Trainspotting At #20 – The Poster

Trainspotting -Poster

Did you know the poster to Danny Boyle’s runaway sophomore success Trainspotting is so iconic, so influential, it is on permanent display at London’s V&A museum? That an exhibition about its creation will take place at the Proud Archivist Gallery, London, in this, the film’s 20th anniversary year?

Let’s step back in time and recall how its simple, yet elegant design came about, via the creatives behind it, Mark Blamire (now of Blanka and Print Process) and Rob O’Connor (Stylorouge, the creative consultants they both worked at back then). Quotes are from Empire and Creative Review.

Rob O’Connor: “Irving Welsh’s novel, from which the movie had been adapted, was written from the multiple points of view and in the voices of each of the main characters, and we felt it was important to stress the individuality of those personalities. Only Ewan MacGregor and Robert Carlyle were reasonably well known at this time, so it was quite unusual to take this approach. The characters in the story themselves almost seemed more important than the actors playing the roles.” 

(The individual character posters for characters in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs were also a touchstone.)

The film’s distributors Polygram initially suggested the poster for the film Backbeat, about the early years of The Beatles, as a guide for a group shot. The creative team hated this idea.


When the actors were brought together for a group shot, it didn’t seem to work. Blamire recently told Empire:

“Suddenly the air got prickly. They got on as actors, but when they were in character and forced together into a huddle they became abrasive and jarred off one another.”

From Creative Review (Blamire again):

The film company had approved the idea of the individual shots for a character-based teaser campaign but the main image for the final poster was to be a group shot of the actors in a tight huddle. It wasn’t until we tried to get the actors into the group shots that the friction started. It was at this point that we realised that whilst the characters from the story were in a gang, they were by no means friends who could implicitly trust each other or want to be seen in a tight huddle-style group photo all hugging and being chummy in the manner that was initially planned.”

Even having them leering and pulling faces didn’t work.

trainspotting team

Blamire: “It was when we moved on to photograph the individual images for the teaser character posters that it all started to really work. The actors on their own in front of the camera really brought the ideas to life. For example, watching Robert Carlyle transmogrify into his Begbie character when the camera started clicking away was quite a thing to behold. When we got back to the studio and sat down with the photoshoot to try to turn it into posters we realised the group shot approach no longer worked.”

The hashtag numbering system for the individual posters was a device lifted from the novel (Junk Dilemma #63, for example). This led to the team junking (geddit?) the group shot and incorporating the individual portraits within a one sheet overall design – “We introduced the device of a train station departure board (actually inspired by a British airport’s brand identity guidelines from the 70’s which used a yellowy orange colour for its cover),” Blamire recalled. The blurred motion as Begbie gives the fingers, and the “This film is expected to arrive…” line, all subliminally cemented it in British consciousness.

An idea of using yellow dangerous chemical symbols was briefly considered, then dropped, replacing the yellow with orange overall background in homage to the book cover, an idea that was watered down to block background around the film title.

trainspotting renton

O’Connor:  “The way the actors looked was pretty important – we wanted them to look exactly as they were in the movie – although we also tried them all dressed in black – definitely not to Jonny Lee Miller’s liking! They were all wasted and emotionally highly strung, having literally just finished filming some pretty ‘high-octane’ scenes. They’d actually come straight from shooting the final pick-ups at dawn the same morning of our poster shoot. The poses they adopted were based on characteristics of their personalities and events in the movie.”

Polygram put Stylorouge in touch with photographer Lorenzo Agius, who had down some stills for them for The Usual Suspects.  The striking black and white poses were partly inspired by the work of Richard Avedon, who had done realistic, no-holds-barred portraits of America’s homeless in the late 1960’s Midwest. Amazingly the poster creators never even got to see the film before they came up with their design, and had a clear, unsullied approach, free of distractions.

Blamire: “we were given access to the actors and we were briefed about the poster when the film was still being made. Usually by the time the poster designer gets involved, the film is in the can and the actors have all gone home, and you are delivered a folder full of production stills which you have to try and work your magic on to make a good poster. So the film company had been very forward-thinking by giving us time to come up with a solution – and, crucially, the time with the actors to deliver that solution.”

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