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Create a Post-Apocalyptic Movie Poster in Adobe Photoshop and InDesign

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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

In this tutorial we'll combine satellite imagery and digital painting techniques to make a high impact movie poster in Adobe Photoshop. I'll also show you how to use InDesign to create error-free artwork. 

This design was inspired by the Terminator poster of a few years back which depicted a cyborg's face made from a divested city. Our theme is to manipulate a city into a skull to show the aftermath of a zombie outbreak.

The key to pulling off this type of effect is to give the viewer just enough visual information but let their imagination fill in the rest. Let’s get started!

Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial. Please download them before you begin. If they are not available, you may need to find alternatives.

1. Create the InDesign Artwork

It's always good practice to communicate with your printer before producing artwork. Some printers may require different set-ups; they may also have templates that will save you time.

For the purpose of this tutorial, we'll assume technical information, such as resolution and dimensions etc. have already been discussed with your printer. I'll also be using metric dimensions throughout.

Step 1

The first task is to produce an artwork guide to use as a template for our Photoshop file. Launch InDesign and choose InDesign > Preferences > Units & Increments, then set the Ruler Units to Millimetres. Now create a New document with the settings shown below. 

As our poster is destined for print, expand the More Options button, then activate the chain icon next to the Margins and Bleed boxes to apply the same amount to all edges.


Step 2

Go to View > Grids & Guides, then ensure Show Guides, Lock Column Guides, Snap to Guides and Smart Guides are all active and label the default layer 'Placed image'. 

Select the Rectangle Tool, click on the artboard, then enter the page, plus bleed dimensions in the following window. Now snap the box to your outer bleed guides, then change the Fill to 80% Black and keep the Stroke to None. The grey is only temporary, so the white-out logos and text will be visible.

To check the box ordinates, highlight the top-left corner of the Reference Point Locator. You can also double-check the box dimensions from here too.

Step 3

Lock your first layer, so you don't accidentally move the grey box, then click the New Layer icon and name it 'Graphics'. Now drag across and snap a central vertical guide.


Step 4

Grab the Text Tool and add your main title text in white. I've used Fontin Sans Bold at 72pt with the Tracking set to 310. Ensure your text is Centred in the Paragraph panel, position to the bottom and snap it to the central guide.

Now add the movie strapline above the title as a separate text block in the Regular weight of the same font at 21pt with the Tracking at 50.

Finally, add the bottom text in 30pt Fontin Sans Bold with the Tracking at 40.


Step 5

Open the 'Logos.pdf' from the 'SourceFiles' folder via Illustrator. Grab the Selection Tool, then select the first grouped logo and Copy to the Clipboard.

Return to your InDesign 'Graphics' layer and Paste the logo.


Step 6

Grab the Selection Tool and Shift-drag to resize and snap it to the bottom margin guide.

Repeat this process to add and resize the remaining logos along the base of the artwork.

Step 7

We no longer require the box to have grey fill, so lock the 'Graphics' layer, then target and unlock the 'Placed image' layer and change the box Fill to None.

Choose File > Export (Command-E). Select High Quality Print from the Preset drop-down menu and copy the following settings in the General and Marks and Bleeds options. We'll not need this template until a little later in the tutorial, so name it 'A4_Poster_templete.pdf' and Save to a convenient location.


2. Assemble the Skull

Step 1

Next, we use the best parts from several skull photos to create a single image. Open '053' from the 'media_militia_skull_images' folder, set the Lasso Tool to 3px in the options bar, then roughly select the top jaw and Copy to the clipboard. 

Open the second skull image ('042') and Paste the selection to create a new layer and name it 'Top Teeth'. Press Command-T to access Transform and resize/position to cover the original teeth. 

Add a Layer Mask, then hit Cmd/Ctrl+I to Invert the mask to black. Now use a small, soft-edged white Brush to paint back the upper teeth. 

My mask is shown at the bottom of the screenshot for clarity.


Step 2

Open the '052' skull image, then select and Copy the lower jaw. Paste as a new layer and resize/position as shown. Name this layer 'Bottom jaw', add a positive (white) mask and use a black Brush to hide the excess. 

My mask is again shown at the bottom of the screenshot.


Step 3

Ensure the top layer is active, then choose Levels from the drop-down Add Adjustment Layer icon at the foot of the Layers panel. Activate the clipping option so the adjustment only affects this layer and apply these settings.

Hold Option/Alt while adjusting control points to view clipped pixels which hold no shadow or highlight details.


Step 4

Open the '023' skull image, then select and Copy the the right eye socket. Paste as a new layer and resize/position to cover the original socket. Name this layer 'Right eye', add a positive (white) mask and use a black Brush to blend the edges.


Step 5

Repeat Step 3 to clip a Levels adjustment to this layer with these settings.


Step 6

Target the 'Right eye' layer thumbnail, then hold Shift to highlight its adjustment thumbnail and drag them over the Create New Layer icon at the foot of the Layers panel to duplicate them. 

Rename the 'Right eye copy' 'Left eye'. Access Transform, then hold Command and select Flip Horizontal. Position over the left socket, them modify the mask so it's not an exact mirror image of the right eye.


Step 7

Place a new layer at the top of the stack and name it 'Patch'. Use a small black Brush to paint over any areas you don't want visible, or your masks may have missed.

Note: The bottom of the screenshot shows the original base layer's visibility disabled so you can see the extra skull layers clearly. 


Step 8

Place an unclipped Black & White adjustment with the Green Filter preset at the top of the stack to affect all underlying layers.


Step 9

Now add another unclipped adjustment; this choose Color Balance and apply these settings.


Step 10

Rather than commit ourselves to flattened file, we'll create a merged layer - this will allow you to carry out any changes if you're unhappy. Check the last adjustment thumbnail is highlighted in the Layers panel, then hit Shift-Command. Name the new layer 'Merged'.


Step 11

Set the Quick Selection Tool to Add in the options bar, select the background, then the inner of the mouth.

Step 12

Press Shift-Command to Inverse the selection, then click the Refine Edge button in the options bar. In the following window select Overlay (V) from the View menu, copy these settings, then choose Output to New Layer with Mask.


Step 13

You'll now see a duplicate masked layer appear and the visibility of the original layer disabled. At this point you can modify the mask if required with some small Brushes.


Step 14

When you're happy, drag the mask thumbnail into the Trash icon at the foot of the panel, then click Apply in the following window. Save and name the file 'Skull.psd' ready for the next stage.


3. Construct the Land Mass

Step 1

We can now concentrate on creating our main poster illustration. Open your 'A4_Poster_templete.pdf' that you made at the start of the tutorial via Photoshop and use these settings in the Import PDF window.

Our final artwork PDF will convert any RGB files to CMYK for commercial printing, so hit Command-Y to enable CMYK preview – this will avoid any unexpected color shifts when this occurs.

Name the default layer 'Guide', then place a new layer called 'Background' below it. Set your Foreground color to #193340, then press Option-Delete to fill this layer with a deep turquoise.


Step 2

Target the top layer in your 'Skull.psd' file and drag it into your working file to create a new layer above the 'Background'. Rename this layer 'Skull', resize/position centrally and reduce the layer Opacity to 30%.


Step 3

We'll be using many layers to create the landmass, so to keep things manageable we'll apply Adjustment Layers to the satellite imagery first, then add them as merged layers to the main scene. 

Open the first satellite image and add an unclipped Curves adjustment. Click to add an anchor point to the middle of the graph and pull down, then pull the blackpoint to the right to darken the image. Now use the drop-down menu to darken the midtones of the Red, Green and Blue channels.

Hold Option/Alt while adjusting control points to view clipped pixels which hold no shadow or highlight detail.


Step 4

Place another unclipped adjustment, this time choose Hue/Saturation and set the Master sliders as shown.


Step 5

Now press Shift-Command to make a merged layer.


Step 6

Drag your merged layer into your working file below the 'Skull' and label it 'Land 1'. Rotate CCW and resize so it roughly matches the the right edge of the skull. Don't sweat over the jaw at this stage - just focus on the top of the head and cheek bone.


Step 7

Before we begin masking or painting, get into the habit of using the various options found within the Brush panel. Settings such as Shape Dynamics and Scattering will give your work a more painterly feel. 

At this stage in the tutorial use some the softer edged brush tips from the 'darken' Brushes.


Step 8

Add a Layer Mask and an assortment of Brushes to hide the ares as shown. You don't need to be too precise at this point, as as you can always refine the mask later.

Step 9

Duplicate your 'Land 1' layer and rename it 'Land 2'. Drag its mask thumbnail into the Trash icon and hit Delete in the following window. 

Now move this layer down to match the lower jaw. Add a new mask, Invert (Command-I) it to black, then use white Brush to paint back as shown.


Step 10

Open the second satellite image and use the same workflow as previous add a Curves adjustment.


Step 11

Now add a Hue/Saturation adjustment.


Step 12

Make a merged layer (Shift-Command) - remember this will allow you to modify your Adjustment Layers if you're unhappy.


Step 13

Drag the merged layer into your working file below the 'Skull' and label it 'Land 3'. Resize/position over the left side of the skull. Add a mask, then hit D to ensure your Foreground color is black.

Set the Gradient Tool to Foreground to Transparent and Linear in the options bar, then Shift-drag a gradient from the top and right. Now modify the mask with a small Brush.

Step 14

Open the third satellite image and add a Levels adjustment as shown.


Step 15

Now add a Hue/Saturation adjustment with the following settings.


Step 16

Create a merged layer, then place in your working file below the below the 'Skull' and name it 'Land 4'. Access Transform, Rotate 90 degrees CCW, then Flip Horizontal and resize/position as shown.

Add a Layer Mask, Invert it to black, then reinstate the top left area.


Step 17

Use the Lasso Tool to select the middle area of 'Land 4', then press Command-J to Copy the selection to a new layer. Name this one 'Land 5' and re-position over the top of the skull. Add an inverted black mask and paint back the areas as shown.


Step 18

Duplicate your 'Land 5' layer and rename it 'Land 6'. Delete its mask, Flip Horizontal and position as shown. Add a new Layer Mask, Invert it to black, then reinstate the area as shown.


Step 19

Target the 'Land 4' layer, Lasso a selection and Copy to a new layer. Name this 'Land 7' and move it up the layer stack below the 'Skull'. Flip Horizontal and Rotate CCW. Now create an inverted mask and use a white Brush to paint the required area.


Step 20

Duplicate your 'Land 4' layer, rename it 'Land 8' and move it up the layer hierarchy below the 'Skull'. Delete its mask then reposition the layer content. Add a new mask and paint back the area as shown.


Step 21

You'll notice the right cheekbone needs a little adjustment, so Lasso a selection from your 'Land 8' layer and Copy it to a new layer. Name the new layer 'Land 9' and reposition as shown. Now add a new inverted mask and paint back the new cheekbone.


Step 22

Next, we'll build up an area of land to the right. Use the Rectangular Marquee Tool to Copy a selection from your 'Land 8' layer, then Paste to make a new layer below the 'Skull'. Name this 'Land 9', position to the right and mask as shown.


Step 23

Copy/Paste a selection from your 'Land 8' layer and label it 'Land 11'. Move it up the layer stack below the 'Skull', then reposition over the centre of the face. Add an inverted mask and modify as below.


4. Land and Sea Adjustments

Step 1

We can now selectively edit areas of land to add light and shadow. Target your 'Land 1' layer, then clip a Levels adjustment and modify both the Input and Output sliders to darken the midtones and reduce the highlights.


Step 2

Next, clip a Levels adjustment to your 'Land 4' layer and lighten the midtones.


Step 3

Clip a Levels adjustment to your 'Land 5' layer to increase the contrast a little.


Step 4

Now clip a Levels adjustment to your 'Land 6' layer and boost the contrast as well.


Step 5

Clip a Levels adjustment to your 'Land 7' layer and increase the contrast and highlights.


Step 6

Clip a Levels adjustment to your 'Land 10' layer and reduce the contrast in the midtones and highlights.


Step 7

Now we'll selectively darken the top and inner edge of the same layer. Clip another Levels adjustment above the previous one and copy these settings. Invert the Levels mask to negative, then check your Foreground color is set to white. Now set the Gradient Tool to Foreground to Transparent and Radial, then drag a couple of gradients from the top-right corner.


Step 8

Finally, clip a Levels adjustment to your 'Land 11' layer to lighten the midtones slightly.

Step 9

To keep your layers organized, highlight your last adjustment thumbnail, hold Shift and highlight your 'Land 1' thumbnail (this highlights all the in-between layers too), then choose New Group from Layers from the top-right fly-out menu in the Layers panel. Name the folder 'MAIN LAND BLOCKS' in the following window.

Set your Foreground color to black, then change the Gradient option to Linear. Add a mask to the folder, then and drag a short line from the bottom to keep the movie graphics area clear.


Step 10

The folder mask affects all layers within it, so use a black Brush to quickly hide parts you may have overlooked on individual layers.

Step 11

Add a new layer above the 'Background' and name it 'Painted background'. Load the 'Swatches.act' from the 'SourceFiles' then use an assortment of soft-edged 'darken' custom brushes to build up variations of color.

My 'Painted background' layer is shown middle-left over the 'Background' layer and in isolation middle-right. It's also a good idea to see how your graphics will appear (bottom of the screenshot).

5. City Destruction

Step 1

Now we'll dot some small craters around the skull to give the appearance of a city in ruin. 

Open the first rock texture and add a Hue/Saturation adjustment to remove most of the color. Next, place a Color Balance adjustment and increase the Cyan.

Step 2

Create a top merged layer.


Step 3

Drag the merged layer into your working file below the 'Skull' and label it 'Craters 1'. Resize/position over the right eye socket, add an inverted mask, then use a white Brush to paint the texture back around the socket as shown.

Now change the 'Skull' layer to Multiply and reduce the Opacity to 69%.


Step 4

Duplicate your 'Craters 1' layer, then Flip Horizontal and position over the left socket. Now modify the mask slightly so it's not an exact mirror image. Rename this layer 'Craters 2'


Step 5

Open the second rock texture and repeat the same two adjustments as Step 1, then make a top merged layer.


Step 6

Place the merged layer below the 'Skull' and label it 'Craters 3'. Resize/position over the bottom half of the skull. Add an inverted mask, then use a white Brush to paint back the area as shown.


Step 7

Clip a Levels adjustment to your 'Craters 2' and darken the highlights slightly. Clip another Levels adjustment, this time to your 'Craters 3' layer and increase the contrast.


Step 8

Now place all your 'crater' layers, along with their adjustments into a Group Folder called 'CRATERS'.


6. Create the Fire Effects

Step 1

No apocalyptic scene would be complete without fire, so place a new layer above the 'Skull', change the mode to Screen and name it 'Glow 1'. 

Set your Foreground color to #f37320, then grab a large, soft Brush and paint over the right eye socket. For best results work at a low opacity and slowly build up the effect. Now mask any excess as shown at the bottom on the screenshot.


Step 2

Repeat this process to add more fire glows on separate layers for the left eye, nose and the corner of the mouth. Name these layers accordingly, then mask as required.


Step 3

Use the same workflow to place smaller glows in some of the smaller craters around the skull. These can be kept to a single layer and also masked if needed.


Step 4

Place all your 'glow' layers into a Group Folder called 'FIRE GLOWS'.


Step 5

Check the Lasso Tool to is still set to 3px Feather, then roughly select the city lights from the fourth satellite image. Copy > Paste into your working file above the last folder and label it 'Right eye fire 1'.

Resize, rotate and position over the right eye socket, then change the mode to Screen to render the dark areas invisible. Now add a mask and blend the edges further.


Step 6

Duplicate your 'Right eye fire 1' a few times. Rename them accordingly, then reposition, rotate and scale them to build up additional flames around the same eye socket. 

Apply the same technique with selective areas from the fifth and sixth city light images to create rising flames. Remember to name your layers accordingly.


Step 7

Duplicate, Transform your 'fire' layers, then place them over the left eye socket and modify their masks to suit.


Step 8

Repeat this workflow to create more layers of fire over the bottom of the nose and the corner of the mouth.


Step 9

To complete the effect, place more fires into some of the small craters.


Step 10

Add all your floating 'fire' layers into another Group Folder called 'FIRE'.


7. Create the Smoke Effects

Step 1

Open the first volcano image and choose Select > Color Range. Set the Fuzziness and Range values as shown, then use the default, plus and minus droppers to limit the selection the lighter tones.

Once you're happy with the selection preview, hit Command-J to Copy the selection to a new layer, then disable the visibility of the original layer.


Step 2

Place a middle layer and fill it with black to make your top layer visible. Now add a mask to your top layer and use a black Brush to hide everything apart from the smoke. 

My mask is shown at the bottom of the screenshot.


Step 3

Apply the mask on your smoke layer, then add it to your working file above the 'FIRE' folder and name it 'Smoke 1'.

Change the mode to Hard Light, then resize/place it over the right eye. Mask this layer, first with an angled Black to Transparent Linear Gradient and then with a small soft Brush.

Step 4

Repeat the Color Range selection method on the second volcano image.


Step 5

Add the isolated smoke as a new layer above 'Smoke 1' and label it 'Smoke 2'. 

Change the mode to Screen, reduce the Opacity to 57%, then resize/position top right. Add an inverted mask, then drag a couple of large White to Transparent Radial Gradients as shown.


Step 6

Repeat the Color Range selection method on the third volcano image.


Step 7

Add this as a new layer and name it 'Smoke 3'. Resize and position over the left eye. Keep the mode as Normal, then mask as required.


Step 8

Duplicate several of your smoke layers, then Transform and reposition them around your composition.

At this point it's a good idea check your 'Guide' layer to ensure the graphics will be legible.


Step 9

To keep things tidy, place all you 'Smoke' layers into a Group Folder and label it 'SMOKE'.


8. Complete the Composition

Step 1

It's now time to refine our illustration. First, add a mask to the 'CRATERS' folder and blend/hide any edges you may have missed.


Step 2

Add a mask to the 'FIRE' folder and blend/hide any parts you're unhappy with.


Step 3

Add a new layer below the 'Skull' and label it 'Painted detail'. Now use an assortment of small Brushes and press Option/Alt at regular intervals to pick up the underlying colors as you work to add further detail to some road structures and the skull's teeth. 

My layer is shown over black for clarity at the bottom of the screenshot.


Step 4

Place a new layer in Multiply mode above your previous layer and name it 'Painted shadows'.

Paint with an assortment of black Brushes over the shadow areas of the skull to make them darker. If the effect is too heavy, reduce the layer opacity to suit (mine's at 70%). 

My layer is shown over white for clarity at the bottom of the screenshot.


Step 5

Add a mask to your 'Skull' layer and use a black Brush to hide the areas as shown - remember, we want the land contour and city to resemble most of the skull.


Step 6

Now the 'Skull' layer is masked, you may need some more shadows. Add another layer in Multiply mode above the 'Skull' and name it 'Skull shadows'.

Use the same workflow as Step 4 on this layer, then reduce the layer opacity to taste (mine's at 69%). Add a mask and hide parts as required.


Step 7

Next, we'll apply a non-destructive dodge and burn technique to add highlight and shadow. First, add a new layer above the 'FIRE GLOWS' folder and label it 'Dodge and burn'. Go to Edit > Fill (Shift-F5) and select 50% Gray from the Contents drop-down menu. 

Now if you change the layer Blend Mode to Soft Light the grey will disappear. Grab a Brush and paint shadows and highlights using black and white respectively at 20% Opacity

I've shown my layer in Normal mode at the bottom of the screenshot for clarity.


Step 8

If you make a mistake on your 'Dodge and burn' layer and need to reinstate the 50% Gray, set the layer back to Normal Mode and pick up the grey with the Eyedropper, or use the Color Picker to set all three RGB fields to 128 and paint at 100% Opacity. Alternatively, you can mask the layer as shown at the bottom of the screenshot.


Step 9

To create some more shadows, place another layer in Multiply mode above the 'SMOKE' folder and name it 'Painted blue'. Set your Foreground color to #22373e and drag a Foreground to Transparent Linear Gradient at a 45 degree angle from the top left corner. 

Next, add a couple of Radial Gradients at the base. Reduce the layer opacity as required (Mine's at 35%), then mask the central area as shown at the bottom of the screenshot.


Step 10

To reduce the overall colour, place an unclipped Hue/Saturation adjustment with the following settings above the 'Painted blue' layer.


Step 11

Target your Hue/Saturation mask and add a series of Black to Transparent Radial Gradients to bring back the original saturation of the fires. 


Step 12

Set your Foreground/Background colors to #203047 and #58c9d7. Grab the Gradient Tool, then choose New Gradient and Save it.

Step 13

Add a new Gradient Map adjustment above your previous one, choose your saved preset and check the Reverse button.


Step 14

Change the 'Gradient Map' layer to Multiply and reduce the Opacity to 30%.

Now use some Black to Transparent Radial Gradients as you did before on the mask to reveal the underlying fire spots.


Step 15

 Place an overall Curves adjustment above your last one and darken the image slightly. 

With our illustration completed, check your 'Guide' layer is switched off and Save it ('Poster_artwork.psd') to a handy location.


9. Complete the InDesign Artwork

Step 1

Revisit your InDesign artwork and unlock/highlight your 'Placed image' layer. Activate your image box and choose File > Place (Command-D). Now navigate/select your layered image file.


Step 2

Now we'll create some Photoshop artwork for the movie title. Select your title text box and press Command-X to Cut it to the clipboard.


Step 3

In Photoshop, hit D to to reset your Foreground/Background colours to black and white, then press X to swap them. Create a new document, accept the Clipboard preset and choose Background Color under the Contents menu.

Now Paste your InDesign text (Command-V), which will automatically appear as a Vector Smart Object layer.


Step 4

Grab the Rectangular Marquee Tool and Copy a selection from the fire image. Paste to create a new layer in your text file, stretch to fit beyond the canvas dimensions and name it 'Fire'.

Now Option-click between the top and middle layer thumbnails to clip the flames within the text.


Step 5

Add a mask to your text layer, Invert it to black, then use an assortment of the 'Grunge Brushes.abr' Brushes to distress the text. 

My mask is shown at the bottom of the screenshot.


Step 6

Disable the visibility of the 'Background' layer, then Save the file ('Title.psd') to a memorable location.


Step 7

Switch to your InDesign file, lock your 'Placed image' layer and target/unlock your 'Graphics' layer. 

Now Place the 'Title.psd' and centre/position it to where the original was.

Step 8

At this point, I felt the white text and logos needed to be a more subtle grey color. 

Choose New Color Swatch from the Swatches panel. Select Process, CMYK and enter these color values in the following window.


Step 9

Now Fill all the white text and logos with your new swatch.


Step 10

The poster is nearing completion, so now's the time to carry out any last minute changes. I felt the main title was too saturated and needed to reflect the fire in the illustration. 

First, unlock/target your 'Placed image' layer. Select to activate it in the Links panel, then click the Edit Original icon.


Step 11

The Edit Original command will open the file via Photoshop. Place an unclipped Hue/Saturation adjustment at the top and reduce the Yellows and Reds. Save and close the file.


Step 12

The file should now automatically update in your InDesign artwork, if it doesn't, simply hit the Update Link button in the Links panel.


Step 13

Now your artwork is complete go to View > Display Performance > High Quality Display, then from the same menu choose Screen Mode > Preview.

InDesign has a cool feature to check your artwork will separate correctly in CMYK, which is necessary for commercial printing. Hit Shift-F6 to open the Separations Preview window, then select Separations from the View menu and toggle the visibility of the CMYK inks. When you're done, turn Separations Off.


Step 14

All that's left to do now is create a printer-friendly PDF file. It's important to speak to your nominated printer first because they may prefer to supply you with their preferred PDF preset. These can easily be loaded into InDesign by choosing File > Adobe PDF Presets > Define.

If you're following this tutorial without using a supplied PDF setting, I suggest using one of the 'PDF/X' presets. Hit Command-E to Export, choose Adobe PDF Print from the Format menu, then hit the Save button.

In the next window choose your Adobe PDF Preset, then highlight the Marks and Bleeds options and check the following tick boxes. Finally, hit the Export button.

Step 15

As a final check, open your PDF through Acrobat Pro, then send it off to your printer.


Congratulations, You’re Done!

In this tutorial I showed you how to combine stock photography with digital painting techniques to create a post-apocalyptic movie poster. I then showed you how to prepare error-free, printer-friendly artwork with InDesign. 

I hope you've learned some new techniques from this tutorial and can apply them to create something amazing of your own!

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