Doctor Overanalyzes the World.

Doctor overanalyzes The King’s Speech on Blu-ray.

I don’t own a Blu-Ray player. I was tempted to buy one a couple of months ago just so I could see the Toy Story 3 special features, but even my love for all things Pixar wasn’t enough incentive to buy another physical media player. I’m in the camp that believes physical formats are on their way out within the next few years, to be overtaken by things like Hulu, Netflix Instant, iTunes rentals, and illegal streaming. Besides, so-called “high-definition” video has never impressed me all that much — the 11-inch screen I’m typing this on right now can display a 720p video at full resolution.

I also haven’t seen The King’s Speech. Every year I try to watch as many of the Oscar nominees as possible before the ceremony, but in this case “try” never translates to actual practice. I do not doubt that it is an excellent movie, although I imagine that ten or fifteen years from now 2010 will be remembered more for The Social Network, Inception, and Toy Story 3 than it is for the Best Picture winner.

Of course, the film’s success at the Academy Awards means that the Weinstein company gets to cash in on the gigantic boost in name recognition the film’s received over the last several months, which means that it’s getting a Blu-ray release. (It’s also getting a theatrical rerelease with a PG-13 rating, achieved by cutting three “fuck”s from a string of five consecutive obscenities. Thank goodness the MPAA is protecting our children from such excessive profanity).

When a film has three big-ticket stars in it, the studio usually wants to feature those stars prominently on its collateral. This often leads to what’s often called the “floating head syndrome,” in which actors’ heads are pasted on to the poster or DVD cover in some artful arrangement, such as this other movie in which Geoffrey Rush’s name appears over a different actor’s head:

There’s a rather unfortunate and ubiquitous side-effect of floating head syndrome that is one of my big pet peeves. Clauses in actors’ contracts stipulate whether they get first billing, second billing, etc. As a result, actors’ names often end up mismatched with their heads on collateral, as is the case in both of these examples. A particularly egregious infraction can happen when multiple actors of varying prominence play the same characters, as is the case with this Now and Then poster:

In addition, the composers who paste these posters together (I deliberately avoid calling them “designers” because I’m pretentious and arrogant) either willfully or carelessly ignore the fact that the actors are lit from different angles. Look at Geoffrey Rush’s face, then look at Colin Firth’s. Clearly these men are not in the same place at the same time.

Typographically, the cover is still mediocre. Gill Sans has been carried over from the theatrical posters in the title and actors’ billings. Gill Sans is a quintessentially British typeface, used by the BBC and basically everything in Britain ever. It is the British Helvetica, and few typefaces will so immediately identify the collateral it’s used on as British. In addition, Gill Sans was released in 1926 and rose to prominence in the 1930s, which is when the film is set. Even the most progressively-minded design critic cannot fault the designers for going with Gill here.

The composers of this Blu-ray cover, however, inexplicably decided to ditch Gill and go with Gotham for the critical praise and tagline. Gotham is a very American typeface, designed by an American and based on lettering on the New York Port Authority bus terminal. It is also perhaps the defining typeface of the past decade, and a complete anachronism in a film set in the 1930s. Even ignoring this historical and cultural atrocity, Gotham is a terrible companion to Gill Sans, as they are both geometric sans-serifs. (Gill is technically humanist, but its uppercase construction is much more geometric.) They do not contrast enough with each other to be paired together.

The uncanny valley is a robotics term referring to the phenomenon that humans are repulsed by non-humans that appear almost, but not quite, human. Human characters in CGI films often fall directly into the valley. A similar principle to the uncanny valley applies to paring type. If two typefaces look almost, but not quite, the same, even a person with absolutely no knowledge of type feels that something isn’t quite right.

I suppose that Gotham had to make an appearance, though, as in the past few years it’s almost upset Trajan as the default “movie font.” At least three of the ten Best Picture nominees — The King’s Speech not included — used Gotham somewhere on their theatrical posters. In a remarkable display of restraint by the designers of this Blu-ray cover, however, “Based on a true story” is still set in Gill.

Don’t get me wrong, though — I’m not complaining about Gotham’s rising ubiquity. I do imagine that in forty years it will be just as unnoticeable as Helvetica, but for the present time it’s exceedingly well-designed, and there are certainly worse choices for the defining typeface of a generation.

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