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This story first appeared in the Oct. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
What is most striking, especially in Hollywood of all places, is the quiet modesty of its communication designers. We live in a world where brand expression is an art form and increasingly people present themselves as brands.
This is America: In brands we trust. And yet the very people entrusted with communicating the soul of a film are barely known — even as their work circles the globe catching the attention of a hyper-savvy media-literate public.
The inauguration of the Saul Bass Award is a big step toward changing this. It pays tribute to a designer and filmmaker whose name is renown for a lifetime of extraordinary film advertising and filmmaking. Saul Bass reinvented film communications and left a legacy of work from the 1940s until his death in 1996. In 2012, this honor shines upon creative director and designer Dawn Baillie of BLT Communications.
The Saul Bass Award recasts today’s accomplishments in the light of design history and reminds us that history always is alive among us. It stresses that all creativity starts with individuals, however modest, who dare to engage (paraphrasing Bass) in “the work of serious play.”
Both Bass and Baillie came to the film industry through print and the modern poster. Print design demands graphic clarity — a single point of focus — that functions as a visual space in which the viewers can find themselves. The best work fuses emotional and informational content into a cultural art form, something often referred to as “iconic.” Discussing Bass’ work, Baillie observed: “The poster for The Man With the Golden Arm is permanently burned into every art director’s brain. You simply cannot get more iconic than that. Bunny Lake Is Missing is an example of visual storytelling that is just stunning, as is Love in the Afternoon. Exodus is all things: symbolic, storytelling, beautiful design, quirky and memorable.”
Bass and his wife and creative partner, Elaine, asserted the designer imperative to get to the fundamental truths of any story, express them in brilliant and often witty visual phrases and deliver them in as uncluttered a way as possible. The term “graphic symbolism” seems to fit. These very qualities remain the benchmarks of practice today.
Appreciative of Bass’ iconic approach to film marketing, Baillie says her drive is “to distill our clients’ ideas to find the simplest way to communicate a concept for the film. In every presentation, our group tries to include a graphic or iconic solution. I try to make sure the image has a single focus. Designs always get messy when you try to do too much on one piece of paper.”
Crisp, organized layouts that give imagery room to breathe are characteristic of her work. It takes enormous effort to craft layouts that look both spare and inevitable. Not showcasing film actors’ faces is another rare achievement. Rather, Baillie explores the symbolism of a jet stream in the blue beyond to express the upcoming Denzel Washington drama Flight or a lonely figure cornered in the vast solitude of the baseball field for the 2011 Brad Pitt starrer Moneyball. Her poster for Up in the Air plays against the title by showing a most ordinary travel moment of George Clooney peering through glass at the spectacle of a jet being boarded and twists it into one of symbolic entrapment.
Few modern posters have the eerie impact of Baillie’s treatment of The Silence of the Lambs, where Jodie Foster’s face is blanched into a creature with a trusting, helpless gaze and whose mouth is muted by a Death’s-head hawkmoth. Despite the horrific nature of director Jonathan Demme’s film, the poster succeeds not by amplifying terror but by potently evoking a psychological vulnerability that, like music, is hard to explain with words.
When Bass arrived in Hollywood in 1946, he dryly recalled that art directors such as he “were frequently seen as oddballs or eccentrics who didn’t know about the business and couldn’t spell … sometimes we were treated like talented and adorable — but slightly dim — children.” Not anymore. Not when Baillie, functioning as both CFO and creative director, runs a nearly 200-person office. Not when studio executives are so passionate, culturally astute and aware of what design can do to get their properties in front of a receptive public. What better time to inaugurate the Saul Bass Award and recognize the very designers who do that best?
David Peters is a San Francisco-based designer. After meeting Saul Bass in 1984 at the Aspen Design Conference, he began an extensive research project into the history of design and film (designfilms.org). He has curated programs on the evolution of film titles and trailers that have been featured at museums, film festivals and conferences worldwide.
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