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Create a Gritty, Action-packed Movie Poster

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Action movies provide a form of escapism that no other genre of film can. Their advertising posters' strive to capture the fast-paced, action-packed scenes to fuel your adrenaline! This tutorial focuses on designing an advance or teaser poster which are displayed several months prior to the actual films release.

This poster was influenced by the work of Mike Orduñaon and in particular his illustration for the film Street Kings.

In this tutorial, I'll walk you through the process of creating a visually striking design using a limited color palette. First, you'll assemble a collage from various source files, then use some grungy, real-world ink stains and brushes for added grit. Next, you'll work in tandem with Illustrator – using a combination of Live Trace and Pathfinder commands to create the distressed movie title.

You'll find the Photoshop PSD file in a directory labeled "source" that came in the ZIP file that you downloaded. You may wish to look through it briefly before we begin. You'll also find some brushes and textures to complete the tutorial as well as the print-ready Illustrator artwork.


I created my own textures for the mixed-media effect by applying cellulose spray and water-based poster paint onto cartridge paper with a toothbrush. I also experimented using the same technique on paper that had been soaked in water which gave an interesting marbling effect.
When the sheets were thoroughly dry, they were scanned into Photoshop at 300dpi, then some were made into brushes and others saved as textures. You'll find these files: PSDTUTS_grunge_brushes.abr and Splat_1.psd through Splat_8.psd within the "source" folder.

Start off by downloading low resolution comps of the images you intend using, or feel free to shoot your own images. As I intended using the high resolution versions in the final artwork (finished size: 2050mm by 1050mm). I made a smaller, preparatory rough layered Photoshop document: 180mm by 108mm at 72dpi. Working this way gives you a feel for the overall design and how the images work together.

Here's a list of the medium-sized iStockphoto images I used:

The stock.xchng images used:

And finally, 4.jpg from these textures

Step 1

For the purpose of this tutorial we'll be working at a reduced size of the standard 3 sheet poster format which is usually 205cm by 105cm.

Create a new 300dpi, RGB document 34cm by 20cm with the Background Content set to white. Next, ensure you've got Snap enabled under the View menu and drag guides to all four edges of your canvas.

Now hit Command + Y to enable Proof Colors – this allows you to work in RGB Mode, whilst previewing in CMYK and avoids any unexpected color shifts later.

Step 2

Next, you need to add 3mm bleed all round. A quick method is to select Image > Canvas Size and set the Anchor location point centrally. Now simply alter the Width to 34.6cm, the Height to 20.6cm and set the Canvas extension color to white.

Step 3

Snap the Crop Tool (C) to the canvas. Now drag/snap a central guide to the crop's center point and hit Don't Crop. Again, this is a lot quicker than selecting View > New Guide to manually place them.

Step 4

Open 4.jpg. Rotate the canvas 90 degrees clockwise and drag it into your working file as a new layer. Now hit Command + T to resize and label it "Grunge."

Step 5

Photoshop has many tools to help you isolate images – but as every image is different, limiting yourself to one technique is impractical. Use the Pen Tool (P), set to Paths to carefully plot around the contract killer. Remember to select the Subtract from path area option when creating the inner sub-paths.

The Pen Tool causes the most fear and frustration among new Photoshopers, but at the same time is revered by those who have taken a little time to get to know it.

Step 6

Once you're done, switch to the paths palette and Command-click the path thumbnail to generate a selection. Now Copy > Paste as a new layer into your working document, transform/position to the central guide and name it "Main man," then add the layer into a group folder labelled "ELEMENTS." Next, target your "Main man" layer and hold down Alt, selecting Black & White from the pull-down click the Create New Fill Or Adjustment Layer icon, then choose the High Contrast Blue filter in the Preset pull-down menu. In the next window check Use Previous Layer To Create Clipping Mask.

The benefit of using adjustment layers is that no edit is permanent until you flatten the image. You can revisit the image at any time and fine-tune the adjustment by double-clicking its icon. A normal adjustment layer affects all layers immediately below it – clipping an adjustment only affects the chosen layer.

Now target the "Black & White" layer and clip an Exposure adjustment layer using the settings below.

Step 7

The girl has a plain white background and can easily be isolated. Go Select > Color Range, then click the eyedropper on the background and set the Fuzziness slider to around 60 and hit OK.

The Color Range has done a fairly good job, but it still requires some further work; with the selection still active switch to your channels palette and add a new channel. Set black as your foreground color hit Delete to fill with white on the new channel. Now deselect and use a white, hard-edged brush to paint over any black areas left within the figure.

Step 8

Command-click the channel thumbnail to generate a selection, then target the top RGB composite channel and Copy to the clipboard. Back in your working file, Paste into the group folder below the "Main man." Transform/position and name the layer "Girl." Now clip a Black & White adjustment layer to the "Girl" using the Infrared preset.

Next, clip a Levels adjustment to the "Girl" using the settings below.

Step 9

Isolate the car with a path, then add as a new layer named "Car" below the "Girl." Transform/position as shown, then clip a Black & White adjustment layer to it using the High Contrast Red preset.

Step 10

Some images require a combination of selection techniques. First use the Color Range/alpha channel extraction method on the gunman image, then paint within path-based selections on the extra channel to fix the hair and other areas. When you're done add as a new layer labelled "Man 1" below the "Car."

Transform/position as shown, then clip a Black & White adjustment layer to it using the High Contrast Blue preset. Next, clip an Exposure adjustment layer using the settings shown.

Step 11

Isolate thug one, then add as a new layer labelled "Man 2" below the "Car." Transform/position as shown, then clip a Black & White adjustment layer using the High Contrast Blue preset. Then clip a Levels adjustment layer using the settings shown.

Now clip an Exposure adjustment layer to the "Man 2" using the settings below.

Step 12

Isolate thug two, then add as a new layer labelled "Man 3" below the "Car." Transform/position, then clip a Black & White adjustment layer using the High Contrast Blue preset. Then clip an Exposure adjustment layer using the settings shown.

Step 13

Isolate thug three, then add as a new layer labelled "Man 4" below the "Car." Transform/position, then clip a Black & White adjustment layer using the High Contrast Blue preset again. Now clip an Exposure adjustment layer using the settings shown.

Step 14

Open the street scene image and add a new layer. Now select the Clone Tool (S) and set the Sample option to Current & Below. You can now clone on your new layer to remove the street lights.

Step 15

When you've finished, flatten and drag/drop as a new layer into your working file below "Man 1" and set the Blending Mode to Multiply. Now hit Command + T, then Control to access Perspective, then pull the top handles inwards and label the layer "City."

Step 16

Add a layer mask to the "City" and use a large, soft-edged brush to blend the edges away. Now clip a Black & White adjustment layer using the High Contrast Blue preset. Next, clip an Exposure adjustment layer using the settings shown.

Step 17

Open the light stream image and Copy > Paste a section as a new layer below "Man 1." Transform/position to the right of the canvas, then transform again using Perspective/Distort – pulling the handles towards the center of the canvas. Repeat with a different portion of the light stream image for the left side.

When you're happy, merge the two layers and set the Blending Mode to Luminosity and drop the Opacity to 80%. Finally, name the layer "Lights 1" and add a small amount of Gaussian Blur – around 2-3 px.

Step 18

Add a layer mask to "Lights 1" and use a variety of brushes to carefully blend it into the background.

Step 19

Open the night lights image and follow the same techniques as Step 17 to Paste areas on either side on new layers below "Man 1." Merge the two layers, then set the Blending Mode to Screen and name this layer "Lights 2." Finally, add a layer mask and blend into the background as shown.

Step 20

Clip a Black & White adjustment layer to "Lights 2" using the Maximum White preset.

Step 21

Add a new layer labelled "Black fill" below "Man 1" and set the Blending Mode to Multiply. Now use a variety of black brushes to fill any gaps between and around the edges of the figures and car.

Step 22

Erase any hard edges on the figures by adding masks to their relevant layers, then gently blend using a soft-edged brush. Now's the time to reposition any elements, remembering to leave enough space for the title and graphics.

Step 23

Add a new group folder called "BACKGROUND SPLATS" below the "ELEMENTS." Open "Splat_1.psd" from the "source" folder, drop it into your new folder and label it "Splat A." With the layer targeted, go to Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object.

Pixel-based smart objects remember their original size and can be transformed multiple times without any loss of quality. Now transform as shown and repeat with "Splat_2.psd," labeling the layer accordingly, then set both layers to Multiply.

Step 24

Repeat using remaining splat files from the "source" folder and position around the montage. Feel free to duplicate some of the layers and flip them as required.

Now modify the fill on selective splat layers by double-clicking the Smart Object thumbnail, then selecting with the Magic Wand Tool (W), filling with white and saving – these will now automatically update in your working file.

Set the Blending Mode of these white splat layers to Overlay and adjust their Opacities to taste.

Step 25

In the next few steps we'll introduce some selective color adjustments. First, pick #ae001b as your foreground and black as your background colors. Now add a Gradient Map adjustment layer at the top of the stack, using the drop-down menu to select the Foreground to Background preset.

Next, set the Blending Mode to Color and drop the layer's Opacity to 70%.

Step 26

Now increase the red tonal range by adding a Selective Color adjustment layer. Choose Reds from the drop-down menu and use the settings below. Next, reduce the effect by reducing the layer's Opacity to 87%.

Step 27

These two adjustments have achieved the desired result, but also affected some of the adjustments within the "ELEMENTS" folder. Fix this by dropping their Opacities as shown.

Your illustration should now look something like this.

Step 28

Zoom in and you'll notice the figures in the montage all have varying degrees of grain. First, identify the one with the most grain (Man 3), then add noise (Filter > Noise > Add Noise) on the other layers to match it – I first used 3% Gaussian/Monochromatic on the "Main man" layer, then pressed Command + F to repeat the filter on all the remaining layers within the "ELEMENTS" folder except "Man 3," "Lights 1," "Lights 2" and the "City."

Step 29

Next, target the "Man 2" layer and select Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask and use the following settings: Amount: 30, Radius: 40, and Threshold: 1. Now target the "Main man" layer and hit Option + Command + F to open the filter window again, but this time use the following settings: Amount: 15, Radius: 20, and Threshold: 1.

Now press Command + F to repeat the filter on all the remaining layers within the "ELEMENTS" folder except "Man 2," "Lights 1," "Lights 2" and the "City."

Step 30

Add a new group folder labelled "BACKGROUND PAINT" below the "BACKGROUND SPLATS." Load the "PSDTUTS_grunge_brushes.abr" from the "source" folder, then add a layer within the new folder and label it "Paint A."

Use the brushes in a stamping fashion on the new layer with black. Also, work using a variety of brushes and flip/rotate the Brush Tip Shape to avoid repetition. Now paint on another layer and label it "Paint B" to intensify the effect.

Step 31

Continue adding further paint layers with black and red (#ae001b) using the same technique. If you feel you've overworked areas, use the Eraser Tool (E) or drop the layers' Opacity.

Step 32

Add a group folder labelled "FOREGROUND PAINT" above the "ELEMENTS." Drop a new layer within the new folder and label it "Splat A," then use a selection of spray brushes to paint selective areas around the canvas edge with white. It's important not to overdo this part – you only need a subtle amount of spray here.

Now add another layer labelled "Splat B" and dab some black paint over some outer parts of the montage – again, keep it subtle and don't worry about painting slightly over any figures, this will be fixed in Step 34.

Step 33

Switch to your channels palette and add a new channel. Now generate layer-based selections by Command-clicking all the figures and car layer thumbnails in turn and filling with white on the new channel.

Step 34

Target the "FOREGROUND PAINT" folder and select Layer > Layer Mask > Hide Selection. Be sure to save, then flatten the file, convert to CMYK and delete the extra channel. Now hit Shift + Command + S to Save As a TIFF to a memorable location.

Step 35

Launch Illustrator and create a new A3 landscape document. With your Rulers visible (Command + R) zoom into the top-left corner and drag the rules origin point to the top-left edge of the artboard.

Next, set the fill and stroke to none and hit Command + Y to work on Outline mode. Select the Rectangle Tool (M) and click anywhere on the artboard and in the next window enter a Width of 346mm and a Height of 206mm. Add another rectangle with a Width of 340mm and a Height of 200mm.

Select both rectangles and click both the Horizontal and Vertical Align Center icons. Now with both objects still selected, use the Reference Point Locator to position them dead center (X: 37mm and Y: -45mm).

Now pull across a central vertical rule to 210mm. You may need to hit Option + Command + semicolon to unlock your guides and position accurately using the Reference Point Locator. When you're done use the same keyboard command to lock the guides.

Step 36

Select the larger rectangle and hit Command + 5 to convert to a guide, then select the smaller one and go to Object > Crop Area > Make. You now have precise bleed/central guides and trim marks which will make the next step easy.

Step 37

Choose File > Place, check the Link option and navigate to the TIFF you saved in Step 34. Enable Smart Guides (Command + U) to position to the outer guide box and check its coordinates with the Reference Point Locator (X: 37mm and Y: -45mm). Finally, label the layer "Base artwork."

Step 38

Create a new A3 landscape Illustrator document, then use the Type Tool (T) to add the movie title. I used Should've Known, because of its distinctive serif style. Keep it fairly large – around 190pt is fine. Also, pay close attention to your kerning and tracking – see Step 6 in this tutorial for an in-depth explanation.

Step 39

Now choose Type > Create Outlines (Shift + Command + O).

Step 40

Select your type, then Copy to the clipboard. Open the "Scratches.jpg" from the "source" folder in Photoshop and Paste As Pixels. This new layer will serve as a guide for your distress areas, so drop its Opacity to around 30%.

Step 41

Add a new layer above the "Background," then work with the Clone Tool (set to Current & Below) to remove and duplicate areas as required.

Step 42

When you're done, delete the top two layers, then hit Command + L to access the Levels and use the settings shown. Now Save As a TIFF.

Step 43

Back in your Illustrator lettering document select File > Place, then navigate to your TIFF file. Next, go to Object > Live Trace > Tracing Options, select the default Black & White settings and hit the Trace button.

Step 44

Now hit the Expand button on the Control Palette.

Step 45

Use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to select a black area, then go to Select > Same Fill Color and hit Delete.

Step 46

Select the remaining white areas and press Command + Shift + Left Bracket key to send to the back. Now select your type and go to Object > Compound Path > Make (Command + 8).

Step 47

Select All (Command + A) and click the Minus Back command from the Pathfinder palette. Minus Back uses the bottom object to define the subtracted areas. You should now have one single path for the distressed title.

Step 48

Copy to the clipboard, then in your Illustrator poster artwork file lock the "Base artwork" layer. Add a new layer above it called "Graphics." Paste the title onto the new layer and fill with white. Now resize and position to the central guide as shown.

Step 49

Continue adding further text to your design, I used Helvetica Neue and also dropped in a vector Psdtuts+ logo. Also, because the artwork is to be printed commercially, remember to use CMYK values throughout.

Step 50

Finally, add some credits along the base, using the Align palette to distribute them equally. That's it your poster is complete and ready to go to print!


I hope you've learnt some new techniques here, as well as being inspired to create your own poster designs – have fun!

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