Brandon Schaefer interview (3 of 3): designing the West Side Story poster

West Side Story

In the final instalment of our interview with Brandon Schaefer (you can also read parts one and two), the artist behind the Park Circus posters for The Last Picture Show, Kes and West Side Story, discusses his work on the latter ahead of its cinema re-release in the UK on 16 September 2011.

Like many Park Circus films, West Side Story is recognised as a classic of the musical genre. Is it daunting to take on such a well known film?

Not particularly because of its place in the history of film, but there were other factors that made it more daunting than most. Usually, I’m aware of how time has treated different pictures, it’s impossible not to be. But I feel like it’s important to shed that baggage if you can when going into a project, otherwise you’re focusing more on the mythic qualities that surround it as opposed to the heart of the story.

How much did you know about West Side Story before you began the project?

When I was 13, our teachers at school herded us up and stuck us on a cold, concrete floor below a TV that played the movie, for what seemed like an eternity. Time heals most wounds, though, so my appreciation of it softened over the years.

An early West Side Story poster sketch

An early West Side Story poster sketch

Were you aware of the original poster? What did you think about it?

Yeah, definitely. Saul Bass gets dragged out as an influence for many people, and I’m no different. There were other poster designers who were good, or just as good, but, despite what keeps being tossed around lately, the man had range and was a master of symbolism and metaphor that he weaved into iconic executions. The poster for West Side Story was no different, and that is what made the project more daunting than it should’ve been: having to walk into Saul’s house and not ruin the upholstery.

There are some elements of the original in the new design, namely the figures on the steps. Were they iconic to you?

Most of his work is iconic on its own, but the decision to retain certain elements from the original campaign came chiefly out of the brief. The color palette, along with the catwalk typography, were two of the big pieces that needed to be carried over, so the process became a means of figuring out how to preserve and honor those elements while adding something unique to the proceedings without taking a piss on the whole thing. A lot of the variations on the original artwork over the years have done that by adding a lot of unnecessary jazz, so the idea was to keep it as simple as possible while connecting it back to the film.

The solution to paint the title on a brick wall came from two places: the stark lighting on the walls of the buildings at night, and the end title credits, which took a similar approach with the typography. My parent’s house had a brick wall, so I popped to it one afternoon, snapped a picture, and worked from there.

Inspiration for the wall in Brandon's West Side Story poster

Inspiration for the wall in Brandon's West Side Story poster

Did you have any early concepts that didn’t make it to the final poster?

Almost a dozen or so. They were sketches, and the ideas were more illustrative. I’m sure that approach would’ve been a beautiful direction to have taken the poster in, but on a practical level, they felt redundant when you factored in the dancing figures and the scaffolding type treatment. People probably wouldn’t have noticed, or cared, but they felt more like showing off for the sake of showing off rather than honoring the restrictions set out in the brief. If a bus hasn’t hit me in 50 years when the 100th anniversary approaches, maybe I’ll give it a shot then for fun.

What’s next for you?

If I’m lucky, more film related work. I appreciate what I get to do and enjoy the heck out of it, so it’s something I could easily do for the rest of my life. Or until that bus hits me. Whichever comes first.

Thanks to Brandon for his time – visit his website at www.seekandspeak.com to find out more about his work. West Side Story is re-released in cinemas on 16 September, keep an eye on www.backincinemas.com to see if it’s showing near you or follow our Twitter feed or Facebook page for more information.

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