Akiko Stehrenberger likes to draw. She's also pretty damn good at designing movie posters, making quirky thought-provoking sculptures and populating her instagram feed with amusing yet subversive 'meme-pieces' under the 'doyrivative' moniker. Having won a shedload of prestigious awards over the years for her film posters, Akiko isn't one to rest on her laurels. Her first book, 'Akikomatic' was released in 2020 highlighting a selection of work from a career spanning nearly two decades, and she recently held a solo exhibition of mixed-media paintings, posters, sculptures and drawings – showcasing the eclectic nature of her creative thought-process. Here the Los Angeles based artist chats to Beneficial Shock! about her formative years as a budding illustrator, the importance of remaining versatile in a competitive industry and how a near-miss at an army recruiting station led to her realisation that the pen is most definitely mightier than the sword.
You recently took some time off to go back to school as it were – learning to do bronze sculpture. Can you tell me a little about your decision to do this?
It’s getting close to two decades of me doing movie posters. It’s a very creatively demanding job, and the deadlines are getting shorter and shorter, but one thing that I’m really proud of is keeping my other creative outlets going. I wish there were 40 hours in a day to do it all, but it’s what keeps recharging my batteries when it comes to movie poster work. It’s very easy to get burnt out… so I need these other projects to catch a breath of air and come to projects with fresher eyes.
Whenever I can – and luckily my clients are becoming more open to art – I’m always looking for other types of influences than the typical movie poster advertising influences. Even if it's me going to the Anderson Ranch Arts Center for two weeks, working with my hands and learning how to bronze sculptures… it helps to put a new creative wind in my sails.
Have you noticed a change over the years in how receptive clients are to more conceptually driven ideas?
I think what’s really opened the doors is that there’s movie poster advertising in all types of new media now, especially with streaming services that are targeting lots of different audiences, often wanting lots of options for what you’ll see as thumbnails on a menu … so I think they’re willing to take more chances. And because they’re not physically printing a lot of these pieces, I’m assuming they have better budgets to explore other types of artwork. I think movies are now following the lead of the streaming services where they want to reach out to all types of audiences, so that has been great. I feel so honoured to have seen that transition happen because it’s kicked down the door for so many amazing artists to come in and do things that are less expected.
I also think the whole culture of collecting posters has raised awareness to clients where they are now saying ‘we want posters like that’, so I think there are a few different factors that have made it a really good time to be in the movie poster field.
When I started there was maybe one illustration that would squeak by every few years, for instance Robert Neubecker's image for the Sideways poster… and clients would try to replicate it only because someone was ballsy enough to do it and it worked, so it’s good now that there are so many more opportunities to do these things.
"When I started there was maybe one illustration that would squeak by every few years, for instance Robert Neubecker's image for the Sideways poster… and clients would try to replicate it only because someone was ballsy enough to do it and it worked, so it’s good now that there are so many more opportunities to do these things."
Your recent show “Made All of This” included some of your new fun, playful and satirical work. I know you’ve mentioned being inspired by Mad magazine early on – but your work seems more in line with surrealists like Duchamp and Magritte, even Banksy. Where does this desire to play with pop culture come from? Is this you channeling the artist as a social commentator?
Before I started working in movie posters I was doing editorial illustration. Now that I reflect on it, it was still from the same brain as the work was referencing current events and pop culture. So in a way my recent physical work is bringing me back to that. The reason why I decided to put this other type of work in my show was that I’ve always been doing it alongside my movie poster work. I never took it seriously though… it was more that I was making these pieces for my friends. When I finally decided to join Instagram, I realized I now I have a place to show it... and I think it’s important for me to show my sense of humour, because there is so much more to me than making movie posters.
I think it also encompasses the way that I approach movie poster work. I don’t like to make things just for the sake of making them. I really like to think about them and have a concept at the root of it… and I also really want to keep changing the medium I’m working with so that I’m not a one-trick pony. I want the medium to be purposeful to the idea, so that’s why the pieces outside of my movie poster work might not seem like they're from the same hand. However, I’m hoping that the concept and the light-heartedness is the connective tissue to all the work in some way.
I can see the influence of people like Heinz Edelmann for a few of your posters (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology), your Fleabag poster references John Singer Sargent's “Madame X” and A Bigger Splash is very Hockney-esque. Some artists would avoid this kind of direct referencing – so can you tell me a bit about your thinking when adopting these styles?
With those projects, using those references is part of the concept. I’m not trying to sell that as ‘this is my work from now on’, instead it is what I feel works for a particular idea. I’m not trying to hide my references…it’s more important for me to communicate the idea than it is for the poster to be "an Akiko" piece.
I’m constantly referencing art history. If someone can recognize the reference and see how I connected it to something it ordinarily wouldn't be paired with, they feel included in the joke. For instance, for Always Sunny in Philadelphia I randomly thought of philly cheese steaks which led me to submarine sandwiches which led me to how Always Sunny's branding is anything yellow, which led to Yellow Submarine, which led to making Danny Devito a Meanie, which cracked myself up in the process. For that one, I definitely don't expect the viewer to understand the crazy thought process at all, but with it being a later season where so many things have been done for the show, I thought, why not?
With Bigger Splash, I didn't try to just be influenced by Hockney, I studied and tried to paint like he did. I wanted it to be as evident as possible. With Pervert's Guide, it was so hard to come up with a singular idea that could summarize the film. The best way I could make a "more is more" poster feel artful, and make some very heavy content not feel so depressing, was to reference Edelmann and I think it solved this problem.
When I went to art school, all of my teachers said ‘find that look that distinguishes your art from all the other people, so that people can easily recognise your work’ and that’s something I did when I was an editorial artist. Once it came to movie poster advertising, I needed to do what I felt worked best for the project. What comes with that is me constantly challenging myself to find different ways of painting and exploring as I go to see if I can reference different things, because it also needs to feel appropriate to the genre of the film.
One thing I find with all these alternative movie posters out there at the moment is that they apply a particular style or look to every type of film. If that were to be applied in the real movie poster world, you would really limit yourself because certain approaches only communicate independent films… so you need to be adaptable and respectful to the genre that you’re working on.
Do you do all of the typography for your posters or do you collaborate and/or take instruction from an art director? I say this because the type looks so seamless for posters such as Colossal, Mary Queen of Scots, Portrait of A Lady on Fire and A Long Strange Trip?
Thank you so much for asking about typography. Nobody ever does, which is also a big part of my job! In all of my movie poster work, I am the art director. I do everything from start to finish including the typography. There are rare occasions where there may already be a logo developed (provided by the movie studios), so I must try to work with the branding. This can be a challenge at times, but if I get this early on, I can try to build it into my composition from the start and find a way to make it all feel cohesive. There are also times where my type may be revised without my knowledge, and to be honest, it makes me crazy! I paint my images to accommodate the type I have in mind. If I see my piece printed and someone has moved my type to a different place and added a drop shadow, it's like someone putting ranch dressing on your $200 sushi. For Colossal, it made sense the title was painted with the same brush I painted the girl/monster, especially when I wanted to incorporate the eyes in the logo. For Mary Queen of Scots, I researched and referenced paintings and handwriting from that era. For Portrait of A Lady on Fire, this was an instance where there was already a locked logo. To make it feel cohesive to my piece, I repainted it so it made sense with the whole piece. For A Long Strange Trip, the type is most of the illustration to really create that Fillmore psychedelic look. Nothing is random, especially when it comes to a time period piece. Everything is researched and well considered.
"I paint my images to accommodate the type I have in mind. If I see my piece printed and someone has moved my type to a different place and added a drop shadow, it's like someone putting ranch dressing on your $200 sushi."
The designer Stefan Sagmeister is mostly concerned with design that has the ability to ‘touch the viewer’s heart’ which seems appropriate to what you are looking to do. Do you feel it’s important for your film posters to have an emotional resonance? I say this as you often use portraiture in your work – people looking at us – The One I Love, Blue Ruin, Her, Life During Wartime, John Lewis. These posters seem to be seeking a human connection.
I’ve always been drawn to portraiture, and while it does seem that there are a lot of faces looking at the viewer to connect to them, it’s also a way of ticking the marketing box. If there’s a creative way to show the actor or the subject and still pull the viewer in, I hope that’s achieving what a client has asked me to do.
Do you prefer working on Independent film poster work as it allows for a bit more creative freedom, perhaps not needing you to focus so heavily on putting a familiar face front and centre?
Definitely. I work on all types of projects, and when I first started in the industry I didn’t have that luxury to be able to pick and choose the projects I wanted to work on. But in that span of time I’ve realised that although I would love to do a mainstream poster that would give my family bragging rights, I wouldn’t feel proud of putting those types of projects in my portfolio. Because of the way I work, I actually find them less challenging because they’re often formulaic. They would also just be so out of sync with the rest of the work that I’m proud of. I’m not intending to insult anyone that works on those projects, I’m just saying that for me, I pride myself on when I can break out of the norm, even if no one's heard of the film I've done the poster for.
I guess that’s similar to actors who like working with directors who move them out of their comfort zones and move away from the mainstream, formulaic approach of doing things. And as a poster artist if you’re working with a Haneke or Spike Jonze, they’re directors that maybe have a similar mindset to you as an artist… maybe more of a match in creative sensibilities?
Yes there is a match but it also depends on the studio that’s putting out their film. More so than not the studio has the last say over the director. If it’s going to be a huge film and they want to market the film more broadly, their marketing team definitely over-rides the opinion of the director.
Have you walked away from projects and what is it that makes you walk away?
Although rare, I have walked away from projects and I feel very lucky to be in a position where I can do that now. I don’t like quitting a project after it’s been in process, and there’s always a part of me that wants to problem solve. So even if halfway through, I can see that we’re really not on the same page I try really hard to find a solution. I think there’ve only been maybe two projects where I’ve said ‘let’s just cut our losses here’, but for the most part I would like to think that I can work within the client’s parameters and I actually pride myself if there's a piece in the end that's decent even if I didn't entirely agree with it.
My Instagram and website are populated with projects that I love to work on because I want more of those, so going back to bragging rights – I’d rather not have those bragging rights if I get these projects that I really love and want ownership over.
I know you came to film relatively late in your career, but did your family inspire a love of film in you?
I don’t think that I watched an unusual amount of movies as a kid. My mom didn’t allow us to watch TV for the majority of my childhood, so of course once I moved out I made up for lost time!
What changed it for me was when I moved to New York and I didn’t know anybody, I would go to this little theatre down the street from my house and just watch films there. It was easy to go from one film to the next with one ticket so I’d often see two movies a day… until I started making some friends!
François Truffaut said that "perfection in the cinema consists in the knowledge that whatever happens there is a barrier between the film and ‘reality’". Many of your posters seem intent on creating a space of ‘unreality’ – somewhere mysterious for our imagination to go. I’m interested in your 'imagining' process and what you think inspired this when you were younger?
As a kid I left home when I was 15 and felt like I was a grown-up pretty early. But on the flip side, I started smoking weed at quite a young age. Maybe that had some influence as it was taking me to a different ‘place’.
When I’m coming up with concepts I’m always thinking of metaphors rather than what feels realistically grounded… and if I can intrigue the viewer and get them to stop and look at the poster a second longer than they normally would, then I feel I’ve done a good job.
"When I’m coming up with concepts I’m always thinking of metaphors rather than what feels realistically grounded… and if I can intrigue the viewer and get them to stop and look at the poster a second longer than they normally would, then I feel I’ve done a good job."
As for early influences, my dad always did things his own way. I didn’t grow up with him for the majority of my life but he’s always been kind of a rebel. I think that helped me to see that I could be a creative person and that I wasn’t going to be forced to be a doctor.
Although my mom wasn’t a creative professional, she was always doing different projects. She had to raise four of us by herself so she didn’t have much time to herself, but when she could she was making clothes or learning theatre make-up… she always had her hand in something. And even though she never pursued any of these things as far as maybe she could have, like my dad, it also created an environment where it was ok for me to be creative.
She was the one that told me I should go to art school. In high school I just wanted to get out of my home-town and had no real path. I actually met up with an army recruiter and was going to join the army. I was one step from swearing in and she said ‘why don’t you try doing art school?’, so I feel really lucky that I had a mom who pushed me in that direction.
What was your experience like at art school?
I absolutely loved art school because I found people that were like me. It was the first time I connected to people. The first two years were really hard and I actually thought of quitting because I was one of the youngest students and felt out of my league. I was drawing Ren & Stimpy and I look over and my classmate was drawing like Michelangelo. I thought ‘what the hell am I doing here?’. But although it was extremely intimidating, it lit a fire under my ass, showing me that I really needed to catch up so that I felt like I belonged there. Once I started focusing more on this I learned a lot at fast speed, so I look back on art school as the best thing I could have done.
Can you tell me a bit about your love of Polish and Czech posters? What do you think these posters and their artists managed to accomplish which have made them such an indelible part of the film poster canon?
I wish I had better words, but I just love how weird they are. I think when I see them I sit there and want to understand what’s going on. Even if I don’t understand them I just love to see the different techniques used by the illustrators. I love how some feel naive, while others look effortless, and I think this is what makes them so charming. I just can’t help thinking about where the idea comes from in the film because they sometimes feel like such a departure, but it still sort of makes sense. For me just staring at these posters trying to figure them out is what makes them so intriguing.
A few of my favourite film posters are those for Rosemary’s Baby by Philip Gips and Boris Bilinsky’s Metropolis poster from the 1920s. Do you have a few favourites and can you tell me why they work for you?
It changes all the time. At my work I have been collecting posters by the Polish artist Aleksander Walijewski, who’s work I recently discovered and think is great.
If I think of one that I saw recently which I was like ‘argh I wish I would’ve created that!’ there’s one for the new film by Daniel Kwana and Daniel Scheinert called Everything Everywhere All At Once, where the whole poster is made of googly eyes apart from the negative space of the title. I read the script about two years ago while working for a movie poster agency, so I know how wacky the film is, and the fact they (AV Film) were able to make this poster is really amazing. So like I said, it changes daily but it’s mostly stuff that I see where I think ‘god I wish I would have made that!’
People sometimes ask me how I feel about other illustrators coming into the poster world. I say that it’s great! For a while it felt like I was maybe one of two artists doing things in a certain way, and so I needed someone to call me out if I drew a foot and it looked off. It keeps me more critical in areas that I may have gotten lazy because I was feeling like I was the only one pushing certain things through. It’s more camaraderie than anything as I’m friends with lots of these movie poster artists that crossed over from alternative movie poster art to real movie posters and I love seeing what they do. I think this also keeps the clients on their toes, so they don’t get lazy and keep regurgitating the same things too.
What was the experience like of doing your recent book 'Akikomatic'?
It caused me so much anxiety. When they approached me to do it I was like OK that would be cool to show my son one day what his mom did to keep the lights on for him. But then as the process started I was thinking ‘why am I doing this? Does anyone really care? I wasn’t on Instagram, I’d barely talked about my work at that point, I just thought is this going to be a failure? But at the same time I thought I needed to challenge myself. I then set up an Instagram account as I needed to promote it and talk about it, and with that came the learning curve of how to use Instagram a decade after everyone else was on it. I noticed pretty quickly, as I’d post things, that people would give my work so much love and that definitely gave me more confidence in making the book.
But of course not long after printing the book my poster of Portrait of A Lady on Fire came out, so I was like ‘Dang It, just missed the cutoff for the book!’… and then my Dune poster came later… but I was like, at least I’m continuing to do stuff and the book isn’t the end for me.
Are you finding that Instagram is a good platform for you to test out your more tactile ideas?
Definitely, and also I didn’t realise when I joined Instagram, but I realised later on, that it’s providing a platform for anonymous poster designers to finally get credit for their work. We don’t get to sign posters with our names and most of these movie poster agencies claim ownership of the work rather than the individual designers and artists. It might be a matter of time before the agencies shut it all down, but for the time being I think it’s great that there’s finally an arena that allows us to get credit for all the work we’ve done.
So, what are your aspirations going forward?
I’m surprised to have been working in movie poster design for this long. When I first started it was all about paying off my student loans and then I’d be out of there. But that was in a different era when movie advertisement was completely different. Right now I feel that the industry has hit this sweet spot of being really open to unconventional things. I want to ride it for as long as that remains open, but I also don’t want to limit myself to that. Because I’m an independent contractor I feel like I don’t have to make a definitive decision for my next move, so I’m definitely going to keep myself open to all different kinds of projects and see where that leads me next.
Akikomatic: The Work of Akiko Stehrenberger is available to buy from hatandbeard.com
All Images © Akiko Stehrenberger