Oscars 2020: best-picture typography

I live in Hol­ly­wood, Cal­i­for­nia. For lo­cals, the Acad­emy Awards are ei­ther a) work, if you’re in the movie in­dus­try, or b) a week-long traf­fic night­mare, if you’re any­one else.

Among my friends in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, the guild awards (e.g., DGA, WGA, SAG) are gen­er­ally well re­garded, the Golden Globes not even a lit­tle, and the Acad­emy Awards—well, it’s sort of like the boor­ish grand­par­ent who comes to visit once a year but gives out $100 bills to you and your sib­lings. You grin & bear it.

The Acad­emy has no way of know­ing whether its vot­ers ac­tu­ally watch the films that are nom­i­nated, or just pick a fa­vorite based on some ar­bi­trary cri­te­rion. Con­sis­tent with that prin­ci­ple, I feel to­tally jus­ti­fied pick­ing a best-pic­ture win­ner based on the ty­pog­ra­phy of the posters.

Note for new vis­i­tors: This ar­ti­cle is part of a big­ger on­line book called Prac­ti­cal Ty­pog­ra­phy writ­ten by me, type de­signer Matthew But­t­er­ick. If you like nerdy ty­pog­ra­phy ma­te­r­ial, there’s plenty more—see the ta­ble of con­tents.

Movie: En­ter­tain­ing, though con­ven­tional & formulaic.

Ty­pog­ra­phy: The nar­row sans serif ap­pears to be Tung­sten, which aptly evokes the mid-’60s. But the po­si­tion­ing of the ac­tor names rel­a­tive to the ti­tle is a lit­tle sloppy and constricted.

Movie: A long slog. The de-ag­ing ef­fect was not persuasive.

Ty­pog­ra­phy: The font is Grouch, which re­flects the “tight but not touch­ing” type­set­ting style that was trendy in the ’70s. A rea­son­able choice for a film set par­tially in that decade. The red color, how­ever, con­trasts poorly with the bluish background.

Movie: Well made, if we over­look some jar­ring shifts in tone.

Ty­pog­ra­phy: I don’t rec­og­nize the font (it may be cus­tom let­ter­ing) but it seems to be evok­ing a hand-printed, pro­pa­ganda-poster feel, which feels apt. The poster spares us an­other swastika, though not the col­ors of the Nazi flag. The jagged black back­ground be­hind the ti­tle let­ter­ing seems to ref­er­ence the SS logo. I like that the ty­pog­ra­phy at the top of the poster is given a sim­i­lar hand-printed look.

Movie: Didn’t see it.

Ty­pog­ra­phy: Like Jojo Rab­bit, also em­u­lates the look of old-fash­ioned let­ter­press print­ing. I liked find­ing out that it was made with real wood type, not dig­i­tal ma­nip­u­la­tion. The sur­round­ing sans serif is bor­ing and in­con­gru­ous. Why not con­tinue with the wood type?

Movie: Didn’t see it.

Ty­pog­ra­phy: I really liked the black­let­ter name­plate for Greta Ger­wig’s pre­vi­ous movie, Lady Bird. Here, the ti­tle let­ter­ing is adapted from the cover of the 1868 first edi­tion of Lit­tle Women. I pre­fer the 1868 ver­sion, how­ever—the con­tem­po­rized ver­sion treads a lit­tle close to the over­done trend of chop­ping pieces off let­ter­forms. The sans serif used else­where ap­pears to be Avant Garde, and looks ter­ri­ble be­cause it has no re­la­tion to the main type.

(HT to Stephen Coles for point­ing me to the first edition.)

Marriage Story

Movie: Didn’t see it.

Ty­pog­ra­phy: Speak­ing of chop­ping pieces from let­ters. The font seems to be Bodoni Sans. To me, this looks like a per­fectly nice serif font that’s been am­pu­tated. But some­how, maybe that’s an apt choice for film about a divorce.

Movie: Fan­tas­tic. Flawless.

Ty­pog­ra­phy: The font is Fu­tura, which was re­leased in 1927 and is thus anachro­nis­tic for a film set 10 years prior. But hear me out: the movie prides it­self on its fas­tid­i­ous pe­riod au­then­tic­ity. There were plenty of sans ser­ifs in 1917. They just didn’t look like that. (For in­stance, my Her­mes Maia font evokes a style that would’ve been com­mon then.) Still, I think the main rea­son Fu­tura is used here is that the poster refers to the ear­lier Sam Mendes movie Sky­fall, and Sky­fall used a Fu­tura-like face (namely Neu­traface).

Movie: Hated it. A ran­cid re­ac­tionary fan­ta­sia of pre-baby-boomer Amer­i­can masculinity.

Ty­pog­ra­phy: If you’re go­ing with the most ob­vi­ous pos­si­ble ty­po­graphic idea, you at least have to do it well. I live near the Hol­ly­wood sign. Every­thing about this ver­sion is in­ac­cu­rate. Why? Be­cause the de­signer merely down­loaded a close-enough free­ware font and didn’t even change its wretched spac­ing (see sam­ple at left, cre­ated by me in two seconds).

Movie: Started well, but be­came dif­fuse af­ter the mid­way point.

Ty­pog­ra­phy: The sans serif around the ti­tle is Gotham, and the ti­tle it­self seems to be Gotham with some ser­ifs glued on, in a man­ner rem­i­nis­cent of ex­per­i­men­tal 1990s fonts like Dead His­tory. Could it be that the ser­ifs are meant to seem like “par­a­sites” at­tached to the sans serif forms, like lam­preys on a shark? If so, this con­cept tries too hard.

1917, though if I’m vot­ing purely on ty­pog­ra­phy, Jojo Rab­bit, be­cause it was a con­cept ap­pro­pri­ate for the film, ex­e­cuted well & consistently.

—Matthew But­t­er­ick
7 Feb­ru­ary 2020

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