Recently I got to interview, Dennis Dunbar. Dennis is a composite artist and retoucher who says ‘Ever since 1991 I’ve been adding the Photoshop Magic to movie posters and images for ad campaigns. And I love working on cool images whether they’re for the latest blockbuster movie or a shot of a beautiful model or a product shot for a new ad campaign.’
DIYP: Tell us a little about how you got into photoshop/retouching, and who your influences are.
DD: In the late 1980’s I was working in photography when National Geographic made a big splash because they used some computer retouching system to move the moon in an image they used on their cover. While everyone else was decrying this “scandal” I thought “Cool!”. From then on I became more and more obsessed with learning more about this coming technology. At the same time I started working with a photographer, William Warren, who made complex composited images by hand in the darkroom using pin registered masks and 8×10 duping film.
In my spare time, I spent just about every free moment researching how this was being done on computers, poring through the Yellow Pages (no internet at that time) and calling everyone who looked like they might be know something about this. Eventually, I found a local photo lab here in Los Angeles, GP Color, that had a digital department. The guy who ran that department, Charles James, believed in sharing information as a way of growing their list of clients. He, and his co-worker Daniel Ecoff, let me bug them endlessly asking questions about this and that until I figured the only way I was gonna really learn about this was to get my own computer and start working.
So in February of 1991, I signed a $50,000 lease on a “wicked fast” IIFX Macintosh with Photoshop 1 and another program called Color Studio. From then on it’s been a love affair with working on cool images with cool artists.
As for influences that would be anyone who creates cool images. I frequently look through sources online such as Workbook.com and FoundFolios.com to see what folks who create images for ad campaigns are doing as well as various forums on Facebook and, of course, Instagram.
DIYP: Your body of work has some amazing images in it. I loved the recent series of images for the new Jumanji movie. When you get a huge project like that, what is your mind frame and plan?
DD: Working on movie posters can be a lot of fun. My role in that work is called “Finishing” and it’s one of the last steps involved in producing movie posters, (also referred to as “Key Art”).
The process starts when the movie studios enlist several ad agencies that specialize in this work to do round after round after round of designs for posters, billboards etc to promote their movie. (This part can take several months even a couple of years sometimes.) When they finally narrow it down to the ones they want to “Finish” the ad agencies bring in a “Finisher” like me to take the low res comp and turn it into a high res polished work of art.
As you can imagine at this point time is short and deadlines loom big on the horizon so we have to work quickly and efficiently while taking what are frequently poor quality original photos and making them look polished and beautiful when blown up to poster size.
A lot of the time the source images might be photos taken on set during the production of the movie so the exposure, resolution, and sharpness are not that great.
My approach to working on finishing a poster is to first work on adding bleed, most of the time they build the comps to the trim size and they’ll need extra space for the various trim sizes the image might be used in.
After going through layer by layer making sure all the masks etc blend out to the edges of the larger canvas I’ll start at the bottom and work my way up replacing low res elements with the highest resolution ones available. Then I’ll circle back and work on perfecting masks, retouching, color correction etc until the image looks perfect and is approved by the client.
DIYP: What advice would you give anyone aiming to pull in the big movie poster clients?
DD: The vast majority of movie poster work is done by a handful of ad agencies that specialize in this kind of work. There are maybe 15-20 agencies in Los Angeles that produce most of the Key Art used in promoting movies made in Hollywood.
These agencies have teams of Art Directors who work on designing the “comps” during the various rounds of design work as they try to come up with something the studios will pick as the final design. Then, as I mentioned before, once the studios approve some of the designs a Finisher will turn that into that into the final artwork used in the poster.
So, much depends on which role you want to play. Designers need to work fast while Finishers need to be very detail oriented, there are some folks who do both, but most focus on one or the other.
If you’re interested in being an Art Director you need to have strong design skills and build a good portfolio of design work. If you’re interested in being a Finisher your Photoshop and retouching skills will be more important so your portfolio needs to focus on projects that show you are good at masking, building complex composites, color correction etc.
Once you have a good portfolio together you need to research the agencies who produce this work and figure out who you need to connect with to get a foot in the door. And finally you need to have a marketing plan for reaching out to those people.
One great on-line resource for seeing which design agencies are doing what posters is www.impawards.com. This site has a great database of movie posters etc going back many years. You can see the latest posters or go back several years to see who did what.
DIYP: With so many people using photoshop these days, does it make it harder to get new clients?
DD: In some ways yes, and in some ways no. A lot depends on which part of the market you’re aiming for. At the bottom end, like e-commerce etc, there’s always going to be an oversupply of retouchers who are willing to work on images for a few pennies. But at the higher end, such as movie posters and ad campaigns, there are fewer folks with the skills to produce that level of work. It takes time and dedication to build those skills and to get your work known, but as you do you’ll find more rewarding jobs and less worry about some newbie coming along who’ll do it cheaper than you can afford to.
DIYP: For anyone starting out with the desire to create images like yourself, what advice would you give them about finding inspiration?
DD: A friend had a favorite saying “vacuum clean the universe”, that is be insatiable in looking and learning as much as you can.
DIYP: Which do you prefer the retouching side or the compositing side?
DD: I see them as two sides of the same coin. Compositing can be more complex than straight retouching, but it builds on and uses the same skills one would use in simpler retouching jobs.
Mostly I just love working on cool images with cool artists.
DIYP: Out of all your projects, which had the most impact on your life?
DD: When I started out one of the photographers I worked with introduced me to Roger Corman, the king of B-Grade movies. Roger produced a long list of movies such as The Little Shop of Horrors, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, and Death Race 2000. At the time Roger’s movie posters were created using the old fashioned cut and paste and airbrushing methods. He wanted to start using digital imaging to create the final art and so for about 10 years I did all the retouching on the art for his movie posters and home video packaging.
He used several independent designers to create the designs so as these folks moved on to working with the bigger movie poster agencies my network grew and I started getting more work on “A List” movies.
DIYP: If you were only allowed to give one essential piece of advice to a beginner, what would it be?
DD: The most important skill is learning how to “see”. You can know all sorts of techniques but if you have not developed your eye your work will look “off” and you’ll not know why.
So you need a strong background in art or photography before you can become a good retoucher. You need to understand light, color and composition first before you can really be good at any other part of working on images.
DIYP: What cool projects do you have lined up for 2018.
DD: Every year always seems to bring unexpected projects my way, usually on pretty short notice. But a few weeks ago I got work the folks at Ten 30 Studios on some really cool art for the next Dead Pool movie.
And I have a few speaking/teaching events that are falling into place as well. With any luck I’ll be returning to Serbia at the end of May to teach a 2 day class at their Fotorama festival.
DIYP: Where would you like to see yourself in 10 years time?
DD: Doing more retouching and teaching. I’ve been doing this for over 25 years and I still love this work. Even on a stressful day I’ll find myself smiling as I get into working on some cool image. I’m really lucky to love what I do and I can’t see myself stopping anytime soon.