Every year, the world watches the great and the good come together in Hollywood for the Academy Awards. Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor/Actress usually take centre stage, closely followed by Writing, Sound and Music. But the full spectrum of creativity in filmmaking is recognised too. There are Oscars for Production Design, Visual Effects, Costume Design, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling…
So why isn't there an Oscar for Best Movie Poster?
This year, Fast Company named their winner for this future category as Everything Everywhere All At Once by James Jean – an artist who’s no stranger to the Academy as he designed the poster for The Shape of Water which won Best Picture in 2018.
We agree, James definitely takes the trophy. But it’s a close call between all three posters he made for Oscar-nominated films this year. As well as Everything Everywhere All At Once, he also created the moving portrait of actor Brendan Fraser starring in The Whale and the gorgeously intricate and mystical poster for Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio.
And the winner is… The Whale. Like the film, this sublime and tender portrait captures the delicate intricacies of loneliness, longing and the anguish of parenthood.
We sat down with James to hear more about his journey, from drawing Batman out of newspapers as a kid to designing for his heroes.
It's pretty surprising. So many things have to come together to make a movie, and it's a miracle to even finish one – let alone have it be nominated for an Oscar. And then to have each of these minor miracles approach me independently at the same time to make a poster is pretty astonishing too.
Behind each film is an amazing story and redemption arc for the creators and actors, and it's certainly exciting to be involved even tangentially in the cultural excitement behind each film.
I grew up watching a lot of movies and, in art school, I started watching more films from directors like Takashi Miike, Yasujirō Ozu, David Lynch, Gaspar Noé, and many others. I remember Pi by Darren Aronofsky was the quintessential film for everyone to see when I was at SVA, and now it's great to be able to call him a friend.
Each project started out differently – the process is as unique as each director. For Pinocchio, Guillermo gave me a brief written prompt about his relationship with his own father, and I had a lot of freedom to take it where I wanted. I created a large graphite drawing on paper, which I coloured digitally. With Everything Everywhere All At Once, I worked with an agency and they had already come up with an approved concept from the directors, which was a rough composition that I thought resembled a ceiling fresco from the Renaissance.
So I completely reworked it from the ground up and pulled inspiration from a library of thousands of reference images from the set that they had sent me. The drawing, separated into pieces due to the plethora of details, was done completely on the iPad and then coloured digitally.
For The Whale, I initially said I was too busy to take on the project, but then I saw the swell of support for the film and Brendan that was growing over the festival circuit and noticed after a while that they hadn't released a poster for the film. It seems it was a challenge for all parties involved to land upon the right image. I messaged Darren that I had an idea for the poster that would be quick to execute and could give it a shot, and proposed a very simple ink-drawn portrait that would have some references to works by Lucian Freud and Kiki Smith. The drawing was done with ink on paper and then scanned into the computer where I applied some light colouring and texture.
They are all so unique, it's hard to pick out a favourite. The Shape of Water was a large rendered charcoal drawing, and Mother! was a lush acrylic painting that resembled an old oil painting. Blade Runner was completely done on the iPad when the Apple Pencil was still relatively new.
For the recent posters, I was able to create some next-level embellishments for the Pinocchio print that's at MoMA, and Everything Everywhere All At Once was amazing since it's affected and reached so many people, and it's allowed me to become friends with the great Michelle Yeoh. The Whale was such a simple drawing and composition that I made in only a couple of days but might have a lasting effect.
Some of my earliest memories were of drawing and copying advertisements of Tim Burton's Batman from the newspaper as a nine-year-old. It was rare for us to go to the movies, so I would go through the newspaper and look at the advertisements for movies from week to week, and check the schedule and titles that were playing even though I wouldn't be able to go.
From that era, the Hildebrandt Star Wars poster had an impact, as well as all the work of Drew Struzan, though his work seemed so photographic that I couldn't believe it was drawn by hand.
These days, I love the madness of hand-painted Ghanaian movie posters!
They don't allow black hoodies and sweatpants into the ceremony, unfortunately. They also don't have a Best Poster category yet… with such a growing and passionate subculture for movie posters, it would be nice to see posters recognised in the future.