Trainspotting's film poster campaign, 15 years on
Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting film is 15 years old this month. The designers of its iconic, often copied, Helvetica-sporting posters, Mark Blamire (now of Blanka and Print-Process) and Rob O’Connor of Stylorouge, talk to us about working on the project and how they arrived at the designs for the film's poster campaign...
CR: The posters for Trainspotting were so unusual when they came out especially the campaign around the characters with one poster introducing each one (I realise there were larger posters with all of them on too). What was your inspiration for this? How did the campaign come about?
Rob O’Connor: Irving Welsh's novel, from which the movie had been adapted, was written from the multiple points of view and in the voices of each of the main characters, and we felt it was important to stress the individuality of those personalities. Only Ewan MacGregor and Robert Carlyle were reasonably well known at this time, so it was quite unusual to take this approach. The characters in the story themselves almost seemed more important than the actors playing the roles.
Mark Blamire: I can remember a few years earlier seeing the individual character posters for the film Reservoir Dogs, designed by Mia Matson at Creative Partnership. It was a really impactful poster campaign at the time. I kind of used this as my challenge to do something which had this power to capture your attention. The Mr Orange poster, by the way, isn’t the reason why we chose orange as the main colour, it's just a happy conicidence.
We had been initially given a still by the film distributors, PolyGram, from the film Backbeat, as a kind of visual guide for creating the Trainspotting poster campaign. But we hated the image and wanted to come up with something better. The film company had approved the idea of the individual shots for a character-based teaser campaign but the main image for the final poster was to be a group shot of the actors in a tight huddle. It wasn’t until we tried to get the actors into the group shots that the friction started. It was at this point that we realised that whilst the characters from the story were in a gang, they were by no means friends who could implicitly trust each other or want to be seen in a tight huddle-style group photo all hugging and being chummy in the manner that was initially planned.
The idea didn’t seem to work, so we took the actors feedback on board and still tried to do the group shot, but got them to shout or fight with each other so they were still in a combined group photo, but it was more aggressive and dangerous. It worked a lot better but it still wasn’t perfect.
It was when we moved on to photograph the individual images for the teaser character posters that it all started to really work. The actors on their own in front of the camera really brought the ideas to life. For example, watching Robert Carlyle transmogrify into his Begbie character when the camera started clicking away was quite a thing to behold. When we got back to the studio and sat down with the photoshoot to try to turn it into posters we realised the group shot approach no longer worked.
We were working on the main poster – and struggling – and also the individual character posters, which came together almost instantly, and seemed to be the only solution worthy of presenting to the client. We had also taken a literary device from the Trainspotting book by Irvine Welsh to introduce the numbering system [in the book it originally starts at number 63 which was confusing for the poster so it got changed to #1 though to #5].
RO’C: That’s right, the numbering used throughout the campaign was a nod to the recurring device used by Welsh in the Trainspotting book – Junk Dilemma #63 – and so on.
MB: It was at this stage that we threw away the idea of the group shot and tried to make a combined version of the individual shots to make the main poster using a grid and boxes to contain each character. We introduced the device of a train station departure board (actually inspired by a British airport’s brand identity guidelines from the 70's which used a yellowy orange colour for its cover) and added the caption 'this film is expected to arrive 02:96 – to continue the theme of the departure board. Also on the early visuals we had used the skull and crossbones dangerous chemical warnings symbol.
But we swapped the yellow for a brighter orange background. This move also paid homage to the original book cover. The film company didn’t like the device and we argued that it needed to be kept, as it conveyed an element of danger in the posters – an argument we eventually lost.
CR: I can still conjure up the image of a skinny Ewan McGregor, soaked and looking very cold. Tell us about your choice of photographer and how those images came about – what was the thinking behind how they looked? The photographer isn’t actually the one you thought you wanted to use for the job, right?
RO’C: The way the actors looked was pretty important – we wanted them to look exactly as they were in the movie – although we also tried them all dressed in black – definitely not to Jonny Lee Miller's liking! They were all wasted and emotionally highly strung, having literally just finished filming some pretty 'high-octane' scenes. They'd actually come straight from shooting the final pick-ups at dawn the same morning of our poster shoot. The poses they adopted were based on characteristics of their personalities and events in the movie. Sick Boy was obsessed with James Bond, Renton has a scene where he dives into a filthy toilet to retrieve some narcotic suppositories, Begbie was always drunk and looking for a fight etc.
MB: We had based our early visuals around a photo shoot by Albert Watson for Arena Homme Plus which had five models all shot in black and white. Again this was another early influence which had steered us into not using colour. We then spent about three weeks trying to get a response from him and he didn’t seem interested at all. We had to go for a meeting with PolyGram, and we had to own up to the fact that we didn't have the guy we wanted to use. It was at this point that they showed us some contact sheets from a series of stills they had commissioned for the film The Usual Suspects from photographer Lorenzo Agius. His portfolio was great and this was backed up by strong ideas and real enthusiasm. He showed us some images by Richard Avedon – black and white images of homeless people in America, which really captured the essence of what we wanted to achieve.
The next thing was to arrange a test shoot with people from the Stylorouge office as stand-ins so Lorenzo could really hone down the ideas and so that we could hit the ground running on the day of the shoot (see some of those shots, above). This approach really worked well as on the day we were all set up and ready to go and from the point the actors arrived we were swept along by his enthusiasm and conviction.
CR: The colour scheme – the black and white photography on white ground with bold orange Helvetica. It’s so strong. How did you settle on that? What was the thinking?
RO’C: Black and white photography, we felt, could be powerful without glamorising what we felt was a tricky subject – what with the abuse of heroin being at the forefront of the storyline. It has a gritty realism, and a Richard Avedon credibility and the slight wide angle lens captured a little humour in the characters. However, it needed an accent colour to make the campaign more memorable – orange was a strong option for this without opting for the average client's ubiquitous favourite colour, red. The choice of orange referred subliminally to warning messages and the visual communication of British Rail – high visibility jackets, signage and so on. The arrow also referred to wayfinding signage. The clear, direct, information-style typography referred to the same visual language, as well as that of warnings found on pharmaceutical packaging.
CR: PolyGram gave you some initial ideas in the form of an image from the Backbeat film - but how much freedom did they give you once you got stuck into the job?
MB: I think we were lucky because the film’s subject matter tapped into the 90's 'youth market' and this was something the film company wanted to pick up on. I think the fact that Stylorouge were doing some amazing work for Blur really put us at the front of the pack for winning the work and for giving PolyGram the confidence to trust our approach.
Trainspotting was Danny Boyle’s second film and all the actors were relatively unknown, so the film didn’t come with any of the contractual baggage that you usually have to deal with when doing a film poster. The other great thing about how it all came about is we were given access to the actors and we were briefed about the poster when the film was still being made. Usually by the time the poster designer gets involved, the film is in the can and the actors have all gone home, and you are delivered a folder full of production stills which you have to try and work your magic on to make a good poster. So the film company had been very forward-thinking by giving us time to come up with a solution – and, crucially, the time with the actors to deliver that solution.
The other amazing thing which probably worked in our favour, was that we never got to see the finished film until after the poster was designed, approved and sent to print so again this was very liberating not to take on somebody else's visual direction of how they wanted their film to look. I think if we had seen the film first and then started designing the poster, we would probably have never have gone for the clean approach that we inevitably took for the final poster. I can't believe the film is 15 years old this month!
To help celebrate Trainspotting's 15th anniversary, Print-Process.com is offering Giclée printed versions of the individual character posters for the film in three different sizes. Visit print-process.com for more details
Subscribers to Creative Review can also enjoy Making the cut.., Gavin's piece in our March 2011 issue, which looks behind the scenes at producing posters for the film industry. And back in August 2009, Mark Sinclair looked at the art of the film title.
If you'd like to read these articles and more from our extensive archive, you can do so by subscribing here.
Great poster, and I really liked reading about the creative process. I was particularly interested in how the final poster was so clean in contrast to the movie. It is cool that the posters compliment the movie but have a different tone-of-voice.
I also love the photo of Robert Carlysle as Begbie.
Great photography, great concept, graphic design masterpiece.
Awesome. A real iconic slice of the 90's.
Great to see the early versions!
There seems to be a trend at the moment for people taking current 'soon-to-be-cult' films and creating astounding artwork for them, only for said artwork never to be part, or all of, the official campaign, and only ever sold as fanboy/girl memorablia in various online print outlets (albeit on the whole, great-looking stuff). The great thing about the Trainspotting campaign is that not only is it just as memorable to the average punter as the actual film, it was also the real life promotional stuff — it's rare that you get that these days — graphic design that transcends the graphic design goldfish bowl, and good graphic design that is fully backed by the client!
thanks for this nice review and bringing me back to that time! really enjoyed this read.
Really good reminder of a nice piece of work. I worked in our local cinema when this came out and still have one of the original cinema prints that I nicked when it finished it's run.
What a great article. A great insight into such an iconic design.
Such strong design, still looking as good as it did when the film was released.
I'm . . . . I'm getting . . . . I'm getting old!
PS Was a art college when this came out. Everything we did after the book, film and campaign came out was an unashamed homage to it!
They still look fresh and strong today. They have added importance to me as I stopped smoking the week I saw this film.
Yeah, great story. Really nicely documented. Also interesting to see that the film co's views about not having the dangerous chemicals icon actually makes for a stronger, cleaner solution.
The client is always right. Right?
Always loved it, I remember the first time I saw it at Charing Cross Station, it was so attention grabbing. I even ripped it off for a friends 30th, we changed the name to beerswilling, doing the photography was fun.
Ive always loved Lorenzos work, he should be used more in advertising work in my opinion.. it always has such impact
Nice to see Rob and Blam getting the deserved credit for this iconic campaign.
Success has many authors - Empire Design claimed credit for it, and had articles written in the design press about how they came up with the campaign. Which, of course, they didn't. Basically, they just took Stylorouge's concept and reformatted it, losing much of the graphic finesse in the process.
Credit where credit's due. Well done, chaps!
Excellent piece on iconic image making. Top work all round…
Now where are my markers…
Lovely work from both Stylorouge and Lorenzo. Great also to see an acknowledgement of the input and enthusiasm of the photographer. The AOP Awards this year has a new section for Commissioners so agencies will have a chance to showcase this relationship properly.
If it wasn't for stylorouge i would never have become a graphic designer.
great article reminds me of good times.
This is one of the most inspiring pieces of work to come out of this country. It's as fresh as ever.
Awful stuff millions of copiers of this.
If College let you openly homage or rip this popular poster off then they were not doing their job.
Begbie poster photo is MENTAL!
Great flick, iconic in all areas.
How time flies. The designs still look as fresh as when they came out. A test for good and simple design.
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Please re-instate the above comment, I could do with a good laugh.
It wouldn't be a proper blog if you had 22 comments and somebody didn't say something daft.
Gav. Thanks for asking us to do this, it was a very cathartic exercise [in a good way].
Thanks everyone for the kind words. [Especially Mr Hughes for chipping in, you're a gent].
Its been a really special week reading all the kind feedback.
Lets hope if they ever get round to making 'Porno' they will get the original team back together.
Now where did I leave the cairds. x
Great read & great posters. Good work all round!
I wrote about this campaign in my dissertation for University on 'Plagiarism in Graphic Design and Advertising' in 1997, I loved the campaign and still it inspires me! I cannot believe that it was 15 years ago!
how about crediting the photographer lorenzo agius?
What do you mean? He is credited and there's a link to his site.
These are nothing short of iconic
Hooray for the mighty Stylorouge. I seem to remember hearing that at the height of the campaign's influence, somebody came into Stylo with these posters in their portfolio. Good move, genius :-)
I think it probably ended up in Empire Design's portfolio because Empire Design founder Stephen Burdge was working at Creative Partnership at the time the Trainspotting posters were designed (as was Mia Matson, and myself). Everybody had a story about how the Trainspotting posters came about, and the equally iconic UK Reservoir Dogs posters (it was my job to pull the quotes from the film to go with the characters - and I later worked with Stephen and Mia on the UK Pulp Fiction campaign which took the same character-based teaser approach as Reservoir Dogs and Trainspotting. Today it's common practice to pull individual characters and give them their own posters (Sherlock Holmes 2 comes to mind) but I believe that did start with Mia at Creative Partnership, it was a heck of a crucible for talent in the early '90s. Stephen, Joe Pisano, Guy Meyer and myself all ended up running our own agencies after cutting our teeth there.
Could be worth doing a Reservoir Dogs feature too: Mia is still at Creative Partnership and would love to talk about it 20 years on.
@ David Hughes [?] Surely only 1 person [or company] can tell the story of how the poster came about, [ie the actual creators of the work]. That was kind of the point of agreeing to this article / interview with Creative Review. To clarify, Empire Design didn't exist in the summer of 1995 when the original poster was sent to print (as you correctly point out Steven Burdge was working at Creative Partnership). For the record, Creative Partnership initially pitched on this poster campaign but lost out to Stylorouge who were commissioned to create the UK quad poster for this film. Creative Partnership later won back the work and adapted the rest of the campaign + also created the excellent trailers [which utilised the numbering and naming system in the titles]. Creative Partnership acknowledged that they were adapting original artwork and had the integrity to never include it in their own portfolio. I just wish that others working in the creative process had shown the same level of respect. I believe this is the point that Rian Hughes was making.
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