The Making of 7 Iconic Movie Posters
The design inspiration for Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Do The Right Thing, and more.
by Tony Pierce
The first images you saw of movies as diverse as Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, and Do The Right Thing were all created by the same man — and you probably don’t know his name.
That man is Tom Martin, a veteran art director who designed thousands of iconic movie posters, billboards, DVD covers, and other pieces of graphic art for movies in the course of his 30-year career.
Martin’s Hollywood story actually began in Ohio in the 1970’s, where he art directed print advertisements and a magazine for a local publisher. When that publisher decided to move to Los Angeles, Martin went along for the adventure.
But in Los Angeles, he quickly tired of designing for magazines and took a job at a small boutique agency where he created a poster for Dressed To Kill — his first movie work.
His work got him noticed and eventually landed him a job at Universal Pictures as a co-creative director and, later, senior vice president.
In those roles, he created imagery for dozens of films and campaigns.
Now, the inspiration for much of that work will be maintained forever as Martin recently donated his collection of sketches, posters, and drawings to The Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library where they will be preserved and made available to researchers.
Martin’s collection offers a glimpse into the world of movie poster design from 1980 through the present, while his papers reflect the transition in design processes from the use of photomechanical layouts to digital compositions.
Following are some of the stories behind his iconic work.
A Hand-Crafted “Strange Brew”
If the poster for the 1983 comedy Strange Brew appears to have a hand-made feel, there’s good reason for that.
Despite the rising prominence of computers and digital design tools, Martin’s work on films like Strange Brew and Diner was still being done in an old-school manner.
“The Strange Brew poster was actually a painting,” he says. “There was much more use of illustration in the ‘pre-digital’ days.”
The process to get the unique look was laborious.
“You’d photograph the painting and get a color transparency,” says Martin. “Then you’d have to scan the transparency to create the four printing plates: CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black). That’s what you’d print from, it was this whole analog process. It was all analog and done by hand. We did a lot of hand-retouching with an actual airbrush prior to the advent of Photoshop.”
The Hunt For A “Jurassic Park” Logo
While at Universal, one of the most unique design challenges Martin faced came from Jurassic Park director Steven Spielberg.
The assignment? Create a logo that could brand both the movie and the fictional theme park in it.
“We visited the set during the production and saw some of the dinosaurs and props,” says Martin. “They were actually going to have branded products, merchandise in the store in the film. They needed a logo to put on the items in the gift shop.”
Even though Martin had the help of his design group at Universal, it was customary to farm out some of the work with vendors and boutiques like the one he had come from. Each agency who agreed would get paid for their work and if the art was chosen for the film, that company would receive a “usage fee”.
“I worked with a couple different vendors — we came up with a big book of logos and the studio didn’t like anything in particular. Hundreds of logos,” Martin explained.
Ultimately, they turned to the dinosaur logo that had been used on the cover of the original Michael Crichton novel.
“Chip Kidd, who’s a renowned book cover designer created the skeleton drawing,” says Martin. “We adapted his graphic into the circle and the type based on a quick, 1-inch thumbnail sketch the film’s production designer had sent over.
But Martin believed the movie logo needed more than just the dinosaur image from the book. He found a classic typeface (Newland), and added an inline for depth.
“We added this little jungle scene at the bottom in order to give it scale because without that the dinosaur could be any size — it could be a baby,” he explained. “With the jungle below it made the dinosaur look huge. That’s my contribution to making that logo work.”
An All-Star Search For A “Schindler’s List” Design
On a very different Steven Spielberg film, Schindler’s List, some of the submissions that weren’t chosen as the final poster are as interesting as the one that was due to the fame of their designers.
Tony Seiniger, Anthony Goldschmidt, and Bill Gold were among the designers who took a crack at the poster. And then there was legendary designer Saul Bass.
“It was one of the high points of my career,” Martin says. “I was in a meeting at a sound studio and it was Saul Bass, Steven Spielberg, and myself, in a room, looking at Saul’s poster.”
Even though Bass was well established at that point in his career he still fought for his ideas and pitched his posters to Spielberg with as much conviction as anyone.
“There was still that competitive drive,” Martin remembers. “Saul was still competitive. He still wanted to be chosen, still… wanted that approval.”
Unfortunately for Bass, his work ultimately lost out to independent art director Georgia Young who designed the final poster.
Memorable posters start with memorable ideas — and one of those came easy to Martin for the 1988 comedy Twins.
He was instantly inspired when he discovered Michael Gross was a producer working with Ivan Reitman on the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Danny DeVito buddy film.
“Michael was former art director of Esquire, and National Lampoon and one of my design heroes,” says Martin. “In the early-to-mid ’70 it was Michael Gross and Michael Salisbury who were art director “rock stars” that I eventually had the opportunity to work with.
Gross was the art director who infamously put the gun to the dog’s head on the cover of National Lampoon. He also created the Ghostbusters logo.
The pair hired celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz for the poster shoot and kept it simple.
“We presented the three poster series and people cracked up,” says Martin. “It instantly captured the essence of the film in the simplest, least amount of words and pictures. The whole campaign was three posters, scattered billboards all over the country. It was one of the few print advertising campaigns that got written about and positively reviewed.”
The creative flow didn’t end there
“I came up with the copy line, ‘Only their mother could tell them apart.’ It just captured the ludicrousness of the concept of the film,” says Martin. “I like the fact that it’s conceptual, it’s not decoration, it’s not just style or effects. The concept can be communicated as a little sketch and it’s be as funny as the finished poster. It’s one campaign I’m most fond of.”
“Do The Right Thing” In The Valley
Spike Lee’s 1989 tour-de-force Do The Right Thing might be an iconic Brooklyn, New York movie, but its poster originated thousands of miles from there.
“Spike came out here and we shot on the Universal back lot with Danny Aiello and Spike,” says Martin. “It’s actually one shot. We created the set in the back lot, got a crane and police cars, rented a taxi we brought the costumes in, and wardrobe… and the pizza box, and actually shot it all in one shot.”
During his time at Universal, Martin went on to work on several posters for Spike Lee films. One of the more striking ones was for Jungle Fever starring Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra.
“The image for ‘Jungle Fever’ is actually based on a photo series of an interracial couple that I recalled from a ‘60s magazine called Eros — it got the publisher, Ralph Ginzberg, convicted of obscenity at the time,” says Martin.
“We got permission from the photographer to recreate the shot for the poster. The man’s hand in the poster is actor Djimon Hounsou who was modeling at the time. Djimon went on to become an actor and star in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, which I also designed the poster for.”
A Visit To “Babe”
Some of Martin’s projects are as memorable to him for what he saw on set as the designs themselves.
For Babe, Martin convinced his bosses to fly him and a photographer to Australia to properly piece together the colorful poster.
“That was like a sleeper hit,” Martin says of the eventual Academy Award Best Picture nominee. “I was at the studio at the time and nobody paid much attention to it because they thought it was a silly children’s film, I don’t think they got it.”
But Martin had a history with the film’s director, George Miller, having worked with him previously on Lorenzo’s Oil.
“I was one of the only people from the studio that made the effort to go down to Australia where they were filming Babe,” he says.
When he got there, Martin saw dozens of pigs and hundreds of animals in and around the set.
“It was fascinating because they basically were filming on location in Australia and hills outside of town. They had a working farm where they were raising and training the animals, especially Babe, because they could only use the piglets for two or three weeks and then they’d have to bring in a new piglet — because they would quickly grow and outgrow the role. They’d have multiple pigs, they have to train them, shoot for them two weeks, and bring in the next one. It was a fascinating, logistical operation.”
Martin was interested in having accurate representations of all the animal characters so they took photographs of them and assembled it all on a computer.
“We photographed all these animals so that they were all consistently lit and at the right angle,” he says.
Sketching An Eddie Murphy Comedy Classic
One of the most exciting aspects of Martin’s donated collection is the chance to see early sketches of his work and trace its development.
“You always have ideas, they’re not always good ideas,” Martin said. “Whether or not it’s appropriate — or you can sell it — that’s another thing.”
For the Eddie Murphy comedy Coming to America, Martin created dozens of small of sketches on tracing paper. Each sketch included notes on the side to highlight specific details like “sitting on subway platform” and “trash cans.”
As the design process continued, the decision makers — including the director, studio, and occasionally the actors — would weigh in and the thick stack of sketches would start to thin.
Those few were then rendered into cleaner sketches that look much more like what the poster would look like.
The nearly-finished sketches were put on a wall alongside other sketches from outside agencies and the decision-makers picked their favorite.
And the rest is movie poster history.
Tom Martin has been an Academy member since 1993.
Most recently he’s been working on film posters for various independent films and filmmakers. He also has two of his own film projects in development; a musical comedy with director Penelope Spheeris and an action/superhero comedy based on a graphic novel that he co-created with musician, Ziggy Marley.
Thanks for reading! Here are some other posts you may enjoy:
The stories behind his iconic photos.medium.com
Necessity is the mother of invention, or in this eye-opening case, inspiration.medium.com