Designer Par Excellence: Kenny Gravillis, the Man Behind the Posters
You’ve seen his work. You’ve sensed his style. His imagery varies widely, but always there’s heart, and indeed soul, to it. The movie poster has long been considered an art form, yet in the 21st century Kenny Gravillis has emerged as a visual poet, infusing entertainment campaigns for a long list of A-listers with unique perspectives that keep his business booming.
Following a late-’80s move from East London to New York to hone his skills on art for Def Jam (and perhaps a wise career move to sidestep becoming a pool shark), Mr. Gravillis relocated again to Los Angeles, where he and his wife and business partner Deanna greeted the millennium by launching Gravillis, Inc.: now a top graphic design studio nearly 50 artists strong.
Kenny Gravillis is as affable as he is incisive, and after we share raves for the amazing work Questlove has done with the Oscar-winning musical-cultural documentary Summer of Soul — the campaign for the astounding reflections of the Harlem Cultural Festival reunited the men for the first time since Kenny’s designs for The Roots in 2014 — we turn to discussing director, benefactor, and living legend, Spike Lee:
“The Spike story is a beautiful one,” Kenny enthuses. “I’ve not met someone that is so about the involvement of people of color in this industry, that has as much power as Spike. There are people that have power, but don’t always show it in their vivaciousness of wanting to see a certain change, or wanting to see a representation — and this is a man that embodies that, completely.
“What ended up happening, in 2015 — it feels like forever ago — but Chi-Raq, believe it or not, was Amazon’s first feature film; and what was ironic at the time is that we were working on Beasts of No Nation, which was Netflix’s first feature film. Bob Berney, who was just brought in to run Amazon film [as Head of Marketing and Distribution], called me up in October, and he was like, ‘You know what, Kenny, we’re releasing our very first film in December.’ It was two months away, and it was Spike Lee. And I was like: Whoah.
“The thing about Spike, though — between ’89 and ’95 I worked at Def Jam, glory days there, and Fear of a Black Planet, by Public Enemy, was new. On that album, of course, was ‘Fight the Power,’ and that summer of ’89, Do the Right Thing came out. [Its composition was prompted by Mr. Lee for his film in ’89, then arriving on the album in ‘90.] Like for a lot of other people, Do the Right Thing was a game-changing, life-changing, experience for me.
“So Spike was one of those iconic figures that I wished one day I would meet — but in my mind I also had an idea of what that meeting would actually be like — so when I heard about Chi-Raq, I was like, oh my goodness, yeah, of course, of course I’d love to work with him. So Bob comes in, he shows us the trailer, and we start working on it.
I actually ended up going into Amazon to be part of that first meeting with Spike, I was super nervous. Anyway, I showed the work, and I didn’t really get much [feedback] from him. But they had other things that they needed to discuss, so I was sort of in and out. I didn’t really feel like I made that much of an impact, so I was kind of bummed about it.
“So the next day, I get a call from my assistant, and she’s like, ‘I have Spike Lee on line one.’ And I was like, ‘What?!’ (laughs) Honestly, I turned around, and I was like, ‘Who are you talking to right now? What do you mean?’ I picked up the phone…
“That’s how it started, and we ended up having this close relationship, where we showed him our studio’s stuff. He requested us on all his projects. He actually said it when he left the studio: ‘I want to have you guys on all my projects.’ And I was like, ‘Wha — of course!’ I mean, it would be an honor.’ And Spike has been a supporter ever since. Not only has he supported us in terms of getting us on his projects, but he’s introduced us to people: the reason we’re working on the [95th] Oscars right now, is because of Spike, because he introduced us to the [previous] head of the Academy Museum, Bill Kramer, who ended up getting promoted to CEO of the Academy. And now we’re working all the branding for the Oscars this year.
I note that few filmmakers achieve the magnitude, or indeed the magnanimity, of Mr. Lee. In turn, Mr. Gravillis highlights Mars Blackmon, Lee’s iconic character:
“What director has even come close to doing anything like that? He changed the game, culturally. There are more people who know who Spike Lee is, that don’t even know his films. They just know he’s this Knicks supporter, like, his brand is just as big as he is a director. We haven’t really seen that before — especially for a black director, oh my goodness! He connects to people in many ways.”
I ponder Mr. Lee’s famous and proactive quote about getting out there and making destiny happen, as Mr. Gravillis heaps further praise:
“The thing about Spike: he’s managed to just stay true to who he is, the whole time. The way he was on She’s Gotta Have It — I’ve spoken to people that knew him back then — it’s the same way he is right now. He was focused: he wanted people of color on his crews back then.
“He’s definitely a big feather in our cap, for sure — as a company, and the fact that people know that we work with him so closely, and have a good relationship with him: it definitely ups our value.”
Case-in-point: Michael B. Jordan’s Creed III just KO-ed the BO, with a campaign from Gravillis, Inc., and the night before our interview, Kenny attended the premiere.
“It was fun! It was great. I’m super proud of Mike — he did an amazing job, you know, first-time director. He’s become a friend of the studio also, and we worked a lot on Creed [III], and primarily because of him. He put a call in to MGM specifically, and asked that we work on the project. It’s a huge thing to get that kind of support.
“We feel really fortunate about Creed [III]. And in all fairness, we didn’t get a chance to work on Creed [I], and Creed II, and I remember being really bummed about it — especially on Creed II, because that year , Black Panther came out, Creed II came out, and we didn’t get a chance to work on either of those projects, and it’s one of those things where it helps to have that relationship. We met Ryan Coogler after Black Panther came out, and he realized that we’d worked on Fruitvale [Station], so we did get a chance to work on Wakanda Forever, so Wakanda Forever and Creed [III] made up for 2018. We definitely made up for the disappointment on that, with these latest two films.
Things come around.
Considering the talent roster Mr. Gravillis has worked with — the musicians of Def Jam, then at MCA where he served as VP of Creative Services — and then a cavalcade of movie greats including Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, and some guy called Spielberg — plus studio clients ranging from Beats by Dre to Disney, HBO, Universal, and Warner Bros., we could talk all day. (Well, I could, anyway; he’s pretty busy, y’know, Oscars and all.) But I want to talk shop a bit, too, before we go. The work from Gravillis, Inc. speaks for itself, yet what about the process? How do technique and philosophy, aesthetics and ideology, intertwine?
“Our philosophy when it comes to the movie poster — and this is what makes movie posters such a challenge in general, even a challenge to get up the ladder of approval in any studio system — is that, unlike a trailer — in a trailer there are story beats, there’s a certain narrative — to me, the most successful posters have a very clear narrative. You can’t be saying too much. It’s got to come across really quickly. [He references his Creed III work.] Clear narrative: anyone can get it. Then the art side is very intentional: the way it was lit, how it was shot. Even if you’re not a creative, I feel like people respond to intentionality when it comes to art.
“That combination of narrative and intentionality I think is the key recipe for a really great poster. Where the challenge comes in, is: when you look at an image, what does it mean to you? It could mean one thing to five of us, but then the person who’s sitting on top of that chain, all of a sudden it just doesn’t mean the same thing. When you start getting into culture, into tone, then it gets even trickier.
“It’s very different from an album cover. An album cover is very personal. Back in the day, I went to Erykah Badu’s house, for an album called Worldwide Underground , and we just listened to music, and that was it. She’s like, Southern hospitality, she gave me some stuff for my kids, and I left, and I came up with a cover that she loved. There was no selling to marketing. But with films, it’s completely different. It has to go through a different process, different levels of testing. There’s a market that we know we can get, but then there’s a market that we don’t know we can get — and how do we get that market? All of these things come into play, and that’s where the challenge comes in, of understanding the narrative.”
In closing, with Gravillis, Inc. continuing to expand, I ask for a hint about new avenues Kenny, Deanna & Co. are pursuing.
“We’re just starting to get into more motion design, more A/V, video, making content. We did some media work with Spike for Da 5 Bloods, a piece on Emory Douglas, who was a graphic designer who was around in the Black Panther movement. We did this content piece where we introduced Spike to Emory, and they had a whole conversation, and it was a beautiful thing. I don’t know if people knew this black graphic designer, who very much risked his life in design, working for the Panthers, but it was a great thing to see and experience.”
The artists of Gravillis, Inc. are also designing titles for a friend’s film (details to come), and the road goes ever on. Mr. Gravillis puts it in perspective:
“For us, it’s the right expansion at the right time. One thing I’ve been really proud about in regard to the company is that I feel like we’ve grown very organically. It has been a slow build, but it feels like it’s been the right way. We’re very clear on who we are because of it. We’re excited about what the future holds.”
Work with Gravillis, Inc. directly: https://www.gravillisinc.com/home/
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
All art courtesy of Gravillis, Inc.
And the fateful telephone call is a reenactment.