As Fassbinder's newly-rediscovered sci-fi opus WORLD ON A WIRE makes its rounds in US theaters, I thought I'd share a few steps in the poster design process. I was honored to have Janus Films ask me to work on this exciting project, and it ended up being a tricky journey from complexity to minimalism. After watching the 2-part film, the first step was obvious: convert the iconic original title treatment into English. After incorrectly assuming that the typeface was a form of Helvetica, a little detective work identified it as an out-of-print version of Akzidenz Grotesk, the typeface that branded the famous and iconic Marber Penguin covers. I knew off the bat that these white lines could be a great graphic starting point for my design.
I felt that we should present WORLD ON A WIRE as a kind of event movie for its target audience: lovers of international cinema, science-fiction and the avant garde. For some reason at the time-- likely my infatuation with the complex, detail-filled Mondo screenprints designed by the likes of Tyler Stout and Ken Taylor-- my initial instinct was to create something epic in scope and volume, filled with sci-fi imagery and digital abstractions, with a retro 70's frame. This resulted in the rough comp below:
Meanwhile, I came up with this idea for a teaser poster that could trumpet the arrival of the film as an event...
...and, in the interest of additional options, this quad-style teaser poster that typographically suggested the film's worlds-within-worlds theme:
Janus liked my use of the white lines of the title treatment as a both a graphic element and a suggestion of the film's multiple layers of reality, but after sitting on it for a while we started to think it was too complex, too cold. I felt I just went overboard... I didn't like it. I sent them this next idea, switching the main color field to the red background of the film's credits, and simplifying the concept to something more graphic and minimal. The hero's face would be broken up and delayed through the white lines as his identity in the film is fractured through multiple realities:
(The below image, which I made based on a shot of a computer panel in the film, was integrated as a background pattern for many of these comps... The dials and panels could, I thought, help remind viewers of the sci-fi genre):
A couple other variations on the same concept:
And a no-good, too-abstract pattern-only variation...
Janus loved these color schemes, but we still felt like we hadn't nailed it. We wondered if we even needed the hero's face at all... if we could convey the concept of alternate worlds and multiple realities with an even simpler iconic image. They pointed to my posters for Before Sunrise and Before Sunset as examples, and I was happy to indulge in such a liberating guideline. Kind of the opposite of a studio telling you that they want all the actors' heads big and large across the poster, this is the kind of direction from their client that a designer dreams of. I started with this simple overlay of two circles, a vertical representation of multiple realities:
...and the rest presented itself almost instantaneously. The overlapping shape would become a watchful eye, a sinister symbol of control; within the target of that eye we would see our hero running for his life, and from that eye would hang the puppet strings holding the title, suggesting an invisible manipulating force. The lines from the title treatment could continue upwards and suggest a modern cityscape. I went back to black for the dominant background color and had fun coloring the rest in a way that resembled the look of the film, but with a little more vibrancy and play.
I was really happy with the result and Janus approved it without any further suggestions. Of everything I've done, this piece was probably most inspired by my dad's artwork, which he would often execute by hand with skillful airbrushing techniques. I'm very proud of this one, but the coolest thing about it is that a studio like Janus was willing and happy to take a purely graphic approach to a theatrical poster for an important release. We hope it seduces viewers into Fassbinder's newly-rediscovered world(s)...
Poster for sale in the Criterion shop.
Janus Films presents WORLD ON A WIRE
Art direction: Sarah Habibi
Trailer (long version) edited by Damon Packard