I have been singing the praises of director Jonathan Glazer for the past nine years, since his magical-realist winter drama Birth came out in 2004 and instantly became one of my favorite films of the ’00s. Before that, Glazer had directed only one feature (2001’s Sexy Beast, starring Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone) and several iconic 1990s music videos (Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity,” Radiohead’s “Karma Police,” UNKLE & Thom Yorke’s “Rabbit In Your Headlights”), all of which were collected handsomely in Palm’s Director’s Label DVD series. After Birth, I remember checking movie news sites every couple of weeks, excited to see what Glazer would do next, and who would be involved. (The late Harris Savides shot Birth and Alexandre Desplat scored it—two of my favorite craftsmen in the industry.) Since it was announced years ago that it would be Under The Skin, an adaptation of Michael Faber’s acclaimed novel, starring Scarlett Johansson, I’ve been yakking about the project to everyone I know, and its screenings at select film festivals this fall mark the arrival of one of the more anticipated follow-ups in today’s film world.
I wasn’t at Telluride, Venice, or Toronto, so this month’s design is another exercise in designing a poster for a film I’ve only seen in my imagination. Meanwhile, film critics buzz away about what sounds like a dark, daring film, one in which Johansson plays an alien siren who has come to Earth to seduce men, and who knows what else. (The experimental teaser trailer leaves much to speculate about. It doesn’t even offer a title card.) Next month, I may get back to films we’ve seen, and maybe even an older film or two, but this time, I’ll enjoy one more opportunity to abandon traditional restrictions and design as if I were my own art director, readying the film for release on instinct alone. Taking a cue from comments last month (where I offered an admittedly esoteric, unmarketable poster for The Wind Rises), I hoped to come up with something that pulls from my usual inspirations, but that also might conceivably work in a real-world marketing plan. I’m sharing the process here that I might go through when designing a real-world one-sheet, my way.
Before I start on a poster, I usually do a little research on any related visual material already out there; in this case, I looked at the existing book covers for Faber’s novel. It’s interesting to me how they all use images of roads—which I decided then and there to avoid. Meanwhile, none of them feature a strong image of the protagonist. Looking at these covers gave me a sense of what to avoid if I wanted to create my own unique design.
Any poster for a film like this, where sex may be one of the selling points no matter how you’re marketing the movie, needs to feature an image of its star. My access to materials was limited: There’s only one official press photo out there, and it wouldn’t offer much to my design, nor would it have been very creative for me to use it. It would also be unethical to use some existing picture of Johansson—a magazine photo or on-set paparazzi shot of her in character—for my purposes. I also didn’t want to create an original drawing or painting of Johansson for this, mainly because I’m not confident enough in my realistic renderings, but also because I wanted the poster to have a more photographic quality rather than an abstract illustrated interpretation.
Without access to any actual materials from the film, my only option was to look at images in the trailer, from which I could take a low-resolution frame grab of Johansson in character and possibly do something abstract and creative with it. Blowing up a small or low-quality photo and fully embracing the grain and other artifacts has yielded interesting, unexpected results in the past, for myself and presumably other artists who, before computers, had to embrace similar obstructions. I didn’t want this to look like a perfect, high-resolution photo anyway, but it wouldn’t, because it couldn’t.
After isolating a trailer image I wanted to use, I started imagining this image of Johansson filling the frame, a large body shown in silhouette, filled with darkness. Inside her torso could be a space for some kind of primordial light, representing her cosmic origins, but also, and more importantly, something emerging or birthing from within her. Since I haven’t seen the film yet, it’s just vague and abstract enough to possibly work. Johansson’s name would need to be prominently displayed, and while I’m sure a Hollywood studio would want it larger, my penchant for minimalism drove me to set the type small and tight, sitting just above the title in a place of central prominence. The typeface I used for all the lettering is Avant Garde, designed by the great Herb Lubalin and his partner Tom Carnase in the 1970s. Still popular these days, the typeface has a cold, futuristic look that I wanted to apply to a quasi-science-fiction subject like Under The Skin.
To create the halo of light inside Johansson, I relished the opportunity to sift through NASA’s archives of public-domain photography to find the exact image I imagined in my head. These are really fun to look through, of course, and let me source a design element from the actual cosmos. And then it was time to play with colors—undoubtedly my favorite part of the process. I like starting out designing in black and white, an impulse that comes from looking through old Graphis Annuals, where certain pages were printed in black and white to save costs. The best designs always stood out to me whether they were in color or not, and I’ve since thought the best way to make sure a design is staying on track is to work with it in black and white before getting too crazy with colors. So the comp above and to the left is my rough black-and-white version, followed by a few of my initial color ideas. I would have been happy with any of these fun palettes, particularly the yellow and red one, and were I presenting these to a client, I would include these different options just to see which ones the director or producers responded to.
Though I loved the yellow, almost sun-drenched version, I ultimately decided to anticipate what an art director or producer might often request, that the color scheme of a poster fall in line more with the visual look of the film. The other bold color schemes are fun and graphically striking, but there’s something to be said for having the poster convey the tones of the film’s cinematography and mood. Using the trailer alone as a template, I applied an overcast, cloudy blue palette. It’s closer to the film’s look without being too dark, and it retains the dark central area, connoting a cosmic space. For the sake of pursing the more viable, reverent option, I settled on this as the final color scheme. In this process, I tried to represent the method of thinking I would use when taking a film and its commercial release seriously, while also feeling free to make the poster I would want to see made—one that appeals to my sensibilities, and perhaps a more graphic approach than is given to typical Hollywood releases.
Sam Smith is a musician and graphic artist from Nashville, Tennessee. He has designed theatrical posters for clients including Janus Films and IFCFilms, limited-edition screenprints for the Belcourt Theatre, and numerous package designs for The Criterion Collection.