A Tireless Illustrator
here I am with the artist at his home (August,2000)
Interview with Eduardo Muñoz Bachs
How did you become a designer of movie posters?
By accident. Because I consider myself more of an illustrator or draftsman than a poster artist. I originally devoted myself to animation or other types of work more in accord with my style, making backgrounds, scenarios, character designs. When TitÛn filmed Historias de la Revolucion (Stories of the Revolution), he asked me to do the poster for the movie. It was the first poster I ever made in my life, since during the time I was working on ads I never once did one, since I was also working on animation. I saw the movie and chose a frame in which the predominant color was black, and through an opening were you able to see a figure running outside. The opening was the "loophole" [aperture for small-arms fire] of the famous armored train which the Rebel Army derailed in Santa Clara. I liked the image's intensity and representative power, and that was the origin of the poster for the first movie produced by Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC).
When you saw the final result, you decided to continue designing posters?
When I saw the poster printed by ICAIC, in an unusually large size, it dazzled me and I decided to leave behind all the animation work I had done up to that point. A Poster Design Department had already been established at the institute, with Mario RodrÌguez Aleman and Rafael Morante, and I joined them there.
What were your first experiences with Titon (Tomas Gutierrez Alea) directing?
There wasn't really much of a working relation. We had already become friends before the Revolution; he knew that I was a graphic artist and asked me to do the poster. I didn't have to do a lot of sketches, and he didn't spell out specific aesthetic goals or solutions for me. I showed him my idea, he liked it, and that was that.
As was the case with some other poster artists, you evolved from an almost photographic way of reproducing images towards a different way of looking at things. How did that process occur?
As I mentioned before, I don't consider myself a poster designer. What I like most about the plastic arts is drawing, so most of what I do consists of designs for books and posters. What I did was adapt my drawing style in order to use it for posters, and I decided to try at all costs to avoid using photography. The work group that came together at ICAIC included designers who worked a lot with photography, such as Azcuy, and -iko himself used photography a lot, but I always tried to avoid that in order to use drawings to put forward the message I wanted to get across.
What was your experience with the transition from direct photographic printing to silk-screen?
Silk-screening has its limitations, which really made themselves felt when we started a heavy production pace at ICAIC. Every month each of us made four or five different posters, and after you've spent ten years making silk-screen posters the limitations are pretty evident. We can't mix colors, you have to adapt yourself to the available colors. Although at the beginning at ICAIC there was some leeway in that regard; we made posters with thirty or thirty-five different colors. Later we ran into a scarcity of colors; on other occasions paper was the limitation. Little by little, I became a silk-screen enthusiast, because of the brilliance of the colors as well as the fact that the workshop collective at that time was very professional and had a perfect understanding of what the designers wanted to do.
What is the process you go through when you design a poster?
It depends on the given film's genre. What's easiest for me is doing posters for children's pictures and adventure movies, but actually I can adapt to any genre. In general, the procedure I follow is to see the movie, although before, when there was such a high volume of work, we couldn't see all of them, for time reasons or because no copy was available. So in those cases we would read the script, we talked about what we knew about the movie, and that was the way the image took shape. There were some occasions when, for example, -iko would get one movie and I would get another, and each of us found it difficult to do the design, but we would decide that given our particular styles it would be better if we switched movies, and that's what we would do.
What united the designers of the sixties and seventies? And what elements made them different from one another?
What united us, in the first place, was the fact that we were all artists, we liked our work and we were drawn to making posters. What made us different from one another was the style each of us worked in. For example, at first Azcuy worked with drawings and later with photos, in black and white but with some color detail, while -iko was colder, more geometrical, and worked with mechanical means such as set squares. Reboiro had much more of a tendency to use engraving, flowery engraving. Rostgaard, on the other hand, was more imaginative and liked to use fantasy, which was also the case with Morante.
Apart from ink and paper scarcities, what other difficulties did the designers have to deal with?
One of the greatest difficulties facing designers all over the world is getting their work approved. In many cases the client, who in the final analysis is always right, is not satisfied with a poster that the designer really likes, and wants him or her to do it differently. At ICAIC, although there was a person or a number of people who would select the posters or point out defects in their design, and sometimes it was even necessary to redo them, we were able to breathe pretty freely. There was a lot of respect for our work.
How would you characterize the trajectory of Cuban movie-poster art?
I think that at the present time Cuban movie posters are going through a very difficult period. The medium lacks support, it's been abandoned. But this situation didn't just happen recently. It's been getting worse over the last fifteen years or so. Poster art has been badly neglected. I would say that the fundamental reason for this is the lack of support. In addition, there's never an effort to encourage provide a stimulus for designers; we got our own encouragement from our love for our work, the enthusiasm of the group that was created, posters' importance on an international scale, the prizes we won.
What were the main achievements of poster art during the decades when there was a lot of enthusiasm and continual production?
The first achievement was a new and different vision of what a movie poster is, a new style not just in my own personal case but on the part of the team as a whole, and this made a deep impression throughout the world.
In terms of the international prizes the designers received, how was your work received abroad?
There was always a good reaction. Nevertheless, at the beginning there was a certain rejection at home. It was a new style which contrasted with the almost photographic form of reproduction of the posters that came out in the forties and fifties, which put the emphasis on sex or the particular group of stars involved while paying little attention to the director or the identity of the film itself. This meant that people were surprised by the new posters, and the public had to get to know them and accept them gradually.
From your standpoint, what are the main deficiencies of poster art?
The lack of support, neglect. The group we put together at ICAIC fell apart completely. Some designers left the country while others devoted themselves to different types of work. The lack of support has caused a lot of damage to the institution. Honestly, I don't see any future for posters, especially at this point when almost no movies are being produced.
What would be the solution for this enormous problem?
To go back to creating the kind of working group we put together in the sixties and seventies. To make someone with common sense and sensitivity the president of ICAIC so they can take these matters in hand, help out the designers, use sound judgment when it comes to choosing posters. But at this point that would be quite difficult, although not impossible.
Going back to your own work as a graphic artist and poster designer: how did you manage to include, in your posters, that personal Chaplinesque vision, that naive vision that really characterizes your work?
Instead of trying to tailor or subordinate the work of making a poster to my own particular style, I've fit my style to what I want to say about each particular movie.
What difficulties have you encountered in matching the style to the given movie?
With some movies it wasn't hard at all, particularly when it comes to children's movies or action movies. A love story, or something more complex, might mean a little more work, but in reality there aren't that many difficulties.
How many movie posters have you done?
Well, counting only the ones that wound up getting printed and not all the sketches or posters that weren't approved, I would guess it comes to about 2,200.
How do you explain being so prolific?
Being attracted to movies. Apart from that, I doubt that in any other part of the world any designer has had to do fourteen different posters at once. Remember that in our case we were dealing at times with a set of ten different movies. Every day we had to watch movies in order to do the designs. And that kind of tempering process has been one of the things that led to my making so many posters.
How do you manage it that your designs, which are authentic and inimitable, always seem so fresh?
I don't think they're always so fresh. Sometimes I'm afraid of repeating myself.
What influences do you see in your own style?
As a draftsman, AndrÈ FranÁois, Ben Shahn, Picasso, Modigliani, Sternberg. As a poster designer, none. Or maybe, in a very distant way, Jan Lenicka.
How do you see your movie posters after three decades?
On some days I remember them and I like them. At other times I don't like them at all. It depends on what my mood is on that particular day.
Of those 2,200 posters, which are your favorites?
Los tres mosqueteros (The Three Musketeers), Por primera vez (For the First Time), CrÌa cuervos (The Crow-Raiser).
In your long career as a designer of movie posters, is there a particular anecdote that stands out?
Once I had to do a poster for The Eclipse by Michelangelo Antonioni. This was a very difficult movie to express and sum up in a design, but I finally came up with an idea. I sent it for approval to Sal YelÌn, who at that time was in charge of selecting poster designs. After a few days we got together, and when I asked him if he liked the idea for the poster, he said: "Chico, that poster is either crap or a work of genius...." Of course, right after telling me that he sent word that it had been approved. And that's how that poster came to be.
Havana, June 1995.