The new Star Wars poster is reasonably lousy. I’ve been a fan of Drew Struzan‘s work for a long time. I studied his methods a little bit during my short stint as an illustration student, and I’ve tinkered with fake movie posters and “floating head” compositions since I was a kid. It was the sort of thing I doodled while watching television. So I’m going to geek out about this for a minute, if you’ll bear with me.

I didn’t think Struzan’s poster for The Phantom Menace was among his best by any means. It’s fuzzy, it’s composition is loose and the rendering isn’t up to his usual standards. Eh. In contrast, I think his poster for Attack of the Clones is pretty sharp. The rendering is much more solid, the composition is great, and I love its sense of classic adventure cinema and romance. It’s a great B-movie, serial poster and would be a stellar cover for an adventure novel. In these two images, pay special attention to the different sizes of portraits we’re given, and the way some characters look out at us and others don’t. The relationship between the floating heads is better; they each have a different mood to convey, and they do it. I love how there’s this warm box in the middle of it, which flares out to the left, but everything on the right is chilly blue.

This poster for Revenge of the Sith, meanwhile, is just an arc of similarly sized noggins with similar scowls. The palette’s weak, and the composition feels slapped on. The halo effect around the main character’s head suggests to me that somebody cut up Struzan’s original work in Photoshop to get a nice big Vader head in there. It looks clumsy, and from what I hear, the Lucasfilm people (in marketing?) chopped it up a bit. Yoda’s just hovering in space, Obi-Wan’s buried, and the title almost disappears into the background. Ick.

Some people hate the “floating head” style of movie poster, but it’s a great way to present something as complex as a motion picture. In the past, Struzan has made some really great compositions using the technique. He painted a great new piece for the fancy DVD re-release of The Shawshank Redemption that, except for some odd stuff with Tim Robbin’s head, is a great example of spilling light and shadow across a single composition made up of many component parts. Plus, it’s got that iconic advertising image of Robbins’ character standing free in the rain. In a similar vein is this un-used poster/cover for a re-(re-)release of Blade Runner that never happened. This one also relies on heads and light, but with a whole other layer of texture. I love the way this image rains neon, and the variety of different looks we get from the characters. Also, this one’s got a lot of implied lines I like. See how Deckard’s collar turns into Rachel’s face? That’s great.

Some of Struzan’s best posters, though, have really bold compositions with clear and confident contours separating one element from another. Check out this fantastic poster for Temple of Doom. Struzan, in many cases, details acrylic paintings with colored pencils, which gives his work these great strokes, this energetic sense of texture and direction. This poster’s a great example of that, on top of it’s rigid but handsome composition. Good stuff. Similarly, this Pepsi giveaway poster for Last Crusade makes bold use of the framing and formatting tricks that Struzan’s known for. Look at how he chooses the lines where Indy’s dad and Sallah will cut off. Look at the variety of faces we get. Look at the variety of faces we get. Indy leaning precariously into the more open center of the piece with his torch and struggling against Nazis on the top of a tank that’s about to careen off the page? That says adventure. The blaring sun shows off Struzan’s brush-strokes, while the archaic pillar and lion sculpture imply antiquity and archaeology. (And, really, this isn’t his best piece. I think a lot of Indy novel covers were more interesting than this, but they’re harder to find online in decent quality. But if you decide to peruse the Struzan site, be sure to check out the Cary Grant video collection ad for something simpler and classy.)

I think one of Drew Struzan’s strongest works is his poster/cover for the special edition re-release of the original Star Wars film. Every poster in that series has a simplicity and sense of momentum that I’d hoped to see in the newer posters. That Star Wars poster glides gracefully from right to left, with great light and economy of elements. That poster should probably feel much more crowded than it does.

Look at the thumbnail versions of the posters on www.starwars.com. The Star Wars poster is orange-blue, with a big off-center circle of focus. The Empire Strikes Back poster is cold, battleship gray and blue, with lots of triangular shapes, while Return of the Jedi is green and blue, woodsy and nostalgic. Also, the iconic silhouettes of Luke and Vader seem clearer than those being used in the Revenge of the Sith ads. This new image has the silhouettes overwhelmed by negative space and the crossed swords that are supposed to suggest adventure and drama instead get lost in all the noise.

Whatever. This is all just an excuse for me to think in art terms after thinking in writing terms all day. In the end, I guess I like simpler palettes and bolder compositions. In the end, I’m just a kid waiting for another movie of samurai-detective-fighter-pilots adventuring in rocket ships and battling crazy monsters. Folks can rag on the new Star Wars movies all they like, but I’ve got pretty new planets and sexy new spaceships to watch, and I dig that.

Noise: Tom Waits, “Walk Away”