©2019 Bill Wood.
Let's create a retro horror movie poster, step by step!
Here we will be taking an in-depth look at the anatomy of a retro movie poster design. Of course there are many different ways of going about this, what follows is my own personal approach. For this example I will be illustrating an all-new original concept, Juvenile Werewolf Psychopaths. Catchy title, huh? I want to create an old-school horror movie poster and will explain some of my thought processes and actions as we go along.
I'll mostly be going after an authentic movie poster (i.e. one-sheet) look and feel, but I want to add some comic-book-y effects as well, just to give the project a personal style.
For this project I will be using some pencil and paper, a desktop scanner, and of course, Adobe Creative Cloud, Adobe Illustrator in particular.
STEP 1: INITIAL CONCEPTING
At this stage I am sketching out rough ideas with a pencil and paper. I’ll usually go back and forth for several hours, erasing and redrawing as I go along. Although I have a decent idea of what I’m looking for when I start, sometimes what shows up on the page will look much different than what I expected! No problem, I’ll just keep tweaking things until I’m totally satisfied. Early on, the biggest challenge is to execute the vision and not get frustrated if things aren't turning out exactly as planned. I know that if the concept is a good one, I can come up with a design that is equally good, even if it takes a bit of time!
By the way, I don’t use fancy pencils or expensive paper as everything is going to be rebuilt digitally anyway. I used to go all in for Rapidographs, Bristol board, etc., but a hard No. 2 pencil and some computer paper does the trick for me these days.
STEP 2: COMPOSITION
The next step is to scan my pencil sketch at a high resolution. I scan absurdly high (600dpi) just in case I want to zoom in on some fine detail, but literally zero of what I’ve drawn on paper will end up in the final piece. Still, I want a crisp, clean scan to use as my road map for illustration.
Most of my poster art is built at 12”x18”, either vector (Illustrator) or 300dpi (Photoshop) depending on the desired effect. I find that this size is a nice middle ground, the file size is not too large and I can up-size to 24”x 36” without taking a huge hit in quality. This is particular piece will be entirely vector (until the final effects are added), so I don’t have to worry about resolution.
Once I have the artboard set to 12”x18”, I’ll import my scan and resize to fit it as necessary. I also want to add a frame around the border since it’s supposed to resemble a vintage non-bleed one-sheet. (Just FYI, “non-bleed” has nothing to do with the stuff that’s in your veins, it refers to the art “bleeding” off the edge of the printed sheet, which was not a standard practice for movie posters back in the day.) Finally, you
can see I've set the type, which we will discuss in the next panel.
STEP 3: TYPOGRAPHY
Typography really is an art unto itself, use the wrong font and you’ve got an unconvincing piece of work on your hands. A project like this requires study and attention to detail, so I’ll definitely want to consider what types of fonts actually would have been used back in the day. Two of my favorite old-school typefaces are on display here, Trade Gothic Condensed and Futura Bold. These combine to give the poster an authentic vintage feel.
For the title treatment, I chose a designer font called Young Frankenstein because it really fit the mood, then added some outlines, drop shadows and (later) interior shading. I used the Warp-Arc filter to create the stylized bend, emulating a technique that was used quite a bit back in the day. Note the title change from Teenage Werewolf Psychopaths to Juvenile Werewolf Psychopaths, I decided that the term "Teenage Werewolf" was overused. A subtle change, but an important one!
STEP 5: LINE ART ILLUSTRATION
Now it’s on to the most time-consuming portion of the piece, the illustration. My approach to this particular piece is to ink it just a like an old-school comic book inker would.
Everything you see on this poster is a vector shape created in Adobe Illustrator, it takes a bit of time to work through it all but the results are worth it. Vectors are crisp-looking, easy to edit, and can be upscaled to any size without loss of quality. I could slap this sucker on an outdoor billboard and it would still look spiffy.
I'm making sure to create a new layer every time I add a new element, then I lock all other layers while working on that element. This way I can be working on Werewolf #2 (the groovy dude with the switchblade) without accidentally selecting Werewolf #1 in front of him.
This is when I’ll fill in a bunch of fine details, notice the shading, hair, etc.
STEP 6: COLORING AND TOUCH-UPS
The next step is coloring. There’s a precise methodology to coloring this poster. As I want it to emulate something that was designed 50 years ago, I really want to limit my color palette. Of course, poster artists had access to a full CMYK color palette back then (see Gone With The Wind, The Wizard Of Oz, etc.), but a low-budget horror movie poster might have been printed with a more economical approach. Therefore, I’m using 100% black with a few shades (10K, 20K, 30K, 40K) and a basic red (100M/100Y) with a few shades (20M/20Y, 40M/40Y), and that’s it. If it seems like much more than that, it’s because I’m implementing these colors and shades in way that compliment one another on the printed page, just like artists did back in the day.
I’ve also added a few extra embellishments at this stage, mainly the background trees and night sky. Also note that I've changed the frame from black to white, I was previously using the black frame as a guideline but I want the final piece to have a white frame for the non-bleed area.
STEP 7: HALFTONING AND AGING
Once the coloring is complete I will apply a halftone screen effect, which really adds to the authenticity. The halftone filter is something of an exact science, you have to know where to add it and what size dot and screen angle you are trying to emulate. Usually a smaller dot is better, here I went with 4px. It’s a bit of trial and error and very easy to screw up, so I make sure to do a “Save As” before going any further.
Protip: Never apply a halftone screen to areas with 100% color (i.e. 100% Black, 100M/100Y, etc.).
For the final step, I will add a layer of stained paper on top of everything, set to Multiply at 50% opacity. This gives the poster a decidedly aged look. I always have a few of what I call “distress layers” on hand, everything from creased paper to coffee stains to noise filters, depending on what I’m trying to achieve.
And that’s it! We have designed an old-school horror movie poster that is both original and legit! Now if we could only find a drive-in theatre to watch it!