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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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Brandon Schaefer interview (2 of 3): The Last Picture Show & Kes

An early sketch for Kes

An early sketch for Kes

Following our introduction to the film posters of Brandon Schaefer, in this second part of a three part interview he discusses his work on Park Circus cinema re-releases, The Last Picture Show and Kes, with film journalist, Jonathan Melville.

Jonathan Melville: Your association with Park Circus Films stretches back to April 2011 and the re-release of The Last Picture Show in cinemas. How did you come to work with them?

Brandon Schaefer: A few years ago I had done a poster for Unzero Films in France for Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out which crossed a desk or two here, which is sort of where the seeds for our relationship were planted.

Brandon's initial sketches for The Last Picture Show

Brandon's initial sketches for The Last Picture Show

Presumably you’re given a brief with each project. What was The Last Picture Show brief and how did you approach it?

There was a lot of freedom with The Last Picture Show, actually, which made for an interesting process, especially when you take into account the history behind how the film was advertised. A lot of what had been done in the past focused on movie theatre related imagery with a clever twist, or stock shots of a bustling town from the 1950s. Neither really clicked, especially for a film as deeply complex and atmospheric as Last Picture. The focus became an exercise in honing in on the tone and feel, rather than getting cheeky with symbolism…and crushing that idea that the film took place in a bustling town from the 1950s.

The finished Last Picture Show poster

The finished Last Picture Show poster

Do you provide a few different options for clients or do you just have one in your head?

It depends on the project, but most of the time, a single idea popping into your head fully formed is unexpected and incredibly rare. The last time I had one was two years ago in a bathroom, so it’s not something you can really plan on. Most of the time, I tend to scribble down a lot of ideas while pacing around. If I’m not completely confident in a single one, I’ll work at cycling through a few different options with the client until I land on one that feels right. Nobody’s perfect, though, so I do wind up having to toss things out and start over.

You’ve now created a stunning new poster for Ken Loach’s 1969 film, Kes, out in UK cinemas on 9 September. When were you first approached with the commission?

Thank you. I think it was bordering on the end of June/beginning of July? We had a good bit of time laid out for Kes, but the bulk of it came together surprisingly quickly. We lucked out, I suppose.

An early Kes sketch

An early Kes sketch

Had you seen the film before you worked on the poster?

I hadn’t, but I’d seen the DVD cover recently: it had just been released in the states, so I was familiar with the name and the synopsis. I went in with that and a hunch that it would probably make me pretty sad when all was said and done.

Did you look at the original design for inspiration?

Not for inspiration – I tend to keep to the movie itself for that. Only after I’ve watched a film and sketched things out do I check to see what was used in the past, just to make sure what I’ve got in mind hasn’t already been done before. It’s amazing how many original thoughts you can have that turn out to be done by someone else years prior.

There are a few versions of the original design, most of which focus on David Bradley’s character. Why did you switch the focus to Kes?

The kestrel becomes his world, in a way – a source of hope and inspiration. A light in a tunnel that doesn’t see sunshine, much less anything else. That’s important. Billy remains, though, reflected in its eye.

Brandon's final Kes poster

Brandon's final Kes poster

Were there any versions of the new poster that didn’t quite make it?

There were sketches for different directions that played on the rugged, industrial areas of Barnsley, but the structure of those would’ve been more in line with what was done for The Last Picture Show – less illustrative, more photographic. They felt too similar, and I try desperately not to repeat myself often, so gears were switched and the others focused more on Kes.

The technique in rendering those that didn’t make the cut would’ve featured more expressive illustration, which probably would’ve wound up being too self indulgent. And at the end of the day, it’s not always about showing off, but doing what feels right for the film.

In the final part of this interview, Brandon looks ahead to the release of West Side Story to cinemas and his work on the poster redesign – keep an eye on our Twitter feed and Facebook page for more information.

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Brandon Schaefer interview (1 of 3): Designing classic film posters

A new take on Back to the Future

A new take on Back to the Future

For many film fans, a well designed poster can be as iconic as the movie it’s promoting. As well as re-releasing a growing number of films back into cinemas, Park Circus are also increasingly commissioning new posters which both celebrate the original while at the same time introducing films to contemporary audiences.

One artist who has worked on a number of recent Park Circus posters, including The Last Picture Show and the upcoming Kes and West Side Story, is US-based designer, Brandon Schaefer. In the first of a three-part interview, film journalist Jonathan Melville talks to Brandon about his introduction to the world of poster design and how he approaches the task.

Jonathan Melville: Can you tell me a little about your background – when did you first discover your love of art and illustration?

Brandon Schaefer: I’m 26 years old, and started stumbling into design when I was in my early teens. I grew up in a family full of people that dabbled in the arts, so you couldn’t escape the influence, even if I wasn’t very good. It wasn’t until I was six that I caught on to the fact that people’s arms didn’t come out of their heads.

Have movie posters always interested you?

Brandon Schaefer

Brandon Schaefer

My grandfather used to help me put together binders filled with clippings of movie advertisements from the newspaper that I got a kick out of when I was really young. They weren’t anything spectacular, just pieces from silly movies like Young Einstein. My favorite was that art-deco inspired poster for Rocketeer; I tore it out and had it framed for years.

Do your favourite films and favourite posters differ?

More often than not, easily. The brilliant film Dancer in the Dark has a striking poster that plays off of the main character’s poor sight, but the film itself isn’t one I’d want to be stranded on a desert island with. For whatever reason, I could watch Finding Forrester until my eyes bleed, but the giant floating head of Sean Connery that dominates the poster doesn’t get me all hot and bothered under the collar.

You’re perhaps best known for creating a series of alternate posters for films such as Back to the Future and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Where did the inspiration for those come from?

I had taken a few years off after I graduated to deliver furniture because my last few years of school burnt me out. When I sat back down to start designing again, I needed a way to get my head in the right place, and movie posters were something I’d done in college for my thesis.

So, I went back to what was familiar, but could be approached differently piece by piece. Movies ask for a more sporadic approach, because most stories aren’t the same.

Do you sketch different version of a poster before settling on a final one?

Yeah. I’ve got a stack of cheap notebooks filled with lined paper that I toss ideas down in. They’re usually fairly small thumbnails, with several on a page, one after the other. I doubt anyone could really decipher them – they’re just a load of scribbles thrown on paper so I can keep my head clear and not get too attached to one idea.

It’s like having a portable dumpster that I can dive back into without having to worry about tetanus.

Brandon's Back to the Future poster

Brandon's Back to the Future poster

What was the response like to these posters? 

I hope that the people that stumbled upon them enjoyed what they saw. I know a few are hanging in places like AMC TV and Rocksteady Games, and there were plans for a book a year ago, but that fell through. So it’s humbling to know that there were some positive responses out there, but it’s not something I concerned myself about because the posters were done for myself.

Do you think there was a golden age of poster design?

Honestly, no. There were periods when a lot of the art had more going for it in terms of craft, but I think you could chalk that up to what tools were available at the time. People used to paint floating heads, now they Photoshop them. Granted, there’s more charm in the past, even if the work was less than brilliant. That stems from being able to see a human being behind the work, whereas today, it’s easier for that to get lost.

It’s important for people to know, though, that a lot of the problems that today’s poster designers tackle are very similar to what Saul Bass faced in his heyday.

Brandon's The Dark Knight poster

Brandon's The Dark Knight poster

Would you like to see a return to illustrated movie posters from the industry at large?

Maybe not necessarily illustrated posters, but more honesty. And by that I mean, a poster created with Photoshop or illustrated by hand can both have their place as long as they communicate something true about a film. I’m sure that sounds a bit broad and open to a lot of interpretation, but…what I’m shooting for is an idea or a tone.

As long as you’re trying to get across something honest about a picture, I think that whatever you create stands a better chance at connecting with people than something that is just clever, or worse, deceptive.

Visit Brandon’s website at www.seekandspeak.com to find out more about his work.

Part two of our three part discussion with Brandon will focus on his The Last Picture Show and Kes re-release posters, while part three looks at West Side Story – keep an eye on our Twitter feed or Facebook page for more information.

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