What makes a good movie poster, according to Justin Besana

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Justin Besana has made posters for many of Philippine cinema’s blockbusters and critically acclaimed films — “Markova: Comfort Gay,” “Karnal,” and “Praybeyt Benjamin” to name a few. Photo courtesy of JUSTIN BESANA

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When the remastered version of Gil Portes’s 2000 masterpiece “Markova: Comfort Gay” was released in November, it came out with an equally striking poster. Dolphy’s Markova, in an elegant garb, stands in front of a white circle. Around the character are iridescent rays over scarlet background. It’s a masterclass in poster design, said film critic and professor Richard Bolisay in a tweet.

When they were conceptualizing the poster for “Markova,” artist Justin Besana says that they wanted to highlight the colorful life of the title character. “The circle serves as a spotlight: [It was] Markova’s moment to tell her story to the world as a comfort gay. The rays create a colorful spectrum celebrating the life she loved and was proud of,” he explains.

Photos courtesy of JUSTIN BESANA

Besana is the resident designer of ABS-CBN’s Sagip Pelikula project. From the retro typography for Mike de Leon’s “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?” to the painterly poster for Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s “Karnal,” his work is undeniably one of the finest in the contemporary landscape of film marketing.

Besana’s portfolio isn’t only limited to ABS-CBN’s film restoration initiative. His first foray into poster design was in 2011 when he was asked to create one for “Praybeyt Benjamin.” Outside the confines of the ABS-CBN, Besana has also worked on collaterals for independent films like Dwein Baltazar’s “Gusto Kita with All My Hypothalamus,” Dan Villegas’s “Hintayan ng Langit,” and Jun Lana’s “Kalel, 15.”

At a time where the movie-viewing experience is changing drastically, Besana tells CNN Philippines Life how he is adapting to these changes and the importance of posters in film restoration.

What do you think are the essential traits of a creative person, especially in your field?

I think being a jack-of-all-trades and being able to adapt to the ever-changing work circumstances are important because not every project is the same — you won’t get the same design brief and deal with the same people. There are a lot of situations that will challenge you but it is important that you are sufficiently equipped with the necessary skills to soar through your projects.

What is the core philosophy that guides your work?

We are the movies we watch and recommend; the same goes with posters. Stories are reflections of reality. Whether fiction or nonfiction, it is important to put that reality into a one-sheet visual language that your audience understands. We are also in a position to influence how people will spend their money. What I always keep in mind when designing is that I have the responsibility to satisfy their needs through visuals.

Do you still remember the first film poster that made a mark on you? What was it?

I guess the “Independence Day” and “Titanic” posters really made a mark on me as a kid. I remember we had the betamax tapes of them back then, and I was so fond of their packaging. But growing up, I was really more appreciative of animated movie posters like that of Pixar’s “Up.”

Photos courtesy of JUSTIN BESANA

Do you always watch the movie before designing the poster?

For me, it is imperative to know the story. What’s the most comprehensive reference material than the movie itself? Watching the movie or reading the script jumpstarts my creative process. These enable me to develop visual solutions that would match the film’s marketing strategies.

What are the things you take into consideration when designing a poster?

Marrying the story, marketing, and art. It’s always a collaborative process between the storytellers, the marketing team, and me, the poster artist. Communication between the team is important so we can come up with an effective movie poster.

What do you think makes an effective poster?

When you are in a movie house lobby and a regular passerby looks at your poster and stops, that alone would probably make you realize that you created an effective poster. You affect them in a way that the poster gets their attention and makes them think of buying a ticket to watch the movie. Sometimes it may not be the best design but it serves its purpose.

Same goes for the digital movie arena — you have to create a poster that will make them stop scrolling and stare at your movie poster. It’s a plus if they share the poster and save it on their gadgets. Given that we have different platforms to showcase our posters, it’s also an opportunity for us to be more creative because there are fewer limitations online.

Do you think the quality of the movie directly translates to the poster?

I am a marketing-driven artist. I think there are always good facets in a movie that you could highlight in the poster. After all, we have different preferences, and the audience has the liberty to choose which movie they like. What you might consider a bad movie may be a good movie for others. What you think is a trivial story might uplift the mood of others.

Photos courtesy of JUSTIN BESANA

The experience of watching movies has changed a lot and is continuously changing, especially because of the current situation. Instead of cinemas, a lot of movies are being shown now through streaming platforms. Does that have any effect on the way you design posters?

I think it’s changing in the sense that the internet is so vast; there’s an abundance of content that you sometimes have to be more aggressive — while staying relevant — if you really want to be noticed.

In designing a poster for online promotion, it’s either you directly target your core audience or you give more attention to the aesthetics. Screens, after all, complement a good poster. In ABS-CBN Film Restoration, we began adapting this years ago since digital is our main platform to promote and sell our movies. It affects us also in a way that we should be more creative in producing designs for various online platforms.

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How important are posters in film restoration?

Doing a restoration campaign is challenging because we have to reintroduce the film to its fans and launch the film to the current generation — that is when posters become a crucial part of the campaign. Posters bridge the classics to the new audience. The changing times demand that we adapt to how people perceive posters. Most of our audience lean towards the artistic side, so we design posters that capture the new generation while being faithful to its classic appeal.

Do you look back at your past work? Why or why not?

I always do, although it gives me anxiety. I even read comments to learn from criticisms and assess myself if I am still improving. One of the hardest parts in creating a poster is to avoid being repetitive. Because stories share the same universe, it’s a challenge for us artists to innovate and create visuals distinct to the movie. Looking back at my past works validates me and informs me if I am still growing as an artist. The moment we stop growing is the moment we stop telling visual stories.

Do you have a mentor? Do you think it's important to have one?

I have a lot of mentors but to name a few, Sir Leo Katigbak and Kuya Andrew Castillo, the graphics head of Star Creatives Graphics Head, really created an impact on me. I also think it is important to consider your constant collaborators as mentors because you could always get something from them. Mentors are important because they have the experience and wisdom that we do not have. Wisdom varies from person to person. You can pick insights from them, which can be beneficial in creating a poster and in honing your skill.

Photos courtesy of JUSTIN BESANA

What skills do you wish you had?

I wish I could do illustrations because I’m not the best at it. I also think confidence is a skill and it’s something I lack.

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by people in your field today? How do you overcome them?

I think it’s really how to make people watch movies during this difficult time. This pandemic has limited our budget to basic needs, and that has greatly affected viewership. We cannot really force people to spend their money on movies, but we still exert effort in promoting our movies on platforms where the audience is active. There are a lot of opportunities to promote movies nowadays, so we make sure to maximize each one of them.

Photos courtesy of JUSTIN BESANA

What myth(s) about your field of work would you like to debunk?

That designing movie posters is as easy as getting a scene from a movie — you put a title and you have a poster. The process is sometimes overlooked by some, but it is more tedious than what others might think.

When I was just starting, I was told that movie posters, once released, are immortalized. So, it’s necessary for me to exhaust all creative possibilities that would leave a lasting impression. Posters will not be only used during the movie’s promo period, but it will forever be on the internet and books.

What have you learned from work that you've applied to other areas of your life?

If you are in the movie industry, you would know that being here won’t guarantee a normal life. I mean we have to sacrifice a lot, especially time. Eventually, we will reap the sacrifices we sow. That’s what I tell myself every day that we cannot hope to achieve things in our lives if we do not endure and work hard for it. What we have becomes more meaningful if it comes from a place of perseverance and hardship.

I also learned to accept that, just like in marketing films, we cannot please everybody. We will tire ourselves if we put our effort and time towards pleasing everyone. It is a hard truth we have to accept to prevent destroying ourselves. [Instead of trying to please everybody], focus your attention on those who truly matter and are worth your time.

What are your favorite posters? Why do you like them?

There are many. A more recent one would be the series of posters for “Joker.” They have the right amount of emotion, they get my attention every time, and undeniably the layouts are spotless. I remember using one of the posters as my phone wallpaper because it’s that good — an instant modern classic for me. Some of my other favorite posters are “The Nightingale,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “John Wick 3,” “Parasite,” “The Exorcist,” “Jaws,” “Mother!,” and “Portrait of a Lady in Fire.” These works of art are all masterpieces in my book.