How Your Favorite Movie Posters Come to Life

The revision process can last for months — if not years.

How Your Favorite Movie Posters Come to Life
Photograph by Tyson Moultrie / Unsplash.

What movie posters can you visualize right now?

Maybe you see the poster for Jaws, where a shark swims toward a swimmer. Or maybe it’s Uma Thurman smoking a cigarette for Pulp Fiction.

But how does a movie poster come to life?

The process can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, says Henry Erdman, a freelance art director and graphic designer in Los Angeles. Erdman was the art director for movie posters like Tenet, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Wonder Woman 1984 when he was at Bond Agency.

Inside an Ad Agency

“Big picture, all of entertainment marketing is pretty much done at ad agencies. It's not really done in-house at studios,” Erdman says.

As such, a movie studio will pass along a creative brief to a marketing agency.

The brief can include creative assets like a synopsis of the movie, a script, a rough cut or photos. But none of that is a guarantee.

In some cases, art directors have no high-resolution images and are left to work with screenshots from the movie, “which is super not ideal,” Erdman says. Stock photography may be used, too.

Conversely, art directors may be given high-quality assets to work with or there may be a photoshoot with actors to deliver high-resolution images.

Designing the Poster

An art director will review the materials they have to see how the poster can take shape.

Designers may combine different elements from different photos to stitch together something entirely new. Maybe an actor posed well in a photo, but they’re looking the wrong way or making a strange facial expression. Art directors like Erdman can take the head from one shot and put it on another.

It’s called “frankensteining.”

“We'll do that for a hand or even just a finger or eye,” Erdman says.

From there, the poster comes to life in Photoshop and makes its way through the review process within the agency. Then it goes off to the studio.

The studio will provide notes, kill ideas and ask for more concepts.

Sometimes again. And again. And again.

“That's what goes on for months and years,” Erdman says. “There's a lot of stakeholders and a lot of people who have to give their stamp of approval on a poster for it to go anywhere.”

“A constant existential wrestling”

Despite the creativity required to make them, studios want movie posters to do one thing: market the movie. It’s about sales.

“It has to solve the problem of telling people that there's this movie coming and telling them what type of the movie it is,” Erdman says.

That’s where movie tropes come into play. Art directors use certain styles to communicate the genre of the film. That helps the public know what kind of movie it is — even if they just glance at the poster.

But this reality can cause inner conflict for some artists. Their artistic vision can be overlooked and ignored in favor of something more likely to succeed commercially.

“It's constantly wrestling with, ‘it’s commercial design, but also I want to make a really beautiful poster,’” Erdman says. “It's a constant existential wrestling.”

The internal monologue fluctuates. Sometimes it’s “whatever the client wants,” — which is whatever will sell tickets — and sometimes it’s “I don't care what they want. This is a really cool poster and they're really dumb for not picking this,” Erdman says.

Showtime

Movie posters are meant to sell tickets, but nothing ever is a guarantee. After all, artists are tasked with summarizing an entire movie in an image.

“Trying to encapsulate a whole movie into one single still image is a tough feat,” Erdman says. “And we don't always get it right.”

In the end, it’s about collaboration. A team of people is behind the process of creating the movie poster that makes you think, “I want to see that.” Or learn more about it, at least.

“It's a really big collaborative process and nothing's really made by one singular person,” Erdman says.