Monday, September 20, 2010

The Best TV Promo Art of All Time

Every year at this time I tell myself that I will not start watching new television shows. I don't have the time, I reason. And they're not that good.

Then I start watching anyway. You know what does me in? First and foremost, it's the promo art for the shows that I see in magazines and at the commuter train station I use, as well as on the sides of city buses and cabs. The ads I see on TV don't move me the way the print ads do. TV ads make shows look fun, or scary, maybe funny, but they don't make them look epic.

Today I was looking at the very good blog of the Stockland Martel photo rep firm, which had a post about photographer Art Streiber and his creation of the promo art for the upcoming Conan O'Brien late-night show on TBS (above). There is also a video of the shoot, which apparently has gone viral.

Streiber gives some juicy behind-the-scenes details that many commercial photographers will probably find interesting. And when I say juicy, I mean it: The owl, named Twilight, pooped down the back of Conan's jacket during the shoot. It also refused to look at the camera, despite the efforts of its trainer, except for one instant.

Anyway, I like TV show promos and I think they're a bit under-appreciated, compared with movie posters, which are treasured by collectors, both as objects and as examples of great design. So let's contemplate the TV promo ad.... 

Streiber has made something of a specialty of shooting TV promo ads. The post on the Stockland Martel blog also has some nice details about the shooting of the art for the HBO show "Hung" and the reboot of "Hawaii Five-O." Here the finished products:

My favorite Streiber-made TV promo art was for season six of "CSI: Las Vegas," which was inspired by Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" painting.

That image, with is artistic allusion, of course follows in the tradition of the very famous image that Annie Leibovitz created earlier this decade for HBO's "Sopranos."

Leibovitz's image, based on Da Vinci's "Last Supper," managed to capture the veiled comedy that made the series so wonderful. What I like best, however, was the way it captured each character individually, and as part of a group. Like the show itself, the images became more than the sum of its parts. (Any "Sopranos" history had better include a chapter on the importance of Leibovitz's posters, which helped cement the idea that the show was a particularly sophisticated piece of TV entertainment.)

Both the "CSI" image and the "Sopranos" image show how photographers have dealt with the increasingly complicated story-lines and unwieldy ensemble casts of modern TV series. How do you capture the spirit of a show that revolves around 10 or so different characters? One way is the V-shaped wedge of characters.

This composition stresses the heroic nature of TV characters, but it is probably overused, since you also see it in promo ads for cheesy local TV shows. Nevertheless, the arrangement underscores the essential things that TV promo art must do: Create a sense of overpowering narrative, with strong, forceful characters that stir viewers in one way or another.

Movies poster and TV still promos have been trying to do that for a long time. Here's a classic movie poster that  creates a sense of sweeping narrative:

And of course when something works, it gets used again. When I was a kid, NBC put out a series of posters for its 1967 season that I really loved. (A friend of mine had several tacked to his bedroom wall, and I hated him for it.) At this time, spies were all the rage:

Styles change, and trends change, but the demands of TV promo art remain the same. Here's a piece for another HBO program:

And something else never changes: the sense that there just aren't enough good design ideas out there:

Here's an example of an idea-hybrid between TV and the the current era of vampires:

Are you intrigued by this bloody good stuff? I am probably not the best judge, because, as is noted above, I like to watch.

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