April 25, 2013

Movie posters: Cycles between illustration and photography

For lack of a better term, the visual culture of a rising-crime period is more stylized. It's clearly aiming away from photorealism, yet it's not minimalist or abstract, which are other ways of achieving that goal. In a falling-crime period, the visual culture looks more bland and uninspired, whether photorealistic or abstract / minimalist. In graphic design, this means a greater fascination with and reliance on photography in falling-crime times, and on illustration in rising-crime times.

From the turn of the 20th century through the early '30s, there was a golden age of illustration. From the mid-'30s through the '50s, that was out, and photography was back in (like during the falling-crime Victorian era). The Bauhaus movement promoted photography and sans serif typefaces during the 1920s, but nobody paid any attention to them back then. Not until the mid-century did their ideas finally find an enthusiastic audience.

Starting in the '60s and lasting through the '80s, the mainstreaming of Bauhaus was overthrown, as graphic designers returned to the stylized approach of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, with a more hand-drawn illustration look. Since the '90s, the pendulum has swung back toward photography and Helvetica once more. The collage-y look that Bauhaus propagandized for, but that only caught on during the mid-century, is back again, this time with a little help from Photoshop.

You can read about this in any good graphic design history book, with pictures from across a variety of visual domains. Here I thought I'd restrict the focus to something everyone knows something about, but might not have noticed the historical pendulum swings -- movie posters.

Aside from the greater use of illustration during rising-crime times, they're also more likely to use bold contrasting colors and bright-dark lighting contrast. The falling-crime fanaticism for photorealism can go so far as to include screenshots from the movie right there on the poster, not just any old photographs that might entice the audience.

I chose posters from movies that did very well at the box office, to make sure that we're looking at ones that resonated with audiences. Granted, they did well because of the movie itself, but the poster served to lure them in as well. I tried to cover a range of genres and years within each larger phase of the cycle. But to check on others -- your favorites or ones you're just curious about -- the movie's Wikipedia entry usually has a picture of the original poster near the top.

So, here's a quick but representative look at some posters from periods when crime was rising (1900 - 1933), falling (1934 - 1958), rising again (1959 - 1992), and falling again (1993 - present). Click any for a larger image.

Whatever you think of the movies themselves, their posters from the mid-century and Millennial eras sure do look bland in color and lighting, not to mention awkward and obvious in their reliance on screenshots. The photorealistic look doesn't mark itself or the movie it's advertising as something special, out of the ordinary, in the way that a stylized, charming illustration does.

It's not like the rising-crime posters are Caravaggio or Goya, but they're not supposed to be. They're part of our everyday lives, a kind of advertisement. But why shouldn't that stuff look cool too? Within reasonable, expectable bounds -- the studio isn't going to commission Rubens to slave away for who knows how long, just to come up with a large-scale ad for a movie. That still allows for creativity and enjoyment, though.

I can't stand the Puritanical strain in our culture that says we ought to just shut up and accept our boring, lifeless, and joyless popular culture, because none of that really matters anyway in the grand scheme of things. It comes from a seething misanthropy, whether the guy is a Baudelaire-reading emo faggot or a bitter reactionary/traditionalist. It's no different from the radical activist who loves humanity but hates people -- the main reason why "the movement" never lasts.

Whoever thinks that malcontents are going to prove to be any kind of guide out of our cultural mess is in for a real disappointment. If you aren't life-loving enough to enjoy cool-looking movie posters, everyone's going to tune you out when they might otherwise lean toward your side.


  1. The last couple paragraphs ring true for me. Whenever I attempt to influence someone, I try to modulate my message a bit in the manner you're describing. Gotta add some positivity and fun to our point of view.

  2. "It comes from a seething misanthropy, whether the guy is a Baudelaire-reading emo faggot or a bitter reactionary/traditionalist."

    They still have their adherents, though. It seems to me that some people enjoy falling-crime times more and seem to prosper more during them. This is certainly true if you look at what actors and actresses are popular during each period.

    I am not so sure, as you've said before, that everybody suffers when the crime rate falls.


  3. Ever see the old He-man cartoons? Or the old Disney movies, for that matter. They were richly illustrated. Compare that to the stale graphics of modern animation.


  4. Here are some examples:



    As you can see, the more "primitive" animation manages to outshine lifeless modern graphics.


  5. Movie posters by era -

    http://tinyurl.com/bw6xrob - 50s

    http://tinyurl.com/cjs7kk5- 60s

    http://tinyurl.com/c5ng6gy - 70s

    http://tinyurl.com/d5xjpmr - 80s

    The 50s are mostly illustrated, BUT they all seem not that diverse (realistic in style some prominently positioned drawings of the actors with extreme! facial expressions).

    The 60s and 70s seem to have the highest frequency of illustration and stylization and the most well done illustrations (probably the most imaginative illustrations as well).

    The 80s seem to have by the highest frequency of actual photographs (of these 4 eras), but seem the most diverse out of the set and to have the boldest impact.

    agnostic's observations about contrast and color seem very apt. The 80s posters are very strongly black backdrop with very brightly colored (often neon) foregrounded figures, but the foregrounding is usually not not monochromatic. The 60s and 70s are generally white backdrop with colorful foreground and the 1950s posters are generally extremely bright, but kind of cluttered and either no central figure really breaks out (or its just some person). Other than James Dean and Marilyn, no-ones really doing a "cool guy pose" in the 50s posers, they are all very emotionally fraught.

  6. Or the old Disney movies, for that matter. They were richly illustrated.

    Disney animations seem more frequent in falling crime times, esp. the iconic ones - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Walt_Disney_Animation_Studios_films.

    Although Sword in the Stone, Robin Hood and Jungle Book and rising crime period and seem the most exciting, fast paced and good for little boys (the early to mid 90s ones were still pretty good, for films for small children).

  7. They didn't have the same level of technology that they do now... The themes were also depressing and the plots slow-paced and uneventful. Compare Snow White to the Lion King..


  8. They didn't have the same level of technology that they do now...

    True of the 80s also...

    Lion King had a production cycle which begun in late 80s, even if its 1994, so I guess you can have that.

    The 30s and 40s Disneys seem outstanding it terms of having "sad" plots, while the 50s ones (and films which are early 60s but probably began their development cycle in the late 1950s) seem quite happy and positive, maybe reflecting differences in material poverty during the period.

    Modern Pixar type movies generally seem quite lively and upbeat, but lack strong villains.

  9. Disney movies 1930-1960 are soft and lack power. Everybody has heard of the death of Bambi's mother(1942), but if you watch it, it is anticlimactic.


    Compare it to the death of Mufasa:


    The first movie is designed to soften the blow of tragedy to young children, the second one doesn't pull any punches, as Simba watches in horror as his father is trampled to death.

    During rising crime periods, many children witness such tragedies in their personal lives. I remember reading an article from the early 90s, where a reporter at a murder scene, was given a picture by a young boy, who told the reporter that the pic was of the boy's brother, and could the reporter go check if the murdered man was his brother?

  10. I also have some retro collections of mid century posters-


    hope will help to poster seekers.

  11. nice article, i enjoyed reading this. is there a name for that mid century era richly illustrated design style? it's like an enhanced, dreamy, animated realism - Deco influenced, with increased contrasts, accentuated shadows, thick vivid colors. like many of these vintage travel posters: http://www.pinterest.com/search/pins/?q=vintage%20travel%20posters


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