The iconic film art of Akiko Stehrenberger

The award-winning illustrator and designer discusses her creative process in a new book from Hat & Beard Press.


JC Gabel

If you’ve caught a glimpse of a promotional movie poster in the last 15 years, chances are you were taking in the work of Akiko Stehrenberger, the Los Angeles-based artist you didn’t know you knew.

Stehrenberger has worked on projects for some of cinema’s most important and influential filmmakers, translating their unique visions from screen to poster. The list of names includes a long roster of trailblazers, among them Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Jonathan Glazer, Harmony Korine, the Coen brothers, Sofia Coppola, David Lynch and Michael Haneke.

At Hat & Beard Press, we’ve long been fans of Stehrenberger’s work, and are thrilled to be publishing a new book which will put readers at the centre of her process, from concept to execution. Stehrenberger’s story will be told in a way that mirrors her process, utilising analogue and modern techniques – including film, film photography and illustration – all in an effort to a better understand what makes her such a vital visual artist.

Below is a short extract of an interview with Stehrenberger as featured in the book, along with a selection of the artist’s favourite posters.

The first time I looked at your work on your site, I thought you’d already created your own mini-Criterion Collection of official movie posters in your own right. Are you used to churning and burning in this medium or are you still overly analytical about everything?

I’m definitely overly analytical when it comes to my work, but because the deadlines are so crazy and I’m put on to the next project so quickly, I have to commit and trust that what I’m doing is right for it. I’m one of those people that needs deadlines, otherwise I could work on something for years and years. In that respect, those quick deadlines actually work to my benefit. There are a handful that I look back on and wonder, ‘What was I thinking?’ but for the most part the quick pace has forced me to really trust my instincts and not try to noodle something to death.

Is it easier to work with the studios or the shops that specialise in this stuff? Your process seems like it might be different depending on who you were working for?

I like interchanging between the two. What I love about working for a movie poster shop is that it goes so fast and I’ve established great work processes with my creative directors. I’m just there to make comps. I can be less responsible because my work is only a small portion of comps presented to the studio by the shop. The studio also doesn’t know it’s mine so there’s less pressure.

Whereas the studios, say, are judging you as a singular designer and illustrator?

Yes. When I’m working straight with the studio, it’s a much different pace. They are coming to me directly, knowing my work. Being only one person, I offer a very limited and focused exploration. One might think there is no downside to this, but there is much more responsibility in working in this manner. These projects last many months, whereas with a shop there’s a good chance I work on a project and never have to see it again unless my work makes it to the next rounds.

When I’m hired by a shop, my work is being presented with so much other work, so I can be a bit more playful because I know other designers might be more responsible. Regardless of either of these ways of working, I don’t ever do spec work or offer my ideas for free. My ideas come from at least a full day of research and is half the job of an art director. I either get paid a day rate from the shops, or a project fee from the studios. My time is always accounted for, so I’m less bothered if my posters don’t make it to the finish line.

Is there a particular poster you are sick of talking about or the media obsessing over?

I’ve talked about Funny Games a million times, but at the same time that poster gave me my career and started giving me a name in my industry. Out of respect for it, I can talk about it a million more times. People still to this day don’t realise it’s an illustration.

That poster came out and people were like, ‘Who is this person?’

Yes, and it came out right when I became a freelancer and left my full-time position at that first movie poster shop. I still feel like I have the same aesthetics. I still love the simplicity behind it. I’ll always be very proud of it. I know that people are just finding out about me now because of it, and I’m in an industry that gives credit to nobody, so I’m lucky that people even know my name.

Yeah, because your name isn’t even on the poster itself which I’ve always found odd, seeing as how the end crawl of credits of a film seem to single out everyone, including the set dog.

It never is. The movie poster designer is very last on the totem pole. Please don’t undermine the set dog.

It’s so weird because that’s the number one thing that gives a film visibility.

Exactly, but now with social media, movie poster designers and illustrators are definitely starting to make the name for themselves that they couldn’t before.

Let’s talk about how you came up with @doyrivative as a handle to promote your work online.

“Doyrivative” doesn’t really roll off the tongue easily, but it’s something I came up with because I wanted to start introducing my silly art derivative of pop culture. The expression ‘doy’ is just a nicer version of ‘duh’ , and I was really excited when my best friend Jamal Gunn Becker and I were able to write “doy” in such a way that it became a moniker of a silly face to use for my handle. Before I had an Instagram, I often made birthday gifts for my friends that followed the roots of what Doyrivative is.

With Instagram, Doyrivative became a personal project where I make one new piece a week and force myself to post it. Still, to this day, I get anxiety anytime I’m going to post something … but I’m trying to train myself to be less self-conscious about it. Most of those pieces were me just fucking off and not having to worry about a focus group in the Midwest judging it. It’s freedom to release brain farts. It’s not the most eloquent way of saying it, but you get the idea.

I think your sense of humor is the thing that really comes out. It’s reflected in the work. Do you think that’s why you’re good at this medium, as a work-in-progress laboratory?

I would hope so. I feel like whenever I have a chance to infuse some kind of tongue-in-cheek in my pieces, I try to do that. I have to remember what I’m interested in, too. I love design, I love beautiful art, but I also love when something cracks me up and doesn’t take itself too seriously. I grew up reading Mad Magazine. I always loved not only the amazing skill level of the illustrations, but the satire surrounding current events. I think in today’s climate, it couldn’t hurt to lighten the mood a little bit.

You mentioned that a lot of the work you do on these posters, these days, starts and ends on the computer, but when you started it was really all done by hand. How was that transition?

I learned on the job and was thrown in the fire. The deadlines were insane from the start and now they’re consistently getting shorter and shorter. It’s constantly forcing me to learn new techniques to do on the computer so I can keep up with these inhumane deadlines.

How do you avoid being stressed? What do you do to de-compress when you’re on these crazy deadlines?

I watch total trash and smoke weed. It’s the only way to turn off my brain. If I were to come home and watch a beautiful art movie, I’m going to be thinking, “Fuck, what would I do for the poster? How do I emulate that scene?” It’s just back to work again. It would never end. I need to be able to turn it off.

‘Akikomatic: The Art of Akiko Stehrenberger’ is available to order here.

Published 9 Mar 2020

Tags: Akiko Stehrenberger

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