The genius of Mondo's posters is the way they make us see familiar science fiction and fantasy classics anew. They take the images that we've grown up with, and reimagine them. Sometimes with minimalism, sometimes with incredible ornateness.
What's the secret of Mondo's success? We sat down with creative director Justin Ishmael and poster artist Olly Moss (whose work we've featured before) to find out how they do it.
Top image: Olly Moss' Star Wars posters. All art below by Olly Moss unless otherwise noted.
In general with Mondo, you often take on things that have had a lot of iconography in the past. What kind of steps do you go through to try and figure out how to create a fresh spin?
Olly Moss: I think for me the main thing is to not ignore it, not try to do something totally different, because I think that's a mistake. Things are iconic for a reason, but the trick is to kind of exploit that. Well, maybe "exploit" is the wrong word — it's more about putting a twist on it, showing something to somebody that they've seen a million times, but looking at it in a slightly different way. And especially with films that already have great posters, sometimes I like to throw a nod in to those. I remember American Werewolf in London had a great poster originally, so I used the typography from it. Or I was working on an A Clockwork Orange thing that's probably not happening now, but having a triangular composition in it, that evokes the original, but gives a new twist on it.
Justin Ishmael: It's hard. For instance, probly the hardest one that we've actually had several people take a crack at, and it hasn't worked, is Jaws. I mean, Star Wars and this and that, those are classic, but Jaws is something you really can't mess with.
Yeah, there's one image of the shark, and it's like, that's what Jaws is.
Ishmael: You can do this for Star Wars and you can do this for Ghibli or whatever, and you still kind of get the same feel for the movie, but if you just had dudes sitting on a boat, with no water, it makes it feel different.
Moss: I was thinking about that, and I was thinking there would be a way to do it with two boats in the water, as long as you made the ocean look completely terrifying without having a hint of the shark.
Ishmael: So, when we get these licenses, normally — and this is the case with Jaws — the likenesses don't come. So you can't go drawing all the characters. [But luckily] we have the Robert Shaw likeness now — so maybe let's do a Quint, because he's the coolest character, right? So maybe we'll do something with him. But yeah, when did the Star Wars, when we went into it, we're fans first, so we know there's a lot of stuff out there. Like, a ton.
Yeah, there's so much Star Wars art, it's insane.
Ishmael: So like, what can we do to this that is different? And it's really the artists that we chose to work on it, they have this distinct style that really hasn't been seen with that property... So we decided to go more illustrated, graphic, with the screen-printing stuff, so it has a distinct look. Image: Greedo by Florian Bertmer.
Moss: I still love my first idea for that series, that turned out to be completely impossible
Ishmael: What was it again?
Moss: It was like a blank piece of paper. No, it was gonna be, like, a really thin typographic piece, but it was going to have a carbonite Han embossed into it, coming out from underneath... So when you frame it up, you'd only catch it from certain angles. [There's] 3D coming out of the paper.
Ishmael: Totally white?
Moss: Yeah, cream background, little bit of type at the bottom. Maybe in big type it would say "I Love You." "I Know."
So, why do you guys think the minimalist poster style is so popular right now?
Moss: Because it looks easy to do. Yeah, I think that's a big part of it, a lot of people do the minimalist poster style, and they see it and they look at it and they think it's the style that's important, like, "I like this!", and they don't really understand.
Ishmael: Is it a lot of that "Why didnt I think of that!?" Is it that kind of thing?
Moss: Yeah, that's what you want. There's a reason you do minimalism, and it's because you're using it to get across a core idea. But a lot of the minimalist posters completely ignore the idea, they just focus on the style, and the style is completely the least important part of it. It's about the thought behind it, what are you trying to communicate, and a lot of those posters don't really communicate anything, and it's just a picture of something from a movie.
So do you think it's gotten kind of overplayed now?
Moss: Oh yeah, I think it's definitely a little overplayed. But you say that, "I think it's a little overplayed," but at the same time something can come up and its like, "Shit that's amazing." A good idea is never, ever going to go out of style. If it's something that makes you laugh, or makes you think "Shit, that's clever." ...
Personally, recently, I've been doing less and less of the minimalist stuff, and been trying to add more and more to my work, and that's almost a little reactionary to how many minimalist posters we see all over the place.
Why are regular movie posters, from the major studios, why are they so crappy? It feels like part of why you guys are so popular.
Moss: Because it's really, really, really hard to make a decent poster. And that's the one thing that I really object to, people going "Oh man, if only [the studios] could use your posters." And it's like, no — because these guys, if you know what it takes to make a movie poster, it's ridiculous. It's always really last-minute, you have to get it through so many levels of approval, and the culture is that you are encouraged to submit a book of like fifty ideas. And no one will ever pick one idea and just run with it. They've got to see like every single variation of a theme, every single possible iteration of an idea, and it eventually ends up being floating heads because that is what will get approved.
It's like a checklist: you've got the guy with the gun, and then you've got the perp, and they're all facing the same way, and you can tell Brad Pitt's in it, and that's what they want, it gets to the point where you're not really pleasing anyone, you're just not offending anyone. It's acceptable, but it's never going to blow anyone's mind.
Ishmael: A lot of the problem is, too, its kind of [done] by committee. It's not one person's vision on something, it's like, "Well, Jim really liked this title treatment, and Frank really liked this piece —"
Moss: "— and Scott would like to see a version that's with blue —"
Ishmael: — and then they put it all together.
Moss: And the other thing is, there's big legal things as well. If you have Sean Penn's face on the poster, it needs to be the same size as, I don't know, Don Cheadle's or something. So that kind of limits what you can do in terms of composition, if you've got to have two completely even sized heads.
Ishmael: The head thing too is [also because] you want to show off what you bought, in a way... I mean, you paid all this money for Tom Cruise, you want to show people you've got Tom Cruise. You dont want some drawing that has nothing to do with anything, you want people to be like, "We got Tom Cruise, look what we did!" And here's the thing people say about us, they're like, "Oh man, I wish Mondo would really do the real movie posters." ...
And it's like, you know, just because it's illustrated doesn't mean its good. Look at 60s movies posters. Theres all these shitty 60 movie posters, and 70s movie posters, that are drawn. So thats not really a fix, thats not gonna fix anything, that's just the state, that's just how it is. I honestly think it's getting better.
Moss: There's a bunch of great posters. I remember, like, Moon is one that I liked... The Dark Knight had a fucking fantastic poster campaign. It's their style, but it's still good. It's just, okay, the problem is that moist of the time it's committee design.
And people assume that because we're doing the collectible things that we'd want to be doing the other ones, and I've been asked a few times and gone through the process, and it's so horrible. It's such a nasty, nasty thing to be a part of, and I have a lot of respect for the poster designers that go through it, because it's tough. It's a tough business.
Ishmael: I think time has a lot to do with it, too. Because the little time I had to walk the floor, I was looking and this guy had the boards with the posters on it, the newer ones, and I saw a poster from Spider-Man, it was the one with the two towers and the eye? And I remember seeing it when it first came out, I was like "Oh, okay, whatever." And then I looked at it again, revisiting it, I was like, "This is kind of cool."
Sometimes your posters will sell out in an hour or whatever, and do you ever think about bigger print runs? Why keep your runs so small?
Ishmael: There's a lot of reasons. The biggest one is what kind of contract we have, or agreement we have with the studios. It's really boring, but there's tons of different licensing programs. It just depends on what they let you do. And some people have the bigger ones and some have the smaller ones or whatever. It's also [the fact that] the way we produce the posters doesn't really lend itself to mass [production], like twenty thousand, that type of thing. If you're doing lithograph Twilight posters you can crank millions of those out. Image by We Buy Your Kids.
Moss: You just press the button and they just come out.
Ishmael: The hardest part on doing that is the set-up, and then it just cranks em out. But with screen printing, you're grabbing a squeezie...
Moss: ...and you're doing every color individually.
Ishmael: It takes so long. You have no idea... So that's the really big reason, we like to keep the quality up. It's a very specific thing with screen-printing that you can't do with other types — Glow in the dark, or metallic flake in the ink, or overprinting. There's tons of stuff. There's lots of reasons, but those are some of the big glaring ones that I see.
Moss: It's difficult, if you never had experience with either screenprinting or owning screenprints or collecting to understand what makes them good, as well, because of the way that it's a very analog process. The point of a run is that once you've done that run and sold out, you can't really go back and replicate it, it will always be slightly different. Like, the colors will be mixed differently, because it's done with hand-mixing the colors, or like, each print will have a little bit of its own character, like they'll be slight imperfections or things with it that make it such nice things to own. And when you get reprints, they just don't really work at all. It would be like totally different, it would look completely different.
Interview transcription by Rob H. Dawson.
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