A poster is often the first glimpse into the visual world of a film, and as such its composition can be just as important as that in the film itself. Great composition and structure plays a key role in storytelling as it directs the audience’s attention in a way that is visually appealing and makes clear sense.

Using varying techniques it can instantly convey information, mood and subtext – guiding us to intuitively hone in on the deeper meanings and themes present in the plot.

In this article, I will outline some popular ways that you can use composition and structure to your advantage in drawing people into the world of your film.

A bird’s eye view

A poster that utilises a wide aerial shot suggests that the story of film exists in a wider world. Although it may intimately follow the fortunes of a few characters, their struggles are reflective of bigger forces at play. Some good examples of this are ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ which shows a ship looking like a toy in contrast to both the expanse of sea and the shadow of a whale and ‘Supremacy’ which powerfully depicts the underlying tension in a suburban neighbourhood.

This idea can also be reversed with a ‘worm’s eye view’ as in the poster for ‘San Andreas’ – this draws the audience into the action, placing them in a vulnerable position which may reflect the dangerous nature of the world.

In the Heart of the Sea, Supremact & San Andreas poster examples

Split screen

Dividing the poster into can be a way of presenting multiple narratives (as with ‘Love Actually’) or at least different sides to a story – the poster for ‘Suite Française’ depicts the romance between Bruno and Lucile – as well as the opposing viewpoints of Lucile’s mother-in-law. The split screen effect is also used in sci-fi to depict different places in space/time – as in the poster for the TV series ‘Frequency’.

Love Actually, Suite Francaise & Frequency poster examples

What’s your frame of mind?

Adding a frame to a poster is a fairly old technique that is now used to evoke a retro vibe (‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’) but can also be used to more dynamic effect by playing on the meta-commentary that reminds us we are watching a story and not real-life. Some great examples are ‘The Favourite’ where the characters spill out far beyond the frame – suggesting this is no conventional historical drama, and ‘Memento’ – where the use of polaroids inside one another indicates a mystery to be uncovered.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Favourite & Memento poster examples

Taking up space

Negative space is a key element in all design as it gives breathing room so people can understand the image and focus on what is important. Some posters go further and use the negative space to tell it’s own story. For example, the negative space in the poster for ‘The Lobster’ shows that the characters are lacking real human connection and in ‘Uncut Gems’, the darkness surrounding Adam Sandler has a narrative angle as well as a visual one.

The Lobster, Uncut Gems & Boyhood example posters

Keep your head up

It’s difficult to talk about poster composition without mentioning this ubiquitous style. Although it’s easy to get messy and wrong, floating heads showing the main characters accompanied by a scene setting landscape shot are very popular – so it’s worth taking a look at the best examples to see how they communicate information and mood – and getting this style down.

Star Trek, Bumblebee & Bridge of Spies poster examples

Everything in its place

Martin Scorsese said “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out”.

The same is true with the art of poster design. A poster designer needs look deep into the heart of the story itself – to decide what needs to be ‘in the frame’ resulting in work that teases the viewer with what makes this film truly unique and ultimately makes them have to watch it.

For graphic design services for your indie film, drop me a line at adam@strelka.co.uk.