Dawn Baillie’s famous movie posters go on display

The Anatomy of a Movie Poster exhibition brings together the award-winning designer’s portfolio of posters for films including The Silence of the Lambs, Little Miss Sunshine, and The Grand Budapest Hotel

Poster design for Little Miss Sunshine, showing cut out photos of four of the film characters running towards a yellow VW campervan with two people inside. The images are laid over a bright yellow background, with the copy 'A family on the verge of breakdown'
All images: Poster House Permanent Collection

Film posters are an outlier in the movie advertising matrix. “When the trailers are no longer played and the promotional campaign winds down, the poster remains,” outlines Poster House, the New York museum hosting an exhibition celebrating the work of Dawn Baillie. Of course, not all posters are born equal. Only the strongest visuals will become lodged in our collective consciousness long after they were first shown, and Baillie has more than a few of these to her name.

Curated by Angelina Lippert, The Anatomy of a Movie Poster charts Baillie’s four decades in the industry, exploring the evolutions in her own work as well as the trends, tastes and developments that came and went in the wider industry.

Image shows the poster design for Dirty Dancing featuring a cut-out photograph of stars Patrick Swayze in a black outfit and Jennifer Grey in a white dress, with purple drop shadows against a white background. The movie title is written in purple and red cursive, and the poster features the copy 'First dance, first love, the time of your life'

Having grown up in Hollywood, Baillie was immersed by proxy in cinema culture more than most. Yet she was introduced to the art of film poster design like most of us: as an audience member. It was the design for The Omen, released in 1976, that sold it to her, and after graduating from Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design, Baillie cracked her way into the industry when she joined Seiniger Advertising.

During the three years she spent working her way up there, Baillie’s projects included designing the teaser poster for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as well as the famous theatrical release poster for Dirty Dancing.

Poster design for The Silence of the Lambs showing a washed out portrait of star Jodie Foster whose mouth is covered by an image of a moth

Baillie’s talent was noticed by the industry, which landed her a full time art director position at the agency Dazu, where she created one of the most iconic posters of all time for Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. The poster features a stark portrait of Jodie Foster whose mouth is covered by a hawkmoth, photographed from a specimen loan from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, with tiny nude figures superimposed onto the insect’s back in the shape of a skull.

Unusually, Baillie worked on the poster in almost complete isolation, save for the computer technician who aided with the computer finishing, a new process at the time. The differences between the analogue and digital techniques are shown in two versions of the poster on display at the exhibition, which also presents less widely seen alternative teaser poster designs in different colourways featuring Foster and co-star Anthony Hopkins.

Poster design for The Truman Show, featuring a photo of star Jim Carrey asleep, which appears to be showing on a large public live billboard. The copy reads 'On the air, unaware'

Baillie’s introduction to computer-based methods is something she took into her next venture, when she broke away to form BLT with Dazu colleagues Clive Baillie (who she later married) and Rick Lynch, making her the first woman founder in a US print agency.

At BLT, Baillie’s portfolio of posters includes The Truman Show, Zoolander, Chicago, Little Miss Sunshine, True Grit, and Birdman. She has also been a frequent collaborator of Wes Anderson, having worked on posters for The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs, and Asteroid City.

Poster design for The Grand Budapest Hotel featuring illustrated portraits of the 17 characters, and one illustration of a key, on room cards. These appear in rows above an illustration of the hotel in the film

While the exhibition is filled with many recognisable poster designs, it also reveals the less widely known rationale behind the design decisions.

Although what we see has come from Baillie and her collaborators, the show captures the various requirements imposed by the industry – from actors’ contractual obligations to stipulations made by the Motion Picture Association – which determine which designs are used over others. It shows the inner workings of a complex machine that’s typically hidden from audiences, and Baillie’s staunch dedication to crafting powerful, remarkably flexible film poster advertising in the face of it all.

Poster design for The Tragedy of Macbeth showing a figurative textured illustration appearing to show a person wearing a crown that blends into the shape of a blade with blood dripping off the tip
Poster design for Zoolander showing a photo of star Ben Stiller wearing a shiny black suit, appearing to lean upside down on top of the film title, Zoolander, in pink text along the bottom of the poster. The poster copy reads '3% body fat, 1% brain activity'
Poster design for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, featuring illustrated portraits of the main cast members Leonardo Dicaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie in a vintage illustration style. Beneath them is a composite of illustrations referencing scenes and characters from the film, including a vintage car and action scenes

The Anatomy of a Movie Poster is at Poster House, New York until September 8; posterhouse.org