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If you love movies as much as I do, there’s a good chance that you love movie posters too. You probably have them on your walls, use one as your desktop wallpaper, and perhaps even collect movie posters like some people collect Picassos. I have a few myself, and why not? Some movie posters truly are works of art. Or at least, they used to be. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’ve got another case of that rose-tinted nostalgia-vision, but it seems that the hand-crafted movie poster has become an endangered species.
Growing up in the eighties, I spent my childhood in awe of the great movie poster illustrators, the artists whose work embellished the films I worshiped. I was a budding artist as well as a movie fanatic, and the eighties may have been the heyday of the movie poster artisan. It was, I see now, the perfect time for me to grow up in. Part of the excitement of any new movie, particularly those by the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, was that first glimpse of the new artwork by Drew Struzan or Richard Amsel. These were artists who created posters upon which their signature was redundant. You knew who had created it simply by the style of the illustrations. They were in a league of their own, and in my opinion will remain so.
Star Wars reinvigorated the movie poster, accentuating the concept of the one sheet as a collectible piece of artwork. That’s not to say movie posters weren’t collectibles before then but, as it did with so many other things, Star Wars set the bar a little higher. The movie poster was suddenly romantic and energetic again, and the best designs for Star Wars ably captured the film’s wonder, sweep and spectacle. The posters were not just promotional tools, but important artistic creations in their own right. Perhaps, the most famous is the image of heroic Luke Skywalker, complete with accentuated physique, holding his lightsaber aloft, with the giant head of Darth Vader in the stars behind him. Known as Style A, this was a poster design interpreted first by Tom Jung (who would create posters for all three of the original Star Wars trilogy) and then by The Brothers Hildebrandt, with dramatically differing styles.
Drew Struzan’s poster for the film, in collaboration with airbrush artist Charles White III, was a nostalgic piece harkening back to the Saturday morning serials upon which the movie was based. It has a torn poster on plywood effect that only came about because the original design had no room for the movie credits. The romantic design ethic continued with The Empire Strikes Back. Roger Kastel illustrated the classic poster for the Star Wars sequel (see below), having previously created the iconic image for Jaws. Again, it is an evocative illustration encompassing a montage of scenes and characters. The fantasy and romance pours from the poster and the colours beautifully reflect those of the movie. Tom Jung also created his own poster for the movie, featuring a striding Darth Vader holding out his hand, a pose reflecting the movie’s famous and oft-quoted line, ‘I am your father’.
Richard Amstel produced two wonderful illustrations for Raiders of the Lost Ark, having earlier worked on the poster for Flash Gordon (above). The Indiana Jones series, a natural successor to the romantic nostalgia of Star Wars, followed suit in utilising great artists to render promotional materials. Amsel’s work on Raiders still ranks among my favourites of all time (see his alternative version at the top of this page). The beautifully realised image of Harrison Ford lifting out of the sandstone (a mix of watercolour, acrylic, airbrush and coloured pencils) is not only iconic, but sets the tone and setting of the film perfectly. Again, Drew Struzan was given the chance to create his own design for the film, for its 10th anniversary re-release. Sadly, Richard Amsel died in 1985, only 38 old. Struzan then became the go-to guy for the Indiana Jones movies, as well as many others connected with Spielberg and Lucas, such as the Back to the Future trilogy and the Star Wars prequels.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that there were many great artists working during this period. John Alvin created the famous poster for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial which portrays the fingers of the alien and Elliot touching. The idea paid homage to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (suggested by Spielberg). Alvin was also responsible for the paws emerging from a box for Gremlins and the original poster for Blade Runner. Bob Peak created the art for each Star Trek movie poster, throughout the eighties. They, and many more like them, are the reason why movie memorabilia from that period is among the most sought after.
These days things are different. The ease and speed at which a poster can be knocked together using Photoshop means beautifully hand-rendered movie posters are a far rarer beast. To the men signing the cheques, it’s far cheaper to hire someone to sew together a couple of head shots or do a photo montage on the computer. I understand it, this is a business after all, but there was something about those old posters that fired the imagination and stoked the sense of wonder as you awaited your first screening of the next celluloid dream. They produced the kind of artwork that cannot be achieved with a mouse and keyboard, any more than an Impressionist masterpiece can be. The industry no longer seems to need the artists the way it once did, and it is always sad when an art form becomes surplus to requirements.
Struzan is still working, however rarely, and still producing immaculately hand-drawn posters. Hellboy was graced with his work along with, naturally, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. However, the golden age of he and his peers is long gone. At forty, I may grumble about my age, but I will always be grateful to have spent my formative years during the heyday of these unsung artistic giants. And I will always remember how I was just as influenced and inspired by the artistry they used to promote the movies as I was by the movies themselves. Thank you, guys.