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Commentary

Stanley Kubrick, Fan of Futura

Typographica on March 27, 2004

Readers Gahlord Dewald and Matthew Thomas point us to a Guardian story in which it is revealed that Stanley Kubrick liked his fonts sans serif.

I take a break from the boxes to wander over to Tony’s office. As I walk in, I notice something pinned to his letterbox. “POSTMAN,” it reads. “Please put all mail in the white box under the colonnade across the courtyard to your right.”

It is not a remarkable note except for one thing. The typeface Tony used to print it is exactly the same typeface Kubrick used for the posters and title sequences of Eyes Wide Shut and 2001*. “It’s Futura Extra Bold,” explains Tony. “It was Stanley’s favourite typeface. It’s sans serif. He liked Helvetica and Univers, too. Clean and elegant.”

“Is this the kind of thing you and Kubrick used to discuss?” I ask.

“God, yes,” says Tony. “Sometimes late into the night. I was always trying to
persuade him to turn away from them. But he was wedded to his sans serifs.”

Tony goes to his bookshelf and brings down a number of volumes full of examples of typefaces, the kind of volumes he and Kubrick used to study, and he shows them to me. “I did once get him to admit the beauty of Bembo,” he adds, “a serif.”

“So is that note to the postman a sort of private tribute from you to Kubrick?” I ask.

“Yeah,” says Tony. He smiles to himself. “Yeah, yeah.”

My favorite director, Wes Anderson, is also fan of Futuraesque type. It played a prominent role in The Royal Tenenbaums.

* As noted in various comments below, the opening titles for 2001: A Space Odyssey are actually set in Gill Sans, not Futura.

See also: Woody Allen’s Favorite : Title Designer Pablo Ferro : Retro Movie Titles : The Serif is Dying

17 Comments

  1. nick shinn says:

    However, the biggest movie font groupie must be Louis B. Meyer (he of MGM). According to FontBureau, “From 1922 through 1928, Linotype cut five fonts to Louis B. Meyer’s personal specifications”. FB have revived one of them:
    http://www.fontbureau.com/fonts/specimen.tpl?fontname=MeyerTwo

    Makes sense: that was the silent movie era, and type was used throughout movies in “speech frames” (what’s the correct term?), not just in title sequences or captions.

  2. arno says:

    “intertitles”

  3. nick says:

    Thanks.

  4. Stephen ONeill says:

    futura – nice font of course, but I can’t believe how over used it is at the moment – everywhere I look it turns up – either Franz Ferdinand or just about any film poster that doesn’t use Trajan – is it just a bit lazy or do people really like it that much

  5. Eduardo Omine says:

    (Actually, it’s Century Gothic Bold on Franz Ferdinand’s album cover.)

  6. geraint says:

    veering off-topic, but i think futura was probably a considered choice for franz ferdinand, whose imagery incorporates a lot of german early modernism. eg.video for ‘take me out’, which features amonst other things dada typography and a fencing kandinsky. if i’m not mistaken.

  7. Bad Horsey says:

    On that basis, Comic Sans should be used on every Hairbrush Divas / Power Of A Woman / The Only Ibiza Album You’ll Ever Need… Volume 2! type of album, being as it is The Font Of Secretaries.

  8. geraint says:

    sounds appropriate to me…

  9. In recent years numerous type fans and pop journalists have promulgated the idea that “Kubrik was a Futura man”. I sort of want to believe it, but I can’t. The evidence of his films shows a wider range of type styles.

    The titles of 2001: A Space Odyssey were Futura regular, not Futura Extra Bold as The Guardian story claims. Curiously ‘The Dawn of Man’ intertitle in that film was set with flare serif capitals—probably a studio goofball Kubrick wasn’t able to correct. The titles of The Shining appear to be Helvetica or something close to Helvetica. Full Metal Jacket nope, sorry. The lettering style used on the posters for A Clockwork Orange isn’t even in the field of the neighbouring ball park (nothing like Futura). Barry Lyndon looks very much like Souvenir. Original release posters for Dr. Strangelove show a condensed sans serif answering more to alternate gothic than Futura. Wikipedia claims the titles for Spartacus were designed by Saul Bass. I haven’t seen that film, and really don’t want to, but I’ll wager two sheets of rubylith Saul Bass did his own thing.

    Kubrick’s 1960’s and early 70’s films evidently were packaged by the studios that made and distributed them. The notion of him being a Futura man later in his career (or at least a guy with a woody for clean sans serif type) in later years when he exerted auter-like control over all aspects of his productions, seems more credible on examination of the evidence.

    I think Kubrick’s three best films are A Clockwork Orange, Doctor Strangelove and The Shining. 2001 is fabulous but overrated.

  10. The posters and lobby cards for 2001 were most certainly Futura Extra bold. The titles and intertitles in the film itself were Futura regular-or-thereabouts.

  11. George Newell says:

    That’s some impressive research, James. Rememeber that all the space oddysey poster use futura bold. The Lyndon typeface is very similar to souvenir – and it is fitting that a film made in the mid-seventies should used fonts inspired by the newly founded ITC. I wonder if the they actually made the font for Kubrick…? Any information on the this font would be appreciated. Remember the flourishes, which add to the period feeling. They are ultimately (like the film) inherently ’70s. Look at those large x-heights.

    For other fonts, look at how kubrick used the lush Gill font, perpetua italics in the opening credits. It would almost certainly have been chosen by the studio, but is still appropriate to the film.

  12. nicetype says:

    Actually there was no Futura at all in 2001. I’ve read that Guardian article, and was very suprised when I got to watch 2001 for the first time, a few weeks ago. The font used in the beginning is Gill (clever: they used O’s instead of zeros in “2001”, Gill’s zeros are condensed and they obviously wanted cirlces). The Dawn of Man is Albertus (which is a decent match to Gill). And the end titles are probably set in Nobel. I can’t be sure though, I don’t know if any foundry distributed Nobel at that time, and if there was a conversion from hot metal at all. It is closer to FB Nobel than to the DTL one. But it is definitely not Futura. I’ve compiled a few screenshots here:

  13. The font used in the beginning is Gill

    Look closely at the G in GARY LOCKWOOD. Rather different design to the G in Gill Sans. Now look at the R in GARY. Not Gill Sans R. The L, W and D don’t match Gill either. Compare S in ODYSSEY with the S in Gill Sans. No match.

    The opening title METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER does appear to match Gill Sans however. The plot thickens. Looks like two different fonts were used for the opening titles.

    Nobel blurb from Font Bureau: In 1929, three years after the Futura release, Sjoerd Henrik de Roos at Amsterdam explored alternative character sets to enliven basic Futura forms. The Nobel series was designed for Font Bureau by Tobias Frere-Jones, who fondly views Nobel as �Futura cooked in dirty pots & pans.� The Extra Lights were added by Cyrus Highsmith & Dyana Weissman; FB 1993�2003

    How much of Tobias Frere-Jones and how much of Sjoerd Henrik de Roos went into Font Bureau’s Nobel I don’t presume to know, but the Sjoerd Henrik de Roos version might be the source of the non-standard Futura units like the S, C and D, and the Gill Sans style M in the opening titles.

  14. The main reason as I understand it why Kubrick is said to have chosen Futura (or a close Futura derivative) for 2001 has to do with NASA’s use of Futura as the official font of the Apollo moon landing program. To make the space hardware in his film realistic-looking Kubrick hired the science fiction writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle as consultants. He hired Niven and Pournelle because both men were working as consultants for NASA on the Apollo program. It was either thru them or by contact directly with Apollo program managers that Kubrick learned of NASA’s use of Futura as the official font for Apollo.

    source—NASA.

  15. Armando says:

    I worked for some years at the art department of a home video distribution company and I know first hand how Futura crazy Kubrick was (or his office still is) for the video/DVD releases of his movies.

  16. Nick says:

    2001: A Space Odyssey does not use Futura. It looks much more like Gill Sans or it may be Nobel.

    The following Stanley Kubrick films DO NOT feature Futura in their titles: 2001, Lolita, Barry Lyndon, Dr. Stangelove, Full Metal Jacket, Paths of Glory, The Shining, A Clockwork Orange and Spartacus. I haven’t seen his earliest movies so I cannot speak for them but it sure doesn’t look like he was anywhere near the fanatic everyone says he was.

    The only time I’ve ever seen Kubrick use Futura is in Eyes Wide Shut. I really think it’s about time this myth dies.

    It should be noted that Wes Anderson seems to be parting with it too. Moonrise Kingdom used a script font for its titles. The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t look like it will use it either.

    It is my personal opinion that it most cases Futura looks absolutely dreadful. It’s lowercase is dog ugly and almost unreadable in body copy. Its uppercase is quite beautiful but only in short spurts and only if it’s fairly widely spaced.

    At the moment geometric fonts, and in particular Futura, are completely overused. It’s become a bit of a trend and hardly anyone is doing them justice. I was in the cinema last week and spotted at least four upcoming films that used them in the poster. Then I went in to see Gravity and that used it too (though in a much better way, and, I assume, as a subtle nod to the whole first-typeface-on-the-moon thing). Really people ought to be a bit more imaginative. I’m as in love with fine modernist typography as the rest of you but I don’t want to live in a one type town.

  17. Indeed, as nicetype commented above, the opening title sequence for 2001 uses Gill Sans. In the five years since his post, his image link broke, so I snapped few stills from this YouTube video to confirm:

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