by Claire Allfree
Think of the film Trainspotting and the chances are you won't think first of a scene from the film, but of its advertising.
Gritty black-and-white photographs of five key actors from the film boxed on clean white backgrounds, numbered and captioned with their character names in orange. For years after the film was released, you couldn't escape the look that the campaign defined: everyone from clothing and computer companies to clubs appropriated the image and used it to advertise their own products, all wanting to associate themselves with the film's iconic status, all hoping that a bit of its critical, commercial and cult success would rub off on them. Five years on, Odeon cinemas were still using the design on their customised packets of jelly babies, and some students still have fading reproductions of the original on their walls.
Somehow a film about heroin addiction has become not only one of the best marketed films in living memory but has provided the 20th century with one of its most enduring cultural images.
When Stylorouge first accepted the brief there was some nervousness about the potentially controversial nature of the film, but it being a Danny Boyle project, the buzz was already enormous. Like most people who read Irvine Welsh's original ground breaking book, Stylorouge's Rob O'Connor and Mark Blamire laughed aloud while finding much of it monumentally distasteful. As is typical of Stylorouge's approach to campaign development, everyone on the team discussed ideas for the poster in initial brainstorming meetings, although the number of people who went on to work on the project was limited for practical reasons. The campaign became O'Connor and Blamire's baby.
Keen to tap into the disenfranchised tone of the book, they first imagined a poster that would convey a grubby sense of danger, as though one would catch something if one went near it. Other early ideas included a re-creation of the scene where Renton plunges into the toilet, dismissed because the ensuing watery image would be too abstract. Also ruled out was PolyGram's idea of having the characters photographed full length and almost in silhouette, standing on a bridge against an urban background, redolent of the promotional shots for Iain Softley's Beatles/Stuart Sutcliffe biopic Backbeat. (PolyGram had originally envisaged the film as a gang/buddy movie, with the cast having a similar no-hoper image to that of a neo-punk band). Indeed it was probably Stylorouge's history of working with bands that brought the project their way. O'Connor and Blamire rejected the idea of urban dislocation however: dirty realism had been done to death in the Sixties; they also wanted to avoid glamourising drugs with heroin-chic imagery.
Instead, they became increasingly interested in branding the characters according to their personality. They were keen to highlight the sense of multiple identity; of the many voices that speak in Irvine Welsh's novel. They also liked the arbitrary nature of the film's title and Blamire started playing with the iconography of train timetables and signage. The idea of taking individual shots of the characters instead of a group began to take precedence — group shots seemed too generic and band-like. At first the team considered deliberately amateurish snaps and photobooth shots, and of using train windows as frames for the individual portraits. They were convinced that the photographs should be black and white, which in itself was a radical proposition; as a rule marketing doesn't aim to undersell the product (Trainspotting is a colour movie of course), and yet O'Connor and Blamire felt that black and white on a clean white background would both de-glamourize the subject and give it a clinical impact. Pharmaceutical packaging also came to mind — hence the boxed information typography and the warning colour orange. Gradually, the poster was taking shape.
Photographer Lorenzo Agius was booked to take test shots of various members of Stylorouge staff to get some idea of both how the cast should be photographed and how the panels and numbering devices could be incorporated. These shots received the green light from PolyGram and producer, Andrew MacDonald, and a date for the proper photo shoot was set.
When it came to the day of the photo shoot, the cast were exhausted and emotionally ill-prepared; the poster campaign was so ahead of schedule that the film itself was not yet in post-production; in fact the 'wrap' party had taken place only the night before and the last scene had been shot that very morning. The aesthetic demands of the film had taken their toll; they were skinny, rundown and in emotional turmoil. Ewan McGregor resigned himself to being photographed soaking wet. Johnny Lee Miller was less happy to assume a James Bond pose, but the experienced professional Robert Carlyle pulled him round. Perhaps Lee Miller should be grateful; Kevin McKidd, who played Tommy in the film and who was not at the shoot, didn't make it onto the poster at all, and as a consequence is arguably less of a 'household face' than his colleagues. During the shoot, the precaution was taken of shooting group photographs as well as individuals, but when it came to it, the individuals were considerably more powerful. The resulting black-and-white images were presented to PolyGram and Macdonald who both loved them.
With the start of the student year fast approaching, Stylorouge designed a teaser campaign, as well as producing an ad campaign for the daily published Cannes Festival Magazine, distributed by Screen International. And thus, with the campaign so well prepared, a buzz was already growing, way ahead of the film's release date.
The finished poster needs little description — it is burnt into the retina of public consciousness, and its iconic status has been officially acknowledged: the poster was recognized by D&AD (Design & Art Direction) and the campaign went on to win various categories at the Screen International awards. Despite its visual simplicity and immediacy, its core strength lies in its powerful ambiguity. The first phase of the campaign was a series of solo character posters; the first 'group' poster had the actors isolated in boxes. The black-and-white definition has a sophistication redolent of a fashion shoot yet looking at these images is disorientating; the characters seem larger than life, they rear up at you in slightly monstrous fashion. The lack of romance and cosmetic deception looks disarmingly unlike a film poster but feels faithful to the film.
If Trainspotting the film redefined British cinema then Trainspotting the poster redefined the way it was marketed. Most of all it captured a butterfly-from-the-chrysalis moment when British marketing culture suddenly found a new identity; one of arrogant independence, confident of its product and most of all, having the balls to take risks.