As I was waiting for my friends to arrive at the theatre the other night, I was standing right in front of the poster for The Force Awakens. I observed how, from a design perspective, it’s essentially Composition 101.
One characteristic of good art is the right mix of dynamism and order. Think of Jackson Pollock: the individual gesture of splattering paint is chaotic and turbulent, but hundreds of gestures next to and on top of each other becomes a pattern. In a sci-fi movie poster, you need lasers and spaceships and explosions, but there has to be an underlying logic to how it is presented so that it becomes inviting to the eye, not threatening. Sometimes this order is subtle, working on a subconscious level. In this poster it is Tarantino-like in it’s obviousness, which makes it fun to dissect.
Images need a focal point. In this poster it is Rey’s eyes. The designer (apparently Bryan Morton, who is credited as the art director) has made sure that you won’t miss it by placing her eyes at the center of a giant X, right about at the point at which the red and blue light sabers would intersect if you traced their paths across the page.
An X is a solid compositional structure. It shows dynamic movement – a line moving diagonally upwards crossed with a line moving diagonally downwards (and this is true whether you read left to right or right to left) – and also perfect symmetry, which is a stabilizing element. It’s like Econ 101!
So – you’ve got your dynamism and your order. There is actually another line you can trace, from Kylo Ren’s shoulder through Rey’s eyes to the “equator” of the Starkiller base, forming an asterisk, and another separate but pretty obvious X above the title, formed by extending the trajectories of the aligned stormtrooper heads. These structure the image, just like architectural beams.
That’s not all. There’s a lot of junk going on on the right side, but all of it is tinted blue. All of the junk on the left is tinted red. So even though the detail demands a lot of the viewer, the two-color symmetry provides a calming effect. Finish off the two circles implied by the Starkiller planet and the red lightsaber glow, and you’ve got a textbook example of how to compose an image that’s got a thousand things going on it it, but is still orderly.
If you were an abstract artist, you could do a lot worse than to mimic this structure. There are other organizing patterns here which have a narrative purpose – for instance, the heads get smaller as you go down the page – but I’m thinking of just the visual composition.
This is probably a stretch (and when I say probably I mean definitely), but upon reflection, this poster reminded me of Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo. Architecturally speaking, perhaps nothing is more stable than a pyramid, so when Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the holy family inside of a circular panel, he structured the figures by depicting them as a series of triangles, with the heads of the figures providing counterpoint as an upside-down triangle.
The intersecting lines of The Force Awakens poster similarly form a network of triangles – not that I think that Morton was using Michelangelo as his inspiration.
There’s something here which I would have classified as a #fail if I thought that it was unintentional, but I know that nothing in this is unintentional. Rey’s stick and Kylo’s lightsaber line up with each other perfectly, so that it almost appears as if she is gripping the red-hot beam in her hands.
In this type of collage format, this is a total no-no. They’re not in the same scene together. Their weapons should be askew, or overlapping, or separate altogether. In design terms, this is akin to the cardinal sin of non-overlapping forms: is this guy standing in front of a horizon, or is he balancing a big blue box on his head? One object needs to clearly overlap the other – to avoid the optical illusion, and to establish the correct relationship, or non-relationship, between the objects.
Well, I don’t know why it works here, but it does. I don’t think there’s any coded symbolism here about Rey’s ability to wield a saber, or that she’s taking command of the bad guy, or that she parallels him or anything like that. I think the designers figured that if their lined crossed into an X it would spoil the balance of the larger X; there would be too much going on over on the left hand side, so they made Rey’s stick look like a shadow of the glowing beam. It’s only a bad idea if it doesn’t work. But it does.
Finally, just out of curiosity, I decided to apply the Golden Ratio to this image. The Golden Ratio is a series of rectangles based on a logarithmic spiral – the visual representation of the Fibonacci numerical sequence – which allegedly yields the most pleasing results when applied to visual arrangements. There’s apparently a lot of palaver about it in The Da Vinci Code, which I did not read, but sometimes if you overlay the Fibonacci spiral or a Golden Rectangle on an image (how about you, Mona Lisa?), you can see that various focal points or areas of interest have been placed – wittingly or not – according to the harmonious ratios dictated by this formula. And this poster nails it, with the curve following the edge of Starkiller and resolving precisely on Rey’s eyes, the focal point of the image.
This might have been intentional; more likely, it’s just the instinct of an experienced designer. Or maybe it’s not instinct? Maybe it’s? could it be…?