the color scheme, because the black and green is essential to the theme of the site. "C.H.U.D." is a reference to a little known 1984 horror film of the same name, about a city plagued by mutants from the sewers.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


This is not a blog.

Well, technically it is, but more specifically this is an Electronic Design Journal for my Design Issues in Digital Media class.

And, yes, my instructors, I know this doesn't count as a post.

This is not a post.