Batman and Superman are back on the big screen, ready to duke it out for the world to see. Fans and non-fans alike are sure to debate about the Dark Knight and Man of Steel, but only two men are asking the truly important question of which superhero has had the better film posters.
These two men are Brandon Schaefer and Sam Smith, graphic designers who have a chance to share their love for imagery on their podcast The Poster Boys. The two have extensive portfolios, having created work for The Criterion Collection, IFC Films, Death Waltz Recording Company and Janus Films, among others.
AiPT! recently took a break from listening to The Poster Boys podcast to get to know the men behind the microphones and pick their brains about all things graphic design.
AiPT!: So tell me, what’s The Poster Boys podcast’s origin story?
Brandon Schaefer: Sometime near the end of summer 2014, Sam mentioned that we should start a podcast about design. I didn’t think he was serious, and when it turned out he was, I figured it’d be a silly idea that we’d never follow through with. Even when we were discussing ideas for the format, or recording the test episode, I still thought it would wind up on the shelf. But here we are, more than a year in, about to record another episode…Somehow, we got it moving.
Sam Smith: I think the idea came about as a way to save some time; Brandon and I would often get online and chat about posters we like, trends and our own creative processes, and we figured just recording a conversation once a month might be an efficient way to do this. Once we embarked on picking certain topics, we realized that we both can easily revert into academic mode and attempt to make the most of it as a learning opportunity. I was reluctant to commit to a long-term project like this, and we didn’t know if anyone would care or listen, but we’re still doing it somehow, at least until Brandon replaces me!
AiPT!: Hopefully that day’s far down the line! Let’s rewind the clock a bit – how did you two meet?
BS: Years ago both of us used to upload our work to Flickr.
SS: Around the time I discovered Cuban posters and was inspired to try some film poster designs, I looked to my peers online for inspiration. People like Brandon and Olly Moss were posting their work on Flickr, and I wanted to be like them! At the time, the “alternative poster” scene (note: I kind of hate this term, but am using it as a shorthand) didn’t appear to be as over-saturated as it is today. I left comments on Brandon’s Flickr images, and vice versa. We still haven’t met face to face even after podcasting together for over a year, and I’ve only seen one piece of photographic evidence proving his existence in the physical realm.
AiPT!: Let’s talk design influences. Who or what has inspired you two?
SS: Where do I begin? I often feel overwhelmed with influence and inspiration. As a child, Ed Emberley inspired me to start drawing and to “make a world.” And I was no doubt influenced by a myriad of other media throughout my childhood, from the animated segments of 3-2-1 Contact to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make Believe. As I grew older I latched onto the graphic goldmine of Penguin book covers, Blue Note album covers, Criterion cover art, and the work of my peers like Mike Davis of Burlesque of North America. Later in life, the posters of revolutionary Cuba inspired me to actually try designing posters professionally. At that point I began to build my roster of primary influences to whom I still return today: Hans Hillmann, Saul Bass, Tadanori Yokoo, Dick Bruna, the great Polish and Czech poster artists, 100% Orange, Alvin Lustig, the Push Pin Graphic guys, Dot Graphics, and my heroes working today such as Jon Klassen, Jay Shaw, Mark Giglio. I would be remiss to not include all of the other things that inspire my creativity, from cinema, science, and literature to Mario games and all things Japanese.
BS: Bob Gill stands at the top of the pile. He’s not so much someone with a style that you learn from, but a guy with a very down to earth, very practical approach to art and design that anyone can pick up and run with. Ideas are what really carry his work, and that runs counter to an industry that’s more concerned with the way a thing looks rather than what it says. I suppose that’s comforting – to be able to look to someone who has had a long career and to hear them say that you don’t necessarily have to be the best at craft if you’re able to come up with an idea that communicates to people.
AiPT!: What’s a recent poster you’ve seen that you really like?
BS: We talked about them a bit for our year-end wrap-up on the podcast, but Queen of Earth by Anna Katrina Bak/Teddy Blanks, and The Assassin by Erik Buckham at Palaceworks were two real standouts in 2015.
SS: A pair of one-sheets for The Lobster by Vasilis Marmatakis.
AiPT!: What about your own work? Is there a favorite piece you’ve done?
BS: Not really. It’s like when you have kids: you just try and love them all equally.
SS: I often go back to a pair of posters for Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Sunset, made on my own initiation with no client involved. It was the shortest process I’ve encountered from conception in my head to reality on paper; I saw this simple visual concept in my head and executed it without much getting in the way. It was rendered with simple colors and shapes, which is always a goal of mine running under everything (I always wonder how to achieve a concept using as little as possible with regard to colors and shapes). This phenomenon – creating a poster with no second-guessing or workshopping at all that still holds to me a few years later – has only fallen upon me a few times (designs for House, World on a Wire, and Vertigo also come to mind).
AiPT!: I think it’d be interesting if each of you could take us through your creative processes, from the initial idea to the final image, with any hurdles you may encounter along the way.
BS: Gosh, I used to be able to outline all of this pretty well. But every project is different these days: timelines and budgets impact everything. You can’t really take the same approach to something that needs to be put together and delivered in a couple of days versus a project that’s got weeks ahead of it. And usually those two projects are running simultaneously with several others, so it’s a lot of juggling. There’s always a lot of discussion with the client about what they’re looking for or what they’re feeling, before and during the process. If I’m lucky, there’s time to scribble down ideas into a notebook, otherwise, I’m sitting down at the computer to see what sticks.
Graphic design isn’t a solitary pursuit like some art is: there are other people involved in the decision-making process, and that has a tremendous influence on how a project comes together. People are people at the end of the day, and as much as this whole thing involves fooling around with pictures and text, it’s largely about relationships. So, I’m sure the hurdles aren’t all that different from other professions. You just have to negotiate that with any creative limitations that might rear their head while you’re working.
SS: On a film poster, for example, I like to immerse myself in that world as deeply as possible. I love soundtracks and listen to film music while I work. I watch the other works of the filmmaker, and learn as much about their philosophy as I can. I take lots of screen grabs and put together a folder of all my favorite images. I watch the film a couple times, jotting down themes, imagery, symbols, and key words. From that idea bank, I do some sketching and hopefully put down any poster ideas that just come to me naturally as a result of all this. Sometimes it’s intuitive and I try to just execute what I envision in my head. Other times, it’s a more rational, trial-and-error process of testing the strength of different comps and concepts. I often reach a decision point between making a poster that “looks like” the film (the color palette of the film, photography, the film’s original title treatment, etc.) or a poster that doesn’t, where I might come up with an illustration and title treatment unique to my imagination. This all depends on what the client is looking for in how they would like to present the film to a given audience.
When there is no client, my process is much shorter and more along the intuitive path, where I see a poster in my head, and then I use whatever medium can most efficiently manifest this (illustration, photography, typography). In general, when working with clients, freelance individuals like myself must compete with agencies and offer typically more than one idea – sometimes upwards of 10 to 20 concepts if the price is right. So, I’ve learned that a poster designer has to be fairly adaptable to different working methods these days, from client relations to the array of physical mediums.
AiPT!: Very interesting! I’m wondering, in your opinion, what makes a great poster?
BS: That’s a hard one. Two of my favorite posters couldn’t be further apart from one another: not only in the movies they’re promoting, but in the way they’re trying to communicate. On one hand, that Art Deco inspired poster for The Rocketeer from the early ‘90s is technically amazing. It grabs your attention and stands out from the crowd, but it’s also beautiful to look at, and you instantly understand that this is an action film set in the 1930s. But then you can go to the opposite end of the spectrum with something like Dancer in the Dark, which is ridiculously stripped down. It’s just text, designed like one of those eye charts you see at the doctor’s office. The only color outside of black and white is red. There are no faces, no beautiful photos or illustrations…the idea does the heavy lifting: it’s a film that deals with sight.
So, to me, great can be anything. But maybe what gets a poster closer to hitting that mark might be in how much it cares about the film it’s promoting and whether or not that’s reflected in the craft of the design itself. I’m not a stickler for beautifully detailed work, but it matters that the people behind something are trying to put their best foot forward.
SS: I always go back to the idea of a poster being iconic. Whatever the subject, whatever the medium, however the execution, it’s the poster that imprints itself upon your mind when you take one look at it, and you can’t unsee it. You may associate it with its subject forever, as a result of its iconic power. It’s a striking image, balanced perfectly with any typography or information, that as an overall graphic could be reduced to a postcard, a button, a t-shirt, a sticker or a stamp, and be as recognizable and eye-catching. I’ve noticed that the most iconic designs for me tend to be the simplest, uncluttered with unnecessary additives, although there are certain exceptions (the exquisitely detailed paintings of some classic Hollywood film posters, for example) and this doesn’t preclude a poster from having itself a meticulous attention to the smallest detail and arrangement of the composition down to the millimeter. Small measurements between elements in a design make up the foundation for the most seemingly simple graphic image. I have learned, meanwhile, that a great poster need not honor the reality of its subject (a film for example) – the Polish posters are a great example of an artist letting their imagination run wild, inspired by the power of cinema – although many of the best posters do. It’s a great bonus, for me, when a poster is iconic from a graphic standpoint, but also makes its own statement about a film or its subject, either on the surface or loud and clear. This is where the poster artist can express and realize his or her creative self.
AiPT!: Brandon, I’d like to briefly talk about your poster for the film Bone Tomahawk, which landed on some year-end design lists.
BS: I’m glad people were receptive to it! As far as jobs go, it was pretty straightforward: the producers and director needed a poster that they could use to sell the film for distribution. One of the realities of a project like that is, unlike other assignments, the focus really needs to be placed on the cast…the names, the faces. My skills lie outside of the traditional approach to a problem like that, I guess. Agencies today have loads of talented people that can solve something like that in a heartbeat. The only way I could see myself solving the problem was if I just took a lot of things that influenced me in the past that dealt with a similar problem, and to shove them in a blender together. It wound up being this weird mixture of old structural techniques by Drew Struzan, Richard Amsel, and Bob Peak…mixed with Doctor Who book and VHS cover art.
AiPT!: And Sam, you divide your time between design work and music. Does your time performing with such acts as Ben Folds influence or inspire your designs at all?
SS: I’m asked that question sometimes, and I never know how to answer it! When I’m playing drums, it’s a very pure act of creativity and my analytical mind isn’t even there. I’m lucky to have that experience when I’m playing. How that influences my design work, I’m not sure, but I know that it keeps me sane. And I know that in my brain, all creative things mix together and strengthen the power of my imagination. There are connections between my love for music and my love for images, but I don’t know yet how to put it into words. Maybe that’s why I love films. I do know that it’s good to have a backup career, or at least a second one that you can pivot over to when the clients aren’t calling!
AiPT!: I’d like to turn attention to the general public for a second. How can a design novice tell the difference between a good poster and a mediocre one?
BS: Sam probably has a better answer to this one. I have a soft spot for a lot of traditionally mediocre design…there’s usually something great even in what the industry would consider lowbrow. With that said, I think there’s a decent amount of work that is being done today that feels a bit soulless. I’m not a purist by any stretch, but there’s this overly processed Photoshop sheen to a lot of modern posters that makes film advertising somehow more hollow, like it’s coming off of an assembly line. But designers like Saul Bass and Joe Caroff were saying similar things in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Everyone has always been critical of the state of film posters.
SS: Well, we all just like what we like, so that would be my first answer to this question. But I would encourage people with a burgeoning interest in design to immerse themselves in design history and all that has come before, so that they can more easily spot the impostors. And by impostors, I mean the posters out there that offer no evidence of individual creativity, only the regurgitation of trends and obvious references. Even when a poster apes or mimics an established style or design, it only functions as a witty joke at best. Great posters, I think, synthesize influence and an individual’s unique creative voice, and are easy to spot.
AiPT!: Circling back to The Poster Boys, considering you’ve done more than 10 shows, there seems to be no shortage of topics. How do you two decide what to talk about, and how much research goes into preparing for each installment?
BS: Last year, we tried to focus in on areas that we were familiar with, and I suppose we’re doing that a bit this year as well. Part of the reason behind that is it makes navigating the research a lot easier: we really try to dig deep into the history each month, which is why there’s a decent gap between episodes. It’s sort of like school: you try and find stuff on the Internet, but it’s slim pickings, so you’re left hunting down old journals or books from other countries to make sense of it all.
It’d be really easy to just pick topics and riff off of a Wikipedia entry, but that wouldn’t help us, or anyone that listens to the show. We’re trying to work on being more diverse with regards to the artists and designers we’re researching as we move through this year. The industry has a long history of casting a brighter light on specific groups of people over others, and their stories are just as important. Highlighting them and their contributions is a big goal, even if there are only five people listening.
We both enjoy hunting down and discovering new things, and if we can use that to point other people who don’t necessarily have the time, access, or inclination in a similar direction…all the better, then.
SS: As for research, we put in as much as we possibly can. Whatever books, articles, or essays are out there, we try to track down. We debate the topics somewhat. But I think we’d both like to cater to some kind of theoretical audience that would want to hear about popular “household name” topics like Saul Bass, Mondo, and Drew Struzan, and then be softened up to lesser-known subjects like Hans Hillman or Corita Kent. Mostly, and consciously or not, I think we have been organizing the topics as our own kind of continuing education, as we get further away from college ourselves and as academic interest in graphic design history continues to grow.