Movie posters are almost as old as the movies themselves. Sandwich boards and painted crates were among the earliest forms of movie advertising, but posters – with their capacity for dynamic designs and the ease with which they can be printed, hung and replaced – quickly proved a more effective means of advertising to the masses.
Nowadays, however, posters are a more peripheral advertising tool than ever before. Youtube, Myspace, Facebook, online trailers and viral campaigns seem to have more of an impact and the physical spaces to show posters at theatres are also much more limited. But key artist Jeremy Saunders, 38, is quick to point out that movie posters are called key art for a good reason.
“Regardless of whether it’s a physical poster, a graphic on a web page or a DVD cover, it’s still the most direct shorthand we have to describe the world of the film,” he says. “I don’t think that’s going to go away. At least I hope not because, you know, I’m crap at designing letterheads.”
Over the last half decade Saunders has designed more than 100 movie posters, his work accounting for a huge chunk of the local industry’s marketing images – including the key art for Australians films Balibo, Samson & Delilah, Beautiful, Dying Breed, The Bet, Death Defying Acts, The Home Song Stories, Romulus, My Father and many more.
The dynamic but understated poster for Balibo (pictured right, click to enlarge) depicts chunky white lettering in front of a black open palm hand print. The hand print was selected because “the open palm implies a request for help or attention, which is what the Timorese had been seeking for so long.”
Another version, created for the Toronto Film Festival, is a more typical film poster with big heads, soldiers and scenery (below left, click to enlarge).
Marketing departments, Saunders says, often request visual elements that don’t reflect the contents of films accurately.
“I vividly remember that someone at the sales agents asked if I could include some explosions in the Balibo poster. I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone, but as far as I can recall there isn’t a single explosion in it,” he says.
“I liked the idea of the hand print because it’s obviously a key element in the film. It’s the sign that Greg Shackleton (one of the Balibo Five) had been there and kind of a memento, a reminder not to ignore the journalists’ story.”
Saunders has worked with Balibo director Robert Connolly and producer John Maynard since 2002, first creating the key art for Connolly’s down-and-out drama Three Dollars. Saunders was brought on board Balibo when the film was still in script stage and watched a rough cut about nine months ago.
“Like all assembly edits it was sprawling and slightly unwieldy but it felt, even at that stage, like a really important film,” he says. “Robert always enjoys grappling with big social themes so I was expecting a solid dissection of the issues, but what I wasn’t expecting was to be so emotionally engaged and affected. The ending is like a kick in the gut and it still is, even on fifth viewing.”
Saunders was born in England and spent the good part of his 20s drifting between occupations, dabbling in music retail, human resources, recruitment and other “fall-in jobs nobody ever plans to do.” Then one day the winds of change blew and fate delivered his destiny in the form of…a bent copy of Adobe Photoshop. From then on Saunders has never looked back but he has – he stresses – bought legitimate versions.
“Someone gave me a dodgy copy of Photoshop and the lights just turned on,” he says. “There didn’t seem to be any limitations to what you could do with it. Suddenly, at 29, I know what I wanted to do (and) I spent every evening for about six months just playing with it.”
On his web site, which contains an comprehensive overview of his work, Saunders writes “it isn’t a great exaggeration to say Abode saved my life.” So, in summary, he has the programmers at Adobe to thank for creating the tools needed to give his life direction and purpose and the wonderful world of pirated software to thank for allowing him to obtain it at the right price. He even has the cheek – or is that chutzpah? – to suggest “maybe someone from Adobe will read this article and send me a complimentary copy.”
Towards the end of 2000 Saunders moved to Australia and cut his teeth as a web designer for a recruitment software company. One night he ventured out to a film event called Sounds of Seduction, where he met “people who knew people” and got his first gig as a key art designer.
“You go to the right parties often enough,” he says, “and you can pretty much meet everyone you need to know within a couple of months of liver and sinus damage.”
A substantial amount of Saunders’s portfolio includes key art for international films that came with pre-existing marketing materials. This is because distributors choose one of three options when preparing international features for Australian audiences: they can take key art produced by the sales agent, buy key art from a country that has already released the film or hire a designer to make their own. The first two options are generally much cheaper than the third, though the latter has the potential to create a better fit for local sensibilities.
“It’s a great challenge because often there are half a dozen posters which have worked well in other counties,” Saunders says. “It’s up to you to beat them and do it quickly and do it cheaply.
“I have to deconstruct two hours of images and sounds into a single seductive image. Even the most subtle and nuanced films need to let people know they’re kicking about. It’s not rocket science. I mean it’s a poster, right? What’s the point of being subtle about it?”