Poster child

Poster child --

While storms Gertrude, Henry and Imogen uprooted trees in the local park, my waking hours were spent in the warm glow of the edit suite. The many formats I'm using – 16mm, 8mm and S8mm film, DV, HD, 2.7 and 4K, multiple-sized photographic negs and prints – have been up-ressed, scanned and converted into useable files. Ditto my audio libraries: thousands of clips of ambiences, foley and general weird noises gathered over the years. That our neighbours recently moved out is purely a coincidence.

This I realise is of little interest to anyone watching a film because it’s no different from driving a car. No one thinks about the components under the hood or whether the brakes might fail, just that it will reach its destination. To stretch the analogy, making “Voyageuse” is akin to the lone nutter in a shed building a machine from bits of scrap where the parts have to be hammered into shape. The final product may look attractive but whether it can function is another matter.

I’ve now reached the end of Reel 4 of the 5 reels that make up the film which, barring a few holes in the timeline, is currently running at 80-plus minutes. As I predicted the film’s overlong but rather than make cuts at this stage I’m holding off until this first rough version is finished. Where I’ve laid down basic audio and temp music I can begin to grasp the film's look and feel, aware of how I can never see it in quite the same way as a first-time viewer. In places it’s compelling; quietly humorous and sometimes moving, thanks to Siân Phillips’ brilliant – and bold – performance. What I can't foresee is what, if anything, will happen on completion.

While many filmmakers shout on Twitter, sadly I’m not a natural self-promoter. As Irving Thalberg once said, “The credit you give yourself is not worth having” – a quote I used on the closing credits of my debut feature, ‘One Life Stand’ (2000) which raised a laugh among those who knew about my multi-tasking. However the one role I never assumed was that of publicist. Today it’s common for producers to commission a poster and all the other promotional trappings long before a film goes into production, selling the sizzle, not the steak, to attract finance or pre-sales. But who really knows in advance who their audience is, let alone how best to sell to them?

Not that my film is in any way mainstream but lately I’ve started thinking about a poster because it's essential to have one, even for the most marginal movie, a curiously redundant practice when most films fail to achieve a theatrical release. Still, the idea of a poster persists as a declaration of a film's existence and a first point of contact for any potential audience. As a festival novice I once attended Rotterdam where every inch of public wallspace was plastered in posters. This was a revelation to me. Perhaps I was naive or complacent – my own screening had sold out with zero publicity – so it never occurred to me to have one until my film was selected for Edinburgh, for which I produced a modest homemade one with no shouty review quotes, award laurels (debased these days to include festival selection) or star ratings.

Movie poster design is a highly evolved artform, be it a Polish interpretation of a Hollywood classic or some obscure indie arthouse film. At home I have two movie posters on my wall: ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ (Preston Sturges, 1941) one of my favourite films about filmmaking and ‘This Gun for Hire’ (Frank Tuttle, 1942) because it’s a classic film noir and a reminder that I’m always available for freelance work. I admire the minimalist film posters by Michal Krasnopolski – one of the many designers whose spec work had led to commissions, as evidenced in this article. I also adore the work of Neil Kellerhouse - one of the most innovative designers around, whose poster for 'Under the Skin' (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) must have perplexed the marketers by rendering its star, Scarlett Johansson, almost unrecognisible but is a thing of beauty regardless.

Yet despite all this creativity at the high-stakes end of the business the art of the poster seems ossified, as fixed and as ritual as Kabuki Theatre. How else did the posters for ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Aliens’ wind up so similar? Or those of ‘Titanic’ and ‘Brokeback Mountain’? Why did these films, so diverse and presumably targeted at different audiences, produce almost identical posters? Is there a formula? Only it seems if your film conforms to what is marketable, such as having a name cast and director or based on a successful underlying property.

But here's my dilemma. I'm making "Voyageuse" as a private pursuit wholly outside the conventional industry system, whereas marketing a film is a public promotional exercise. As my husband commented recently - 'if it's a Scottish film, does it exist?' - referring to the fact that my native country is entirely devoid of distributors handling Scottish films and therefore the mechanism to put them on screen. For all the wisdom out there, the practice of 'segmentation' - identifying groups that comprise the potential audience - seems futile, along with roadshow and tentpole releases, elaborate social media campaigns, print ads, celebrity and brand partnerships, persona marketing, press junkets and all the other means of creating awareness.

Who knows? Meanwhile I'm trying to decide which of the thousands of images generated by the film so far can best represent it. A photograph of Erica? A lipstick? An old, battered suitcase? An empty landscape? A cluttered dressing table? A handwritten letter? A scatter of mind-bending drugs? A sinister-looking building?

The above image is a curious one, a series of photos of Erica, probably aged about 8 or 9 using a system of studio photography pre-dating the photo booth that allowed for up to 48 exposures, where the sitter was able to 'converse and act naturally' during the process.

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