Establishing a Saul Bass-line for Fan-Made Film Posters

Curator's Note

In keeping with participatory Web 2.0 culture, film promotional materials such as trailers and posters are increasingly created unofficially: without input from the films’ producers, and generally without a commercial motiviation. This theme week will consider some of the insights these posters provide into film reception in digital environments. For instance, what do anticipatory posters (for forthcoming films) tell us about fans’ familiarity with poster conventions? And what happens when fans draw on the specific branding conventions of a single distributor, such as Criterion?

By 2010, various blogs had begun to display user-created posters, and I’m particularly interested in how internet users have celebrated then downgraded the work of Saul Bass. On minimalmovieposters.tumblr.com, over two thousand films received a minimalist treatment. Bass’s style was invoked so frequently that enoughwithsaulbassalready.tumblr.com was created in 2011 to critique the trend. Ultimately, both tumblrs were making the case for Bass’s talent but, in 2012, he too was subject to a public shaming when Bobby Solomon shared images of Stanley Kubrick’s harsh annotations on Bass’s poster designs for The Shining. Solomon’s images circulated widely, and they continue to resurface on popular sites like Open Culture and the BFI. The rejected designs are generally accompanied by a tone of amusement: even Bass’s unquestionable talents were no match for Kubrick’s precise vision.

But the men’s 1978 exchange actually supports existing discussion, amongst Bass experts, of how frequently his posters were rejected. As Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham explain in their book, Bass was in much more demand for creating title sequences and other, non-poster, promotional materials. One explanation for this (which I’ve discussed further elsewhere) is that audiences are supposedly enticed to the cinema by posters with human faces, preferably famous ones, rather than abstract imagery. Indeed, as the accompanying slideshow demonstrates, this was the case with the final, Kubrick-approved version (featuring a chilling, warped face). The norm is even more apparent in the best-known poster for the film: that with the "Here’s Johnny" close-up of Jack Nicholson. By contrast, the more recent, unofficial posters on sites such as DeviantArt revert back towards Bass’s minimalist and experimental designs.

Cue the hypothetical questions: if Bass were alive today, would he resort to sharing unused graphic posters online? And if so, given the sea of imitations, would his designs even stand out?

Comments

Keith M. Johnston's picture

Saul Bass and film posters

Jennifer, a great start to the themed week, and food for thought. In light of your final question, it is notable that there has been a recent trend for every major character in a franchise to receive their own poster - this definitely responds to the idea that human faces (and recognisable actors / characters) dominate the poster world. I’d like to think that the minimalism of Bass’ best work would still stand out, but I wonder if he’d be in the ‘indie’ world or producing alternate DVD covers rather than the posters and bus-sides that dominate modern poster dissemination?

Jennifer O'Meara's picture

'Indie' Bass

Thanks, Keith. I agree: The Shining example suggests that Bass enjoyed creating many, varied designs for their own sake — as an expressive process — so I imagine he would have a very full digital profile (and lots of viral, if not commercial, success).

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