The Tricks Of Graphic Designers Of Yore: Cold Start

Cs Firebirdgreen

Before I found my calling embarrassingly obsessing over taillights in public, I made my living as a graphic designer/art director. I did all the things that graphic designers do: living off the land, setting the traps, skinning the beavers and tanning the pelts – oh shit, wait, that’s what early 1800s trappers did. Dammit. Anyway, I designed all kinds of things for all kinds of media, and so when I see an image like this from before I was even born in this 1970 Pontiac Firebird brochure, I have some questions. Specifically, about photograph and typographic planning.

See how the photographer shot this gloriously green photo so that there were a lot of blurry leaves close to the lens that makes the right quarter of the photo into a relatively low-contrast sea of light green? That works really well for laying type over and still having it be legible without having to stick it into some clunky box.

So I’m wondering: did the photographer set out to take a photo like this with the planned text layout in mind? Or did the designer just pick one that they realized would work from a set of press photos? Was an airbrush or something used to make the blurry area work even better for the text?

Dealing with all this stuff in the Age of Photoshop is trivial, but I want to know how this was done in 1970, with everything hand-set on those big layout boards.

Anyway, good work, unnamed designer. I see you.

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42 Responses

  1. I’ve been a studio product photographer since the mid-80’s, before Photoshop and digital. A lot of our work was shot to fit a very specific layout that had already been designed.

    We used 8×10 view cameras that exposed one 8×10 inch sheet of film at a time. The large film size gave the best quality for print reproduction. Here’s an example of one:×10-field-camera

    When we had a layout from the designer, we would take a thin sheet of 8×10 clear plastic and draw the outside edges of the layout on the plastic with a grease pencil, which could be wiped off if you made a mistake, or the layout changed. If the final ad was to be printed larger than 8×10, we’d scale it down with a proportion wheel. Some ads were more exact in the placing of the product and type than others.

    Once we had the ad’s border drawn, the rest of the elements in the ad could be drawn in to their specific locations on the ad. This Firebird ad is pretty simple- draw a box for the car, and a box for the type. Again, we’d scale them down proportionally if needed.

    Then we’d tape the outer edges of the plastic sheet on the ground glass on the back of the camera. That’s the piece on the Deardorff camera with the grid on it. When you placed the camera on the set, you’d compose the photo and line up the box for the car on the car, since it’s the main subject. Then you’d check the box where the type is supposed to be placed and make sure that there’s nothing in it that might blend in with the type and make it difficult to read. Again, this is a simple layout, but the same principals apply with something more complicated. That’s how we did it!

    As far as the photo… keep in mind that this is for the Pontiac Division of General Motors, so they recognize the importance of their advertising, and they’re willing to spend money on it. There were car photographers in Detroit with large studios that could handle this, or they could rent a sound stage if needed.

    When you’re in a studio, you have total control over the lighting. You’d have separate lights for the car and the house & trees to make the car look as good as possible. Set designers could build a phony house facade and bring in trees. It’s the same as a movie set. Another possibility is a rear projection screen for the house and trees in front of it.

    I suspect the car was photographed in a studio because the reflections in the wheels, the rear bumper, and stainless trim under the door and around the windows is just right. Or those could have been retouched in later.

    If it was done on location they may have used large cinematography lights on the car and the tree just behind it, then retouched the shiny bits later.

    The green glow may have been airbrushed in later, maybe on a dye transfer print. It’s so indistinct it may not have been leaves dangled in front of the lens.

    If you want to see how the pros did it back in the day, get the book “Boulevard Photographic” by Jim Williams. It’s the story, with many great photos, of the best car photographers in the business who literally invented many great techniques.

  2. In this age of the simple and serene Adobe life it is easy to forget the miracles wrought by yesterday’s reprographers, mastering repro cameras that filled whole rooms. This is probably not one single shot but a composite of several photos including background, car, driver, as well as the green field where the text lives, possibly also some manual burning or dodging going on, and certainly everything sketched out beforehand in ink marker. For some reason, such color repro work seemed especially apparent in German 1970s car and motorcycle magazines where one could almost identify each color separation by itself, perhaps due to the thin and cheap paper they used, or perhaps due to some ancient typesetter’s guild (remember typesetting?) dictating a “one man, one shade” CMYK color separation policy requiring at least five operators in the form of one master and four apprentices, per image (typesetters were very particular about their profession). Today it is a black art, forever lost to the digital bitmap, but on the other hand we don’t have to breathe those marker fumes..

    1. This. You’re seeing a ton of dodging and blurring over the photo—a ton of physical manipulation of the original negative to a final print. I’m sure the art director sketched it out with markers first (itself a dead art form) and handed it to the photographer to shoot.

  3. My guess is that this is an old school mechanical composite made by hand and some tricky old school layout techniques. I would put money on the fact that someone physically cut that Firebird out of another image and pasted it on the background image which was likely also manipulated in the darkroom. 1970 is before my time but in my early years of design and photography education, we did learn a bit about the old world ways of creating print layouts by hand with actual hand cut images and and hand set type involving several layers of acetate etc. All things that no one needed to know as soon as Photoshop and digital type layout hit the streets.

  4. As someone who’s spent his whole career as a graphic designer/creative director, and as an enthusiast of automotive advertising from an early age, I can tell you that I’ve devoted an inordinate amount of time over the years to wondering about this too. Seriously, how did they add these effects and put the layouts together without tools like Adobe Creative Suite? HOW DID THEY MANAGE THEIR FONTS? I entered the graphic design world in the mid-90s, so I’ve never known a world without Macs and desktop publishing/design software. I’ve heard offhand tales of the old ways from grizzled professors and old-school pros over drinks at AIGA events and design conferences, but it’s always made me a little sad that I never got to experience the level of artistry involved in analog print design.

    All that said, I’m guessing that what we’re seeing in this particular ad is the effect of some sort of dodge/burn technique in the development process — Which also reminds of the days when I had to worry about sending “camera-ready” files to production.

    Anyway, thanks for posting — I love this sort of thing.

  5. I recall my days in newspaper advertising sales. We would take white base paper with blue grid lines (wouldn’t show on camera pics) we would cut pictures, drawings, script, and/or catalogs full of art. Use a wheel to figure percentage of increase or decrease make a copy. Paste it all together with wax and give it to composing to tidy up and shoot to create ads. This was not the 70s more like the late 80s or 90s but at a newspaper with no new equipment.

  6. I’m not sure it’s leaves. It certainly looks like it, and that’s likely the intent, but it might just be some blotches dodged out in the dark room to emulate that look. The sharpness of the rear of the car makes me think they masked out the car and either created or exaggerated blurry leaves.

  7. Could that driver (Kermit) be blasting the AM radio with “It’s not easy being green”?
    The Muppet show didn’t start until later in the 70’s, but KTF was an OG character for Jim Henson since 1955. Did this song even exist then?
    Did Jim Henson own a 1970 Green Firebird?
    Was Green the go-to color for early 70’s “far out” automotive styling?

    So many questions, so little time.

    1. I turned 50 this year. I grew up with cars this shade of green, like my neighbor’s 1974 Impala. I hated that color as a kid. Now, when the entire parking lot looks like dirty dishwater, I’d totally rock a 70s-GM baby shit green car. At least it’s a color.

  8. Or could this be a painting/drawing based on multiple reference photos? Pontiac and others did a lot of actual artwork back in the day using physical cut/paste, airbrush, color pencils, chalk, paint, pencil. We hired a couple different multimedia artists to create cover art for corporate brochures for our small company back in the early 80s… hand drawn, painted, exacto-knifed, rubber-cemented, pastels, fixative spray, etc.

  9. Professional photographer here. I started back in the days of film. Keep in mind this is what I experienced pre digital and is all conjecture on my part. The vast majority of car work was shot on 4×5 or 8×10 sheet film. Car shoots could either be big budget (usually) or borderline quick and dirty. I’ve been a part of both. Always transparency film – I never saw anything shot in color neg. Trying to judge in my phone. This could all very well be done in camera. The house in the background has that muddy look characteristic of shadows from film stock back then (EPR, Ektachrome 64?). Entirely possible that the location had the light hit the car just right during magic hour. Likely some strobe immediately in front of the car. Bit curious that there is no sign of light coming from inside as it really kind of dies back there. At that time there weren’t radio transmitters for strobe to illuminate the interior of the house and a very long synch cord would be problematic (things like Pocket Wizards weren’t around) and they’d have to use larger tungsten lights. But as there is still a fair bit of light outside, one would need a lot of light inside the house to show up. Or it was a budget shoot? The leaves would just be dangled in font of the lens and be way out of focus. Still a common thing to do.

    But entirely possible that this was shot in studio and comped together later. Car does look cut out. But as I experienced in my limited car shooting days, it seems likely done in location and in camera.

  10. I admit it, I read the article and yet i still focused on the typesetting. The word Economy looks like it has a couple extra spaces after it, both times it’s used. Also after beauty and beginning, I’m guessing it was to keep the line ends even. Any clue why it wouldn’t have been done a little more evenly?
    P.s. I’d love a 70 firebird even with the 6cyl!

  11. So there are a few photography nerds here?Very cool.

    Personally i’m going 80/20 on the blur being natural.It would have only taken a few minutes to set up close to a branch.
    If it was dodged and burned or spray touchup i dont think they would have left a dark part under half of the wording.
    The car i’m not so sure about.It looks a little too sharp to not be a cut and paste,but all other clues point to it being real.Light and shadows seem to be consistent across the image

  12. I was a commercial photographer starting in the ’90s, pre-Photoshop.

    First, any photographer worth their salt, and they’d have to be to get this account, would have given the art director plenty and plenty of options for copy: left, right, top, and bottom. Landscape and portrait set ups, a few with room at the top for the title of a magazine. This all might well have been in the brief from the art director. There’s every chance this photo would be used for different purposes in different markets and different types of publications. Hundreds and hundreds of frames to get a handful of “hero shots.”

    That wouldn’t have been hard in this case, though, because this car is standing still. The driver looks sporty, but the wheels aren’t moving, and there’s no hint of exhaust. I like the way the car is off center and looks like it’s driving off the page, leaving everything behind it. It’s also driving to the left, opposite to how we read, which adds a little more tension.

    I think it most likely the color was just hand tinted – the car might have been beige to start with. There’s a chance the blur on the right and top center are leaves very close in the foreground, but I’m not sure. This is a jpg of a scan of an offset print of a copy of a chrome (it would have been shot on slide film, not negative) so I can’t tell what’s blur or just artifact at this point.

    I was also a photo director at a small newspaper for a while. As mentioned, the page would have been layed out and “pasted up,” probably using hot wax we had to keep melted for use. Once the page was made up, it would have been shot with a giant machine called a “stat camera” used to make the printing plates. There’s even a bit of a chance that the picture of the car was cut out and placed on top of a background image. Again, not a good piece to work off of here.

    Photoshop? When it came out I paid $1,000 for ONE extra Gb of RAM to run it, probably on a 25 mHz processor, can’t remember. I was HOT stuff for the day. You kids with your PS 11s and such wouldn’t know the struggle.

    I have 400 rolls of slide film in my freezer: anyone need some?

    1. I worked as a commercial photographer at the tail-end of the analogue era and I scrolled down to make a similar, but not nearly as well articulated, reply. This guy is right, the photographer would have approached this shoot very intentionally. The designer likely had a few images with plenty of headroom or negative spaces to pick from. Diffused foreground foliage was a handy way to accomplish that, but it’s also possible that the right hand side of the image was juiced a bit during printing or afterwards.

      1. I think it really might be a cut and paste job, but at this point it’s just too hard to say. The car might have that extra “luminosity”/brightness because it was out on the road in better light and the house was under trees in shade. And, yeah, art directors/photographers or other account executives would very often be at the printer when a page was “on press” to work with the printer to work the image and make it come out as desired. One printer I used to work with had their own apartments for visiting folks.

        People are awesome with Photoshop, but a whole bunch of professionals used to be able to do really amazing stuff with just hardcopies.

  13. After a 30 year military career, I decided to return to college to complete a degree in English, Technical Writing with a minor in Graphic Design. This was in 1999-2000. The English part was no problem and I made the dean’s list both years.

    Graphic Design was a whole other situation. The college had been teaching this course for a number of years and had a very comprehensive program in place . . . for 1970-80. They were teaching a dying art. Afore mentioned work-up boards, clip art, Apple computers from their very early days and a group of teachers who had a wealth of knowledge. As part of my desire to excel I spent nearly a thousand bucks on a Canon digital camera. It was the cat’s meow. The instructors, to the last person, swore that there was no way digital cameras would replace 35mm film. Finally, I got the most senior of the teachers to actually look at the results. He was blown away!

    Well, the graphic design degree was not worth much but working as a tech writer netted me some serious money for a couple of years before the VA and SS decided that I was seriously disabled and started sending checks. A short time later, I pulled the plug and retired completely.

    Ah, what might have been.

  14. Got my start as an art director in the mid ’70s. My guess is that the car was shot separately in a very controlled environment in order to get all the shading, highlight, contours and reflection just right. There’s a good chance the driver was also a separate shot in order to get her brightly lit without burning out the hood, windshield and roof. Then masks were cut to composite it into the background shot when a print was made (probably dye-transfer print). Then a retouch artist (a dedicated craft back then) painted and airbrushed the seams and added the large blurry foreground “leaves” after the art director had determined the cropping and type placement.

    1. Yeah, the car lighting looks about identical to the couple of studio automotive shoots I’ve assisted on, which were all done on giant white cyclorama stages using plentiful overhead lighting aimed through large ceiling-hung diffusion panels.

      You could probably light the driver selectively to balance them with the car exterior — from what I’ve read, small press-style strobe heads taped to the dash or door panels were very popular at least in location car photography back then — but on top of compounding the setup difficulty by adding more lights, I’d imagine compositing the driver in would have given the art director options if the ad needed to be changed to appeal to a different demographic.

  15. I had a 1976 Firebird in that colour in the early 2000’s. I believe it was called Metalime green? White vinyl seats with green dash and carpets. The engine was the “Econoflame” 6 cyl with the intake cast into the head. That was the first car that blew a tire out while I was driving…sweet memories…

  16. Graphic artist here that’s been on both sides-old school film separations and digital. Still back in the days retouching and corrections still could have been done on film just not nearly as easily as in photoshop-that’s was definitely a craft. Oh setting traps would apply here as well in layout to compensate for register issues on press.

  17. I have been working as a graphic designer for over 20 years and am now an art director. Back when I was first getting started at a small community college in the early 90’s it was right at the very tail end of the era of photo-based, paste-up graphic design and the start of digital. The computer lab that was at the school also offered graphic design classes. They had a new class called ” Computer art” and used a combination of Mac classic BW and a few color Macs as well. Very limited as far as what you could do with them. They were still teaching the old methods and it was pretty fascinating. It reminded me almost of scrap booking. HUGE table in the middle where you could use exacto knives to cut out shapes, apply transparencies, layer it all up and shoot it with a large format camera.

    Amazing in hindsite that what would take sometimes days to layout can be done in minutes now.

      1. The original split-nose was the best looking second-gen version of either the Firebird or the Camaro, agreed – a 1970-73 Firebird is my grail car. It was followed by the dumbest looking front end of the second-gen ever had from 1974-76, then followed by the other best-looking Firebird front end in 1977-78: the one driven by the guy in my profile pic.

    1. James Garner had taste. Unlike that phony McQueen.

      This design is a beautiful shape. Each “improvement” must have been a dagger to the heart of the original designer. I would like to find a clean 8 cylinder 1970 Firebird that looks just like Rockford’s.

            1. Coincidentally, I happened to catch both a partial episode of The Rockford Files and an episode of Roadkill in which the boys attempted J-turns in a 28’ Chrysler Newport Airport Car*. The first try I would call a qualified success; the second was closer to ‘well, I see what you wanted to do’ (but still better than my first go at imitating JG)

              *NOT a limo: it has 8 doors & 4 rows of seating.

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