No Spoilers, No Clichés - Jay Shaw’s Poster Art

Interview by Yetkin Nural

“Teaser” – the opposite of “spoiler”. That is what poster designer and artist Jay Shaw gives us for films – he arouses curiosity for the unfamiliar eye, while giving a knowing wink of brilliance. It is rare to find a designer who can present the subject of a film without giving too much away. Bant Mag. reached out to find out more about how he does what he does.

Out of all the endless way of channeling your creativity, how did you end up re-imagining film posters? What is the attraction of this forma?
About six years ago a company called Mondo released a screen-printed poster by an artist named Tyler Stout for “The Thing”. I happened to be looking for a one-sheet at the time and a web search led me to that poster. It was available for purchase for a week or something so I bought one and instantly fell in love when it arrived. I’d seen screen prints before but the quality on this one was very high. I really dug the illustration and unique take on the subject. That was pretty much the “spark”, if you will.

There is a very rich and captivating quality to your work, which requires a strong skill for reduction. You take a film, and imagine a poster focusing on one central image that captures that movie’s core, for both the audience who has seen the film and those who have not. Can you tell us a bit about your thought process?
You described it well. The distillation of a film to its core elements is the goal with most of my work. I feel like it’s the most effective way to communicate with the film’s audience. The art might only have their attention for a second or two so it’s got to speak clearly. The posters I find myself most attracted to are able to do that perfectly. There’s a Bill Gold poster for the original “Get Carter”. It features a photograph of an unmade bed with a sniper rifle leaned against the bedpost. The tagline reads “He can do two things better than anybody”. It drives me crazy how wonderful that poster is. I’ll never make anything that great but it’s a nice goal to have.

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What is the process of creating the poster from the original idea?
The concept is really most of the work. Once I’ve got an idea I’m happy with and I’ve shared a rough sketch with the client the rest is just figuring out how to best render the thing. Each job is different. Some require screen-printing so my color palette is limited – others need to work well as a big poster in a theater lobby. I don’t like to rule out any particular medium unless it’s completely impractical. I’d love to get into photography a bit more. I’m not terribly good at it but I’ve had some projects recently I think would have benefited from photographic treatments. I might take some classes.

I have read that you are particularly inspired by the late 19th Century Polish poster design, which clearly has an influence on your work too.  What is about that school of aesthetics that you find special?
There’s an energy and a rawness in those posters that I find beautiful. When someone says “film art” I always think of Polish posters. They seemed far less concerned with marketing and far more concerned with creating interesting imagery based on stories. Either that or marketing in Poland is completely crazy and awesome.

Are there any other inspirations behind your work?
My work is purely inspired by others. I try to soak in as much art as I possibly can. Whether it’s mid-century commercial typography or modern home design. Everything is fun to look at in one way or another. The internet can truly be an endless gallery of inspiration from every discipline. One of my favorite things to do is sit on the couch with my iPad and browse art pages I’ve never seen before. I could do that for hours.

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Do you know about the movie posters that were made in Ghana back in 80’s and 90’s? http://www.ghanamovieposters.com/ What are your thoughts on re-imaging that really feeds on the local aesthetic culture. 
Honestly I’m not fond of those posters. I’ve seen a few up close and I’m just not sure about them. They’re so poorly rendered! I know a few people who collect those and I can’t help but chuckle when I see one in a frame. I’m probably too dumb to understand their brilliance.

What do you think about the posters that the cinema industry put out nowadays? 
It really depends on the poster and the film. Not every film needs an artist to come in and render the soul of the movie in poster form. Sometimes Adam Sandler’s giant goofy head serves the film perfectly. More and more I’m seeing studios take greater care in the marketing of their films though. Especially mid-level and independent studios. I also think there’s a lot more room these days for risk taking films. We’re not in a renaissance just yet but I think we will be. At that point I could see film art becoming important again.

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I have noticed that a sizeable part of your movie posters are either cult classics and horror movies. Can you confide in us about the passions and obsessions of your inner movie geek?
Honestly, that’s just the stuff I get hired to do the most. I love genre films but my favorite things to watch are romantic comedies and documentaries. I’ll take Romancing the Stone over Cannibal Ferox any day of the week.

Movie posters might be a large part of what you do, but I know you design for other areas as well, like music bands such as Divine Fits, for example. How does designing for music differs from designing for films?
When you’re designing for films you’re much more limited in what you’re able to do. A film already has a story and a thematic template. It’s got visuals and tone long before the poster artist comes along. The artist’s job is to interpret someone else’s creation and present it for mass consumption. With bands you’re often set free to come up with your own visual narrative. Some bands like to direct the art but quite a few would rather the artist have free reign.

What I’ve noticed is that people who primarily work in music art don’t work as well with film art and vice versa. It’s an odd transition that seems to trip a lot of artists up. It takes me far longer to come up with something for a band than it does for film.

Other than cinema and music, are there any other fields / areas that tingles your designer senses? 
Any type of commercial art gets me excited. I love package design and typography and signage and color theory. I love looking at a box of detergent from the 70s and imagining what the designer was thinking when they created it. I love watching commercials on television and assessing how they could communicate the message better. I genuinely love being marketed to.

What are you working on nowadays?
I’m juggling dozens of projects right now. Unfortunately the details of these things are always secret. Lots of posters and album covers and blu-ray art. I’d love to participate in more exhibitions but I never find time to do it. I’m hoping to take some time off this year and just skateboard with my kid everyday but I probably won’t. Someone will need some weird thing created and I won’t be able to say no.

*This interview was originally published on Bant Mag. No: 29, released in April 2014.

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