Out of all of the stuff I create for my clients, posters are my favorite. A poster is an opportunity to tell a story with a single image. It can communicate a lot or a little, depending on what you want. It can be bold and simple or complex, with overlapping ideas. But most of all, posters tend to be the projects that are most collaborative. A marketing or artistic director tells me the story and themes, I create some visuals, and then we evaluate what’s hitting the mark in the right way, and then we continue to brainstorm and refine.
This summer I created the poster for BoHo Theatre’s Dogfight, a musical about a squad of soldiers who use their last night before getting shipping over to Vietnam to stage a contest to find the ugliest date. This kind of contest was a real thing back in the 60s, and was called a dogfight. It’s a show full of powerful emotion and deep themes, and it was the anchor of BoHo’s 2015 season.
To kick off the design process, I asked the director, Peter Marston Sullivan, to tell me what ideas and themes resonated with him in the play and if there was any imagery that he thought would represent his show well. He told me he liked the idea of juxtaposing something “not so great with something that is,” echoing the crass and cruel behavior of the young soldiers with the optimism and inner beauty of Rose, one of their targets. He talked about the theme of cruelty in the play and the ugliness of war, and how “the show is about unearthing beauty in these circumstances.” In my own research into the play, I was also drawn to the objectification of women and the misogyny of the main characters. With these ideas in mind, I started thinking visually.
I start every poster design by researching what has come before. Dogfight is a relatively new show, so it doesn’t have a long history of poster designs to look at. The original production poster is an illustration of the lead actors, which we didn’t want for this show. Other posters have made different uses of dog tags and roses, which I didn’t find to be particularly evocative and eye-catching. So instead, I started looking at imagery from the Vietnam War, which is the period the play is set in. Very quickly I was drawn to the idea of nose art.
Nose art is a kind of graffiti painted usually on the nose of an aircraft. It became popular during World War II, the first war in which airplanes played a major role. Because air combat and bombing raids were so dangerous, airmen developed strong bonds with their planes, and nose art was a form of bonding. The German forces were known for painting aggressive imagery on the noses of their planes— bared teeth and angry eyes— while the Allied forces painted cartoons, taunts, and pinup girls. The paintings were officially against regulations, but most commanding officers, knowing it was a moral booster, turned a blind eye.
Nose art was still present in the Vietnam War but not quite as common because of the types of aircraft used. In WWII, American forces relied on bombers and fighter planes, but in Vietnam the military’s main aircraft were helicopters. Helicopters don’t have as much fuselage space to paint on, but you could still find some crews painting on them when they could.
This seemed to me a perfect embodiment of the themes of the show: the juxtaposition of the soldiers’ idealized concept of a woman painted onto a machine of war, one that would get dirty and torn up over time. Sullivan loved this idea when I presented it to him, so then I began finding the building blocks of what would become our poster design.
To find that perfect idealized woman, I turned to a popular example of the objectification of women from the show’s time period and earlier: classic pinup art. Once I found the right image, it was a relatively simple matter of scanning and isolating the image of the woman and overlaying it onto the fuselage of a military plane (in this case, a bomber from a photo I found online). By using digital brushes, masking, and other Photoshop wizardry, I was able to make the pinup art look like it had been painted directly onto the plane, and that it had, over time, gotten rubbed off and damaged. Despite all of the damage and wear though, the optimism and beauty of the underlying image still comes through, which fit the theme of the show. A smattering of bullet holes and metal rips helped show how much wear and tear this bird and received.
|Beginning: cleaned up fuselage and initial image placement||Middle: Dirtied up the fuselage and painting, added text|
|Middle: more distressing overall and matched painting and fuselage lighting||Final marketing image|
The final touch was the lettering. Almost every instance of American nose art has some kind of label or title to it. Sometimes it was a reminder of home, sometimes it was a taunt to the enemy. My first thought was to label the painting “Rose” after the show’s main female character. Because the play is set in San Francisco, this became “San Francisco Rose.” While not bad, Sullivan suggested that somebody had written “Eddie” over the painting so it read “Rose + Eddie” like graffiti. That was exactly what the image needed. Before, it was simply an interesting image that resonated the themes. But by adding that hand-drawn “Eddie” to the existing art, we had a story. Who is Eddie? What is/was his relationship to Rose? Was Rose a real person? Did he scribble his own name on the plane or was this a taunt by one of his buddies? Suddenly, the image was alive with story and possibility.
We went on to use this image in many different configurations, from transit ads, posters, and postcards, to web banners of all configurations. Like any good marketing image does, it became the public face of the show and was strong enough to support an 8-week marketing campaign. Dogfight went on to become one of the most popular and successful shows of BoHo’s 10-year history. This poster started with a simple conversation about ideas and themes, and came to life through exploration and collaboration.