Interview
Becoming a publicity designer for films was perhaps the last idea Gopi had in mind when he first started as a computer programmer at Indian Express.
Facebook/Gopi Prasannaa

For publicity designer Gopi Prasannaa, design is science. “Art is subjective but design is not. It is a derivation,” he says. While you may not immediately place him, you would surely remember his film posters - the yellow and black graphic novel style Aaranya Kaandam poster, Seethakathi’s grainy, coffee-stained poster that looks like a page from a vintage magazine, the black and white Vikram Vedha poster or the recent favourite Super Deluxe poster that gave us a lot to decode. And who can forget the Vadivelu version of the same poster that the makers released the very next day, as an inside joke?

Gopi says all of them offer clues to deduce what the film is about . “Design is not just photoshop. There’s a reason for every element in it. These posters convey the film’s mood, characters and its genre. You’ll have to crack it to find its soul. It's like solving a Maths problem,” he smiles.

Between promotions for Taapsee’s Game Over and revealing the title and first-look for Vijay’s Bigil (which was still being called "Thalapathy 63" last week), the designer who is hard to catch, finally agrees to meet us for coffee. "Game Over is an insane movie. One of the best I’ve worked for. In fact I was travelling to Bengaluru when they were shooting for the poster and it was all done over the phone,” he says, settling down for the interview.

Gopi, who comes from a family of sculptors, spent most his life studying computers and therefore, this unusual parallel he draws between design and science is now more comprehensible to us. Having studied programming for his under and post-graduation, Gopi’s first job in 1999 was as a programmer in Indian Express, just when the media giant had ventured into the World Wide Web.

“My initial job was to make all the news pages on the internet, link articles to headlines. I worked there for about 5 years,” he begins. This five year period would often repeat itself in Gopi’s life, propelling him to dabble in different fields, starting from scratch in most cases, like gaming, advertising, interior designing before finally finding his call in film publicity designs.

But becoming a publicity designer for films was perhaps the last idea Gopi had in mind when he first started. And in his own words, he’s started afresh in quite a few of them. “It was not intentional the first two times but then later it became a pattern. After leaving IE, I worked in a gaming company for 5 years learning all that there is to learn and then moving over to a completely unrelated field - advertising. Here I worked for another 5 years.”

It was around this time that Gopi designed his first film poster for his friend Thiyagarajan Kumararaja’s Aaranya Kaandam (2011). For the next three years, he took up very few assignments, doing one or two a year; Dhrogi, Raja Rani, OK Kanmani and Paradesi were the ones that came out during this period.

“I’d do everything right from attending the first meeting to delivering it in the final CD. Initially, I was reluctant to take this up full time,” he confesses. In parallel, he also started an interior design company. “I did that for about two years before joining a startup as CDO - Chief Design Officer in Bengaluru,” says Gopi.

From drawing logos to designing film posters

Gopi talks about the times when his family mistook him for studying while all he did was design logos with paper and pen on the terrace. “I’d draw them out myself. This was when I didn’t design on computers, around 1994 when I was about 14-years-old. And those who came to me would take negatives of my work to be used for screen printing. I’d charge Rs 25 for black and white and Rs 100 for colour. I did it for pocket money, I had no idea of taking it up later on in life,” he chuckles.

He would once again be drawn into the world of drawing and typography when he worked in Indian Express. “I’d quickly finish my work and head over to the magazine section where designers would design the title fonts on the magazine pages. It felt very real to me and I enjoyed watching them,” he says.

Gopi also believes his journey across different spectra has given him a unique edge in the industry. “It is quite rare for an illustrator to know User Interface (UI/UX). A UI person may not know advertising or branding. A programmer may not know how to work with Illustrator. A game designer may not know about the advertising or the interiors industry. It helped that I was able to immerse myself in so many fields,” he explains.

He also recalls that the switch from gaming to advertising happened quite by chance. “Kumararaja and I worked on an animated short film, which was quite fun. He called me one Friday evening in 2005 saying he wanted to send in a short film for an international award. We worked on it over the weekend and sent it on Monday morning,” he laughs.

This 60-second short, Becky, written by Thiyagarajan, illustrated and animated by Gopi, won the Ability Fest 2005. “When Sharad Haksar of One Point Size Studios saw my work, he wanted me to help with his website and that was how I made the move to advertising. I joined his agency a couple of years later,” he adds.

The beginning of first-looks

Publicity in cinema usually begins with the first-look. While this concept may not be new, it became what it is today - of fans waiting with bated breath for the tweet from the makers to reveal their favourite hero’s looks from his upcoming film - only around Vijay’s Kaththi. “I believe the concept of first-look posters caught on from Kaththi. I don’t know what led to it but I’m sure that was when it came into being as we know it today,” he says.

Vijay’s poster from Kaththi, his face made out of a collage of newspaper clippings, has good recall value even today. When the poster released, it was a huge hit among fans.

Gopi admits that the publicity business, for all its obscurity, creates a massive anticipation among fans right before the big reveal. With fans hounding the team on Twitter for updates on Vijay’s Bigil, Gopi says that a little more recognition for the field would go a long way. “An award category will be of help. I’m not asking for the sake of awards but I’m sure it’ll create an awareness among people that such a field exists. It would also inspire more youngsters to join,” he says.

Now, having done the publicity for over 50 films, Gopi strongly believes that commerce and art are not two different things when it comes to design. “The challenge is to find a midpoint and to me, it is all the same. I look at it from an aerial perspective and everything is design. If you ask me, I can’t find a difference between interiors and film posters,” he says with a smile.

As someone who hates taking references, Gopi says that he’s walked out of projects if his idea wasn’t understood. “I’ve always made sure my designs have been the first of their kind. For instance, there’s no precedent to the Game Over poster that you see. When I did Vikram Vedha in black and white, I faced apprehension from the producers initially and people recall it even today.”

Now that it’s been five years since he started on film publicity, will he make a switch again, we ask. “Every project feels new here. I hope I won’t get bored soon,” he chuckles.