Movies for Graphic Designers

Film has always been a venue for groundbreaking approaches to visual design and a source of inspiration for graphic designers. Now with the ready availability of online streaming and DVD rentals, just about anyone can view the great works of cinema in their own home – and re-view and study them with a critical eye. Here’s a list of suggestions – a starting point – for students of Graphic Design. This is by no means a list of all the films I’d recommend, but it’s a good start, I think. Each of these films has been selected because it is a worthy example of a particular certain design approach and because it is an exceptionally good movie. No "Spinach Cinema" here!

Black & White:

When film started to come into its own as an art form, there was no choice but to shoot in black & white – practical color film hadn’t been invented yet. And black & white design is where students usually begin their studies, so by happy coincidence we’ll begin our list of films for graphic designers in the era of black & white. As you will see, there was some truly amazing work done in spite of the technical limitations of early cinematography.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

When people talk about German Expressionism in film, this is the benchmark. This was one of the first films to deliberately use the the way cameras compress three dimensions into two for artistic effect. Bizarre, distorted sets, crazy camera angles and radical lighting create a suitably disorienting look for the plot. Bonus: It’s now out of copyright and can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube!

Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922)

The original vampire movie. It’s based on "Dracula" but Bram Stoker’s widow refused permission for them to use that name. This was probably for the best in the long run because of the number of clichés that have come to be associated with Dracula. Also out of copyright and available on YouTube.

The Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

Another of the classics in the history of cinema. Eisenstein’s compositional eye is unsurpassed. Many of the scenes have been used as templates by other directors (see Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, 1987 and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, 1985, for example). Another out-of-copyright gem you can view on YouTube.

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

One of the greats of the "film noire" genre, this tale of deception and intrigue set in post-war Vienna uses extreme camera angles and lighting to underline the uncertainty at the core of the plot: Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? What happened to Harry Lime? Who can be trusted?


Yellow Submarine (George Dunning, 1968)

What better way to start into color movies and graphic design than with an animated film that’s the quintessence of psychedelia? The Beatles agreed to the making of Yellow Submarine because they were under contract to produce another movie but couldn’t stand to go through the process of making one again and an animated film got them off the hook. In the end the film turned out to be so good that they insisted on inserting a clip of themselves at the end so they could be in it for "real".

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Caveat: You really should see this film first in a theater on a really big screen. Even the largest home theater video system doesn’t do it justice. The first third of the film is essentially a silent movie. The second two thirds is worth watching without sound just to study Kubrick’s design and composition: The placement of every item in every frame is meticulously considered.

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

True story: Some friends of mine who saw Alien when it first come out (on 70mm film with 6-channel sound!) sat through the end credits just so they could give a two-man standing ovation when the Art Director’s name rolled by.

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

It’s almost a cliché to recommend this one to students of graphic design, but there’s no way around it. (In fact, many of what Ridley Scott’s films could be recommended…)

Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

Most directors have storyboards of their films drawn up before they start shooting. Akira Kuroswa made his own storyboards in the form of watercolor paintings – virtually creating a fine art book of the movie before it was shot. And after the film – now regarded as one of the greats of cinematic history – was completed his watercolor paintings were indeed made into a book.

Wallace & Gromit – The Wrong Trousers (Nick Park, 1993)

Nick Parks works with hand-animated clay figures to make his brilliant stop-motion films. Using 3-dimensional sets and figures in animation raises problems that 2-d animators don’t have to contend with, like how to represent large outdoor sets in spaces too small to really contain them. The almost-fisheye view of some scenes is an example of how Parks finds imaginative and visually interesting solutions to problems. This 20-minute short us usually sold with 2 or 3 other "Wallace and Gromit" shorts. Between them, the three shorts and one feature-length "Wallace and Gromit" film have picked up 3 Oscars. They’re all well-deserved.


My original idea was for films that could serve as examples for graphic designers and artists to use for ideas and inspiration, but when I asked for recommendations for "Movies for Graphic Designers" a couple of students suggested movies on the "subject" of design. Now that simply hadn’t occurred to me! Here are two they came up with.

Helvetica (Gary Hustwit, 2007)

A movie about a typeface? Yes, but em>Helvetica uses this typeface to explore how typography and design in general affect our lives. Gary Hustwit has made two other films about design, Objectified (2009), about manufactured objects and their designers, and Urbanized (2011), about the design of cities.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010)

Banksy is a guerilla artist, a designation that includes artists of the sort that I really dislike… except for Banksy, probably because he exhibits the intelligence and, more significantly, wit that’s so sorely lacking in a genre whose creators generally take themselves much too seriously. This film has caused some controversy over the question of whether it’s a real documentary of a staged hoax. Given the way Banksy operates, this controversy probably ought to be considered part of the film itself.

Got any of your own suggestions? Post ‘em in the comments.

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2 Responses to Movies for Graphic Designers

  1. anne katzeff says:

    The film “Powers of Ten” had a real impact on me as a graphic design student. It was created by the husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames, 2 icons of industrial and graphic design. The film explains the concepts of micro and macro. I’ve written an article about it on my blog:

    There’s a low-res, low-quality vimeo version of the film, or you can order it through the library network: