Written by Becky Harris
This article is part of a series on how to make films on a small budget, based on the documentary Vanishing Borders. Please check out Alexandra Hidalgo’s article on how to produce a micro-budget feature, Shannon Roe-Butler’s article on how to make a film website, and Carly Mangus’s article on how to create a micro-budget movie trailer.
Making a movie poster with a micro-budget and limited resources can seem like a daunting task at first, especially if you are making the poster for your own documentary. Chances are, you’ve already got fifteen other projects to work on, and making a poster is simply another item on your to-do list. I created this guide to save you as much stress as possible as you design your movie poster.
When I agreed to make the poster for the documentary Vanishing Borders, I had no previous experience designing a movie poster. I did, being a Professional Writing major, know the basics of document design. If you are starting out with hardly any experience, like I did, these tips will help you make a poster that will work for your film both digitally and in print.
Here is the poster I designed:
And here’s what I learned along the way:
1. Find examples of posters for similar films to get inspiration for your own poster.
Creating a movie poster can be a bit overwhelming at first, but remember: many filmmakers have gone before you and struggled through the same process. Learn from their successes and their mistakes. View posters of films that have a similar tone and/or message to your own. When analyzing posters, ask yourself: How did the designer put this poster together? What sorts of images did they use? How did they frame them? What about text? What fonts did they use and where was the text placed?Once you’ve conducted a thorough search, compile a list of four or five posters you really like and use them as your guides. For example, for Vanishing Borders, director Alexandra Hidalgo and I took ideas from four separate film posters—Who Does She Think She Is, I Am Eleven, Life In A Day, and Side Effects—and implemented them into our poster. We especially liked the way photos were framed and the black space used in Life In A Day, and we thought overall this poster’s design would work best for our own purposes. It’s all right to take inspiration from others, as long as you don’t directly copy their work. In fact, it’s encouraged. If you like something someone else did with her or his poster, put it in your own. In contrast, if you find something that you hate in someone else’s poster, learn from that and make a note that you don’t want to use that feature. Taking this step and researching poster designs that are already out there can greatly speed up the brainstorming process.
2. Use good, quality pictures from the get-go.
If you don’t, you’ll have a lot more work to do later on in the design process when you try to work with poor quality images. If you export stills from your documentary, as we did with Vanishing Borders, keep in mind that these images will have the same resolution as your footage. You want to export clear images, which means that scenes with a lot of movement are usually off-limits. I’d recommend exporting multiple versions of each image so you can pick the best one later in the design process. Also, be sure to export stills AFTER you do color corrections. Otherwise, you will have to export them twice, and nobody has time for that. Finally, if you decide to take a photo to use for your final product, know that it will need a very high resolution. Poster sizes vary, but some traditional measures are 11”x17,” 24”x 36,” and 27”x 41”. Although there is some leeway in sizing, make sure that the size you choose for your poster is a common frame size or people will have to custom frame your poster, which can be expensive.
3. Do research on individual design programs.
If you try to use programs like Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign before you know what they are capable of doing, you won’t get very far. Instead, you’ll want to learn what each of these programs is for before you use them. This way, further down the road you won’t have to restart your poster in a different software that does what you want it to do. I used InDesign to create my poster for Vanishing Borders. However, I was unaware at first that InDesign is a program specifically created to put images and text together into a single package after they have already been designed in other programs. Later, when I was editing the poster, I discovered that Photoshop was the program I should have been using to edit images, and Illustrator would have been a better choice for text manipulation. Since I had been using InDesign to complete each of these tasks, I had to go back and edit the photos in Photoshop and the text in Illustrator, then manipulate them and put them back in the InDesign file. If I had done more research and understood each program’s strengths and limitations before beginning the process, I would’ve saved myself a lot of time and hassle.
4. Get help from those more experienced than you.
The Internet can’t do everything for you, and some of us learn best by speaking directly to another human being. If this matches your preferences, try to find someone—a friend or colleague perhaps—who knows their way around these programs and ask for some guidance when you get stuck. If you don’t know anyone personally, reach out to your network of fellow filmmakers. It never hurts to ask for help, and in the poster designing process, sometimes this is what it takes to get the desired end result.
5. Make your poster’s design adaptable.
Posters serve a variety of functions. They need to work online in a smaller format, but they also need to work in print in various sizes, some relatively large. Your poster needs to go on your website, on IMDB, and in other online spaces. It also needs to be printed for festivals and theaters, so it must give an accurate representation of your film’s tone and themes. The images you use on your poster need to work from up close and from far away, so they look decent both in print and digitally. Not only does your poster need to be adaptable in format, but it also needs to give people a sense of what your film is about. The poster is often the first thing the audience sees related to your film, and the first thing their eyes are drawn to; therefore it must intrigue people on their first glance and then convince them your film is worth watching.
6. Practice your strategic file naming skills.
In the process of making a poster, you will create a LOT of files. Different poster drafts, images, text: you will have to work with all of these files to create your finished product. Be sure to use accurately descriptive names for different versions of your poster. For example, when saving the first edition of a poster that saves space for festival laurels, name it “Poster #1 laurels.” Save the version without room for laurels as “Poster #1 no laurels.” Naming files strategically will make your job much easier later in the editing process.
7. Give yourself plenty of time.
Don’t try to complete the project in a couple weeks, because between the multiple drafts, discussions with people involved in the project, and printing, the process will become deceptively long. You don’t want to be crunched for time and end up with in a less-than-satisfactory product, so make sure you give yourself some wiggle room.
8. Get some extra eyes on your work.
Once you have a draft you’re happy with, try printing it, test framing it, and getting a few other people to take a look. Especially if you’ve been working with the same poster for weeks, you are more susceptible to missing minor spelling or placement errors. Collaborating with your graphic design colleagues, fellow filmmakers, and friends and family members will give you a new, fresh perspective on your poster and might help you put the finishing touches on the final product.
To learn more about Vanishing Borders, visit their website, like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Also, check out Alexandra Hidalgo’s article on how to produce a micro-budget feature, Shannon Roe-Butler’s article on how to make a film website, and Carly Mangus’s article on how to create a micro-budget movie trailer. You can visit Becky’s profile here.