The Vocabulary of Film: An Interview With Adam Rabalais, Artist

It is generally thought that the first movie poster was created in 1890 by French painter and lithographer Jules Cheret for a short film called “Projections Artistiques”.  Most of the early film posters prior to 1910 were simple signs with block text announcing the title, producer, and director.”¹ 

Over the decades this process evolved to become a key component of marketing and audience gathering.  “From the mid 1920’s through the 1940’s, movie studios developed their own artwork styles for their movie posters and hired well-known artists and illustrators such as Al Hirschfeld, John Held Jr., Hap Hadley, Ted Ireland, Louis Fancher, Clayton Knight and Armando Seguso.”¹  They were disposable products that could be printed in mass quantities along with  lobby cards.  The cards were often produced in sets to depict various scenes of the movie.  Combined, these forms of marketing became a way for audiences to know before they bought the ticket whether or not they were going to enjoy the ride.

This is fairly similar to today’s process, but over the last few decades movie posters have evolved away from the more artistic presentation and become somewhat generic and cookie-cutterish.  Most posters are now modeled on the same general principles that exhibit the key cast and maybe something specific from the film, but there is generally nothing very interesting about the assemblage.  They are strictly marketing devices.  Because of this evolution, various artists and graphic designers have started to take charge and fill the void left by this lack of artistic merit.  One of these artists goes by the name of Adam Rabalais.

Poster for Battle Royale (2000)

Over the past couple weeks I talked with Adam about his work and how he got started.  Unlike some artists who make film posters a slight bit removed from the initial poster ideology, Adam has stuck to the advertisement quality of posters while preserving the original connections to artistry.  In doing so he has placed himself within the lineage of poster design and offered reasons why we should all still give movies a chance.

Garrett Tiedemann: Can you tell me a little about your background and history?

Adam Rabalais: Absolutely. I got my BFA from LSU in 2008 and after a couple of years working in an office, I began working freelance full-time. Also, I’m a huge film/video game/sci-fi/fantasy/horror geek. I find fan culture and geekdom incredibly fascinating from both an inside and outside perspective.

What interested you about art as a kid?

Everything. I remember many specific moments where I realized that I had to work as an artist of some sort when I got older. Film has always been my number one love, and I can credit that to several specific movie-going experiences. Seeing Jurassic Park as a child changed my life. I was so fascinated by what went into making that film and how all the pieces come together. When I was very young, I had decided I wanted to work in special effects. This was heavily fueled by Jurassic Park. But then I realized that I loved all the parts of the filmmaking process. They’re all fascinating and have their own exciting elements. So I have always liked to dabble as much as I can with all sorts of different mediums.

I would really like to explore filmmaking soon.  I’ve always had all the equipment, I’ve just never been able to get the momentum going. Jurassic Park is also a perfect example of great storytelling. There are countless flaws in that film. But you just don’t care. I notice a similar occurrence with Christopher Nolan films. Riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies, but you just don’t care. Because you’re enjoying the ride and the ride has a wonderful flow to it. I tend to like films like that. An even blend of interesting concepts and pure entertainment.

Poster for Jurassic Park (1993)

Curious about some of your earliest thoughts on the medium and when you started to see things differently because of it. How has cinema affected your process? Can you imagine what you would be doing without it?

I can’t really. It’s interesting that you ask that, because I’ve often said that without realizing it, my entire vocabulary was likely shaped by film.  I think that’s very true for a lot of recent generations. Media (television, film, music, the internet) is so deeply imbedded into our society and is such a huge part of how our world works that I think we subconsciously pull so much from it. For instance, I find that regional accents are less and less apparent. That may not have been the case a century ago, but I believe global communication is really beginning to change that. I’m off topic, but the point I’m trying to make is that we are influenced by what we see and hear. And for me, film was a very huge part of what shaped me as a person.

I loved Saturday Morning Cartoons and Sesame Street growing up, and actually wanted to be an animator or a puppeteer when I was very young. I was always fascinated not just by what something was, but how it worked as well. As a child, I was also very into magic. I’d almost always bring a deck of cards to any family gathering. There’s just something very satisfying about watching people be entertained by something “magical”.

That’s a huge part of why Jurassic Park was such an influence for me. Because so many people at the time said “how did they do that?” It wasn’t just a passing inquiry. People SAW dinosaurs.  In the flesh, walking on screen. And could not wrap their minds around how they possibly could have done this. It gives me chills just thinking about it. I feel that my thought process has always centered around that “WOW” feeling that great films provide. From a section of music to a single shot that makes you hold your breath. When attached to a great story, there’s nothing quite like those moments.

I do enjoy films that are more grounded in reality, like Munich or Black Hawk Down, but they aren’t what attracts me to cinema.  They’re great films, no doubt, but what I love about cinema is going places that are beyond what reality offers. Even a good love story. You’re still “stretching” reality into something more magical. And for me, that’s what I love so much about film. That pixie dust that’s sprinkled over the top layer so that it can fly a little.

Without cinema, I may have a very different feeling about art. For me, all art branches off of cinema.  Everything I do is heavily influenced by it. The same goes for my brother who is a professional painter. His pieces are often in a cinematic aspect ratio with heavy film noir influences.

What got you started in movie poster art?

I’ve always loved film posters, especially foreign designs that broke away from the more commercially influenced American designs. In recent years, it seems American movie poster art has become more and more lacking. Which I believe is exactly why so many artists have taken to creating their own representations of the films they love. Much like the film, The Artist, I feel that designing a movie poster is your chance to write a love letter to a particular film. It’s your chance to share with the world what a particular film means to you. And more often than not, I’ve discovered that it means the same thing to many others out there. Which is what begs the question: Why do so many official American movie posters suck? The answer, more often than not, is a greater love of money than a love of art.

Poster for Alien (1979)

Of the many ways to express your love of film, why movie posters?  Was there a deeper process (reasoning) of these decisions and why it seemed that was the best approach for expression?

Well, the obvious answer is that I am a graphic designer, so poster design is right up my alley. But I definitely do have stronger feelings on the matter. I love movie posters. It’s an art form that when used correctly can make your hair stand on end just the way moments of a film can. Having seen the work of other artists who recreated posters for their favorite films, I thought it was such a great idea. It had never occurred to me that new posters could be created for films that have already long existed. The part that fascinated me the most was that these posters wouldn’t have the same function as a pre-release poster. These posters are designed by people who have seen these films numerous times and have a deep love for them.  A poster is often thought of as just a means to advertise a film and gain interest. This usually means someone’s head will be three feet tall floating above the films title. But a poster design that is created after a film has become part of pop culture will have an entirely different set of influences.

The first poster I designed was for one of my favorite films, The Thing. I love the original poster for that film, and wanted to capture the same ominous tone with the feeling of an old Hitchcock poster. I feel it’s more important to capture the feelings that I have for a certain film than to maintain any consistent style. As a single person, I hope that my feelings and thoughts alone maintain some sort of consistency. But I feel the film comes first. Unless I’m being commissioned to create a piece, I just don’t think I should be designing a poster for a film unless I truly love it. And so far, that’s always been the case. Every poster I design truly is a love letter to the film itself, inspired by the feelings, shapes, and colors that I took away from at least some part of the film that really stuck with me. I usually try to tap into the parts of the film that only a true fan would really appreciate. Those parts are usually the parts that really stick with me. The pieces below the obvious outer layer.  It’s fun to incorporate those elements and see people get excited about spotting it. Like saying “Shiny” within earshot of a Firefly fan.

Do you see your work as a reaction to the current Hollywood sensibility for movie posters?

I very much believe the modern poster redesigning trend is a reaction to all the awful posters Hollywood is churning out. Foreign posters of the past and present are so much more interesting than anything we see here.  Very few American movie posters feel as though creative interests were in mind rather than commercial. As the numerous Star Wars re-releases and revisions have shown us, studios often care far more about whoring out public nostalgia rather than rewarding the fan base. It’s refreshing to see the elements of a film that aren’t just there to sell tickets. That’s why conventions are so much fun. You’re surrounded by people who “get it” like you do. And so, yes, I do believe that all the poster designs that have been popping up online are at least in part a way of rejecting the garbage that film fans are often given. Even after seeing lots of designs I loved online, it hadn’t occurred to me to try my hand at it. But after a while, I realized there were a lot of times that I was telling myself “I would have probably done something more like this”. It seemed like such a fun idea, and I had a sketchbook full of designs, so I thought I’d give it a try.  Every designer will come up with a different design, and these designs represent what the films mean to me.

What is your process like in choosing a movie and then figuring out its design?

Well, sometimes I sit down with the specific intention of creating a poster for a certain film. Other times, an idea just hits me randomly while I’m going about my business and I hurry to sketch it out. Usually, I’ll sit with one of my many sketchpads and begin writing down every emotion, object, setting, color, shape, etc, that a film brings to mind. Then I begin exploring ideas through sketches. When something just doesn’t feel right, I figure out what worked and what didn’t, and move on to the next sketch. So on and so forth. Lots of people contact me requesting specific films and I always try to be as accommodating as possible. Fortunately, the requests are usually films I do love and would love to design a poster for.  If I don’t love the film, I really feel that I shouldn’t create a poster for it because I believe a true passion for the subject matter should always fuel the process. That being said, I usually find it very easy to find the beauty in any film, especially when going into a viewing with that intention.

How do you relate to cinema? Everyone watches films based on their particular perspective, curious about yours and what you think about while watching. Do you immediately think of work you can produce?

I usually meet a fork in the road with any film I watch. Ok, maybe a couple of forks, but bear with me. At some point while I’m watching a film, I either get lost in it so entirely that I only remember I actually exist when the credits begin to roll. Or, I am fully aware I’m watching a film the entire time, constantly picking apart pieces and noting what I like and don’t like. The third option is that it’s a piece of crap and I’m just wishing I had my money back the whole time. But anyway, there are certain films that while I’m watching, I know that this film will stick with me for a while. That if I ever catch it on TV, I’ll leave it on and actually sit down and watch it just because I enjoyed it so much.

I love old cinema, simpler times when storytelling was most important. So naturally, I loved The Artist. I think that when films are made with a more elegant approach rather than a “loud and fast” approach, you get such a beautiful result.  Those are the types of films that draw me in. I love horror, but I honestly see it as a dying genre. At no fault of its own. The acting and the special effects have gotten too good for their own good. My love for horror comes from the moments when you KNOW that couldn’t possibly be the guy’s head because it’s obviously rubber. And the blood is far too red. Now we have Oscar-winning actors in films with photorealistic CGI. It takes all the fun out of it.

I believe the most recent film I’ve designed a poster for was Inception, which is in part because there are a whole lot of bad films being produced these days. But mostly I tend to stick to older films, because a lot of what I love about a film is not just the quality of the film itself, but the lasting impression it has made on myself and other people.  And that takes time.

Poster for American Psycho (2000)

How do you actually create the image?

I’ve used a variety of different approaches, but most of my designs begin in Adobe Illustrator. I design the piece, based on sketches, with vector tools. Then I export the design to Adobe Photoshop where I use a variety of brushes, textures, and adjustment layers to give it the more organic feel of a worn and faded poster. For some pieces, such as Alien, I actually created the piece out of traditional media and then photographed it, adding some illustration and adjustments on top of it. I feel that the approach taken really depends on the film. The important part is to accurately convey the essence of the film within a 27″x40″ frame through whatever means possible.

So, you take requests from people to do movie posters? Are the requests usually from people you know or do people find you who want a poster designed for their film?

The requests I get are almost always from strangers who found me online.  Sometimes it’s just a request to consider exploring a certain film. Other times they commission a design that they will be the sole owner of.

 Have you had any contact from studios or people involved with films you have done? If so, what are their responses to the work?

I have. I sent my Cowboys and Aliens design to Jon Favreau the weekend that the film opened and he retweeted it (which I assume means he liked it), and also got the stamp of approval from Duncan Jones on my Moon design. As I mentioned before, I see poster designs for existing films as love letters.  Expressions of what the films mean to a particular artist. So I would hope that any filmmaker who would come across one of my designs would feel the same way that Jones and Favreau did.

Can you divulge what is currently under construction?

Well, I’m currently working on Return of the Jedi (as well as a redesign of A New Hope) to round out the Original Star Wars Trilogy series. Also, I’m working on the remaining films in the Harry Potter series. As part of an ongoing “competition” with artist Tracie Ching I just released a design for the television series, Firefly, and plan on releasing more TV-oriented poster designs in the future.

Are there any films you have yet to design that are top of the list?

Absolutely. In addition to completing the designs I mentioned above, I keep throwing around ideas for all of the current Batman films as well as another Nolan masterpiece, Memento. I also plan on releasing designs for Barton Fink, Alice in Wonderland (general design not based on any particular source), Jaws, and a good few others that I really dig.

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[For more information on Adam Rabalais and see examples of his work check out his Etsy and find him on Facebook.]

[Feature image a detail of Seven Samurai poster]

1. Movie Poster Art: A Short History  by Wendy Campbell

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