Brandon Schaefer interview (1 of 3): Designing classic film posters

A new take on Back to the Future

A new take on Back to the Future

For many film fans, a well designed poster can be as iconic as the movie it’s promoting. As well as re-releasing a growing number of films back into cinemas, Park Circus are also increasingly commissioning new posters which both celebrate the original while at the same time introducing films to contemporary audiences.

One artist who has worked on a number of recent Park Circus posters, including The Last Picture Show and the upcoming Kes and West Side Story, is US-based designer, Brandon Schaefer. In the first of a three-part interview, film journalist Jonathan Melville talks to Brandon about his introduction to the world of poster design and how he approaches the task.

Jonathan Melville: Can you tell me a little about your background – when did you first discover your love of art and illustration?

Brandon Schaefer: I’m 26 years old, and started stumbling into design when I was in my early teens. I grew up in a family full of people that dabbled in the arts, so you couldn’t escape the influence, even if I wasn’t very good. It wasn’t until I was six that I caught on to the fact that people’s arms didn’t come out of their heads.

Have movie posters always interested you?

Brandon Schaefer

Brandon Schaefer

My grandfather used to help me put together binders filled with clippings of movie advertisements from the newspaper that I got a kick out of when I was really young. They weren’t anything spectacular, just pieces from silly movies like Young Einstein. My favorite was that art-deco inspired poster for Rocketeer; I tore it out and had it framed for years.

Do your favourite films and favourite posters differ?

More often than not, easily. The brilliant film Dancer in the Dark has a striking poster that plays off of the main character’s poor sight, but the film itself isn’t one I’d want to be stranded on a desert island with. For whatever reason, I could watch Finding Forrester until my eyes bleed, but the giant floating head of Sean Connery that dominates the poster doesn’t get me all hot and bothered under the collar.

You’re perhaps best known for creating a series of alternate posters for films such as Back to the Future and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Where did the inspiration for those come from?

I had taken a few years off after I graduated to deliver furniture because my last few years of school burnt me out. When I sat back down to start designing again, I needed a way to get my head in the right place, and movie posters were something I’d done in college for my thesis.

So, I went back to what was familiar, but could be approached differently piece by piece. Movies ask for a more sporadic approach, because most stories aren’t the same.

Do you sketch different version of a poster before settling on a final one?

Yeah. I’ve got a stack of cheap notebooks filled with lined paper that I toss ideas down in. They’re usually fairly small thumbnails, with several on a page, one after the other. I doubt anyone could really decipher them – they’re just a load of scribbles thrown on paper so I can keep my head clear and not get too attached to one idea.

It’s like having a portable dumpster that I can dive back into without having to worry about tetanus.

Brandon's Back to the Future poster

Brandon's Back to the Future poster

What was the response like to these posters? 

I hope that the people that stumbled upon them enjoyed what they saw. I know a few are hanging in places like AMC TV and Rocksteady Games, and there were plans for a book a year ago, but that fell through. So it’s humbling to know that there were some positive responses out there, but it’s not something I concerned myself about because the posters were done for myself.

Do you think there was a golden age of poster design?

Honestly, no. There were periods when a lot of the art had more going for it in terms of craft, but I think you could chalk that up to what tools were available at the time. People used to paint floating heads, now they Photoshop them. Granted, there’s more charm in the past, even if the work was less than brilliant. That stems from being able to see a human being behind the work, whereas today, it’s easier for that to get lost.

It’s important for people to know, though, that a lot of the problems that today’s poster designers tackle are very similar to what Saul Bass faced in his heyday.

Brandon's The Dark Knight poster

Brandon's The Dark Knight poster

Would you like to see a return to illustrated movie posters from the industry at large?

Maybe not necessarily illustrated posters, but more honesty. And by that I mean, a poster created with Photoshop or illustrated by hand can both have their place as long as they communicate something true about a film. I’m sure that sounds a bit broad and open to a lot of interpretation, but…what I’m shooting for is an idea or a tone.

As long as you’re trying to get across something honest about a picture, I think that whatever you create stands a better chance at connecting with people than something that is just clever, or worse, deceptive.

Visit Brandon’s website at www.seekandspeak.com to find out more about his work.

Part two of our three part discussion with Brandon will focus on his The Last Picture Show and Kes re-release posters, while part three looks at West Side Story – keep an eye on our Twitter feed or Facebook page for more information.

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