How Trainspotting’s poster campaign was made

The black, white and orange posters for Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting perfectly captured the film’s energy and grittiness. Twenty years on from their release, and with Trainspotting 2 out this week, we revisit our 2011 interview with the campaign’s designers, Mark Blamire and Rob O’Connor

The black, white and orange film posters for Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting are some of the most iconic and memorable of all time. With the sequel, Trainspotting 2, out this week, we’re revisiting our 2011 interview with the designers behind the original campaign. Here, Mark Blamire (now of Blanka and Print-Process) and Rob O’Connor of Stylorouge talk to Gavin Lucas about shooting the cast, choosing orange and looking to Irvine Welsh’s novel for inspiration

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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 [transform] 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.

Posters for T2 Trainspotting reference the original 1996 campaign
Posters for T2 Trainspotting reference the design of the original 1996 campaign

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!

This article was originally published in 2011. To mark the anniversary of the original film, Mark Blamire has created an artist edition limited screenprint of the original film poster (below) for sale via his print business Blanka. Available here.

Trainspotting poster

Also available is this Choose Trainspotting poster, available through [Print-Process]

Choose Trainspotting

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