Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
Artists often learn from one another, especially with regard to technique. In particular, visual artists—illustrators, painters, and the like—use techniques that writers can adopt, just as the reverse is true.
In this post, we'll take a look at how horror movie poster artists use color to express themes, evoke emotions, and sell films. Microsoft's Bing image browser lets users choose the color (that is, the predominant color) of images. (Other browsers may do so as well; I'm not sure.) This ability helps observers to focus on an artist's exploitation of a particular color as a means of highlighting and conveying themes and emotions.
Sometimes, a writer may be able to accomplish something similar, through description, but, even when doing so is impossible, the painter's use of color can show a writer what the painter emphasized; as a result, the writer can view his or her own subject through the eyes of another artist, one who is, in all likelihood, more visually oriented than writers, in general, as we tend to be more linguistic than visual in our orientation.
Against a black background, a poster for Craig Anderson's 2016 movie Red Christmas shows a round, red Christmas ornament inside which is a human fetus, umbilicus attached. The ornament, transformed by the presence of the fetus into a womb image, drips blood. The poster's text, in white font to the left of the ornament-womb, against the black background, reads, “This Christmas the only thing under the tree is terror.”
By using only the image of the ornament-womb, the artist stresses the metaphor which compares the ornament to a mother's womb. The metaphor also alludes to the birth of Christ, for Jesus's birth is celebrated on Christmas Day, a holiday often represented by the colors green and red. However, blood leaks from the ornament-womb, suggesting the fetus's viability is at risk. Thus, red, which is both one of the colors of Christmas and of blood, fuses the holiday with a suggestion of violence. (In the movie, a woman sought to abort her fetus, but the procedure failed when the clinic was bombed, and her child, a son, survived. Now, on Christmas Day, he returns to exact vengeance.)
The poster seems simple, but it attains depth through the artist's expert used of an image that is both metaphorical and allusive on several levels. Writers frequently use metaphors, too, of course, sometimes as central tropes, but, more often, as figures of speech related to specific narrative points, rather than as an all-encompassing, unifying, central trope. By using metaphors more deliberately and purposefully, writers can heighten and enrich the horror they seek to effect. The tip from this artist to writers seems to be not only to think in images, but also to use metaphors to encapsulate the story's theme.
A poster for Alexandre Aja's 2010 comedy horror film Piranha 3D, a spoof of the 1978 film Piranha, both alludes to and lampoons the famous poster for Steven Spielberg's 1975 horror movie, Jaws. Here are the posters, side by side:
In both posters, positioned at the top center, a young, nude blonde swims upon the surface of the ocean. In the Jaws poster, a shark, its mouth open to show its long, jagged teeth, streaks toward the unsuspecting swimmer. There is no accompanying text; the artist is willing to let the images speak for themselves. In the Piranha 3D poster, a piranha, shown close-up, appears huge in relation to the woman above it. Behind this fish, a school of other sharp-toothed piranha crowd the sea. Their shadowy presence looks eerie, as their features are somewhat indistinct, making them resemble fish, but also plants or rocks, emphasizing their primitive, prehistoric origin. They are clearly a species altogether different from that of human beings. The caption, in title case and sea-green letters, beneath the movie's title, which appears in all-capital, blood-red letters, advises, “Sea, Sex, and Blood—Don't Scream . . . Just Swim!”
The Piranha 3D poster's school of piranha, as opposed to the single shark in the Jaws poster, suggests that the latter movie is many times more horrific than the latter film; after all, an entire school of the deadly fish, not a lone shark, are about to attack the helpless swimmer. The unlikelihood of the swimmer's escaping the predatory piranha by swimming heightens the horror, just as the tongue-in-cheek advice heightens the poster's humor.
Since both posters promote horror movies associated with attacks by marine predators, their dominant color is green; however, the Jaws poster also employs shades and hues of blue (another sea color, reflective of the sky), while Piranha 3D includes grays and red (in the title). In the latter poster, the swimmer is also more clearly seen, as is her golden skin and her blonde hair, which helps her assume presence among the predatory fish that are about to attack her. The woman's placement near the top of each poster devotes much more room to depict the ocean below her. She is small, in comparison to the shark or the school of piranha, which emphasizes her helplessness while highlighting the shark or the size of the school of piranha, which makes them seem all the more formidable.
What lesson does the Piranha 3D poster offer horror novelists and short story writers? If a story is to include humor alongside horror, the humor is apt to arise from the situation. Although the situation itself is horrific, the humor is accomplished by undercutting the horror. The story alternates between presenting scenes that are truly horrific and, at the end (or, sometimes, during) the same scenes, undermining the horror, perhaps with ludicrous advice (swim—maybe you can outpace the piranha) or some other means. Mixing humor and horror is difficult. Before attempting such a feat, it is a good idea to study how screenwriters accomplish this task. Buffy the Vampire Slayer offers some excellent examples.
These posters also show the need to design the action of a scene to maximize its horror. The woman's comparably small size, her isolation—she is alone in the sea—and her utter helplessness in the face of predators much larger than she, increase the horror of her situation. At the same time, the poster's design focuses the action of the scene on the conflict between the woman, as victim, and the shark or piranha as monstrous creatures intent upon attacking, killing, and gorging upon her, even before she dies. A well-planned combination of images can both direct action and unify the scene in which it occurs.
Some horror movie posters use a dominant color because the color is suggested by the film's title (Red Eye, Red Water, Red Christmas); because the color is associated with a holiday or the season of the year during which the story unfolds (Red Christmas uses red; Halloween, orange); because the color has symbolic associations with the movie's subject matter (Red Eye's caption makes it plain that this is one of the reasons for its use of red: “He wants to see your insides”); because it contrasts sharply with, and, therefore, emphasizes, the subject matter or its representation, in the case of The Eyes of Laura Mars, by way of a synecdoche, which shows the whites of her eyes against her shadowed face and a black background); or, in some cases, as an alternate way to convey a condition or a situation (dark blue is often used to represent darkness, as it is in the poster for Poltergeist and many other films, because black is too dark). Doubtlessly, there are many other reasons that a particular color is chosen. What is done with the color is what separates amateur designers and artists from the pros. Use the color selection tab on Bing or the image browser of your choice, and see what you can discover.
Many other horror movie posters show how carefully planned images can convey unity, theme, action, emotion, and other elements of a story using color, the positioning of models (in stories, characters), settings, figures of speech, lighting, camera angles, points of view, and other elements of storytelling and cinema. Studying them can suggest similar ways of accomplishing these goals in a novel or a short story.