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.).


  1. Four movies jumped right to my mind when I read this post. Then I realized that NONE of them were actually Saul Bass style. But I think I did manage to come up with the Curse of the Jade Scorpion and the tishler sequence of Catch Me if You Can. They at least use elements of said Saul Bass. For a casual guy like me, those seemed to jump at me.

  2. Like I mentioned earlier - "The Men Who Stare At Goats" uses this, as well. A cool style when used appropriately - let's hope people don't go overboard with it just cause people liked "Burn After Reading" (but fuck, even if they did, it's leagues better than the "floating head" nonsense").

  3. Spot-on, Smiley. The Jade Scorpion poster applies and that Catch Me if You Can sequence does, too. One of my favorites, by the way.

    And yeah, even if it does become over-used, it's much easier on the eyes. Such a cool style.