TypograFriday: Movie Typecasting, Handlettering

The other day I got the most satisfying reaction to blogging I’ve had since Dr Bex Lewis responded to my Keep Calm post… Yves Peters cited my Gotham=Oscar Font hypothesis in his FontFeed column ScreenFonts. Which in my personal world is like getting featured in the Times or something. I mean the world of movie poster critiques is a small one, and his column is the top of the heap.

Ok, enough self-congratulations. In the vein of movie poster critique, there’s one type trick poster designers use that says “hey Owen you will probably like this movie film!” I speak of hand-rendered type and how it signifies indie quirky romance.

As this is no new observation, I thought I’d at least add some scientific method to my entry into the field. I’ve arranged dozens of these below, in chronological order (sorry about the small size: I guarantee a larger version is only a google search away). This list isn’t complete – though I would love to hear what I have missed so I can make a more complete one – and starts in the 80s, as before that handlettering was commonplace, signifying little more than the technology and style of the time (the exceptional Pablo Ferro and Saul Bass will have to wait for a later typecasting column).

I think it’s pretty clear that while the early adopters of the strategy were authentically unique handcrafted personal sorts of films, as time goes on its become as hardened and codified a strategy as “big red text for summer-dumber comedy.”

Some progenitors:

My read is, the handlettering in the first signify wacky and naive, in the middle dangerous and aggressively anti-normal, and in the last communitarian and personal. None of which is exactly indie-quirky yet, but they circle around the same ur-ideas.

The beginning of the trend:

Everyone dates the demise of our neighborhood from the suicides of the Lisbon girls…I personally date the handlettered=indie trend with Geoff McFettridge’s handlettering on the poster — and more importantly titles — of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. Referring less to previous cinematic examples than to the lettering teenagers scribble in their notebooks, the trend was initially conflated with indie movies about teenagers.

The Royal Tenenbaums I am including here isn’t the actual poster but Eric Chase Anderson’s Criterion cover, so it doesn’t really count: however both Wes Anderson’s deliberate and fetishistic use of Futura and his use of his brother’s naive-quirky drawings are spices that went into the recipe that would make up the eventual trend.

With Napoleon Dynamite‘s title sequence with type lettered in ketchup & mustard (by Pablo Ferro, establishing the lineage back to Dr Strangelove!) and then some of the quirkiest characters and plot ever filmed, the basic model for what constituted a handlettered poster was well underway. A smattering of indie-juvenalia films over the next few years used the technique, then Juno, which though it was drawing heavily on Napoleon Dynamite, nonetheless entered a few more ingredients into the mix. Outline or outline/shaded handdrawn sans serif caps, collaged crafty elements (in the titles), and a restructuring of what handlettering means: not just indie or just indie/teen, but indie romance – and of course, a trend whose parents are Napoleon Dynamite and Juno is quirky writ large.

The typecasting of handlettering in full effect

Here’s just six of many of the movies from the last two or three years that have used the typographic formula as shorthand. Note that they are all indie romantic comedies: they no longer have to involve adolescents, but gone are the dramas or stories of families. Not only are they all handlettering but they’re all outlined sans serifs, and four out of six of them involve torn paper/pen drawing/collage elements.

I’m not saying that these are bad or even formulaic films – each is genuinely an indie movie doing its own thing – only that they communicate to their potential audience at an immediate level, right from the type choice, this is going to be a film for this audience. For every person like me who saw Away We Go in part because the Juno-titles meet desaturated-Peter-Max with Juno type poster clearly communicated a witty and probably bittersweet sort of romance, I bet there were some who turned away from it, reading correctly the same signifiers and determining they were in the mood for something more saccharine.

Of all the typecasting trends, I don’t mind this one. Often they have really nice lettering, and the shortcut to my sensibilities is appreciated. I will only come to distrust it when a standard rom-com comes delivered in this package.

The other typecasting: Handlettering as Raw Earnest Imagination


There is a split trend in which handlettering is being used in movie posters – generally speaking neither outlined nor shadowed, but monoline letters. In these cases the letters indicate not quirky or romantic or even funny, but raw nerves, personal earnestness and unfettered imagination of childhood, whether literal childhood like Max’s in Where the Wild Things Are or the magical place Spike Jonze and the artists profiled in Beautiful Losers want to access in their creative art.

Where Juno and Napoleon Dynamite birthed the main trend, this secondary trend was born out of the cult TV show Freaks and Geeks (from the same year as The Virgin Suicides), The Squid and the Whale, and the visual art of cultural-artist handletters like Raymond Pettibon, Ed Fella, Wayne White and Barry McGee. In both of the above movies, the lettering is by Geoff McFetridge, the guy who arguably started the current trend with The Virgin Suicides and probably the single most influential letterer on this sub-trend.

I have more thoughts to write but need to close for the night; I will followup next week. Please do let me know some posters I have forgotten, and other sub-trends and analysis you’d like to add.