How to create retro B-movie poster art

the thing poster

Much of my living comes from doing posters – some commemorative – and recently I was commissioned by the Alamo Drafthouse Theatre in Austin, Texas to design a promotional poster for a screening of John Carpenter's The Thing. These posters are screen printed, often measure 24x36in, and have a print run of 200-300.

Being a huge John Carpenter fan, and of the opinion that The Thing is one of the best movies of all time, I was more than happy to oblige. The main trick is doing a poster that can hold its own against the Drew Struzan original.

the thing title

I decided that since that poster was a little on the mysterious and minimalist side, I would shoot for the opposite end of the spectrum, showing the entire cast, as well as the environment they were in, and the alien Thing creature itself.

I rewatched the movie a few times just to saturate my mind with its vibe, then researched promotional materials and alternate posters that had been used to promote it back when it was released. 
I began by drawing the Kurt Russell character, since I knew he would be the focus. I then drew all the secondary characters, as well as the dog and environmental elements.

Usually, the way I work is less than traditional for an artist. While I start out drawing thumbnails and rough sketches for character design and layout, I draw each character separately in my final process to allow for freedom of movement, composition-wise. So a lot of what I draw is never seen, like the bottom halves of each character, since the characters in front overlap. It would save time to just draw it all as one piece, but years of client feedback, saying 'Move this, get rid of that, make that bigger' has made me paranoid. So this is a looser way of working.

The client requirements for this poster included having the name of the movie prominent, as well as the date of the screening and the name of the venue. The rest was up to me...

Gathering reference

reference the thing

One important part of what I do is to draw realistic representations of movie figures. For this poster, I had to create a drawing of Kurt Russell holding a flamethrower, standing in a hero pose.

If the figure is complex enough, in this case wearing a detailed jacket and holding a detailed weapon, I feel a photo reference would be beneficial, so I take one of myself.

Rough sketching

the thing sketches

Next, I do some rough sketches just to make sure that pose is going to be to my liking in the final piece. I mostly do this on vellum with Magic Markers, as it's easy to scan and easy to make changes on. Once I've tweaked the pose to my liking, I begin drawing the final piece, usually digitally to save time.

Next page: preparing for printing and real-life references...

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