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Where’s Your Head At? Floating Head Syndrome & Movie Posters

Iron Man 2 has had a fairly spectacular pre-release buzz going on. It’s the sequel to a beloved film, it’s got an all-star cast and two spectacular trailers. So the movie poster should be made of awesome, right? Em, not really. The first question which occurred to me was “where is Sam Rockwell?” The second question that occurred to me was “where is everyone else’s body?” Yes, the poster had succumbed to the dreaded floating head syndrome.

Should Tony Stark be more worried that Mickey Rourke is trying to kill him or that the lower half of his body has phased out of existence?

In defense of the poster, it’s clearly meant to stand alongside the poster to the original Iron Man film, which had a near-identical layout. And in defense of that poster, it’s clearly structured as a homage to the iconic Star Wars posters. Sure, there’s a lot less dynamism in the Iron Man posters (and not nearly enough blasters), but the resemblance is clear. Besides, it clearly isn’t the worst offender when it comes to the floating head model – even those which clearly don’t merit it on star power (see below).

You can understand the appeal of the floating head design. It’s simplistic. It typically leaves a lot of room for logos and remarks from critics. It’s very unlikely that anyone looking for your movie won’t be able to find it, and the right stars could even draw in some previously unaware viewers. From that point of view, they make sense.

I designed posters for a student group at college for a year-and-a-bit. I am by no means an expert at graphic design, nor do I make myself out to be – but I always loved posters which caught your eye because they were interesting or striking, not because it had the head of someone you liked on it. You could make the argument that if (as Castor suggests) the movie star is in decline, it might be a good idea to move away from these sorts of conventional design – sell a movie based on its content, rather than its star power. I have three posters currently up on my bedroom wall for three films. None feature an actor’s head, they’re all striking images. Only one of them is a composition or collage-style shot, the others are meant to be viewed as standalone images.

Do any of these actors actually deserve their face on a poster?

Poster have a tough job to do. They have to sell a movie to you based on a frozen image. Sometimes they have a witty catch phrase, but sometimes they have nothing more that a celebrity. I just think that floating heads are far too easy. In fairness, the idea can be done right sometimes – one might argue the head-on landscape poster of Robert Downey Jnr for Iron Man 2 is a floating head, but it’s a much more compelling one because it is focused. And I give marks to the original Star Wars posters, which look to have been carefully and beautifully sketched. The new films adopt a similar style, but it seems far too smooth and photoshopped.

But then, I like my posters weird. One of the most complimentary remarks anyone ever made on my work was to remark of an event poster, “People were asking me if it was, like, a movie.” It was clearly meant as an insult, but I was proud and chuffed. It wasn’t a floating head poster, it was one which conveyed the abstract representation of what the event was about. And it had done it so well that somebody thought it was a movie poster.

Tell me that wouldn’t make you smile?

11 Responses

  1. I hear you, hollywood posters are so lazy. With such a wealth of amazing talent in he world of graphic design it’s such a shame that 90% of posters are tacky rubbish. I’m trying to think of some exceptions, Tarantino’s movies are coming to mind, and also Moon.

    I spent a few years working for a theatre company doing their posters and catalogues, my highest compliment was that they kept disappearing from the streets because people were stealing them.

    • I love that – it’s actually wonderfully complementary, like the time I caught a guy taking down some of my posters in college for his room.

      But yeah, what’s the point if you’re just going to recycle the same old generic format? Part of me thinks studios would be better set to stick with the teaser posters, which are usually a lot more interesting than the final, important ones.

  2. The whole floating head design is becoming way too prevalent. Where did all the creativity gone? 😦 Only a fraction of movies now have some type of original design that doesn’t simply include the head of well-known cast, big letters and some obvious image or icon of the movie.

    • Yep – I’m fairly sure there must be a creative way to do it, but yeah, I like an eye catching image or collage for a poster, not a selection of faces I know from other movies.

  3. Floating heads are really not the best idea in the world. Just used so that each actors face is placed on the poster.

    We don’t need that, seeing a name on the poster does the trick!

    • Amen, that’s what trailers are for. A poster should give you a conceptual taste of a movie. What sets Iron Man apart from any other given big budget film? The poster doesn’t offer any vague interest or insight.

  4. If they don’t show the floating head, what are they otherwise going to integrate into the poster? Seems like a lose-lose proposition. I do agree they they could jump in to the 21st century and modernize the designs.

    • I suppose, but I look at the iconic posters that have endured – The Thing comes to mind, for example – and they aren’t posters populated to sell the image of a leading celebrity. Even the iconic posters featuring a lead – Scarface and The Godfather come to mind – avoid the trite cliche of floating heads in favour of a stylised profile.

      It just seems tired.

  5. No kidding. Man these posters are just lame. There is the occasional poster that comes out that really wows you, but those are like I said, occasional. Most the things Hollywood produces now are these “faces” of their celebrities. It’s weak.

  6. Not only do these posters have the usual floating heads, but also the trite Orange/Blue contrasting that has been saturating movie posters in the last while *cough* http://i.imgur.com/eTDM4.jpg

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