Touching the Void

Searching for cinema that soothes? Ella Kemp suggests it could be as simple as looking for a film poster with a white background.

How many weeks has it been? When did any of us last go blindly into a cinema and take a chance on something new? Film-watching in the time of Covid-19 has changed. The immediate and never-ending news of the world is frightening. Is it still, and more than ever, okay for me to sink into movies to alleviate my mood, just for a bit? How is that even possible when the world has come to a standstill?

We are forced to adapt, and it has taken some time for my attention span and emotional capacity to adjust. But I think I might have found a solution, and I have the meticulous list-makers of Letterboxd to thank. It was Izzy’s list of comfort movies that first lit the fuse. Specifically, the second, third and fourth row; films including Billy Elliot, Clueless, School of Rock.

Fifteen stark posters, speaking one truth: We are vulnerable and nervous. What we need is a film poster with a white background to assure us the movie exists entirely to serve and soothe us.

Part of Izzy’s comfort movies list.
Part of Izzy’s comfort movies list.

List-making on Letterboxd has never been more prolific. Pandemic movies, overdue filmography catch-ups, comfort movies galore. Everyone categorizes and logs their watches differently, but Izzy’s pattern speaks to me with an epiphanic answer. I’ve always admired successful color-coding, but now I see its crucial function.

As I scroll for distraction, for something guaranteed to be good (because I cannot and will not be subject to any uncertainty I can avoid), I see the rainbow. The pale blues of Studio Ghibli, Wong Kar-wai’s passionate reds, the pastels of Netflix Original breezy romances. Like some kind of cinematic ikebana, countless Letterboxd members have mastered the art of arranging film posters. There are standouts: the staggering oeuvre that is Gordon’s chromatic roundup of favorite posters; the comprehensive color-graded history of women directors via their best posters, courtesy of Vanessa; and the penchant for beige in the year 2015, as spotted by Letterboxd co-founder Matthew Buchanan.

A selection of Gordon’s favorite movie posters.
A selection of Gordon’s favorite movie posters.

But when I see these 300 examples, color-coded by typography and accents by Sera Ash, I recognize that white movie posters are the ones most likely, in this very strange time, to take care of me. I see it in three distinct filmmaking periods: Disney animations from the 1940s and 50s, the video marketing for cult comedies of the 1980s and 90s, and the alternative marketing materials of my favorite films of the 2010s. Each poster is straightforward and inoffensive. It captures the story, but never dares to impress or intimidate beyond basic description.

A 1975 re-release poster for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
A 1975 re-release poster for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

In 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs announced the birth of Walt Disney’s feature-length empire. While its original theatrical poster is also mostly white, it is represented on Letterboxd by a 1975 re-release poster depicting a peek through the keyhole: a curved triangle framing Snow White, the dwarves, and the two sides of the jealous queen, against a vivid green forest. In the bottom corner, a castle. To the left, the title—her name in red cursive, theirs in black. These simple images come together to present an elementary summary of the ingredients within. The white frame showcases the seminal animation craft without suggesting the viewer diverts their eye anywhere else.

This technique was common across other animated titles, collected in lists like dantebk’s Disney animated classics. Pinocchio toys with the hyperreal relationships between characters alive and wooden, human and animal—but does so on a plain canvas, so that the magic remains within reach. Dumbo, Bambi, Cinderella, Peter Pan—each follows suit. Whether with the mustard yellow of a circus tent, the faint sketches of grass tufts, the gold dust of an enchanted fairy godmother or the ink blue of a midnight starry sky, these colors (indicative of each defining scene-setter or mood-maker) only pepper a blank background, and so make their significance ever greater with the most sporadic touches.

A selection from dantebk’s list of Disney animated classics.
A selection from dantebk’s list of Disney animated classics.

Live-action knockouts from these decades—films like The Shop Around The Corner and The Red Shoes—embrace painted recreations of their protagonists (Margaret Sullivan and James Stewart as festive lovers in the former, Moira Shearer as a tortured ballerina in the latter) and use the color red as a signifier of romance, against a plain white page, to set the mood. Slashes and splashes of red have been used to create a vibe in genre cinema for many decades—a trend deftly chronicled in this list by Rocks.

As far as we know, the underpinnings of digital photography began in the 1950s, and the first published color digital photograph dates back to 1972, when Michael Francis Tompsett shot a photo of his wife Margaret for the cover of Electronics magazine. Consumers got their hands on the gear in the late 1990s, but movie studios really started to make the most of sharp digital photography and stark white backgrounds for their striking posters from the late 1980s onwards. Because, never mind the multiplex, the video store is where you wanted your comfort fare to stand out in the 1980s and 90s.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Say Anything… (1989) form a handsome, trend-setting 1980s pair. While the theatrical poster for Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything… deigned to include John Cusack’s co-star, Ione Skye, by the time of the film’s video release, the focus is clearly on pre-High Fidelity Cusack, as proud underachiever Lloyd Dobler, smouldering lopsidedly under the weight of a boombox. It’s the singular image of the film to this day.

Meanwhile, Matthew Broderick as Ferris-slacking-Bueller is making the most of his title activity, arms behind his head, a proud smirk on his face. Nothing else matters except that these charismatic young stars are stepping up to leading-man status. The white background accentuates the star power of these new boys in town, embracing the limelight in one fell swoop.

Star power is everything: beautiful people doing simple things against empty backdrops, because what could be more important than the regularity of symmetrical bone structure, of familiar charm? The trend boomed in the 1990s and 2000s, in films widely embraced by casual moviegoers. The sort who list “watching Netflix” as a Sunday activity on dating profiles and use the Christmas holidays to rewatch comedies they have memorized over dozens of half-attentive viewings (absolutely zero judgement here!).

The vast majority of these films have white posters. Who is your soothing cup of charm: Tom Hanks on a bench, nothing more nothing less, from 1994’s Forrest Gump? Or Heath Ledger, effortlessly cool, leaning on the brown corduroy armchair Julia Stiles sits in for the 10 Things I Hate About You poster from 1999? (The 90s harnessed the increased appeal of having two lookers just sitting and posing against a plain background, as demonstrated in this chilling list by Ashley.)

Ashley’s list of couples posing in front of a white background.
Ashley’s list of couples posing in front of a white background.

Will Ferrell had been earning his stripes as an actor for years, but he changed the movie comedy game as Buddy the Elf in 2003. There’s plenty of visual humour in Elf, but Ferrell’s coat-stand posture bedecked in festive green velvet and those tights is… enough. A white background lets the ridicule slide, just.

How many Disney series really deserve a whole movie—and one that stands the test of time? Lizzie McGuire, resting on her tiptoes with a swinging suitcase in hand, sells The Lizzie McGuire Movie like no idyllic views of Rome ever could. It’s reaching out to an audience loyal to the character, one who will follow her to the ends of the Earth, or at least to another continent. Hilary Duff could be doing almost anything on this poster and it would achieve the same effect—so long as the white background remains plain enough to keep eagle-eyed fans on the main event at all times.

It’s surprising that the star-making system only let Meryl Streep appear in a tiny box, one of four character tiles, on the poster for The Devil Wears Prada in 2006. But the design here taps into 1940s animated sensibilities, giving prominence to a devilish red Macguffin larger than the humans. It still achieves the same function—a glossy, glamorous design with the accessible sell of a quotable, star-fuelled comedy.

Red may be the color of romance and the devil; it’s also the color of comedy. Exhibit A: the 2007 gross-out comedy Superbad, whose star power—marking the emergence of Jonah Hill and Michael Cera—is used to an opposite and impressive effect on its poster. The awkwardness of these teen boys—lanky, unkempt, insecure—is what cinches the comedy. The simplicity of the poster design, with their uncomfortable posture against, well, nothing at all, further anchors their incapability of facing the world in any confident way, shape or form.

There are countless more examples, like Marley & Me, Bridesmaids, 27 Dresses (notice how the red type is replaced by pink when the film’s plot veers toward the altar). But to understand the curious and timeless appeal of the white movie poster, what happened to it in the 2010s cements its adaptable strength.

As the art of graphic design has continued to bloom, the aesthetic argument for the colorless color-block movie poster has shifted to embrace a film’s context. Consider Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, the enjoyable 2015 drama that provided Michael Fassbender one of the most under-celebrated roles of his career, playing the late Apple co-founder. The poster turns the canvas into a blank screen: the title is typed, the text insertion point poised, waiting for the next key press. As Jobs, Fassbender occupies the bottom right corner, in profile, thinking.

This starkness makes sense: what’s next, Steve? It offers a rare example of a poster from the past decade that fully leans into the monochrome aesthetic entirely on purpose—to serve the restrained and unequivocal need for white. (And it’s interesting to compare with the marketing narrative for an earlier film about another tech leader: observe how Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg eyeballs us from The Social Network’s dark-mode poster.)

Comfort movies don’t own the white poster, of course. Jordan Peele’s Get Out toys, both in its marketing and its delivery, with the binaries of black and white. It’s deployed on-screen with sophisticated horror, and this extends to its two most graphic poster variants.

While one poster sees Daniel Kaluuya’s character, Chris, sat on a chair split vertically between black and white, the all-white poster allows only a center-frame letterbox to reveal Chris’s enormous eyes, accompanied by an all-caps type treatment. The vast expanse of white only makes the image more menacing, framing the claustrophobia so effectively. The landscape crop is a device that defines stern dramas as much as arthouse comedies, as documented by Haji Abdul Karim in their expansive list.

Haji Abdul Karim’s list of white-with-landscape-image posters.
Haji Abdul Karim’s list of white-with-landscape-image posters.

But back in the ‘comfort’ realm, we’re seeing more and more that the marketing wants to have it both ways—the negative with the positive; the art house audience and the multiplex crowd. As genres blend, demographics collapse and audiences become more fluid, a film’s advertising needs to speak more languages.

Two ultra-comfort films from last year demonstrate this idea well. The poster for Judy sees a backlit Renée Zellweger finding her light, receiving her applause. Black is the key color, right down to the classic little black dress; the eye is drawn to the title, spelled out in red sequins. It’s showbiz, it’s drama. Though the film itself fudges a few of the more uncomfortable facts of the star’s story, it’s still honest about her addictions.

In the white-background version, which was more widely distributed, Zellweger, in a floral dress, turns away from the light. The name still sparkles, but in softened gold. There’s no less glamor, the stakes in the film are just as high, but she’s perhaps more accessible like this. The focus, as it was in the 90s, 80s, 40s, returns to the main event.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, too, played with dark and light. The indie queen released her previous film, Lady Bird, via design-conscious distributor A24, and Gerwig’s singular aesthetics promised that her Little Women remake would be worlds away from all the others. But when the first images for the film were released, the marketing campaign was questioned by die-hard Gerwig fans.

Both of the group posters are curiously stripped back, freezing Louisa May Alcott’s beloved March sisters in a moment. In the darker image, they gaze out a window, secure in their festive domestic bubble, but set on what’s beyond. There’s more to life, and the film, than this room. It feels more lush, painterly, certainly more dramatic.

Whereas the white poster, at first, seemed like a mistake. It took one of the first images teased from the film and just… dropped it onto a poster. The March sisters look as if solidified by clay, entirely undynamic and at odds with the fluidity and warm soul Gerwig had made herself known for in her filmmaking.

And yet, nothing matters more than these characters. Beth, Jo, Meg and Amy are holding each other, happy, each in their own favourite color, and there is nothing more to fight over. The white-poster alternative lets the 2010s viewer stay attached to the most important part of the film.

The lessons here? A white poster is a vital sign that you’re safe here. You’ve made the correct choice. Attention spans are dwindling, options are expanding, focus is difficult. The promise of a white frame tells me what matters, what is good, where I should place my time and my value. For now.


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