Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Poster Trends: The Mondrian Look

Continuing my focus on modern poster designs that pay homage to older styles and artists, I present to you the Mondrian Look (also referred to as, The Disjointed Squares look).

I've called it the Mondrian Look after the artist, Piet Mondrian, the Dutch painter, who, in the 1920's, created works such as these:

The posters that recall Mondrian are, whether the designers realize it or not, playing on the design principles he proposed in the twenties. Mainly, principles of organization and color - composing on a grid and making that grid the focal point of the design. The paintings were, in essence, design broken down to the most fundamental elements. It's a fairly cold, antiseptic kind of design.

In the case of the movie posters, the Mondrian Look sometimes, but definitely not always, is an accurate representation of the style of filmmaking in the movie. We see snapshots of characters or scenes from the film set apart in various frames. Like Mondrian's work, it's a very cold, stripped down look and sometimes the movies themselves are cold, stripped down, character-driven stories.

Unfortunately, it has become one of the most grossly overused poster designs around and the meaning suggested by the style itself has been all but lost. It now seems to suggest the same design intentions as the Floating Heads style. Mainly: SELL THE ACTORS.

Next up: The Magritte Look.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Over-Marketing?: EA's Dante's Inferno

The fact that we can actually say, with a straight face, that there is a Dante's Inferno videogame coming out is something that seems a lot more silly and bizarre than it actually is. At first glance, it's as ridiculous as the idea of a Paradise Lost or A Christmas Carol videogame. It just feels strange to digest the idea that this antique pillar of literary history has branched out to such an unlikely medium of entertainment. When you look more closely at the situation though, you're quick to discover that its connection to the literature is essentially in name only. Aside from the references to each circle of Hell and the fact the main character's name is Dante (no other connection to the literary Dante at all), this is, for Christianity, what God of War was for Greek mythology. The gameplay also looks identical to God of War (which was very similar to Devil May Cry, which starred a character named, oddly enough, Dante), if that helps drive the connection home.

All that aside, Electronic Arts, the company producing the game, has come up with a fairly ingenious (though controversial, at times) marketing campaign to count down to the release of the game. Watch below to see what they sent to writer, Alex Riviello, to commemorate this specific circle of Hell:

I love how they forced this guy to actually engage in an act of wrath as part of their marketing campaign. It's a brilliant way to choreograph an engaging, interactive situation. It's definitely very memorable, too.

However, what does this actually say about their product? We know the artistry involved has to be top notch. Especially if their disturbing mini-books are any indication. But this kind of thing can backfire because it reeks so strongly of over-compensation. I'm sure the crew truly believe they have a top-notch product on their hands, but it just seems like an awful lot of hype before any substance. I predict it'll end up being a pretty solid action game with not much else to set it apart, except the visuals - something that every new videogame of this generation seems to emphasize over inventiveness and ingenuity in gameplay.

Nowadays, with so many avenues for companies to compete for our attention, big budget projects are pulling out all the stops to keep our eyes on them. Hence the viral marketing trend. Remember the Dark Knight's campaign, before Heath Ledger died? There were all these interactive web sites and Joker-themed scavenger hunts that kept people excited for the movie. Then, of course, Heath Ledger died and the marketing team didn't have to do much else. The hype was at its peak. But for a while there, they had the most potent viral marketing campaign I've ever seen. So how was the actual film? Passable. Enjoyable enough. Ledger's performance was legendary, but the movie itself? Merely decent, in my eyes.

That was a bit of a digression, but the point is that marketing campaigns for big budget projects have seemed to have more inventiveness behind them than some of the products/projects they're advertising. I guess the longer you're exposed to it, the more wary you get of this fact, because I know this can't be something that's cropped up in the last decade or so, it just seems like it has, because it's finally losing its effect on me.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Poster Trends: That Saul Bass Look

After wallowing in the dull squalor of the Floating Heads trend for those last few entries, this next one is a breath of fresh air. I give you the Saul Bass look:

This style is named after the man who popularized the look, a graphic designer named Saul Bass. Aside from designing posters, Saul Bass was also famous for his title sequences, which were made with the same simplistic style you see in the posters. However, his opening titles were often jazzy, frenetic pieces that contained an energy that revolutionized how editors approached future title sequences.

Now, the posters above were all made sometime between the mid 50's and late 60's, but if you think they look modern, that's because this style has been mimicked countless times over the years. Here are some very recent examples:

There are a few specific attributes of the Saul Bass look that designers have taken cues from. First of all, the posters are essentially broken down to the most basic elements of design, defined by bold colors and strategically-placed geometric shapes and silhouettes that express the elements of the story.

Also, the font is almost always unstable, jagged, or broken in some way. This can convey a sort of playfulness, but it can also convey danger, or a threat of some sort. There's a sarcastic, sometimes cynical edge to the lettering, regardless of the movie, which is a very modern feeling to convey. Sometimes, all you need is lettering to get this across:

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) is a very melodramatic, tragic story (with one of my all time favorite titles, by the way - it comes from the Irish saying that begins, "May you be in heaven half an hour..."), but by using the Saul Bass look to represent the film, the designer was able to communicate the underlying element of dark humor that runs throughout the film. The story is a tragedy, but it's about a pair of criminals (brothers, in fact) so desperate and clumsy you can't help but laugh intermittently during their steep plunge into chaos.

The posters are also heavy with visual metaphors. The most striking example, to me, can be seen in the poster for Precious (2009). We see the silhouette of an overweight girl, cracking apart, presumably caused by the sinister hand at the center, which could symbolize her abusive mother, or the disdain from society, in general. The color palate and the placement of the silhouette is very similar to the Saint Joan (1957) poster. This has to be intentional. Both posters represent films about struggling, ostracized female youths.

In my searching for more posters, I found a blog called Film the Blanks that takes random movie posters and reduces them to basic shapes, which inadvertently creates a kind of basic Saul Bass-esque design. The titles are always hidden, so you also have to try to figure out what movie the poster is for, based simply on the shapes provided. It's a pretty cool experiment.

This style is definitely not fit for every movie, but when it's paired with the right material, it offers some of the best, most timeless design you can find. While I would like to see it in theaters more often, I also don't want the style to become over-exposed and lessen its impact. I have a huge soft spot for this design and any movie that uses it always gets a second look from me.

Next up on Poster Trends, I think I'll analyze the Artist Homage - posters designed specifically to pay homage to a famous visual artist. You might be thinking that the Saul Bass Look could be categorized under the Homage label, too, and you'd be right. But the Artist Homage look is, more specifically, a design that references an artist from a particular movement in art history (pop art, cubism, surrealism, renaissance, etc.).

Monday, October 12, 2009

Code Generated Art

In August, Smashing Magazine posted a list of 45 examples of code-generated artwork. That is, artwork created using not only sophisticated computer software like Maya, 3D Studio Max, and Photoshop, but also programs, like ActionScript, that take algorithms and generate imagery according to whatever code is typed into the computer. There are some really beautiful images, and looking at them got me thinking of the time when I'd hear people (mainly my high school art teachers) criticizing computer art as a medium less worthy of praise or admiration because, as they said, "the computer does the work for you."

People don't seem to be saying that as much anymore. I think many of those in the art field, at the time, were still feeling threatened by computers - as if they'd be replaced by automated artists churning out works on an assembly line somewhere. Luckily that turned out to be very far from the truth. Computers are merely another tool in the artist's toolbox.

Here are some of my favorites from this list.

"Circle Explosion" by Mark Knol

"Composition #72" by Patrick Gunderson

"Crimson" by Natzke

It's the perfect union of art and science, or mathematics, if you want to get technical about it. Despite the fact that the computer is the one implementing the information, it still takes a human mind to give it the right information to create the image. It requires not only computer knowledge but also some understanding of color and compositional concepts. Cool stuff.

Then, of course, there's the more representational side of computer generated art. These are amazing.

"Hektor" by Mark Denko

"Living Room" by Phillip Widmer

"The Artist Himself" by Piotr Fox Wysocki