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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carlos

The Making of West Side Story

Updated: Jun 13, 2020

In here I talk about how I created the poster design for the beloved musical West Side Story for our Make Art That Sells Assignment Bootcamp

poster design West Side Story
West Side Story Poster | Michelle Carlos | 2020 | Acrlic gouache and digital collage

April Assignment

Each week for four months, we get a prompt to build our materials and skills for the big assignment for Assignment Bootcamp. It is a warm up but designed to be more fun and intended to make artists focus on just the task for that week.

For this month April, we were given two “minis,” a term coined by our mentor, art agent Lilla Rogers, which every MATSie understands as our preparatory assignment. We started with bold and textured hand lettering of the characters T-E-D-S-O-W-Y. These letters for an entire week became like an apologetic barbaric man named Ted's mantra in my head. I dug out my dog-eared Speedball calligraphy handbooks, referred to my reliable typography books and hand lettered the hell out of it—creating about 40 unique variations for each letter.

On the second week, scenes of 1950s New York City was the theme and you start to wonder now what will be the big assignment though you still have no idea except for some wild guesses from Bootcampers, who may have done this homework already. As always I tried to stay away from the Facebook group just to help me focus and if it cannot be helped, I just quickly scrolled down my mash-up newsfeed of MATS and Covid19-related topics plus the occasional mindless posts of heartbroken or ultra-religious relatives.

Persistence of Memory

Strangely as I googled and browsed through the images of vintage NYC, I felt as though I was in that time and place even though I am not American and have only been to the Big Apple once in 2015 as a tourist trying to tick off all the familiar landmarks while battling through the crowds of the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and Black Friday sales. Speaking of touring, I grabbed my hard disk containing these travel photos of NYC and found even more useful pictorial references of old Manhattan buildings and those wrought iron fire escapes. Still my memories went further backwards from 2015 and persisted to go much deeper into my research. I ended up creating a photographic collage of a row of brick buildings and human activities that I may or may not illustrate later. On our private Facebook page, I shared my initial illustrations of the street scenes using references that interested me the most: a local grocery, Chop Suey restaurant, a teenage street gang from a headline of a newspaper about the murder of a 15 year old boy, a phone booth poodle, resting sailors, a city omnibus and a woman pulling a child on a sleigh along Broadway Avenue.

A rough collage of an NYC street circa 1950s

Back to MATS

On the third Monday, we received our much anticipated assignment. One of our peers got it spot on and even posted way ahead of everyone else on social media a poster design for the Broadway production of the musical West Side Story. My amateur guesses on the other hand were a coloring book, post cards, or an illustrated companion book for the Steven Spielberg 2020 remake of the movie classic. So poster it shall be executed in our style.

Poster design is my least favorite thing in the world—just a step closer to logo making, partly because of a few experiences during my stint in the Philippine film industry, where star factor is more important than aesthetics. One time the lead actor/executive producer held a poster making contest for his movie between the two contracted post production houses, one of which employed me as a colorist/graphic designer. He chose of course, the one that mainly featured his face and a firing squad lineup of his co-actors versus the one with the scenic post-apocalyptic landscapemy design. Why not? He’s partly paying for the gigantic billboard placements anyway. The production used my design for the international release.

A rough draft of my concept

That was the past and now back to MATS. Ah… if only I could articulate what goes on in my head during brainstorming. Poster—bold letters—New York—visually arresting—gritty—implies musical—Elvis—Saul Bass—mid century were the key words in my head. I would then employ the usual routine: research over Google, Pinterest, YouTube and graphic books minding the time I put into it. I have one week to work on this. No need to watch the entire movie—just highlights though I couldn’t get “America,” “Somewhere” and “Maria” off my head for a few days. I loved the color palette of that dance number. Shall I use it? It’s so pastel and pretty and will not do with the street side grit. Also, something's off with the actors' skintone... I ignored that and stared at one of my favorite references, a movie companion book, The Wes Anderson Collection, illustrated by Max Dalton mainly because of the screaming title with “WES” on it and then at a closer look, the bird’s eye view perspective of the Royal Tenenbaum’s Harlem brick mansion. Ha! Where are my panoramic shots from the Empire State Building? In the 1961 film, the overlooking views of the urban jungle were ubiquitous and even used in the opening scene and again on the iconic rooftop dance number. Rooftops, bricks, graffiti and fire exits—that’s it! The title tells a distinct geographical location anyway. Let’s do architectural!

Always a source of inspiration: The Wes Anderson Collection illustrated by Max Dalton


It’s time to use my architectural background (in college I always helped a close friend finish his architectural renderings!). Out with a straight edge, protractor and mechanical pencil taking note while measuring that this must not be as perfect when painting. My commercial background (I graduated with a major in Advertising and worked in the industry most of professional career) reminds me to make the title stand out. Therefore colors will be limited to dumb downed primaries: earthy reds, muddy blues and Naples yellow for the main title. The production of Romeo and Juliet always used color coding for the two warring gangs and so my star-crossed pair prancing on rooftops will be divided by a street and the rows of buildings will be colored blues and reds to suggest segregation. Acrylic gouache paints would be perfect to achieve the flat look. Textures will be added in Photoshop.

Why not record my rendering? It’s always fun to watch time-lapse videos of a work in progress painting. It could be an entertaining material for my Instagram feed, too. After four hours of hyper-focused painting and a bout of cramping fingers, I went to make dinner while being careful not to wet my right hand, as that would kill me! We had chicken noodle soup—it does feed the soul though the chopsticks did not help ease the cramps!

First order of business the next day was the final touches and digitizing. The rest of the afternoon would be assigned for composition in Photoshop and finishing.

"Learn to draw… If you don't, you're going to live your life getting around that and trying to compensate for that.” -- Saul Bass, legendary graphic designer

Bass’s Basics

All the time while working on this, there is one thing that stayed on my mind, “Learn to draw.” Those are the wise words of the great graphic designer Saul Bass. Prior to carrying out my visual plans for this project, I watched interviews of him and his advise to design students resonated. Clearly I am in no way close to his genius but with the continuous exploration and experimentation of my artistic style, I have come to know my limitations. My weakness is drawing the human form from memory. Knowing that allows me to put extra effort on improving it. As part of my mini, I sketched dancers and thought of ways how to incorporate this to my poster concept. Will it just be the main characters or the whole strutting street gang?

Version with the fully illustrated characters

I drew and drew over reruns of Game of Thrones. I even debated if I would use a fully illustrated dancing pair or just a silhouette and if Dani really deserved her tragic end. I shook my head and began with full-colored characters because I could always make changes later. In the end I opted for the blacked silhouettes because these stood out more against the bright yellow type. I am still glad I have the full-colored version and might even find use for it later. I drew and did not compensate nor felt I compromised my design. The simplified figures after all are well-known visual associations to West Side Story and also became my homage to Bass’s style. With the output formats exported, I am now confident about my final product that I could share shamelessly and finally submit without any second thoughts.

Mockup of the poster (design by Freepik)

#westsidestory #posterart #makeartthatsells


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