The Power of Posters: An Interview with Illustrator Akiko Stehrenberger

To the patrons of AFS Cinema, it’s no secret that we love a good movie poster. Richard Linklater’s collection of golden-age film ephemera adorns our walls with bold, creative design and illustration from heavyweights like Saul Bass, Bill Gold, and a host of others. But sometime around the advent of Photoshop things took an aesthetic nosedive, and for the last few decades, creativity has become an outlier in the design-by-marketing-department era of celebrity headshot collages. Thankfully, artists like Akiko Stehrenberger are reversing the course and ushering in a new epoch of imaginative illustration.

If you’ve ever passed one of our light boxes and been taken in by a gorgeous, hand-illustrated poster with a clever visual concept, chances are you’ve seen Akiko’s work. Over the last decade or so, she has been on the vanguard of some of the best arthouse and independent films’ marketing campaigns, making sure they grab the attention they deserve with her eye-catching, evocative art. You could fill a hefty book with her prolific output, which in fact she did this spring.

We were thrilled to have the chance to interview Akiko Stehrenberger about what it’s like working in the fast-paced, niche industry of movie poster design….

VF: Take us back to the beginning of your career. Did you set out to be a film poster designer, or did the career choose you?

It was accidental. I had been working in NY doing spot illustrations for music and entertainment magazines. When I moved back to LA, I needed any job because my student loans were knocking on my door. A good friend of mine was working at a movie poster advertising agency and told me they were in need of a receptionist. I interviewed for the job but at the last minute, decided to bring along that month’s SPIN magazine which had my illustration in it. When I showed one of the owners of the company my piece (he was a painter himself), he asked if I’d ever be interested in being a junior designer of movie posters instead. I’d never really used a computer and knew very little about graphic design, but somehow we both agreed to give it a shot. The rest is history.

VF: Describe your typical process, starting from when a studio or shop first contacts you. How do you go about the task of narrowing down a 2 hour story into one single compelling image?

I’m brought on at so many different stages of a film’s production. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a screener, but I’d say that only happens 1/3 of the time. I’m usually only given a script, a short synopsis, or a trailer, and it’s usually up to me to fill in the gaps. Sometimes I’m given a loose direction in mind, other times it is wide open creatively. The first day on any project, I spend thinking. I write down ideas, sketch, and look at inspiration online, which could come from all types of places: photography, fine art, music. Sometimes, I’ll even just google key words that come to my head when I think of the film’s theme. If there are any assets, like unit photography of the film, they can also help spark ideas.

It’s more on the rare side that I work directly with the director unless it’s a smaller budget film. It’s usually the movie studios marketing team I work with, or if I’m hired by a movie poster advertising agency, I’m working with its creative director. From the ideation stage, I then go to a thumbnail sketch presentation that I provide to see which ideas resonate with my client.

Distilling a 2 hour movie into one single image is no easy feat. Alternative posters you may see on the internet have an easier time because they are dealing with properties that the audience is familiar with. My job is to intrigue someone and introduce them to something new. I do think my background as an editorial illustrator definitely was an asset for this line of work, since I basically would have to summarize a whole article in one image too.

VF: You’re incredibly prolific, having worked on at least a dozen major film and TV projects within the last year, by my count. And almost all of your work involves detailed, hand-drawn illustration – not exactly something you can rush. How do you balance quantity and quality and keep your ideas fresh? Any tips for dealing with creative blocks?

Oh, thank you so much!

I try my very best to manage my clients’ expectations from the very start. Since I am doing everything by myself, I let them know that with me, they are getting a very focused and limited presentation. I don’t present multiple painted options. What I do present is multiple ideas in a rough sketch form and really try to get them to narrow things down before I even start to paint.

My illustrations do take quite a bit of time, although I do consider myself fast compared to illustrators not in this field. I’m constantly teaching myself new tricks to work more efficiently, without cutting any corners.

I have creative blocks all the time and it is next to impossible to keep my ideas fresh all the time. I’ve been doing this for 16 years now and have estimated creating over 9,000 pieces during this time. Very few make it to the end. I am used to my work being thrown in the trash (although luckily I’m always compensated for my time). However, the ideas are never completely thrown away. I keep them archived in my brain for an opportunity to blow the dust off and remix them for another project. I can’t tell you how many times I presented the rainy window idea before the film “After the Storm” finally allowed me to do it. And the fist head for “Da 5 Bloods”, I’ve had a version of that idea for a while but this film finally presented me with the perfect opportunity.

For “Portrait of A Lady on Fire”, I always present optical illusions for a project whenever I can. Anyone that claims their ideas are always completely original and fresh is lying to themselves. Yes, there may be a handful of truly out there concepts you can come up with, but to put that kind of pressure on yourself to sustain that, is unrealistic and I think, impossible. Everything has been done before. It’s just how you do it that makes a difference.

VF: There are lots of nods to the golden age of poster design in your work. Who are some artists and designers that have inspired you, and what is it about their work that excites you? Is there a desert island poster that you could look at again and again and never grow tired of?

Bob Peak definitely inspired me. Not only do I love his work, I admired him for his versatility to adapt to all genres. Not many artists during his era (if any) did that. Because my role is not that of just an illustrator, I am also an art director and designer, it’s very important that the style of illustration serves the film, instead of just serving me. As far as contemporary artists and designers, I have so many really great friends in this field that constantly inspire me. I also see a lot of illustrators crossing over from alternative posters to real ones and it’s so exciting for me. Not only because I love this new wave of illustrated posters, but I also have to be kept on my toes because now other illustrators are seeing my work, not just art directors who may not have a drawing background.

A WALL OF POLISH POSTERS AT AFS CINEMA

As far as a desert island poster I could never grow tired of Polish posters in general. They were my first influence in this field and continue to be.

VF: Is there a film or filmmaker that you’re dying to create a poster for?

I’ve been really lucky to work on projects for most of the directors I truly admire. My interest lies in the up-and-coming directors who will challenge me to think outside of the movie poster box. 🙂

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