Monday, 19 August 2013

Noirish Project Design Process

Noirish Campaign 

Clarification Disclaimer: Please note that, while I freely gave my time and costs to Noirish Project, I produced three campaigns (60s UK/US, Italian 70s and modern) and a couple of early teaser pieces only... comprising around 30 finished designs (and generating hundreds of files). I also designed one set of title cards and a “video on demand” header. Since my work on the project, other factors have come into play and, as far as  know, my artwork is now not being used. I don’t know whether my title cards are still in the film but I would guess/hope not since that would, obviously, further dilute the brand strength of the movie in relation to the poster campaigns. I am clarifying this here, not so much as to distance myself from the project but to firmly establish to any future collaborators who require my expertise in design matters that some of the stuff surrounding the project has not been produced by me and therefore the quality and consistency of the layout and typography on certain pieces should not be mistaken for my own. I actually have a degree in graphic design and over a quarter of a century in the field, so I’m not in the habit of making any typographic mistakes or poor judgemental decisions within the realm of my work unless insisted on by a client. So please don’t judge me by some of the  stuff you may have seen surrounding this project as I may well not be guilty. I wish James Devereaux every success with this and future projects and, as always, I hope you enjoy his unique spin in his work.   

When actor/writer/director James Devereaux contacted me privately to find out what was the best software to acquire to tag stills from his debut feature Noirish Project as “a bit of fun”, I was pretty up front that I thought his work was better than for him to just tag the odd photo with a snippet of type as a promo. I talked to him about the idea of letting me work on a full campaign for the film and he liked the idea so, after a little while, I volunteered my services and was ‘in’.

Now as a graphic designer for over 20 years, my normal approach to doing something like this would be to ask James a lot of questions regarding details about the film and maybe badger him to see the script... and that’s what I almost got into with him. But something held me back. I remembered a couple of things which made me think that, maybe for this one project, the results I produced might be better off if I went in a little more blind on this one. I know, for example, that James welcomes improvisation and the opportunity for serendipity in his work... so a locked in script might be only a guide as to what really gets up on the screen in the final cut of the movie anyway. Added to that was the fact that the window between completion of the final version and the release probably wouldn’t have been enough time for me to come up with anything useful anyway... not with my regular day job hogging all my time and with film reviews to write most evenings.

Also, I know that some of the best campaigns, especially from one of my design heroes in the fifties and sixties, were much more effective by not selling the actual content of the film but by selling the “idea” of the event and attraction of the film. This was something I wanted to try but, keeping with James’ idea that whatever I did, it had to be fun for me to do (a work ethic I gather he instills, or at least expects, from all his collaborators), I also suggested something which, frankly, meant a lot more work for me but which I thought would be ultimately more rewarding for the audience, for James and for myself.

So I suggested that I made not one but three campaigns for the movie... campaigns that would be, like Billy Pilgrim, the main protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, “unstuck in time.” With this in mind I suggested I work on the following...

1. A set of black and white (as the movie is shot in monochrome) lobby cards in the style of something you might see in the UK in the 70s and then topped off with a colour, 1970s style montage poster.

2. A set of Italian fotobusta, in the style of something from the 1950s/60s with bright, hand coloured looking shots combined in a dynamic layout and then followed up with a locandina of some sort.

3. A modern character teaser campaign depicting primary characters and followed by a poster or two as the film might be advertised today (which is fair enough, it is after all, a contemporary film). This actually ended up as two sets but I’ll get to that later.

4.  I also threw in some quick teasers which were not aligned to the other campaigns as a fast response to some other things James was doing, but I won’t cover those here.

James liked the idea so I ran with it quick, before he changed his mind. I asked him for the credits, the four main character names, and a choice of quotes from the movie that each character says so I could build the character teasers around the phrases... as well as loads of high resolution stills from the shoots. As many as he could get me.  But first things first, the project needed a logo...

The Logo
Saul Bass is my design hero so I asked myself what Saul would have done for this.

James produced the first of what ended up as two short ‘preludes’ to his film and, like a few of his other shorts, I noticed the prominence of a phone conversation as a catalyst to get things moving. Everything always starts with a phone call so I figured I would use that as an icon to encapsulate that everything in the narrative has that starting point. I knew (or hope I know) that James will be screening both of his preludes with the main feature, so it kinda made sense. I came up with something very fifties and Saul-like and which, despite appearances, gave me a few problems to wrestle with but eventually got to something which looked defined enough and didn’t camouflage itself in various coloured backgrounds too badly.

The 70s Campaign
The lobby cards were the easy bit, once I’d discovered the more common sizes and ratios used. In the end, for the sake of memory size and storage space, the final poster was just done as an A size to make printing easier, if that’s required... but the lobby cards and fotobusta are all in the correct aspect ratios.

The lobby cards are just the black and white stills where I’ve fiddled about with the levels and contrasts etc and then just applied into a template. Pretty much as the ones I was looking at when I was researching these things.

The poster was a montage of elements I’d cut out from the stills... which I then heavily filtered the f**** out of to make it resemble one of those very impressionistic poster artworks you would sometimes see back then. I remembered as a kid realising that some of the people in the backgrounds of these posters were just a head and an odd squiggle for a feature or two and that’s the kind of distancing I was going for with what I did here.

Fotobustas and Locandina
This is where I really had fun. My initial mock up visual to James was something where I’d converted the colour still he gave me to a black and white image, removed all the white and then coloured up the background layers with a paintbrush tool behind the blacks of the main image. It was okay and James liked it but I wasn’t completely satisfied with it so I tried to do something else. I experimented and in the end came up with something which gave me just the look I was trying so hard to match for this kind of material.

What I did in the end was take each shot and make a duplicate version of it on two separate layers. The bottom layer retained the colour and I increased the saturation to absolutely outrageous levels, something which would make anyone looking at it recoil at the vibrance of it but not to the extent that the original hues were completely lost (although definitely getting near that territory, for sure). This was then covered with a top layer of the shot in exactly the same place, which I then turned into a mono image. Then I played around with the levels a little bit before posterising the mono image to just two channels... like a sixties photographer might do for a screen print. This meant that all the whites to mid greys and just above were turned into white space, and all the mid to dark greys and above were turned into black. So far so good...

Then I started playing with the opacity of the top layer and quickly saw my idea had worked. The oversaturated colours from the layer below shone through the white in a muted state which brought them down to something which mirrored the real, brightly hand coloured locandina of the 50s and 60s very well. The bonus, of course, was that the dark areas over the blacks already in the bottom layer were also magnified, but in the other direction... they became darker in certain tonal areas and helped define the shapes of the people in the photos even more.

This all looked pretty "dead on" to me and, after redesigning the logo into an Italian version with a longer top leading in, I created a template I could drop the flattened versions of these new “alternate” shots into and was very pleased with the results.

For the locandina, I tried to pick elements which I thought the Italians would use to sell the film in their own country. These would not necessarily be important elements of the film, of course... just the bits they would expect their target audience to latch on to. I used a similar (although not quite the same) process as the earlier seventies poster to assemble the final locandina and was pretty pleased with this one.

The Modern Campaign
For the modern campaign I used isolated shots of the characters and played around with colour level saturation before sharpening up the shot and just posterising certain parts of the features. I wanted something stark but colourful and I then used the phrases I chose from the ones I’d been given and cut them up into little chunks to emphasise them and make them something more as isolated features than they would probably be when experienced as lines in the main film. This was okay though, that’s what advertising is all about... trickery and persuasion.

I wanted a background that was colourful, ragged and textural to contrast the things going over the top of it. In the end I took a shot of the palm of my hand and did all kinds of things to it (including multilayering in different positions) to get to the state you see in the teasers and final posters. I really liked what I achieved here. I also did versions where the actual characters were in mono and, since neither James or myself could figure out which ones we liked best, we used both as the US and UK equivalents of the same campaign (I’m pretty sure I’ve actually seen this done before but can’t remember which films did this with the colour in the US version and the black and white in the UK versions).

The final posters were an amalgamation of the four character posters and the added element of Alfie holding his sign. I did both portrait and landscape versions and got something I was pleased with in the end. I used the elements from this campaign when James asked me to come up with some opening title cards for the film... but I pushed them all in a slightly different way because of their context.

And that’s an insight, as James has asked, into my approach for the multiple campaigns for Noirish Project. Now, like you, I’m just waiting to see what he came up with in his final movie... so no pressure James!

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