The work of a movie poster designer involves a certain kind of alchemy. They are tasked with telling a film’s story, capturing its essence, and convincing the general public to pay money to see it—all within the space of a single page. Without the resources that a filmmaker normally has at their disposal, the designer often must rely on their instinct and their willingness to take risks in order to convey narrative, character, and tone. In other words, to do a good job, they have to tell a story in a way that not even the director has thought of.
One artist in particular, Justin Besana, has his work cut out for him: in addition to taking on poster design jobs from all throughout the local film industry, Besana also works as the sole artist for the ABS-CBN Film Restoration Project. And yet, even with the added challenge of making classic films more accessible to a contemporary audience, Besana has proven that his instincts are intact, and that a single page imposes no limits on the imagination.
We asked Besana to select six of his best posters, and to give us a behind-the-scenes look at his process and the obstacles a designer faces in his industry.
TATLONG TAONG WALANG DIYOS
(Mario O’Hara, 1976; restored 2016)
Justin Besana: Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos is a period film about three people battling for love during the Japanese occupation. Using smoke, fire, and elements that denote devastation was top-of-mind. The challenge was telling the story effectively without disregarding the faces of the film’s A-list actors. With just screengrabs as the main source for the posters, I took a risk and chose a different route: a series of minimalist posters. The final posters are comprised of various symbols tastefully composed together: red and white for the colors of the Japanese flag; the rifle to symbolize war; the cross for the god who seems to have abandoned them; and lastly, the three smudges of blood for the three lovers who rose beyond war for love. It turned out to be one of our most successful posters for ABS-CBN Film Restoration.
MERCURY IS MINE
(Jason Paul Laxamana, 2016)
JB: When direk Jason Laxamana tasked me to do this poster, we only had a synopsis and a few stills to work with. Knowing that it was a Cinemalaya entry added to the pressure because Cinemalaya is the foundation that gave me my first Best Poster award. Mercury Is Mine is an arthouse drama-comedy food film. We tried to use several visual metaphors at first and ended up using the stuffed frog, which perfectly characterizes Kapampangan culture and Pokwang’s character, Carmen. I was not content with the visual narrative until I added a fork jabbed into the stuffed frog; this perspective added the right intensity, depth, and grit that I needed to effectively communicate the dark side of the film. Mercury Is Mine is my second illustrated poster, the first one being for T-Bird at Ako.
(Isaias Zantua, 2013)
JB: Starting Line was my first passion project. Direk Isaias Zantua asked me to help him do the poster for his debut short film, then set to premiere at a festival in Dubai. It’s about a promising runner whose dream is to run not only for herself but also so she can afford medicine for her ill mother. I wanted to highlight the fact that it’s an inspirational short film. The character’s selflessness is above and beyond, which inspired the worm’s eye view in the poster. Here are some interesting facts: I was not satisfied when I was shooting the actual material so I decided to use the photo intended for the study, which was shot using just an iPhone. The one you see in the poster isn’t really the actress’ body; we just asked her to photograph herself using the same angle and composed her head with the body. We didn’t have the time to mount another shoot because the actress was based in Cebu.
ANINO SA LIKOD NG BUWAN (Jun Lana, 2015)
JB: One of the reasons I’m grateful to have this job is the chance to work with award-winning films and filmmakers, which I got to do for this project. Perci Intalan [who produced the film] challenged me with this one. We only had two weeks to accomplish everything because it was going to premiere at a festival abroad. The movie is a one-shot film and is based on the award-winning play of direk Jun Lana. The brief said to mirror the treatment of the film in the poster: artistic, sexy, intense, and mounted like a stage play. The catch was we didn’t have time to do a pictorial, so I needed to develop a concept that I could work on given the timeframe and limited resources. I came up with different concepts and styles but there’s one that I believed would do wonders: “bodyscapes.” It resolved everything and perfectly encapsulated the story, design brief, and the title. To make the visuals more cohesive and dynamic, I composed the poster in such a way so that the bodies encircled the moon, illuminated by its light.
KUNG MANGARAP KA’T MAGISING (Mike de Leon, 1977; restored 2016)
JB: Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising is a romantic classic with a huge following. The movie poster was inspired by the rain scene where Christopher [de Leon] and Hilda [Koronel] share the same red umbrella—the magical event where their courtship begins, which I also found clever and romantic. The challenge was how to creatively execute the poster, to make it look contemporary while still conveying romantic excitement. That was when I thought of doing a mixed media poster. It was a huge risk because romantic posters usually focus more on faces. The final art is a stylized acrylic painting of the rain scene superimposed with the screengrabbed photo of Christopher and Hilda holding the red umbrella.
KUBOT: THE ASWANG CHRONICLES (Erik Matti, 2014)
JB: Kubot is the second installment of the Aswang Chronicles franchise. The movie was an entry for the Metro Manila Film Festival in 2014 and this was my first fantasy film poster. Designing a movie poster usually takes one to two months. But for Kubot, we had to start four months ahead of its playdate because the movie required on-point graphics. I was tasked to create something child-friendly and also suitable for the Christmas season (unlike the first installment, which was edgier and had a more serious tone). Adding to that challenge, I had to put 14 characters on a poster. It took us a couple of months to finalize everything before we executed the final art. The process was really detailed and we were so particular with the characters, palette, composition, and lighting. Kubot’s poster fulfilled my dream to create something that could be aesthetically on par with international fantasy movie posters—thus making it one of my personal favorite mainstream posters.