Ever since I first wrote about the work of Sam Smith, back in 2009, I have been wanting to work with him in my capacity (in my other life) as the design director for Zeitgeist Films. In the two and a half years since then, Sam Smith has become one of the most sought-after designers on the independent film circuit with his refreshingly simple, witty and indelibly striking hand-drawn designs (it doesn’t hurt that he also has a great knowledge of both film history and the history of movie poster design). A few months ago I finally got the chance when we decided that we wanted something out of the ordinary to promote our new release of Andrey Zvyagintsev's Elena.
Zvyagintsev’s dark and beautiful film premiered at Cannes last year where it won the Special Jury Prize. For our release this May (it opens next week in the U.S.) we wanted to emphasise the noirish aspects of this captivating modern Russian crime drama and none of the keyart we’d seen from Europe really captured that aspect of it (though I am quite fond of the Australian poster).
Sam, with his love of Czech posters of the 60s and 70s and their frequent animal iconography, immediately zeroed in on the crow that appears at the start of the film as a linchpin element for his design. One of my favorites of his early comps featured nothing but a thicket of wintry trees silhouetted against a teal blue sky, and, above the title, that ominous bird. But much as we loved it as a piece of art we felt that the poster needed its titular character or it wouldn’t really be telling you enough about the film (unlike the great Czech and Polish designers, we can’t afford to be quite so oblique). However, the title treatment and color scheme were strong enough to survive throughout successive drafts.
Sam experimented with a number of ways to represent Elena herself, some of which made her look a little too babushka-like in our opinion, but he quickly settled on the perfect look for his crow.
After a number of variations Sam hit upon the silhouette that is used in the final design. Windows are a major feature of the film (Elena lives with her rich husband in a modern glass-walled penthouse) so to have Elena looking out of the window, her back to us, ruminating, maybe plotting, fits the feel of the film perfectly and also gives her a hint of Joan Crawford at her most devious. Sam refined his horizon of leafless branches reaching up like grasping hands (one of my favorite elements of the poster), and even created his own stylized laurels for the film’s many accolades.
Early in the process, Sam had shown me a bunch of Penguin crime paperback covers (many of them the work of Polish emigré Romek Marber) that he was looking at as a possible direction for the poster. You can see that a couple of them clearly influenced our final look.
Going beyond the call of duty, Sam also made a smaller, pared-down screenprint version of his design which was printed at Kangaroo Studios in his home town of Nashville, TN. His friend Adrian Cobb has made this wonderful short film documenting the process.
These numbered and signed limited edition prints can be purchased exclusively from Posteritati, though we’re also giving two away in a raffle at the BAMcinématek screening of Zvyagintsev’s The Return on Tuesday May 15 at 6:50pm (the day before Elena’s opening at Film Forum). If you follow Zeitgeist Films on Twitter or Facebook you’ll also have other chances to win one in the coming week.
Meanwhile, I’ve asked Sam to inaugurate a new series on Movie Poster of the Week where I will occasionally ask guest curators to come up with a top ten list of their favorite movie posters of all-time. A tough challenge for sure, but Sam rose to it and then some. You can definitely see where Sam is coming from aesthetically in his superb selection below. So here, in his own words, is...
SAM SMITH’S TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIE POSTERS
“Now I know how the Sight & Sound voters feel… Making this top ten poster list was heavenly torture! I picked off the cuff, which helped me hone in on the posters that have always mattered to me most. But I also decided that I had no other choice than to let each entry here act as a stand-in for a whole culture of film posters behind it, geographically speaking, or even for other posters by the same designer. Even still, ten slots isn’t enough. Here’s what came to mind.”
10. Batman Returns (recalled US teaser, designer unknown, 1992)
“Representing the movie posters that captured my childhood imagination. I’ll never forget seeing this teaser poster in a movie theater lobby. Before the internet, posters like this were the first a kid like me ever heard of a new movie. This poster, which ironically reminds me of some of the overly simplistic Minimalist Movie Posters (MMPs) going around online today, was quickly recalled by Warner Bros. executives for being too abstract. Represented behind the scenes here are posters for The Rocketeer, Dick Tracy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles among others that graced my 10-year-old self’s bedroom walls.”
9. Zazie dans le métro (Japan, Kenji Oikawa/Kiyoshi Tsukamoto, 2011)
“Representing all contemporary poster artists that I love. 100% Orange is a Japanese illustration powerhouse whose posters are always distinctive and iconic. A fold-out insert from Imagica’s Japanese DVD releases of four Louis Malle films, it’s thus technically a poster and one of my favorites of all time at that. (100% Orange hasn’t done much other movie artwork, but they did create wonderful illustrations for this Amelie book).” [You can read more from Sam about these designs here.]
8. Alphaville (Japan, designer unknown, 1966)
“Representing the beautiful montage compositions found in Japanese poster design. Japanese posters of the 60s and 70s featured such interesting compositions and creative uses of photography, an unfairly maligned element of poster design. Not to mention the always beautiful Japanese script and lettering. Representing many, this poster got picked as it features the face of Anna Karina.”
7. Anatomy of a Murder (US, Saul Bass, 1959)
“Representing Saul Bass. I’ve always thought his Saint Joan poster was eye-catching and underappreciated, but I would have to say this is his best.”
6. Rosemary's Baby (US, Paul Gips/Stephen Frankfurt, 1968)
“Representing the work of designer Paul Gips and art director Stephen Frankfurt, the team that produced the posters for Downhill Racer and Alien as well among many others. It’s still unclear who gets credit for what exactly, but all I know is that this poster is one of the best I’ve ever seen. The frame, photograph, contrast, composition, color, type… it’s perfect.”
5. Dersu Uzala (Czechoslovakia, Zdenek Ziegler, 1976)
“Representing Czech poster art and its experimental use of photo montage. Ziegler created many iconic posters but the psychedelic collage style of this poster is just beautiful. Czech poster art often gets overshadowed by Polish poster art but historically they're every bit as abstract and gorgeous. I have other Czech designers I love even more, but this poster has always been a favorite of mine.”
4. Storm over Asia (West Germany, Hans Hillmann, 1961)
“Representing my favorite poster designer, Hans Hillmann. The man made so many iconic posters that have remained my main sources of inspiration, and his designs for Le feu follet or Pickpocket could be here instead, but I picked this one because I love seeing a brilliant visual concept executed in black and white.”
3. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (France, Bacha, 1971)
“Representing all of the other beautifully hand-painted posters that didn't make this list. It doesn’t hurt that it’s for one of my favorite movies of all time, and that these original French posters are 47x63 inches in size. For one day when I have a big enough house!”
2. Blow-Up (Poland, Waldemar Swierzy, 1967)
“Representing Polish poster art. Again, there are so many artists that I love in this tradition. Swierzy, one of the greats, plays here to my love of color and geometry, and also to the Polish trend of facial abstraction. This poster, like all great movie posters, also connects deeply to the content of its film.”
1. Tie: Stolen Kisses (Cuba, René Azcuy Cardenas, 1970) and Stolen Kisses (US, designer unknown, 1969)
“I have always loved movie posters, but when I discovered Cuban poster art several years ago I decided I wanted to make posters as a career. It was this Cuban poster for Stolen Kisses that caught my eye first. A stunningly iconic image. A meaning within the image. A gateway into a film world (Truffaut and French cinema), as many great posters are. A celebration of the art of printing, one layer screenprinted on top of the other. It led me to the perfect and elegant US poster, and the two together represent two beautiful and different aesthetic treatments of the photographic image from different cultural perspectives.”