As a graphic designer and creative director at motion picture advertising agency Jump Cut, Brandon Schaefer is the man with an eye for a standout movie poster.
“I’m not sure if I have a style, or at least if I do it’s hard for me to see,” reflects prolific film poster designer Brandon Schaefer.
“Back when I was in school, they really pushed the idea that proper designers were really good at being invisible. The thought was that having your fingerprints all over a project was seen as being a disservice to your client – that it was self-indulgent decoration rather than actual problem solving.
“And over time you’d get the added bonus of being identified with a look, so instead of casting a wide net for potential clients, you’d be pigeonholed for the rest of your career. So that’s always kicking around in the back of my mind, though I can’t say if I fully agree with it or not these days.”
From romance and horror to thriller and comedy, Schaefer’s work stands out whatever the genre. His intelligent, fresh and original designs speak to the soul of a film. An in-demand graphic designer, in 2016 alone Schaefer created over 50 theatrical film posters in his role as creative director for print at New York-based motion picture advertising agency Jump Cut.
When he’s not working with mega studios like Sony and MGM or independents such as Unzero Films and Drafthouse Films, Schaefer is creating original movie artwork sold in galleries as far afield from his native US as the trendy Northern Quarter in Manchester, UK. His interpretations of films as diverse as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and 2001: A Space Odyssey catch the eye with their bold and assured graphic style.
This career at the heart of movie art may, however, never have transpired if it wasn’t for 90s Japanese cartoon Dragon Ball.
“I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to teach myself Photoshop when I was 13, just so I’d be able to make graphics for a Dragon Ball fan page I’d been planning to build since we got access to the internet,” Schaefer recalls.
“The website never went anywhere, and I fell out love with the show by the time I reached high school, but I still liked fooling around with the software and was fortunate enough to be able to use that to get my foot in the door for a graphic design class that my school started offering my sophomore year. Not that I knew what graphic design was at the time, but it was enough.”
In the early days when he was making posters for fun, Schaefer would run through all the films he’d seen and try to design whatever emerged in his “mental rolodex”. It was not essential to love the film, what mattered most was the visual interest.
“The quality of a film doesn’t have much bearing on the quality of the key art. Some of my favourite posters throughout history are for less than stellar films,” he explains.
An admirer of all forms of graphic design, Schaefer co-hosts podcast The Poster Boys with fellow American graphic artist Sam Smyth. Recent topics up for discussion include the dream-like logic of director David Lynch, an appreciation of 90s film art and a deep dive into the work of Jacqueline S. Casey, designer and director of the Office of Publications at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
However, it is American illustrator and graphic designer Bob Gill who stands out for Schaefer.
“His books in particular have helped me weather a lot more storms than most over the years. Much of what he writes about concerning design is fairly unpretentious and simple. The ‘methodology’ – for lack of a better word – is something anyone can learn and execute just by looking and recycling bits of the world around them,” he explains.
“That’s really important to me, especially considering how walled off the profession can be – not just to potential students or practitioners that aren’t in the spotlight, but also to clients and the public at large.
“He’s also the only freelance designer to work on film posters and write about the rejection process while being optimistic about it. That goes a long way when you’re dealing with an industry that’s not only fairly secretive, but also kills work on a regular basis. It’s a decent defence against having your heart broken.”
Making the cut
At Jump Cut projects vary in scope and scale, with the bulk being comprised of trailers, TV spots and key art. Recent projects include the poster artwork for a variety of films including Childhood of a Leader, the arthouse flick following the early years of a future dictator, US comedy The Little Hours, which made its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and documentary about Italian contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan, Be Right Back.
Schaefer’s day is focused on talking to clients, directing key art related projects and seeing how quickly he can generate ideas and execute them to meet each deadline.
“The process is always different, but deadlines have the largest effect on the process. The less time there is on a project, the more I find myself trading on muscle memory to get something done. It becomes an exercise in solving a problem visually as opposed to starting with an idea and executing from there,” he explains.
“I sit down in Photoshop and hack away until I find my footing. That’s not exactly how I’d like to work. I prefer thinking of ideas and scribbling them down until I can sort things out, which is how things used to work in the past, but it’s the direction everything has moved in lately.”
The creative process is determined by the size of the film, its timeline and the number of people involved. Over the years Schaefer has accepted that however much you try to perfect the design process, you can never account for everything.
“It’s a bit of a lottery at the end of the day, but I always aim to work with people rather than against them. Some designers are very particular about their voice being paramount, but that never sat well with me. Everyone has a different relationship to a film and my job is to try and filter all of those perspectives into something that hopefully resonates with people.”
While he is prevented from going into detail about any upcoming projects due to secrecy surrounding current contracts, Schaefer will be releasing new art over the next few months. Fans of The Poster Boys will also be able to enjoy a Planet of the Apes themed edition later in July.
Reflecting on the evolution that has brought him to this point, Schaefer recognises a change in himself to become more curious and eager to question received thinking. He considers his time spent collaborating with other creatives as the most rewarding element.
“There are moments and people that I’ve worked with that have been delightful and I favour those experiences during the process more than the final pieces themselves.”
Check out the latest edition of The Poster Boys podcast here: