We pass it in our cars, on the subway, or in our Netflix queue: key art, a.k.a The Movie Poster. It’s one of those design objects that we see everywhere and yet we rarely stop to think about the people behind the work. Once upon a time, key art was a largely formulaic process; assembled like a kit of parts depending on the genre it represented. Romantic comedies emphasized the will they won’t they dynamic of their leads with jaunty back to back poses, while action flicks tended to favor an explosion or a series of fast-moving cars flanking the lone hero, inevitably played by Nicolas Cage (at least 50% of the time).
But today’s more compelling movie posters—on billboards, and online—are the one’s that aren’t reduced to clichés, and Los Angeles based studio Percival + Associates has been bringing innovation to the field of entertainment design since 2012. Led by founder Andrew Percival, his team of 12+ designers injects each poster with elements of avant-garde graphic design, fashion photography, and experimental typography. “Those are the things that interest me,” Percival says, “creating work that doesn’t draw from the standard entertainment design that one typically sees.”
P+A’s home is at Sunset & Gower studios, a working movie lot dating back to the golden age of Hollywood. In fact, P+A’s origin story reads like something you’d see in the movies. Percival studied design and film production at Brighton Polytechnic in England and later moved to the US on a lottery green card. With aspirations of working in Hollywood, he took various odd jobs around LA, and by happenstance landed a receptionist gig at Frankfurt Balkind, one of the premiere entertainment advertising agencies in LA at the time. Between answering phone calls, Percival started writing copy for the agency, until one of the partners gave him a sink-or-swim opportunity to become an art director.
Percival explains that this all took place in the late ’90s, “an era of the big idea and the reduction of the film’s property into its purest form.” It was also a point in time when movie poster compositions featured “a lot of big heads in the sky,” not hugely aspirational for a designer, he says. Despite this, Percival learned his craft and moved up in the field, eventually securing a senior level position at another agency called Mojo, which grew ten-fold while he was working there.
In 2012, the partners at Mojo decided to close the company, giving employees only a few weeks notice before they’d all be out of work. Rather than seeing the design team disperse across the city, Percival made the decision to form Percival + Associates, bringing the whole group with him. “It all happened so fast,” he explains. “We left Mojo on a Friday, and started work at P+A on a Monday.” That was six years ago, and they’ve since worked with studios like Warner Bros., Focus Features, and A24 as well as major networks like HBO and FX.
One of the major projects P+A is known for is designing the provocative campaigns for FX’s American Horror Story, most recently for Season 7, AHS: Cult. Drawing from metaphors associated the loss of individuality and the notion of the “hive mind,” P+A created a figure whose head is literally made of a hive, buzzing with obedient worker bees and oozing with lurid honey.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Todd Heughens, senior VP of Print Design at FX Networks said the commonality in all the diverse AHS campaigns is that “you’re immediately drawn to it and repulsed by it at the same time.” For his part, Percival credits the collaborative spirit at FX. “They are a very creative group over there, and really embrace and celebrate photography,” he says. “When we come up with an idea or a concept they are excited about, it almost perfectly gets captured on camera.”
Percival says that given the wide spectrum of clients and content that the studio works with, it’s difficult to say that P+A has a “signature style.” What is consistent in their work is their thoughtful yet dynamic use of typography, like on the poster for Sofia Coppola’s civil-war era drama The Beguiled, for which the design team made the decision to flip the orientation of the formal typeface from horizontal to vertical—a move that both modernizes the composition and emphasizes the cloistered, claustrophobic nature of the film.
Another standout use of typography can be seen on the poster for the recent French arthouse horror film Raw, a cannibalistic coming of age story so intense people reportedly fainted during early screenings. Despite its shocking content and visuals, Percival says its not a genre film, and treating the key art as such would have been misrepresentative.
“For a movie about a young woman’s sudden craving for human flesh, it’s actually very non-sensational and quite clinical in its approach to cannibalism,” Percival says. “What we wanted to achieve with the poster is to just subtly hint at the fact that something pretty bad is afoot. Pun definitely intended.” The designers chose to incorporate a restrained typography to juxtapose the film’s extreme content.
Today, working in entertainment design means producing imagery that will remain equally intriguing at the scale of a billboard or the size of a thumbnail on our laptops and cellphones. Percival says that streaming services like Netflix have revolutionized the industry as it’s pushed companies to research new approaches in how to operate, and has allowed for more experimentation throughout the creative process for designers.
“Ten or 15 years ago, we had a distinct and clear path towards a one-sheet with a studio,” Percival says. “Those norms have been disrupted, and it’s changed how we work and collaborate, what our goals are, and how we present campaigns. It also forces us to consider what imagery is valuable on the user interface of streaming services. What piece of art is going to compel the user to press play?”
Percival says it’s both an exciting and profitable time to be apart of the entertainment design industry, but the success of a campaign is often measured by the willingness of the client to explore uncharted design territories.
“There is so much interesting work being created by designers across the industry, but rarely does it see the light of day,” he explains, “It’s the client who becomes a creative partner and deserves equal credit for producing a great campaign. Without those [production company’s] fighting for quality and meaningful work, those campaigns would never have been stand-out pieces of key art and reference points for this discussion.”