When viewers take the trip to the theatre to see a new film, in most cases, they previously saw a captivating trailer or film poster that led them to decide "Oh I've got to go see this!"
For Chris Sousa Ebels, a key art designer and creative director at The Design Studio for Film aka DSF, getting international audiences to the theatre with his eye-catching work is an every day job.
As a key art designer Chris creates the perfect visualization of what happens in a film's story with the trailers, one sheets and movie posters so that audiences will both know what to expect and get excited about it.
Considering that a lot of events occur over the course of a feature-length production, condensing the highlights of a story into a 90 second trailer that grabs our attention seems like a monumental task, but not for Chris. He lives for theses challenges and his success in the industry has proven that he tackles them far better than the majority of his peers.
Ironically, Chris has always been passionate about translating stories into a captivating visual representations, and his unparalleled talent in this niche profession can be seen through the one sheets for the films Premature, Demonic, Daughter of God, The Runner, Clown, All Roads Lead to Rome and many more.
His work in however, is not limited to film. In 2011 Chris's The Carbon Tax poster garnered the visionary artist an Australian graphic design award in the international Positive Posters Competition.
Earlier this year Chris helped create the hair-raising trailer for Jon Watts' film Clown nailed the filmmaker's goal with Joblo.com's Kevin Woods featuring the trailer in an article on the site entitled "Uk Trailer For Jon Watts' Clown, Produced By Eli Roth, Is No Laughing Matter."
Some of Chris's most recent work includes creating the international one sheet for the film Amityville, which is set to hit theatres in 2016, as well as the international one sheet for Queen of the Desert starring Nicole Kidman, which is also set to open in the US in 2016.
To find out more about how Chris Sousa Ebels began his career in the industry as a leading key art designer and creative director, some of his keys to success, and his favorite projects, make sure to check out our interview below!
Where are you from?
CSE: I am Originally from Australia; but I lived in Denmark as a child, and also London.
Can you tell our readers about what your work as a creative director and key art designer in the film industry entails?
CSE: As a creative director my main role is to be the ultimate custodian of any project we have going on. Creative projects need strong leadership, someone who knows the objectives of the project intimately and can help designers and artists work towards a common goal. Sometimes the team needs to be inspired and sometimes they need to be reigned in. It’s a very rewarding process because in the end you've all achieved a collaborative piece of artwork.
When I’m designing key art specifically it is more of a detail oriented and ideas focused role. Coming up with a really great image is about immersing yourself in the content and really gaining a deep understanding of the film. Then you go through endless brainstorming and permutations of ideas in order to find those diamonds in the rough that nail the brief. At DSF we are very methodical. We always want to have exhausted all the conceptual directions and avenues. It’s often at the intersection of opposing ideas that the best images come out of.
How did your career in the creative communication industry begin?
CSE: I actually started freelancing before I finished university back in Australia. I was fortunate to go to one of the best design schools in Australia, Monash University. They teach a very strong foundation in conceptual thinking and how to solve problems. It has helped me a lot in Hollywood coming from a strong design background, as there is a refinement and elegance that I can bring to the work, and an outside perspective that can make the work fresh, compelling and different.
What kinds of jobs were you landing back then?
CSE: Back in Australia I was just doing simple brand identity jobs (logos) for restaurants and local businesses. It was slim pickings at times. But Melbourne has a great design culture so people do value good design there.
How and when did you begin lending your skills to the film industry?
CSE: The film work began when I moved to London. The first projects were very small independent films. Many of them unreleased. But I needed projects to fill out my film folio and independent film was the low hanging fruit. It was definitely some of the most fun and rewarding work I had done up to that point.
Have you always been passionate about film or was working in the industry something that happened by coincidence?
CSE: I have always had an interest in film and advertising from a young age. When I was a kid I used to go so far as to “brand” my birthday parties with graphics that I made. I would create videos to be screened before the games would begin. It was a whole production.
By the time I was in high school and doing media projects my interest for design and media had grown into a full blown passion. For my high school films I would always create full poster campaigns and graphics (not required by the course) just because I wanted to. So I have always had an intuitive interest in this work.
Can you tell us about some of the projects that you consider as the highlights of your career?
CSE: The film Queen of the Desert is really special to me. Werner Herzog is a renowned director and so is the film's all star cast: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, and Robert Pattison. Being a period drama set in the desert there was ample opportunity to do something really special. I focused on presenting a vision that really highlighted the strong female lead character “Gertrude Bell,” who’s achievements in the middle east are vast but not widely known. I ran through hundreds of sketches exploring all combinations of ideas.
Then I produced dozens of comps (which are rough Photoshop mockups that give a good indication of the final look of the poster). After this exhaustive process I arrived at a final 25 comps which the client sees and chooses one.
In this case they chose my favorite, the “Sands of Time” comp. Which sees Nicole’s character gracefully dissolving into sand. I liked it as a metaphor for her influence on the desert being buried into the sands of time. It gave a sense of both permanence and the ephemeral. The work involved in producing the sand dissolve effect were substantial. It required a blend of both 3D and photographic elements to achieve. Hours and hours of compositing. But once done the entire team was very proud of the work we had achieved. It is definitely one of our best works.
I was still in the UK when I worked on the trailer for the film Hummingbird. This project was very memorable because of the massive scale of the production. I used a unique new story breakdown technique that we would go on to use in all our AV work. With this tool I was able to separate out all of the story elements and really create a unique and distinctive trailer.
As it was a dramatic role for Jason Statham it was important that I really nailed the plot and dramatic tension. So I spent a lot of time in the edit suite getting all the moments just right. It was a great result in the end, and truly unique.
Clown was a fun one. I mean how do you sell a movie about a Clown that eats kids. This Eli Roth film was a great campaign to work on. I got to do both the trailer and the poster for the film. There was a lot of dark humor in this film but it was also a serious horror. I knew I needed to make sure that I really captured both the fun and the menace of the concept.
I centered the campaign around the breakdown of the family unit. It is in a sense about the fear that every parent has that they may somehow harm their child. Or that violence can come from a seemingly harmless place. One of my favorite parts of this campaign is the tag line which came to me while in Photoshop. “The kids aren't alright.” Which is a devilish pun that references the feel good family movie “The Kids Are All Right.” It both nailed the satirical aspect of the movie whilst still sounding very creepy!
Demonic was my first campaign working for The Weinstein Company so I wanted it to be special. I was told to do something distinctive and high concept. That is the best brief you can give a creative. So I went to town developing lots of really inventive creepy concepts.
In the end the client selected my favorite concept which was the haunted house surrounded by trees and their branches join with the house to form an ominous demon face. When seen from afar it becomes very apparent what you are looking at. As a key art designer I am always looking to create that second glance moment. Can I hide something that makes you look again. That’s what catches your eye and makes you say, "Oooh I want to see that.
This trailer for the film Plush was a real challenge because the film was no where near complete. It was a Catherine Hardwick (Twilight) film so it was exciting to work on. I was working from chronological dailies. What that means is all I was building the trailer from is what they had shot so far in the order they shot it (which is almost never the actual order they appear in the film).
Using our narrative breakdown system though I was able to develop a strong plot for the trailer. It turned out to be a great showcase for the film and the client was ecstatic when I delivered a near finished product based on such minimal material. Was a great moment.
47 Ronin is special because we were debuting a new format called Hyper Motion Cinema which we pioneered with Hasraf Dulull, a London based visual effects supervisor. It was really thrilling to be creating original supportive content for a major studio release (Universal). Starting from scratch was a totally new ballgame.
I had to develop an outline and then a script which was then approved by the marketing team at Universal. One of my major roles in the production was producing the Photoshop mockups that would then be animated by the VFX team.
I would essentially compose the scene using photographs and elements. Then the animation team would pull the scenes apart and animated them. It was amazing to see my images come to life on screen. Even more amazing when they appeared on major websites like ign.com.
When Animals Dream was my first foreign language trailer which made it an interesting challenge. Working with new up and coming distributor TWC Radius I was able to produce a really unique campaign.
What has been some of your favorite projects to work on so far, and why?
CSE: In 2011 I won a major Australian graphic design award for The Real Carbon Tax, my submission for the positive poster competition. The brief was to creative a poster that inspires social change on an issue that matters to you. For me climate change was an easy choice. Nothing else has the potential to fundamentally change our society and world like climate change and it’s contributory issues. It is the largest crisis of our time and we will need to be ready for the effects.
It was a great challenge to apply my design and problems solving skills to this problem. How can I land and connect people to the impact that everyone has on this issue.
The idea came to me while I was brainstorming. I thought if I can connect a mundane everyday task to something that pollutes the planet I would be able to make people see that this is connected to them. Then I though the common electricity plug could be connected to a smokestack. Put what was previously an innocuous activity into something that is directly connect to the impact it has. While we still use coal to power our homes, plugging the devices is polluting the air.
It was very rewarding to put my skills towards an issue I believe in.
Doctors Without Borders, was similar to above, as it was a submission for a competition where I had to apply our skills to a social issue and draw attention to it. In this case it was pharmaceutical corporations attempting to bar generic versions of their drugs to be sold in developing nations. These life saving versions of the drugs are depended on by aid workers and their patients.
I came up with a simple visual metaphor in order to communicate the idea of something very needed being so close but so far. People understand the idea of a pill bottle and they also understand the idea of a lock. Combining those two ideas into a tangible scenario communicates the idea that these medicines are being deliberately kept out of reach.
Applying the skills I use in marketing to useful causes is very rewarding and then being recognized for it is a privilege. I will continue to apply my skills to illuminate issues and further discussion on important causes.
Creating the trailer and one-sheet for the film Premature was fun because of the subject matter. It’s hard to describe without getting a bit crass. Basically the movie centers around a teenager that goes back in time every time he ejaculates. There are plenty gags in the film but the real challenge was communication the core groundhog day concept without being too crass or using dirty words. It was a really fun experience and I think in the end I cut a really funny trailer.
When you're designing a poster for a movie, what phase of the film's production does your work usually begin?
CSE: Usually the film has wrapped or is about to wrap when I get contacted. Though I also often produce teaser or pre-production art work.
Are you able to see the film before creating the poster?
CSE: Ideally I am. But not always. Seeing the film definitely aids in the conceptual exploration process. But I can also read the script and look at the unit photography to get a good sense of the film.
Generally there are so many events that happen over the course of a story in a feature film, how do you decide what should be the focus of the poster?
CSE: A movie poster has to convey a number of things. Mainly-- the genre (people have to know what to expect, explosions or tears), the cast (got to know who’s in it) and the title. But of course to make a great movie poster there is a lot more to consider.
Finding those key moments is about really understanding the essence of the movie. What will communicate what the film is about, it’s themes, it’s primary conflict. The challenge is to do that in one image that people can understand in a second.
So you look for moments and ideas that really convey what the main thrust of the film is. This means the character and their personality. The locations and feel. And also things that create excitement and anticipation in the audiences mind as to what they are going to see.
As a key art designer, do you design different movie posters for audiences in different countries?
CSE: Yes. Campaigns are typically divided into International and Domestic. Domestic campaigns are the US. US campaigns tend to be more expensive and more lateral in their approach. You have to think of the cultural context. In the US there is a base level cultural understanding. So you can make jokes or puns that more people will “get.” Because you have some idea of what your audience will understand you can push it more.
For international, the rules change. You are dealing with potentially hundreds of countries so your campaign has to communicate to a very wide cultural context. Typically this means you have to focus on very simple ideas that don’t require a specific cultural context to understand.
Foreign distributors will often adapt or make their own campaigns to suite their territory. In that case they have the same advantage that I have when I am doing a US domestic campaign.
Why are you passionate about your work?
CSE: I actually believe that Hollywood has immense power to affect global culture. A lot of people see the content that is produced here. Say what you will about the quality but this is the area where the highest form of popular art is planned, created and traded. Even productions shot overseas have to come through Hollywood at some point. It is a nexus.
I want to be close to that nexus. To be able to be part of that global conversation about our society. Our values. What stories we tell and how we tell them. I find it inspiring and that’s what gives me passion to work into the night knowing I am affecting global culture in my own way.
What are your keys to success?
CSE: I’m always learning and discovering for myself. But if I had to narrow down a few.
Bite off more than you can chew:Every success I have had is because I said yes to something I wasn’t really ready for. Because, truth is, by the time you are ready, the opportunity is probably gone. Opportunity’s come unpredictably. So when they do come, whether you are ready or not, say yes! You’ll be amazed what you are capable of when faced with a real challenge. Give yourself a chance to succeed or fail spectacularly. You’ll learn something fantastic either way.
Go with the Flow:Sometimes we really get attached to a certain way things are meant to go. Often so attached we miss the opportunities around us. Whenever I have allowed myself to entertain possibility and open my heart I have been rewarded. It’s not always the easiest road but it has been the most rewarding. I’m not saying let the world push you around, I’m just saying give things a chance, don’t keep a fixed point of view. Challenge it.
Realize the world is moldable:It is very easy to feel like the future is set and that things will always be the way they are. But if you look at all of the greats they were able to see an alternate reality where their vision was reality, then they set about creating it. You have this power to. You just have to believe it’s possible. The reality is that it is the thousands of little choices we make everyday that define our destiny.
How do you keep yourself inspired?
CSE: Creative Challenges. When clients come with a new brief and there is a challenge I thrive. In the absence of client challenges I challenge myself. It’s important to feel like you are breaking new ground in your work. I get a lot of satisfaction out of looking at my latest work and knowing that, while it may not be perfect, it is certainly the best I have ever done.
What are your biggest strengths in the field, and what separates you from other creative directors and key art designers?
CSE: I think my real strength comes from my ability to come up with very simple artful concepts that communicate complex themes. Mixing two opposing ideas in an elegant way to form a concise whole. I also think my design background and coming from another country help to give me an edge. I like to bring an elegance to all the work that I do, even if it is an action poster. To me it all has to be art. And in my opinion art should communicate. As this is commercial art people should be able to understand and be enriched by it.
Why is your work important to the industry?
CSE: I feel the industry is very focused on aesthetics alone at the moment. A lot of posters these days depict simply a scene from the movie. That can be a great approach. But I think it is important that all the art that is produced has meaning and significance imbued in it’s DNA. This is something I work towards in all my work.
Would you agree that your work includes a substantial blend of art and advertising?
CSE: Yes I feel the artistry is the most important aspect of my job. Anyone can make a functional poster. Put the effects in, follow the trends etc. But to really make something substantial it has to be artful. So while commercial considerations must always be met, art plays the biggest part for me.
For many artists blending the creative world with the business world, especially when you have clients to please, can be a challenge, do you ever feel that way? How do you move past these challenges and deliver quality work that achieves both goals?
CSE: It can definitely be tough. But I find that if you are very diligent with your process and involve and enroll the client so they understand what you are doing, most people are very respective. Creative work is always a result of collaboration and often the clients will see things you didn’t that actually improves the piece substantially.
Can you tell me about some of the awards you have received over the course of your career?
CSE: Early on when I was a teenager I was selected to be featured in Top Designs. This was a showcase of the best design work from around the entire state. So my work was displayed in a museum.
Do you have any projects that are going to be released over the next few months?
CSE: The trailer for When Animals Dream just came out so definitely check that out. A new Sarah Jessica Parker movie called All Roads Lead to Rome is coming out next year, I designed the poster. Lookout for The Runner with Nicolas Cage and also Queen of the Desert will have its US release in 2016.