Bring back the unruly dogs – Daniel Bird

At the Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham, filmmaker and writer Daniel Bird gave a cracking lecture on the art of Polish film posters, accompanied by an exhibition of posters from Barbara “Basia” Baranowska. The full lecture has been transcribed and can be read here. We invited Daniel to give his take on the current scene for Polish film festival posters, where he wonders if the ‘poster artist as hero’ is a thing of the past…

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Posters by Barbara “Basia” Baranowska: See You Tomorrow, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Possession

When it comes to film festivals, Poland offers quite a range. There is Gdynia, which focuses exclusively on the domestic industry. There is Warsaw, which like the London Film Festival, presents itself as a sort of ‘best of the fests’. Despite focussing on cinematography, Camerimage packs a formidable punch when it comes to attracting Hollywood star power for what is, essentially, an industry affair.

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Posters for Camerimage Festival, 2010-2013

Then there is the New Horizons Film Festival in Wroclaw, and its sister event, the American Film Festival. Over the years, New Horizons has managed to combine an astute and frequently bold overview of what is happening in the world of film, combined with a competition section as well a thoughtful retrospectives (full disclosure: I curated 2013’s Walerian Borowczyk retrospective – himself a former poster artist). In recent years, New Horizons has advertised itself with uniform typography and minimalist designs featuring black on white with a single magenta colour accent – thus accommodating the brand colour of the key sponsor – T mobile. Two years ago, it was simply a thick line. Last year it was a fingerprint. In 2013 it was an iris.

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Posters for New Horizons Festival, 2011-2013

This could be seen as part of a trend in which complete faith is put in typography, typesetting and a single, direct graphic idea.

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Posters for Animator, and the American Film Festival, 2010-2013

For me, this tradition was pioneered by the likes of Grzegorz Laszuk, whose posters and programme layouts for Grzegorz Jarzyna’s Teatr Rozmaitości grabbed the almost lifeless remains of the Polish Poster School and dragged it into the Mac age. Nevertheless, sometimes it risks smacking of corporate branding, when there is a draconian control over typography and colour.

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Posters by Grzegorz Laszuk, for TR Warszawa

The question I find myself asking is this: can the ‘poster artist as hero’ flourish under such constraints? Those titans of the 50s, artists like Jan Lenica, studied not graphic design but the likes of Picasso, François and Steinberg. Lenica died in 2001 and I doubt he ever had his colour palette and typographic choices dictated by a marketing policy.

jan-lenica_wozzeckPoster by Jan Lenica, for the opera Wozzeck by Alban Berg

Of course, there is always the danger of lapsing into nostalgia about the ‘golden age’ of the Polish poster. Indeed, I would readily pit some of Laszuk’s early posters and book jackets against the very best of Tomaszewski and Cieślewicz. Tomaszeski’s son, Filip Pągowski (who took the surname of his mother, another formidable artist, Teresa Pągowska), frequently pulls aces out of the hat, along have a handful of other defiant and, above all else, intelligent contemporary Polish poster artists. Arguably the most insightful commentary on the Polish response to the Smolensk disaster (which risked being hijacked by Polish Catholic Nationalists) was a cartoon featuring Jesus, sans crucifix, under which was written ‘where’s my cross?’ The answer was outside the presidential palace, guarded around the clock by the ‘mohair brigade’, who interpreted any attempt at removing an ad hoc wooden crucifix as an assault on Poland, the Catholic Church and, hell, even Western civilisation itself…

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Four images by Filip Pągowski

Pągowski‘s cartoon reminded me of my favourite poster by Tomaszewski, for a theatre production called ‘Witkacy’ by Jozef Szajna, then director of Teatr Studio in the Warsaw Palace of Culture. The writings of Witkacy, the avant-garde polymath who was in many ways a precursor of the ‘absurd theatre’ of Beckett and Ionesco, were unrecognisable after Szjana’s ‘design over direction’ mangling.

henryk-tomaszewski-3Poster by Henryk Tomaszewski for the play Witkacy by Jozef Szajna

Indeed, during the 1960s, whether it was Kantor or Grotowski, the director, not the text, was king in Polish theatre. Here, the egos of these often brilliant directors (Kantor, Grotowski) which sometimes veered off into kitsch (Szajna), was gently pin pricked, with the wit and humour, using a single, cutting poster image. Other than some act of ‘self-deprecation’ sanctioned from above, is there room today for such critique on behalf of the poster artist? When the ‘personality’ of the poster artist is reduced to a set of typographic preferences, is it only a small step away from no personality at all? Indeed, perhaps the ‘poster artist as hero’ a thing of the past?

Fake credits sequence that appears in Berberian Sound Studio, by Julian House

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Initial concept posters for Berberian Sound Studio, by Julian House

Upon watching Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012), I was first struck by the attention to detail regarding the conjuring up of an analogue past. In particular, Julian House’s meticulous, designs for imaginary tape reel branding circa 1970. Here, Strickland’s film brings out the sheer tactility and rawness of analogue sound and visual culture.

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Images by Roman Cieślewicz for the film Vertigo, and cover of the magazine tyija

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Images by Andrzej Klimowski including posters for Down By Law, The Boss of it All and Flying Lessons

What Roman Cieślewicz and Andrzej Klimowski accomplished using razor blades and cheap paper stock is now achieved on the computer. While it would be regressive to call for a return to analogue culture, is it not too much to ask for posters and graphics with just a little bit of rawness and crudity? It is the slickness, efficiency and soullessness that I find reprehensible. Posters are a cocktail of art and advertising. The question is one of ratio. Too many posters feel not so much designed as engineered. I am not suggesting that there are no contemporary Polish artists with personalities (on the contrary!), but their window for expression is closing… We need more eccentrics, or rather a tolerance for eccentricity… Poster artists like Cieślewicz, Lenica, Waldemar Świerzy, Tomaszewski and Wojciech Zamecznik were like unruly dogs: you always remember the times when they do not listen to you, not the times when they do. Maybe it is time for the festivals that commission these posters to consider loosening their grip on the designer’s leash?

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Daniel Bird is a writer and director based in Warsaw. He is currently producing a box set of restored films by Polish poster artist turned filmmaker, Walerian Borowczyk (www.obscurepleasures.com).

For further reading on Polish film poster design, the Quay Brothers pick their favourites on Adrian Curry’s MUBI blog.

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FICCI 52: Three in the Wave – Mathieu Ravier

Sydney-based programmer and Festivalist Mathieu Ravier, discusses the symbolic nature of the Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena (FICCI) poster campaign.

8516928329_c4563d97bc_bImage: Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena by David Shankbone , creative commons license.

Cartagena de Indias is a colonial town located in the North Eastern Caribbean coast of Colombia. While it may be out of the beaten path of the mediatised festival circuit, it boasts one of the longest-running film festivals in the world, certainly in the Americas.

The Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena (FICCI) celebrated its 53rd edition this year. It opened and closed with South American films and in between, screened 140 titles from over 30 countries. All of its 290 screenings are free, making it one of the most well attended (and well-loved) film events in the world.

While it currently sits in my top three list of festivals I’d most want to attend, it only really came onto my radar at the end of 2011 just before its 52nd edition, and it did so thanks to a series of three striking posters.

It is very difficult to convey the many facets of a film festival in a single piece of graphic design (or even in a series of three, for that matter). Some festivals allude to the cinema they wish to be known for showcasing, others to the sheer diversity, scope and breadth of their program. Some focus on the assets of their glamorous seaside town, others on those of the stars who walk their red carpet. Some capture the frenzy of activity found at a bustling event, others the unique, solitary communion between viewer and screen.

Some attempt to encapsulate it all, using graphic shortcuts that have become clichés, from directors’ chairs to overflowing popcorn, from 35mm film projectors to omnipresent strips of celluloid. It’s astounding how many posters still put 35mm front and centre when most festivals have now converted to digital projection. Even these clichés have evolved in recent years. The camera-toting gunslinger recently replacing the giant eyeball or the man with a camera for a head as the strangely recurrent visual motif in film festival posters.

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FICCI 52’s photographic triptych comes courtesy of Bogotan firm Mottif and Colombian artist Max Steven Grossman. It depicts an ocean wave at three different stages: just before tipping point at the peak of its potential, as it crashes down, obliterating everything in its path, and finally as it explodes into a cloud of white water spray.

The obvious reference here is to the postcard-perfect Caribbean coast on which the port city of Cartagena is perched. The deliberate framing and composition of the photographs, however, invite the viewer to look at them as abstractions, or to ponder deeper symbolisms.

In the words of FICCI director Monika Wagenberg, “the triptych Las Olas by Max Steven Grossman reminds us that cinema is ultimately made of a series of stills assembled to create movement. Movement is also suggested by the tension between each of these frames… they form a remarkable aesthetics, much like the cinema we seek out. The reference is cinematic, not only geographical.”

In capturing movement with a photograph, the artist doesn’t just go back to the basic mechanics of filmmaking, he conjures a sensual narrative out of thin air, a suspenseful build up, a climax, the promise of release. He captures the incredible narrative power of the present moment, even obscuring with an irreversible flow of raging water the calm, distant horizon.

This Festival, the image seems to say, is about the here and now. It’s a powerful disturbance traveling through space and matter, a transfer of energy you can’t (and won’t want to) resist.

Waves crash upon the shore in a steady uninterrupted flow, following a pattern a viewer on the beach can easily predict. And yet when you are caught in a wave it’s a whole different story. Each wave has a unique character, its underestimated force a constant surprise. It can bowl you over, flip you upside down until you lose your bearings. It can leave you panting, exhausted as you crawl up the beach or excited, exhilarated, as you swim out for more.

The wave in this poster is a strong visual metaphor for both cinema as an art form and for film festivals. FICCI, like many other international festivals, prides itself on delivering a snapshot of filmmaking at a particular moment in time, on showcasing the latest trends – the new waves, as they are invariably called – of local and world cinema.

Beyond the excellence of concept and execution, there is elegance and harmony in the detailing. The number of 52 rises dramatically above the horizon, the festival dates laid out like geographical coordinates. The undulations of the ocean reflect the typographical wave of the FICCI logo, its golden statue icon giving the landscape a vertiginous sense of scale.

Surrender, festival goer: let FICCI wash over you.

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Mathieu Ravier lives in Sydney, where he runs The Festivalists, a non-profit organisation dedicated to festivals and cultural events, including Possible Worlds, the Sydney Film Festival HubKino SydneyJurassic Lounge and Young at Heart@mattriviera

The Aesthetics of Film Festival Posters – Adrian Curry

The very first film festival poster, for the very first film festival—the 1932 International Exhibition of Cinematographic Art at the 18th Venice Biennale, or what would become the Venice Film Festival—set the tone for the next 80 years of film festival graphic design. A film reel, mounted on a projector, stands triumphantly just below the winged lion of the Piazetta di San Marco; two signifiers in one space: the idea of cinema and the locale of the festival. For the next 80 years, until the demise of celluloid, and no doubt even beyond, the film reel or the film strip, usually coupled with some local landmark, has been the ubiquitous symbol of film festivals the world over. It may be yet another failing of the digital revolution that a DCP case will never have the symbolic potential or the graphic possibilities of a reel of film.

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That said, is anything more tired or clichéd than a film reel or a film strip on a film festival poster? As early as 1945, Swiss designer Fritz Bühler already recognized this with one of the first great film festival posters, his pixellated duotone close-up of an eye for the Film Festival Congrès International of Basel.

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But of course, one of the challenges for any graphic designer is to subvert cliché and reclaim it, and the film reel, or the film strip, has given ample opportunity over the years for wit and invention.

For the 2nd New York Film Festival in 1964, the great Saul Bass conflated the iconography of the film strip with the idea of virtual foreign travel in a typically simple and inspired image (in a poster that Mad Men fans have probably spotted hanging on Peggy Olson’s office wall).

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And in 1995 the London Film Festival conflated Bühler’s eye with a film reel:

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Always the master of simplicity, Saul Bass used colorful film strips, both actual and drawn, in two classic posters for the Chicago Film Festival:

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The film strip as a design element gives ample opportunity for invention as these two superbly minimal transformations attest. The Cameraimage Festival of Cinematography of Bydgoszcz, Poland, awards gold, silver and bronze frogs to the best cinematography of the year, while a celluloid origami crane is a perfect image for Pittsburgh’s Asian American Film Festival, the equally inventively named Silk Screen.

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But perhaps my favorite twist on celluloid iconography, is this one for last year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival in which film strips become Orthodox sidelocks.

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Some of my favorite film festival posters, however, are those which dispense with filmic iconography altogether. I am particularly drawn to festivals that brand their identity with a consistent yet varied design over the years, like this superb series of masks by Polish designers Jerzy Skakun and Joanna Gorska for the World Cinema Ale Kino Festival, a festival which takes place all over Poland, devoted to films from outside the so-called “Western World.”

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I also love the annual series of four posters—thematically related yet decidedly lacking in typical film festival iconography—that Gerwin Schmidt designed for the Munich Documentary Film Festival each year from 2001 to 2009.

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As festivals have proliferated all over the world it feels as if designers have had to become ever more inventive and abstract. I particularly like these two posters for festivals in Nijmegen, Netherlands, and Thessaloniki, Greece which rely on mystery, absurdity and a strong graphic wallop to capture the attention and convey the allure of cinema, without any specific reference to cinema.

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But one of my very favourite recent festival posters is this design for a festival in Seoul that does use a specific reference, placing Monsieur Hulot in what looks like a mid-century travel poster.

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The use of actual actors or personalities is rare in film festival posters, which try to be as all-inclusive and unspecific as possible, but it should be no surprise that the one festival that has used movie stars in their posters over the years, is Cannes. The Cannes poster has had a checkered history—some of them are dreadful (I’ll name no names) and there has been no real sense of a single identity over the years. But for the past three years they have established a more consistent look with an exquisite marriage of monochrome movie star glamor (though decidedly Hollywood-centric) and brilliant typography.

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The poster for last year’s Valencia Film Festival also marries the old and new. It plays on the very current and ubiquitous Things-Organized-Neatly style, laying out the accoutrements of a film festival visit (though who brings a clapperboard to a film festival?). The details are both contemporary and retro (just as the illustrative style is mid-century Mad Men meets Instagram Kit Photo): there’s a laptop and a flash drive and an iPhone, but there, in the center of the poster, is not a DCP case but a film reel, as much the international signifier of cinema as it was 80 years before. Whether Valencia still screens films on celluloid is decidedly beside the point.

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Adrian Curry writes Movie Poster of the Week for the Notebook at Mubi.com