By Junsui Films | March 2012
Legendary Poster Artist, Graham Humphreys talks exclusively to Junsui Films about his craft, his illustrious career and tells us all about his creative partnership with director, Richard Stanley…
Junsui Films: How did you come to be involved in film poster design?
Graham Humphreys: As a child I was always entranced by film on TV and then the cinema. At first my interest grew from little more than escapism but the more I watched the more complex my understanding of film and the language of cinema became. Inevitably I grew to understand the relationship between the marketing and the movies and developed an interest in the posters as mini epics in their own right.
Even as a toddler I had always expressed my love of the unusual by drawing skeletons and skulls. Then Dr.Who appeared on TV and I progressed to Daleks! From that point on it seemed inevitable that I would become involved in design and illustration. At the age of sixteen I began a four-year diploma course at Salisbury College Of Art and studied Graphic Design with an emphasis on illustration for the final year.
Age 20, I made the move to London with the understanding that the city would provide me with the work and clients unavailable elsewhere. I took my portfolio to the music press, record companies, magazines, design studios and film distribution companies. But it was the visit to the fledgling Palace Pictures in 1983 that really kick started my career with the poster for The Evil Dead. I had already developed a strong interest in horror films, mainly through late night screenings of Hammer Horror on TV and the classic Universal monster movies, so I manoeuvred myself into the specialist area that I still occupy today.
JF: Tell us a little bit about your creative process, starting from when you first agree to take on a project.
When I’m commissioned to design a film poster or DVD sleeve there will normally be either a screening arranged or a DVD supplied for viewing. Often the client will already have a basic idea and together we refine the concept in conversation or email.
Sometimes I’ll be supplied with images, otherwise I’ll make screen grabs or request grabs from the client. The process begins by isolating the key imagery that will make for the most potent representation of the content. It may be that the image is intended to tease rather than appear overtly revealing and this is something I must consider carefully. It’s not uncommon for the client to reference a previous poster or image, either one of my own or something that best expresses the intended direction.
Generally, I’ll supply half a dozen sketches that will cover options and reflect different approaches. My sketches are black and white pencil drawings that I scan and can assemble in Photoshop. Clients tend to trust me to create an appropriate colour palette, but occasionally want to suggest a basic theme and, if required, I’ll colourise the sketch. Because the sketches are saved in layers I can resize or swap elements around in order to revise layouts according to the client’s requests. Once a layout is established I can then proceed to painting. All my illustration work is created using gouache (a water based paint) on a watercolour paper. The finished painting is scanned and if necessary ‘tweaked’ in Photoshop for final delivery via email.
JF: What makes a good ‘one sheet’?
My earliest posters were generally UK quads, but it’s an open question really, I think that individuals find their own response to an image – cultural triggers, childhood memories or familiar tropes can all play a part in the response. I recently took part in an onstage debate about ‘the greatest movie poster ever’ with fellow artists Tom ‘Dude-designs’ Hodge and Olly Moss. Though our choices may well have been influenced by our different ages and genre preferences I think we agreed that simple direct images were always the most effective. I felt that the original poster for ‘Jaws’ endures to this day and the work of Saul Bass was universally acknowledged as especially powerful.
JF: How involved is the [film’s] director during the poster design process? Do they tend to have much input?
In my experience, little and no. Inevitably there have been exceptions, but it is usually the distributors that decide on how best to market a film (for better or worse!).
JF: You also served as a storyboard artist on the films, Hardware and Dust Devil. How did that come about and what were your experiences working with Richard Stanley?
We were introduced after a request by Stephen Woolley from Palace Pictures. I’m not sure if it was Richard himself that had originally contacted Palace or Wicked Films that were then representing Richard’s work. My working relationship with Palace had convinced Stephen Woolley that I could provide sufficiently legible storyboards that Richard could begin the process, whereby effects and stunts could be budgeted.
I had not storyboarded before and felt quite naive about the process, but Richard was extremely gracious and guided me through filming conventions that are required for visual cohesion. We watched hours of sequences from genre films, particularly the films of Dario Argento, in order to understand how to maximize the action and horror sequences. Richard is a great talker and it was easy to lose focus! However, though the process was long, I came out the wiser and thus better prepared for Richard’s next project Dust Devil. He was always interesting to work with and always happy to listen to my own humble suggestions. A useful by-product of the experience – learning to work fast!
We boarded a great number of scenes on the project that was ultimately taken from Richard and made into the unfocussed mess that became part The Island Of Dr. Moreau, part Heart Of Darkness, part Fitzcarroldo and part H.G. Wells. Richard’s original script was trashed in favour of a bland, formulaic cop-out. Though I spent three weeks in Los Angeles and three weeks in Cairns (Australia) storyboarding, very little of our work remains in the film.
JF: You’re renowned for your iconic poster work on such films as The Evil Dead, A Nightmare On Elm Street and most recently The Woman In Black. What is it about the horror genre that continues to inspire you?
Aside from the childish thrills that spark my imagination and an interest in the craft of filmmaking, it is my belief (and I am not alone in this) that the horror genre allows us to explore transgressive ideas. In the same way that state funded propaganda attempts to enforce the will of whichever despot, dictator or ideology is declaring itself top-dog, the horror genre presents a platform for analogies and alternatives. War, oppression, isolation, sexuality, theocracy – all of these things can be addressed in allegorical form. The horror film is an expression of freedom and at its best a true reflection of social unease… but damned good fun as well!
JF: Throughout your career what would you consider your favourite poster design?
I’ve still yet to paint it. Perhaps one of the closest would be the poster I recently designed for a season of Hammer Horror that screened in a mausoleum beneath what was once the London Necropolis Railway. It was a chance to celebrate the films that shaped my formative years.
JF: What next for Graham Humphreys?
I intend to arrange an exhibition in London – past and recent work. I have just completed a collaborative project with UK artist Fiona Banner. There are book cover commissions awaiting and a number of private commissions currently in progress. Beyond that – it is a tantalizing mystery!