Font U: A Guide to Recognizing Popular Fonts in Films

By night, I’m John- the crime-fighting proprietor of a movie and TV site. But by day, I’m the mild-mannered John, a graphic designer and editor. Since I get paid to pay attention to words and the way they’re presented, I get a kick out of combining my day job and my hobby. I like seeing which fonts are being used in films and film posters. There are several that are very popular and I’d like to clue you in on which ones are which. Let’s start with a rather obvious one:

Helvetica

Helvetica is such a clean, simple, and popular font. You can see it everywhere. It’s also versatile, presenting several variations- Light, Oblique, Bold, Black, Condensed, Neue- without sacrificing an ounce of legibility. Nor do any of these variations fail in kerning or tracking. Since it’s such a good font, you have no doubt seen it in several films. The most obvious example is, of course, the 2007 documentary Helvetica. It can also be seen in the poster for Up in the Air (2009), Funny Games (2007), and Little Miss Sunshine (2006), amongst others. If you’re counting at home, that’s a documentary, a drama, a horror/thriller, and a comedy. That’s versatile.
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Futura

As you can probably tell, Wes Anderson uses Futura a lot. He uses it in every single one of his films. He uses it in title cards, he uses it on street and business signs in the background, he uses it on books… It’s everywhere in his movies. Stanley Kubrick used it a ton before Wes Anderson, most notably in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) but also in Eyes Wide Shut (2000). You may recognize it from American Beauty (1999), V for Vendetta (2006) and The Social Network (2010). Per Wikipedia’s Futura page, it is “derived from simple geometric forms (near-perfect circles, triangles and squares)” and I think that’s evident in the example above and to the right.

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Windsor FF-Elongated

To be completely honest, I know of only one type of film that employs this font- Woody Allen films. The appearance of a white intertitle composed in Windsor Elongated on a black background is such incredible branding. Woody Allen’s films are distinct enough as they are but adding a static element like this only serves to further the brand (pardon me for using the phrase, but it’s true).

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ITC Benguiat

Just as Windsor Elongated belongs to Woody Allen, ITC Benguiat belongs to Quentin Tarantino. He doesn’t use it exclusively but he does use it from time to time. And he’s more or less the only one that uses it with any frequency. Created in 1978 by noted typographer Ed Benguiat, it appeared to be a bit dated in the early 90’s until Tarantino gave it new life in Pulp Fiction (1994).

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Gill Sans

I am admittedly not a fan of Gill Sans. But that’s just my own personal bias. Personally, I find it a bit too clunky and whimsical in a sloppy way, and it appears completely dated right now. But, I wouldn’t be doing my job as Dean of Font U. if I didn’t edumacate you about it. It seems to have found a home with kids movies and comedies, which isn’t entirely surprising. And my understanding is that it’s quite popular in the U.K., serving as their version of our Helvetica here in the U.S. You can find Gill Sans in the Toy Story series, as well as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).

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Trajan

Trajan is all over the place, and has been for quite some time. The classic look gives it a Roman type of feel, which makes it somewhat timeless. Aside from being used in superhero movies about Norse Gods, you can also find it in Titanic (1997), I Am Legend (2007), and Unbreakable (2000). In fact, Kirby Ferguson over at Goodie Bag does a pretty funny job of telling you all the places you can find Trajan. It’s well worth the watch.


 


19 Comments

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19 responses to “Font U: A Guide to Recognizing Popular Fonts in Films

  1. Wow, very observative. I would never have picked up any of these details just by staring at the posters. Clever stuff.

  2. I took both a calligraphy and a basic graphic design class in high school, so I know something about the effectiveness of the right font I never thought much about how certain directors are identified with a certain font, but I guess it’s true.

    • The funny thing is, there’s no telling who made those decisions. It could easily be an editor, doing it without the filmmaker’s knowledge. My understanding is that Woody Allen’s font was his choice, and that Kubrick chose Futura in 2001 because it was the same font being used by NASA at the time. But the others… who knows.

  3. A film making friend shared your link with me online. I’ll check back and I look forward to more that you catch and post. Thanks for the entertaining spot in my morning!

  4. rtm

    LOVE this post, I love typography and I actually try to figure out what fonts are being used in opening credits, etc. The best typography is one that reflects the mood of the film, which some of these examples do well.

    • I was hoping you’d get a kick out of it because I knew you had this type of background.

      What I find kind of fascinating is that, other than Trajan, there’s been a very distinct shift from serif fonts in the 80’s and 90’s to lots and lots of sans serif fonts now.

  5. I read this post with the kind of glee only a font nerd can muster.

  6. Well, as long as they’re not in Comic Sans, we’re all good — right? 😉

    • Someone should make a Comic Sans documentary.

      I actually saw a crappy Paris Hilton movie a few months ago (which I also reviewed here) called “The Hillz”. The end credits rolled in Comic Sans. That blew me away.

  7. Stu

    I loved seeing the old “POTA” font up there in “Rise.” You wouldn’t, perchance, know what font Fox used on those classic titles?

    • My hunch is that it’s a proprietary/special font they created only for that movie, which happens a lot. The cool thing is that it looks like you can find lots of free, unlicensed downloads of it with a google search of “Planet of the Apes font”.

  8. Elizabeth Isroff

    HELP! Im just a novice trying to design a poster for a charity event using the boardwalk theme – do you know what font this is on this Boardwalk Empire poster?
    http://www.buy.com/pr/product.aspx?sku=221272566&sellerid=31552655
    Can’t find it. Thanks!

    • It looks like Futura Medium to me, or maybe Futura Medium Oblique, and then sheared or tilted in Illustrator. That’d be my guess.

      I’m guessing Futura won’t be available for free, but you can probably find a good substitute for it by googling “Futura font similar” or something like that. dafont.com is a great resource for free fonts.

      Good luck!

      • Franklin Pants

        The “R” isn’t in the least bit similar to Futura’s. It looks more like Knockout, but not quite. The “M” is too pointy.

  9. American Beauty is not Futura. It’s more Century Gothic, if anything. Please compare the Futura Bold’s “B” in the BEAUTY. They do not match. Century Gothic Bold is closer, but still no cigar. I’m having a terrible time finding this font!

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