Clas­sic Fan­tasy FILM ART

Re­dis­cover the best film posters of all time, and start paint­ing your own!

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T here’s a spe­cial kind of nos­tal­gia that sur­rounds the fan­tasy and sci-fi films of the 1980s. Thanks to the im­pe­tus that Star Wars gave the film in­dus­try in the late-1970s, ef­fects bud­gets grew and grew, but be­cause CGI was a mere twin­kle in John Las­seter’s eye, the crea­tures and magic we wit­nessed were of­ten hand­made. They looked tac­tile, and films like The Dark Crys­tal and Time Ban­dits felt lived in and quirky, more like real life than a cold com­puter screen.

Th­ese were the days be­fore Photoshop too, and the posters that en­ticed us into the cin­e­mas were largely hand-painted. A whole crop of ge­nius fan­tasy artists caught our imag­i­na­tions with pen­cils, ink and paint, with three-sheet or quad-sized posters go­ing up around town when­ever a new fan­tasy pic­ture was on its way.

More than that, our nos­tal­gia is tweaked on a deeper, more psy­cho­log­i­cal level. Fan­tasy films back then weren’t just a dis­trac­tion from bore­dom. Gen­er­a­tion Y and hip­ster hair­cuts hadn’t been in­vented. Back then kids were wor­ried. Reaganomics and Thatcherism were rav­aging economies. Peo­ple be­gan to die of AIDS. Famines killed mil­lions in Africa. And the Cold War promised mu­tu­ally as­sured Ar­maged­don. So we gazed at Brian Bysouth’s posters for Wil­low and Big Trou­ble in Lit­tle China. We were beck­oned by the pe­cu­liar-look­ing Falkor, the luck­dragon, on Renato Casaro’s poster for The Nev­erEnd­ing Story. Artists like John Alvin, Richard Am­sel, Ted CoCo­nis, Bob Peak and Drew Struzan gave us a gate­way into imag­i­nary realms.

John Alvin was bril­liant when it came to evok­ing a sense of mys­tery. John passed away in 2005, but his daugh­ter Farah not only grew up along­side his work, but also ap­peared in it. You know the fa­mous poster in which E.T.’s fin­ger reaches out to­wards a hu­man hand? She was a small child at the time, and that’s her hand in the pic­ture.

“Much of E.T. was kept top se­cret by the stu­dio – not

A whole crop of ge­nius fan­tasy artists caught our imag­i­na­tions with pen­cils, ink and paint

only the film it­self, but what the char­ac­ters and scenic el­e­ments looked like,” she ex­plains. “John was given a sketch of the alien’s hand by a pro­duc­tion de­signer to use for ref­er­ence and then he took nu­mer­ous Po­laroids of my hand. He used th­ese pho­tos and the ref­er­ence for the alien hand to cre­ate a com­pos­ite sketch and then, ul­ti­mately, the paint­ing we all know. The de­sign con­cept, bor­rowed from Michelan­gelo, came from the stu­dio. All of the aspects of light and colour were ul­ti­mately a prod­uct of his cre­ativ­ity.”

cap­ture a film ’s heart and soul

John would of­ten say that his job was “to cre­ate the prom­ise of a great ex­pe­ri­ence” and he worked on the con­cepts of the posters as much as their ex­e­cu­tion. The artist sought to iden­tify the key el­e­ments of a film – its heart and soul – to con­vey in a sin­gle, emo­tive im­age.

With those lit­tle mog­wai paws reach­ing out from un­der the shoe­box lid, John’s art­work for Grem­lins is one of the most mem­o­rable of all time. “What was im­por­tant about the Grem­lins poster was to in­di­cate that this cute, de­light­ful crea­ture had the po­ten­tial to be­come hor­ri­ble,” ex­plains Farah. “But the film is sort of campy and scary, not gory, so I think he had to walk a very care­ful line and play up the mys­tery rather than the hor­ror. You can’t help but look at this poster and want to know what’s in the box! That cu­rios­ity is, of course, the down­fall of the char­ac­ters in the film. So this poster reels you into the spirit and tone of the movie quite beau­ti­fully.”

Gen­er­at­ing in­ti­macy with the ob­server is some­thing a good painter can do if they have a unique style. Richard Am­sel died of HIV in 1985, but his poster work for films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Dark Crys­tal and Flash Gor­don con­tin­ues to

res­onate be­cause the artist’s hand is clear in the ren­der­ing of the im­ages.

Adam McDaniel works in a film stu­dio, and is an ex­pert on Richard’s art. “His use of pen­cils was ex­tra­or­di­nary, as he’d draw in all sorts of fren­zied di­rec­tions, while main­tain­ing con­trol and get­ting the de­tails just right,” says Adam. “He was very gifted in cap­tur­ing per­son­al­i­ties, too; it wasn’t enough to make some­thing look pho­to­re­al­is­tic.”

in­ter­ga­lac­tic kitsch

Richard’s play­ful side came to the fore in his Flash Gor­don poster. “The movie’s called Flash Gor­don, but it’s Ming the Mer­ci­less who’s front and cen­tre, his pen­e­trat­ing gaze di­rected right at us, like a ser­pent ready to strike,” says Adam. “But the guy’s got mascara on, wears a se­quin dress, and has a sparkly ring of power. It’s all won­der­ful, kitschy, 1930s sci-fi se­ri­als, as seen through the foggy vi­sion of a 1970s glam rock con­cert. Richard wasn’t out to make it look se­ri­ous. He was in on the joke, and made the film look like the silly fun it was.”

His poster for Jim Hen­son’s The Dark Crys­tal is stun­ning, and was in­no­va­tive at the time. He cen­tred the work around logo art cre­ated for the film by Brian Froud, who also de­signed many of its crea­tures. On one layer there’s a piece of velum with a mon­tage of strange char­ac­ters. The cas­tle hous­ing the crys­tal and the bro­ken land­scape around it burst up from the bot­tom of the poster in front of the parch­ment. It speaks of mythol­ogy, leg­end, and a time long ago.

Jim Hen­son and Brian Froud also made Labyrinth to­gether, and as with The Dark Crys­tal all the film’s charm comes from its crea­tures and char­ac­ters. This time, the artist Ted CoCo­nis – who’d pre­vi­ously done posters for Fid­dler on the Roof and Hair – was com­mis­sioned for the art­work. Sup­plied with the idea of the Labyrinth and a lo­go­type for the movie, the chal­lenge for Ted was to bring the key char­ac­ters to­gether with­out it look­ing too com­plex. The film strug­gled at the box of­fice, but its poster is iconic and to­day it has a cult fol­low­ing.

“Ev­ery sin­gle char­ac­ter is a work of art in it­self:

The guy’s got mascara on, wears a se­quin dress and has a sparkly ring of power. It’s won­der­fully kitschy

bril­liantly con­ceived, mas­ter­fully con­structed,” says Ted. “In the end, Jim picked out a hand­ful of key fig­ures, and I was free to tie ev­ery­thing to­gether with whichever ones worked best for the de­sign.

“I was com­pletely free to do what­ever I thought would work best in terms of con­cept and de­sign. The only client in­put – which I had to over­ride – was their in­sis­tence that Sarah be por­trayed in blue jeans. That was com­pletely in­ap­pro­pri­ate for the look and feel­ing of the paint­ing as well as the movie it­self. She sim­ply had to be wear­ing the gor­geous gown she wore in that fab­u­lous ball­room scene.”

miss­ing a touch of magic

To­day, it’s easy to see pho­tos of the char­ac­ters be­ing mon­taged to­gether, much like the posters for The Lord of the Rings films. But where would be the fun in that? Renato Casaro, who painted over 1,500 posters dur­ing his ca­reer, in­clud­ing those for The Nev­erEnd­ing Story, be­lieves that with­out the hand of an artist, to­day’s posters are of­ten de­void of that touch of magic.

“Hand-painted art­work died in the 90s,” Renato laments. “To give you an idea of what we’ve lost, The Folk­wang Mu­seum in Essen, which is the most im­por­tant poster gallery in Ger­many, or­gan­ised a big ret­ro­spec­tive in­clud­ing my movie posters. Dur­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion they in­vited graphic de­sign stu­dents to trans­fer my art­work into Photoshop, and use el­e­ments of my art­work to cre­ate new posters. The re­sults were un­sat­is­fac­tory; they were un­able to cap­ture the spe­cial magic that you need in par­tic­u­lar for movie posters.”

How do we get some of that 80s magic back into movie poster art? Per­haps what some of th­ese won­der­ful il­lus­tra­tors we’ve talked about here lends some in­spi­ra­tion. A sense of mys­tery and ex­pec­ta­tion, the re­turn of a painterly feel, ev­i­dence of a painter’s hand, and a fresh injection of char­ac­ter might just help us to es­cape the pres­sures of the 21st cen­tury, or at least feel a bit less like we’re be­ing mar­keted to. Artists, it’s over to you!

Jim picked a hand­ful of key fig­ures, and I was free to tie ev­ery­thing to­gether with whichever ones worked best

An­dreas Ben­nwik ex­plains his poster art process in­side!

The Di­rect Met hod An ac­com­plished il­lus­tra­tor him­self, Terry Gil­liam drew the Time Ban­dits poster him­self, ex­pertly con­vey­ing the film’s in­ter-di­men­sional plot. John Alvin’s Grem­lin’s il­lus­tra­tion sparks the viewer’s cu­rios­ity and pulls you in.


MAGIC MAN Renato Casaro’s poster for the The Ad­ven­tures of Baron Mun­chausen com­bined scenes from the movie. John Alvin wanted to play with the themes of good and evil with the Leg­end poster. This is a graphite sketch of Tim Curry’s de­monic char­ac­ter.


FLASH! AH-AH! The great Richard Am­sel camped up the 1980 re­vival of Flash Gor­don, the art deco el­e­ments ef­fec­tively in­vok­ing its 1930s ori­gins.

Here’s the fi­nal teaser poster for Wil­low painted by John Alvin. The neg­a­tive space to the left hints that there’s more to come for viewer and for the char­ac­ters.


Here’s John Alvin’s sketch for the se­cond of his three Wil­low posters. It de­picts the jour­ney that the char­ac­ters take

in the film.

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