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Art of the Movie Poster #1: The Baader Meinhof Complex

In honor of the film’s North American premiere, and its poster of course, the talented folks at Studio No.1 take a moment to discuss process, politics and posters.

It’s unlikely I’d find someone who’d argue with me when I say that a memorable movie poster is a rare thing. With that in mind brings you the first in our new Poster Spotlight series; The Art of the Movie Poster. Each column will showcase a poster that made us pause, and an interview with its creator(s).

Our first eye-catcher is the gritty and stylish North American poster for the seemingly gritty and stylish film, The Baader Meinhof Complex; courtesy of Studio No.1. An adaptation of Stefan Aust’s book of the same name, the film focuses on the rising of the RAF (Red Army Faction), a violent terrorist group formed in the late 60’s/early 70’s in West Germany, that stood against what they considered a fascist state.

Since the film’s release in Germany on Sept. 2008, it has gathered numerous awards and nominations including an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. In honor of it’s North American premiere almost 1 year later, the talented folks at Studio No.1 (founded in 2003 by Shepard Fairey, of Obey Giant/Obama Hope poster fame) take a moment to discuss process, politics and the pros and problems with posters.

 The Baader Meinhof Complex poster by Studio No.1

GP: Given the film’s social-political themes, this poster seems like a logical addition to the studio’s work. How were you approached to do this poster?

SN1: We had worked with Vitagraph Films, the American distributors of The Baader Meinhof Complex, in the past, and had established a solid relationship with them. When they came to us for this poster, they knew that we would take the most engaging aspects of the film and refine those aspects to their essence, and the result would be something special and authentic. I don’t know if politics played into it, other than an understanding that we could recognize that the politics of the film were endemic to their place and time, just as we see the causes we address in some of our other work as particularly relevant here and now.

GP: Of the many memorable posters Studio No.1 has created, would you say you’re highly selective on which campaigns you sign up for, especially when it comes to movie poster art? Am I wrong in assuming that your last movie poster project was for WALK THE LINE? If so, why so few?

SN1: Since Walk the Line, we’ve done posters for the Larry Clark film Wassup Rockers, The Youngest Candidate, a documentary about teenagers running for political office, and What We Do Is Secret, the biopic of punk rocker Darby Crash and his band, the Germs.

The posters we’ve done have been cases where a studio or production company has come to us asking us to develop a unique aesthetic true to their movie that can help enhance the storytelling experience. We’ve turned down requests to do posters where the producers just wanted something formulaic, or they already had an aesthetic in mind that we didn’t think would fit the movie.

Walk the Line, Wassup Rockers, The Youngest Candidate, and What we do is Secret posters

GP: How extensive was your research & development process when it came to creating THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX? Is this poster your visual interpretation of equal parts the film and the subject/novel, or did you pull from one side more than the another?

SN1: Some of us knew about the Baader Meinhof group before we began, so we shared what we knew with each other. Then we watched a screening of the movie and paid close attention to the tone we needed to capture through the graphics. The film used a combination of stock footage and dramatic representation, so we decided to mimic that mixture in the poster as well. We were inspired by the collages of Emory Douglas, who was the Black Panthers’ minister of culture in the ‘60s and ‘70s and created a lot of poster art for them, and we also looked at a lot of news clippings and graphics from the French student revolts in the ‘60s.

GP: Can you give us a breakdown of your creative process – perhaps discuss the genesis of the aged newspaper clipping collage work merged with the graffiti-like outline of Meinhof and Baader.

SN1: We styled the graphic elements based on the aesthetic of some of the more notorious radical left-wing activist groups of the ‘60s and ‘70’s: the Red Army Faction (Baader Meinhof), the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Black Panther Party, all of which created things like posters, radical graffiti and leaflets, typically done by anonymous and often untrained designers. In creating the “clippings,” we were fortunate that the filmmakers had taken some very action-packed stills, and the tone of the shots felt true to the content of the movie. The main characters in the foreground were drawn by hand, then cut out as a stencil and spray-painted, and then scanned into the computer. The black and orange and the type were specifically used to give the poster a heavy German feeling. We wanted it to feel authentic to the place and time where the film takes place, because the poster is a storytelling device.

GP: Going back to your WALK THE LINE poster; with that poster it actually helped that Joaquin Phoenix was illustrated and we were left with the essence of his portrayal of Johnny Cash. Considering the relevant visual impact of that image and how unique it was to that film, what are your thoughts on the general approach to movie posters (large heads, actor’s names, slogans)?

SN1: Yeah, the Walk the Line poster was all about refining the imagery to capture that essence, and in fact one of the things we did to create an iconographic image was a sort of mash-up with some of Joaquin Phoenix’s facial features and some of Johnny Cash’s.

The most important thing in creating a movie poster is engaging people the way a film is engaging, drawing them in. When people get immersed in a movie, they see a story, not actors on a set in front of a camera. There are a lot of posters that just come off like they’re saying, “This is an announcement for an upcoming movie,” instead of saying, “We’re going to tell you a great story, and it all starts here.”

GP: If you had to remake a poster: which one would you like a shot at?

SN1: I’d like to do one for an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions—a new one, not the late ‘90s Bruce Willis one—or the film Being There.

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