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Movie Poster of the Week: "Up in the Air"

If anyone merits the “big head” poster treatment so expertly parodied by Funny or Die it would be everybody’s favorite movie star George Clooney. Lately, however, Clooney has started to disappear from his own posters: his eyes were obscured by the title in the Syriana poster and his face was out of focus and again covered in lettering for Michael Clayton. The poster for Up in the Air, however, has his most subdued presence of all: a small dark silhouette dwarfed by the movie title in sober Helvetica high up on an airport information board.

What I like about this poster, beyond its symmetrical simplicity, is how it looks up close, when you can see the pixels of the monitor, something that is lost when you see the poster at anything but full size. I do feel the poster is maybe a little too pleased with itself (which is exactly how I feel about director Jason Reitman’s films in general) and in its slick anonymity it looks a little too much like a commercial for something other than a movie, but it is refreshingly low-key. Of course the absence of a full credit block on this makes me wonder if this is just a teaser and there will eventually be a big head poster to follow.

But what I really want to talk about is not George Clooney, but the other star of this poster, which is everybody's favorite Swiss sans-serif typeface. Used mostly for signage and advertising since it's creation in 1957, Helvetica was rarely used on movie posters in the past (though I welcome exceptions to that rule) because it just wasn’t seen as expressive enough. As Dutch graphic designer Wim Crouwel says in Gary Hustwit's excellent 2007 documentary on the subject: “We were impressed by [Helvetica] because it was more neutral, and neutralism was a word that we loved. It should be neutral. It shouldn't have a meaning in itself. The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface.” Movie poster titles on the other hand are usually trying to convey an awful lot of information through lettering.

in the ’00s, and just in time for its 50th anniversary, the straight man of typography has seen a huge resurgence in popularity and hipness. The use—if not overuse—of Helvetica in movie posters in recent years can perhaps be traced back to the posters for Hard Candy (2005) and Little Miss Sunshine (2006). A horror movie and a quirky comedy: two genres usually delineated by very specific styles of title treatment: something distressed and ominous for horror, something wacky and jaunty for comedy. That these two posters matched their striking visuals with something as undemonstrative as Helvetica is a testament not just to their designers’ faith in the strength of their images but also to the fact that they were saying that these films aren’t your usual family comedy, not your mother’s horror movie. Helvetica was a quirky choice by virtue of being not at all quirky.

Two of my favorite posters of recent years, those for Margot at the Wedding (2007) and Funny Games U.S. (2008) both used versions of Helvetica to great effect. Margot used a stylish Neue Helvetica Thin in pink, with the actors’ names in the same size and type as the title, while Funny Games uses an unusually small point size for a movie poster title to great effect.

This year more than ever I feel as if I've been seeing Helvetica on movie posters wherever I turn: on Zac Efron and Typer Perry comedies, where it doesn't really serve any particular purpose:

...on biographical documentaries where it seems to be being ironically unexpressive about it’s subject (after all, wouldn’t you expect at least the name “Valentino” to be written with lovely dramatic flourishes?):

...used in enormous point size to declaim the five-letter name titles of two of the most memorable (and not at all low-key) characters of the year:

...and used beautifully on two of the most striking designs of the year:

Not sure if the “Prince of Persia” movie poster is using Helvetica, per se, but it’s certainly sans serif and, considering what Wim Crouwel says about the font’s neutrality and not having “meaning in itself,” seems especially appropriate for a Jerry Bruckheimer film. (Here’s a link to the poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Prince_of_Persia_poster.jpg). Great post!
Another one that struck me at the time was “The Last Kiss.” Looks very much like a Target ad at this point.
Jeff, yes that is Helvetica Black on the Prince of Persia: an odd choice for a film like that. Just be glad they didn’t go with Papyrus [http://www.ihatepapyrus.info/blog]. Sam, yes, The Last Kiss is another great example. Check out the hipster version of that poster: http://www.impawards.com/2006/last_kiss.html (Helvetica type, off-center cropping, black and white, lots of white space) versus the one with a serif font that looks more like a Nora Ephron movie: http://www.impawards.com/2006/last_kiss_ver4.html

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