15 Things You Need To Know To Design Hollywood Movie Posters

Posted June 24th, 2016 by Jim Thacker — Category: Tools & Techniques — 0 Comments

Tomasz Opasinski’s Gnomon masterclass on movie poster design offered invaluable practical and career tips for young artists. Here are 15 key insights

Tomasz Opasinski estimates that he has co-designed posters for over 300 movies during his 15 years working in Hollywood. The creator of iconic designs for films like Oblivion and I Am Legend, now Originals Creative at Netflix, began life as a graphic designer in his native Poland before moving to the US to work for a string of leading design agencies: an experience as intense as it was rewarding.

“Young designers see the glamor, the superstars, and it's not like that,” he says. “For the first 10 years, you see no superstars: you just see your computer. I’ve worked on over 500 campaigns, and it was all fun, but it was also all hard work.”

Earlier this month, Tomasz drew on all of that experience for a workshop on movie poster design at Gnomon, presenting a fascinating insider’s view of the industry: from the realities of working for a design agency to the visual principles that underpin a successful poster, the key software to use, free resources to call upon, and his career tips for young designers hoping to break into the industry. Below, we’ve distilled those insights into 15 things you need to know to work in poster design.

1. Poster design is a long process

“People don't realize how much work goes into poster design,” says Tomasz. “They think we have one image, we put the text on it, send it to the client, and they go: ‘Whoo, amazing! Here's $600,000.’ It isn’t like that at all.”

A typical poster campaign starts roughly 18 months before a movie is released, at the script approval stage. During that period, the designers will create a series of progressively more specific posters. After the launch, further designs accompany the DVD release or collectors’ editions, and there may be a ‘payoff poster’ – a design created when it is presumed that most people are already aware of the movie, and there are no plot twists left to spoil.

For a big movie, poster artists may have to pitch 20-40 designs a week for a year, starting before the live shoot, when there are no actual assets from the film. “It may actually be easier to make a movie than it is to make a movie poster,” jokes Tomasz. “You have to create something from nothing.”

Chart showing the life of a movie poster
The timeline of a typical movie promotional campaign, showing the multiple posters created.

2. You need to work fast

While a typical poster designer may only produce one or two finished projects a week, they will probably touch three separate projects a day. “At the beginning of the day, you start one project, at lunch, which you eat at your desk, you start another, and at the end of the day – which is probably 8 or 9pm – you start another,” says Tomasz. “It's a crazy schedule.”

The workload increases with seniority: a mid-level designer may be asked to work on four or five projects in a day, and a senior designer six or seven. “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many beautiful posters you can make,” says Tomasz. “What matters is how you can make one in an hour.”

3. You’re part of a big team

A poster designer is just one part of a wider network of creatives, from photographers and copywriters right up to the director and studio executives. But even within the design department, you should expect to be part of a big team: some agencies hire 80 or more designers.

“Poster-making has adopted a factory approach,” says Tomasz. “It’s no longer one dude sitting at home; it's revision after revision and each design goes through a lot of people for approval.”

You are here: the team on a typical movie campaign, and the poster designer’s position within it.

4. A poster is a sales tool, not fine art

The aim of a movie poster is to lead the audience to the film’s main plot twist, and then to leave them wanting more. “A poster is a selling tool,” says Tomasz. “It’s artistic, but it isn’t a piece of art. Your abstract poster may be beautiful, but if no one gets it, it goes nowhere.”

Don’t mistake the beautiful fan-made posters sold by companies like Mondo as being typical of the work of poster designers, either. “Personally I love them, but people misinterpret them as being the main poster for a campaign,” says Tomasz. “They don't sell the movie at the beginning; they support it at the end, to keep the buzz going.”

5. You’re doing data-driven design

Poster design is increasingly driven by empirical research, not artistic intuition. Movie studios tag the tone and content of posters with keywords – ‘car’, ‘spaceship’, ‘city’, ‘nostalgic, ‘futuristic’, and so on – and analyze what performed well in the past on similar movies, or carry out A/B testing of variant designs. Often the result is a precise formula for what proportion of the space should be occupied by, say, the face of the movie’s star, and what proportion by other imagery.

“A few years ago, as a poster designer, I didn’t need to obey these rules, but now I do,” says Tomasz. “But don’t let me freak you out: there is still a place for art. The designs may be driven by data, but they’re still my artistic interpretation of that data.”

6. You have to learn to communicate fast

A poster is the visual equivalent of an elevator pitch: it needs to sell the movie as concisely as possible. “We have one or two seconds to communicate what the movie is about,” says Tomasz. “Most often, my poster is among 50 others I have to compete with.”

For that reason, Tomasz says that the director is often the least helpful person from whom to get feedback on a poster design. “They know way too much about the movie,” he says. “They want to include everything, and we just have to find an icon. We have to design for people who walk by.”

In poster design, contrast doesn’t just mean tonal contrast. This design for Oblivion gains impact from the juxtaposition of the living figure and the dying landscape behind.

7. Designs should create instant impact

Tomasz describes the three principles of poster design work as “image, story and impact”. To create visual impact, Tomasz advises artists to look for clear, iconic designs, and to make use of contrast – “not just black/white [visual contrast, but emotional contrast] like healthy/dying or animal/human”.

Once a strong central structure has been established, the devil lies in the details. “When you design posters, every line matters: it’s all about nuance,” says Tomasz. “There’s a bit of psychology and sociology involved: we try to grab your attention subliminally and manipulate your emotions.”

As an example, Tomasz cites his celebrated design for Oblivion showing Tom Cruise against a ruined bridge. “You don’t think about it, but you get it,” he says. “Shit happened, but he survived.”

8. There are three key design systems

At its core, a movie poster consists of the key imagery, the title and tagline, and the billing block. The big question is how to arrange them.

Tomasz believes that there are four principal design systems for posters – although one, the freeform ‘Design What You Feel Like’ approach, probably doesn’t merit further discussion here. More significantly, there is Curve-Based Design, discussed in more detail in the next tip, which provides a set of readymade templates for organizing imagery. “If you don’t have another idea, you can just put your images around the lines and you’ll get a poster,” says Tomasz.

Next, there is Word-Based Design, with imagery suggested by key words generated by the studio or marketing agency; and most complex of all, there is Metaphor-Based Design, in which a visual metaphor represents the key theme of the movie: for example, the center of a city represented by a literal heart, and its highways by arteries. “It’s the trickiest part of poster design, and to me, the most precious,” says Tomasz. “There aren’t too many metaphors you can create.”

Poster design systems. The creative rigor required of the designer increases towards the center of the target.

9. Curve templates give you a head start

If you’re using the curve-based design system, Tomasz has around 120 readymade templates on his Facebook page. The curves show the outline of the key imagery; the rectangles the position of the key text. “I used to be responsible for [training] new designers, and it occurred to me that templates would streamline the process,” he says. “Within three weeks, they could create workable posters.”

Twelve of Tomasz’s 120 readymade curve templates for movie poster design.

10. You need to design for multiple formats

Poster designs don’t just get used for posters: the same imagery must also be reusable across a range of media, from DVD covers to billboard ads. “You can design the best poster ever, but if you can’t reformat it, it goes bye-bye,” says Tomasz.

One increasingly important consideration is that designs work as thumbnails when viewed on mobile devices, and in online stores like iTunes and Netflix – whose format for displaying images Tomasz describes as “the future of poster design”. Unlike conventional posters, images in Netflix listings have to work in a horizontal format without overshadowing those to either side in color or contrast: a new visual language that is still in development. “I know having Jessica Jones' face in the middle of a design doesn't look much, but it’s a lot of work to get this right,” says Tomasz.

The future of poster design? Netflix’s display format creates new challenges for designers.

11. Fonts are the least of your problems

“From my perspective, fonts are the least of my worries,” says Tomasz. “Often we design posters with no copy [so the image can be reused on other marketing materials].”

When the project’s copywriters have supplied text, the studio will often ask the designers to use its house font, or to use a font style matching the theme of the movie. The movie’s logo will usually be designed by the studio as well.

Where fonts aren’t specified, two typefaces are often used: the serif font Trajan for titles, and the condensed sans serif Bee for billing blocks. “Poster design is all about Trajan and Bee,” laughs Tomasz.

12. Smart designers master 3D software as well as Photoshop

Alongside Photoshop, and Illustrator for creating vector logos, Tomasz describes the key software tools of poster design as Maya for games projects, and 3ds Max and Cinema 4D for movie projects – the latter for its ease of use and ability to generate large renders quickly.

“If you know 3D it's a huge asset: it gives you options other than stock photography,” he says. “CG-based movies have to have posters a year before release, when the CG itself isn’t available.”

As an example, Tomasz cites his poster for Oblivion: the figure of Tom Cruise in the foreground is pieced together from archive stills, while the bridge in the background is a 3D model. Tomasz describes the design as having been “created in a few hours, then revised for nine months” – when it was finally approved, the poster went through a two-day finishing process, including smoothing the obvious angles on the original low-poly bridge model.

13. You need to reuse images intelligently

Tomasz describes the process of finding source photos for posters as a case of feast or famine. “Most of the time, we don’t get enough images from the studio, so we have to find stock assets and combine them. Other times we get 70 terabytes of material,” he says.

Any stock assets used in the poster have to be licensed, so most are sourced from large online libraries like iStock and Shutterstock. Rather than using images in their entirety, Tomasz advises breaking them down into modular components, from individual objects in the photo to details like reflections in windows. “Don’t look at a photo as a single image: ask how you can dissect it,” he says. “Think about how you can use only a tenth of it, and still have it mean something. Sometimes I’ll use the same image for five different posters.”

The 1,350 layers that make up one of Tomasz’s posters. Being able to navigate complex Photoshop documents is a must!

14. Be ready to work with hundreds of Photoshop layers

Because of the number of different images that must be recombined to create a poster, and the number of formats in which the result must be delivered, poster designers need to know their way around Photoshop’s layers and layer groups: documents containing 1,000-1,500 individual layers are typical of finished posters. “Layers almost become their own language,” says Tomasz.

But if poster design makes extensive use of layers, it makes little or no use of third-party tools. “You can use plugins, but be sure that the job will come back to haunt you,” says Tomasz. “When the poster goes to the Ukraine [for local designers to work on], they won’t have those tools.”

For the same reason, Tomasz makes little use of Photoshop filters beyond simple Blur and Sharpen operations, and always creates cut-outs by hand. Be prepared to make friends with the Pen tool.

15. Want to get into poster design? Reimagine a classic

If you want to break into poster design yourself, Tomasz advises creating a poster for a well-known movie rather than trying to come up with something entirely original. “Reimagine a classic: that way people don't have to guess what it is. They'll just see it as a cool take [on the movie],” he says. “Or take one movie and do it in four different ways. Do Jaws as a comedy.”

For students on a budget, Tomasz recommends Adobe Stock, which offers a fairly large, inexpensive selection of royalty-free images. Professional designers tend to work at half-size (13.5” x 20” at 200dpi), with a specialist retoucher generating the final, full-size image, but you don’t necessarily need to obtain images that large. “If it’s for your folio, don’t worry if it isn’t perfect,” says Tomasz. “Everyone in the industry knows you can’t get high-res photos of Tom Cruise.”

Most Hollywood poster design is done by a small number of agencies clustered within a small geographical area in Los Angeles. (The Internet Movie Poster Awards website lists the major players.) Individual agencies specialize in particular genres of movies, so do your research before applying and tailor your portfolio accordingly, and be prepared to start at a smaller company.

“If you're starting, don't go to the biggest company because you'll be the lowest-paid person there and the chances of [advancing rapidly] are close to zero,” warns Tomasz. “Start at a smaller agency and when you have experience, apply [to a more prestigious company] after a few years.”

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