Movie Poster of the Week | An Interview with Dawn Baillie

In conversation with an unsung hero of American movie poster design, from "The Silence of the Lambs" to "The Grand Budapest Hotel."
Adrian Curry

Above: US teaser poster by Dawn Baillie for The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, USA, 1991).

If you have any interest in the nuts and bolts of American movie poster design, as well as excellence in that field, there is an exhibition currently running at Poster House in New York City that is one of the most insightful and well-thought-out introductions to the craft of movie-poster design—as well as to how the technology of graphic design has changed over the past 40 years—that I have ever seen.

The exhibition is devoted to the work of Dawn Baillie, one of the unsung heroes of American movie poster design. I have been writing about movie posters for fifteen years and have been looking at them and thinking about them for much longer, and I have to admit that until this exhibit I had never heard the name Dawn Baillie, despite the fact that she is responsible for, or has collaborated on, some of the most iconic American movie posters of the last four decades, from The Silence of the Lambs (1991) to Barbie (2023).

And that is no surprise. American movie poster design has always been pretty anonymous. Unlike European poster artists, American illustrators and designers were never encouraged to put their name on their work. Some smuggled a signature into a corner of their artwork, or some (Norman Rockwell or Al Hirschfeld, for example) were so famous for their other work that their signature was seen as an asset, but for the most part, the illustrators and designers of the Hollywood studio system were uncredited. Even in the age of the independent design agency, those companies would rather be seen as a single entity than as a collection of individual designers. Just as we don’t really know who directs TV commercials (unless it’s a Ridley Scott or a David Fincher), we don’t usually know which designer within an agency has designed which poster. 

In fact, until the website Internet Movie Poster (IMP) Awards started crediting agencies for their work, it was hard for people outside the industry to even know which agency created which posters. I would see “BLT Communications LLC” credited on a number of interesting ad campaigns, but at a rough count, they have about 5,000 posters on their IMP Awards page and so they always seemed like a gigantic and rather faceless corporation, to the point that I didn’t even realize that BLT was jokingly referring to the sandwich.

Above: exterior and interior windows of “The Anatomy of a Movie Poster: The Work of Dawn Baillie” at Poster House featuring iconic imagery from The Silence of the Lambs, Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and Zoolander (2001).

This very playful and personal exhibition changes that. Dawn Baillie was one of the founding members of BLT: the first initial of her maiden name, Teitelbaum, is its Tomato, her husband Clive Baillie is the Bacon, and their co-partner Rick Lynch is the Lettuce. Through this exhibition, Baillie is not only putting a face to her company: she also diligently gives credit, via the very informative exhibition captions, to all of her many colleagues and collaborators.

Baillie started working in movie poster design in 1987 when she joined Seiniger Advertising, after graduating from the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design. She had known from a young age—ever since seeing posters for The Omen (1976) all over Los Angeles—that she wanted to design movie posters and it was a self-generated poster for Harold and Maude (1971) that got her foot in the door at Seiniger. Her first poster as a lead designer was for Dirty Dancing (1987), and within three years she had been promoted from production assistant to assistant art director. In 1990 she took on an art director role at Dazu, a New York agency that was looking to expand into Hollywood, and just one year into that job found herself as the sole designer on a new film by Jonathan Demme, The Silence of the Lambs. Her iconic poster made her name within the industry; in 2006 at the Hollywood Reporter Key Art Awards, it was named the best poster of the past 35 years.

Above: US one-sheets designed by Dawn Baillie for Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino, USA, 1987) and Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 1998).

In 1992, Baillie, along with Clive and Rick, left Dazu to found BLT Communications, driven by their shared interest in using computers for graphic design. (Their Sleepless in Seattle [1993] the following year was one of the first posters to be made using Photoshop.) So within just five years Baillie had gone from being a production assistant to running her own company, becoming the first woman to found an American print agency specializing in entertainment design. In 2012 she was the inaugural winner of the Saul Bass Award and today BLT is one of the top entertainment design agencies in the world. In 2022, in a remarkably generous move, it became 100 percent employee owned.

I was in New York for the opening day of the Poster House exhibition and ran into Dawn and Clive Baillie perusing the displays. I later interviewed Dawn by email to find out a little more about some of the items in the exhibition, about her initial influences and her way of working, and about her favorite movie posters. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity, while preserving the style of the email exchange.

NOTEBOOK: The exhibition notes that it was the poster for The Omen that inspired you to become a movie poster designer. Do you remember which one exactly?  

DAWN BAILLIE: The campaign for The Omen was the first time I became aware of movie marketing; I was eleven years old at the time. I grew up in Hollywood; movie theaters were my art galleries. The Omen was part of a trend of marketing that became familiar around the time of Jaws [1975]. As a kid I was just starting to feel the relevance of films and marketing to culture. There were so many ways to learn about what films were coming out: radio ads, multiple posters, lobby cards, newspaper ads, but a stunt on this particular film tied it all together for me. I remember standing on our front steps in Hollywood and looking up to see “666” being drawn in skywriting above the hills. My mind flew from “What is that?” to recognizing and then putting it together with the mark on the poster for the film. And the Hype! The religious hype of how dangerous it is to put the mark of the devil on the sky. I can’t find any articles to support this, but I remember it! Hopefully someone else remembers it as well. 

This is the poster I remember (note the poetic type setting…I liked poking a line of type out like that…):

And the amped-up promise of these newspaper ads…you had to have a newspaper to know where a film was playing back then…no internet, of course. All this hype, no images…just the mark of the devil. And graphic design! You can put type in an O???!!!! My little mind was blown.

NOTEBOOK: Were there any other posters from that period that you remember having a strong effect on you? Or any graphic design, in general?

BAILLIE: So many movie posters had an effect on me, but so did the covers of TV Guide. Anything Richard Amsel created for TV Guide inspired me to draw little details. Curlicue hair, graphic design treatment of clothing. Which led me to look at J.C. Leyendecker, Coles Phillips... all the great illustrators.

Beyond Amsel: Jack Davis, Al Hirschfeld! TV Guide was truly my art library. Look at these beauties...

As a kid, I had a Bekins moving box filled with TV Guides that I collected over the years because of the covers. Stupidly, I threw the box away during a move when I just needed to stop hoarding so many magazines and tear-sheets.

As for other movie posters from the 1970s that had a strong effect on me, there are so many posters that I love: M*A*S*H*, Jaws, Super Fly, The Sting, 10, Billy Jack, Logan’s Run, Earthquake, Chinatown, Catch 22, Fritz the Cat (we named our family cat Fritz…), Manhattan, Taxi Driver, Alien, Carrie, Airplane, Blazing Saddles, Dirty Harry, Emmanuelle, The Exorcist, Eraserhead, The Long Goodbye, Magnum Force, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Murder on the Orient Express (Amsel...swoon), Rocky, Rollerball, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER! (My brother and I won tickets to the premiere on 93 KHJ and lied about our age to get in to Mann’s Chinese Theatre.) Young Frankenstein

It was an era of classics. Almost everything became a classic.

NOTEBOOK: In the exhibition notes, you talk about how movie poster design was not encouraged at your art school, and that you got your first job with the help of a poster you made yourself for Harold and Maude. Do you still have that poster?

BAILLIE: I did have one professor, Everett Peck, who let me try one my senior year. Here is the poster…not a great picture of it…but the painting doesn’t exist anymore. I just have a slide. It was painted at full size, it was thick with layers of paint, had an impasto-type texture, and was much nicer than this crappy repo. Type was added on top of the paint with Chromatechs which was dry transfer ink like Letraset: you made a film negative of your line art or type then burned a film negative onto waxy paper, then with a metal roller pulled the Chromatech ink for which we all learned the formulas from the PMS book to make the colors we wanted.

Above: Dawn Baillie’s poster for Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, USA, 1971), made in the early 1980s.

NOTEBOOK: As someone who got their start at the tail end of that era, I recognize most of the items in the pre-digital designer toolkit set-up in the exhibition. But were the Band-Aids for anything more than X-Acto–related accidents?

BAILLIE: On my first day at Seiniger Advertising, I cut my fingers trying to re-break critic quotes line by line on a mechanical [a layout prepared for printing] for the award campaign ads for Peggy Sue Got Married [1986]. I wasn’t cut out to be a production artist.

Above: Exhibition display of items typically used by a graphic designer in the pre-digital era.

NOTEBOOK: I’m fascinated by ’80s lettering in the pre-digital era, most notably the handwritten lettering that you used for Road House [1989], No Man’s Land [1987], and Dirty Dancing, which was very much in vogue in the ’80s (I’m thinking Footloose [1984], Flashdance [1983], Risky Business [1983], et cetera). Was that hand-drawn by an illustrator? Was there someone in-house who specialized in those?

Above: US one-sheets designed by Dawn Baillie for No Man’s Land (Peter Werner, USA, 1987) and Road House (Rowdy Herrington, USA, 1989).

BAILLIE: Yes, there were several lettering artists from the ’80s who created that kind of work. There was Luis Sola (who still works at BLT), Kelly Hume, Tim Girvin, Margo Chase, and I’m sorry to say a few others whose names have escaped me with the time passing.

Above: First edition book cover for The Silence of the Lambs (published 1988), designer unknown, and US payoff (final) poster by Dawn Baillie for The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, USA, 1991).

NOTEBOOK: For The Silence of the Lambs, I hadn’t realized until researching this that the death’s head hawkmoth on your poster comes from the original book cover. Does that come from a reference in the book itself? Was it already an iconic image associated with the book when you started to work on the poster? And could you talk a little about getting a real-life specimen from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles to photograph?!

BAILLIE: I had never seen the book cover either until you pointed that out and now I feel so ignorant! In my puny defense we didn’t have the internet then, and it wasn’t part of the brief, and apparently I didn’t do my research. I just had a copy of the script and some unit photography to work from. On the studio side, a double truck announcement ad was published in the trades using the moth. I thought it was Jonathan Demme who had made that ad. It was three of the moths stacked vertically across a spread and it said something like “principal photography has begun...”

I had a life drawing professor at Otis—Parsons who worked at the Natural History Museum for his day job. He had an amazing job, painting the dioramas and making sketches for the exhibits. Anyway, he took some of the class on a tour of behind the scenes spaces at the museum and let us know that renting [specimens] was a thing! I learned what “flensing means…they had a flensing room. When it came to finish the poster and we needed a proper photograph of the moth we were able to rent it. Lee Varis was the photographer who captured the image of the moth, and Bryan Allen had a hand in making it all happen. But now I see you can buy death’s head moths on eBay.

Above: details of the death’s-head hawkmoth design on the teaser (left) and payoff posters (right) for The Silence of the Lambs. Director Jonathan Demme had suggested incorporating Salvador Dali’s famous 1951 photograph of naked women forming a skull into the poster design, which Baillie drew a version of for the teaser. But the Motion Picture Association demanded the removal of the nudes for the official poster and so models dressed in full bodysuits were hired and photographed.

NOTEBOOK: Can you elaborate a bit about what is referenced in the exhibition notes as “The Hours treatment” or “blowing out the highlights”?

Above: US one sheets designed by Dawn Baillie at BLT for The Hours (Stephen Daldry, USA, 2002) and Miss Congeniality (Donald Petrie, USA, 2000).

BAILLIE: The Hours treatment came about because the story had three time periods, but we wanted to use Albert Watson’s beautiful photography, captured with an 8x10 camera. The photography was stunning, with the film almost life-size. So how to treat or find a technique that unified everything but kept the integrity of the photography? It’s sort of like [an Alberto] Vargas painting, where the edges keep the detail but the rest of the image becomes more graphic. You can see this on Miss Congeniality and many other films I’ve worked on. It’s just just something I used to do a lot.

NOTEBOOK: Can you explain what it means that BLT is now 100 percent employee-owned? 

BAILLIE: BLT is now an ESOP. Everyone at BLT is an Employee-Owner, meaning 100 percent of the stock of the company is owned by the employees. Many of our staff have worked and collaborated at BLT with us for 10, 15, 20, even 30 years, and it was time that they have a stake in what we all worked so hard together to create. 

NOTEBOOK: Which of your poster designs mean the most to you personally, and as a designer?

BAILLIE: Every poster means something to me; each represents a completion of a certain challenge and collaboration. And truly…I can’t pick. And I truly also love all of the Broadway projects I was lucky enough to contribute to.

NOTEBOOK: Has life for an agency gotten a lot more complicated with “integrated marketing campaigns,” motion posters, and the wide variety of social media assets you need to create?

BAILLIE: There’s a challenge, definitely. But whenever we get the opportunity to participate in any facet we feel incredibly lucky.

After we spoke, I asked Dawn if she would humor me by selecting her top ten movie posters of all time, and she most graciously accepted the challenge. Click here to read her list. 

The Anatomy of a Movie Poster: The Work of Dawn Baillie runs through September 8. Many thanks to Dawn, and also to Clive for introducing us.

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