The Woman in the Helicopter

There’s a hidden image in this legendary show poster. Have you seen it?

Miss-Saigon-Programme-1Overture

One of my favorite things to look for in graphic design are the subtle details, the things that you may not notice at first glance but, once seen, strike you and leave a lasting impression. The FedEx logo is a great example of this. One minute it’s just words, and then suddenly there’s an arrow on the truck pointing forward as it speeds down the road to deliver packages. When I see this in entertainment design, I soar. It’s almost as if it’s a joke only you and the artist are in on – and that is fun.

Perhaps you’ve already seen the easter egg I mentioned and for that I congratulate you and share a brief “design high” with you. I look forward to sharing more of them with you. If you haven’t found her yet, look to the right of the helicopter just where the tail should be. You’ll see a brow, an eye, and below that a nose and mouth. Isn’t that something?

Much like the people of Saigon in this legendary tale following the climax and aftermath of the Vietnam War, the poster art for the musical giant, Miss Saigon stays true to the concept of the invisible victim.

The BreakdownMiss-Saigon

Title: Miss Saigon
Category: Musical

Year: 1989
Artist: Russ Eglin
Medium: Ink, Paint, and Digital Type
Firm: Dewynters, Limited
Fonts Used (Best Match): Thames Serial by Soft MakerScreen Shot 2018-08-10 at 3.23.22 PM

A yellow sun, centered on a burnished dark red base, seems to be rising from the red. A hieroglyphic reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy sits on top. The brush strokes come in various sizes and widths to make up a graphic that resembles a helicopter. The face of a Vietnamese woman can be seen in subtle detail at the tail of the Helicopter. The title lays centered at the bottom of the page in yellow serif type with a black box and yellow stroke around the border. A large white dot serves as the tittle of the “I” in “Miss”. There is no title in the “I” of “Saigon”.

Putting it Together

In June of 1989, as composers Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil were embarking on their follow up to the world-changing phenomenon Les Misérables, a local West End design firm was also planning its follow up the show’s signature poster. Dewynters Limited had already proven itself as edgy and boundary-pushing as the British musicals they had been designing for almost a decade prior. The studio is responsible for some of the most well know imagery in poster design. The glowing yellow eyes in Cats, for example, the lonely Venetian mask for The Phantom of the Opera, and, of course, the tricolor superimposed onto the young waif of “Les Miz”. Dewynters was known for its ability to visualize the very essence of a story in simplistic iconography. It was time to make a lightning strike once more.

The ideas came quickly to designer Russ Eglin, then creative director of Dewynters and designer of the artwork for Saigon. In the documentary, “The Heat is On: The Making of Miss Saigon”, we see a multitude of different concepts that were created to represent the show. Many of them simplistic, some a bit more detailed, but many of them with a few similarities: the colors red and yellow, a lone woman, and vast negative space filled with either black or white.

Eglin presents a few ideas in the documentary “The Heat is On: The Making of Miss Saigon“.

At first, the backdrops were mostly white with scarce detail: a white base against raven black hair and red lips to represent a geisha-like young woman, one holding a fan in her arm, another wearing a large sun hat. As simplistic yet sophisticated as they were, all of them were ruled out for being too “1920’s”.

“And then the idea of the sun came in, which we kept,” claims producer Cameron Mackintosh, as he pulls out a new set of mockups. This one, bathed in orange and the silhouette imagery, begins to appear. It’s deemed to be on the nose for Madame Butterfly. Madame Butterfly is just the jumping off ground,” Mackintosh explains.  More sketches follow, so do endless drafts of different ideas, all pertaining to the same palette and key imagery. They create large renderings of women gazing at you with weary eyes and jet black hair. Another of the same idea only this time she’s blended in with a sunset. Still not right.

Then, Russ began experimenting with images of helicopters. He scribbled furiously, one after another, trying to find the right look to place onto the now baron backdrop with a yellow circle serving as the sun resulting in a silhouette of the helicopter cast from behind. The scribbles were similar to those found in traditional calligraphy, also appropriate. Bingo.

Finally, in an effort to fit in the visual of the woman, they decided to tuck her into the back of the plane. “It was the only place that you could hide it, and you wouldn’t see it. Then, once you saw it, you’d always see it,” explains Mackintosh. The idea was subtle, hidden, and altogether brilliant.

Why It Works

2000px-Flag_of_South_Vietnam.svg
The flag of Southern Vietnam, 1975

The artwork makes use of yellow and red for a few reasons. Red is a symbol of passion and also relates to pain and tension. Since this play takes place during war and peril, it’s pretty fitting. That they used a rustic shade only adds to the idea of hard times and high stakes in a foreign part of the world. The yellow is used to contrast the dark red and also add emotional punch by virtue of illustrating a sunset. Eglin chose to evoke tragedy, loneliness, and unrequited love by depicting the lone woman dissipating into the abyss behind the helicopter. Another thing to note is the same palette can also be found in the official flag of Saigon. While the shades used in the poster are no exact match, it is still a clear similarity. I also appreciate the way Eglin has enlarged the tittle of the “i” to produce a moon that lives within the title box. With this underneath the large sun, it’s a lovely call back to the song “Sun and Moon” sung between Kim and Chris early on in the show.

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 3.11.33 AM
The artwork being hung for the first time at the Theatre Royal in London, 1989

From a marketing standpoint, it’s brilliant. Rather than placing titles all over the page to state who produced, who is starring, or what other things about this show will make it stand out, all the attention and responsibility is placed upon the artwork itself–and it’s done so very simply. All that work, which according to the documentary clocked in at just over a year, resulted in three elements: The sun, the helicopter, and the title. That’s it. Dewynters is famous for this. They understand that when it comes to selling a show and developing an identity that will last, there has got to be something about the pieces that will catch your eye and stay with you. The contrast of yellow and red here is great at getting your initial attention. You’re sure to see it from across an avenue. You walk up to it and start fixating on the helicopter, trying to figure it out then bam! you see the woman and think, “wow, that is cool.” If you weren’t convinced to purchase a ticket at that moment, you were probably still thinking about what great imagery it was later that day. That’s half the battle. Marketing is more than just promoting the show; it’s also about selling the experience. When someone glances at a poster for an event, they should be able to tell exactly what kind of experience they can expect in less than a minute. A poster like Miss Saigon‘s does all of that the moment you see it across the box office.

Legacy

Over the years since its debut on the West End and journey to Broadway and beyond one thing has been clear, the look of Miss Saigon is as timeless as ever. Many, if not all, subsequent productions have chosen to incorporate the official artwork and logo into advertisements for their respective productions. In my research, I only found a handful of original concepts (shown below). Even the revival paid faithful tribute to its predecessor by using Eglin’s original design, albeit updated. This is a testament to how iconic the original image of that helicopter truly is.

Epilogue

The original design of Miss Saigon remains classic and proves to be a symbol of blockbuster theatre because it encompasses all of the main themes of the show in a simple minimalistic execution. You look at that dreamy sunset and feel the overture beginning, you see the hero image and think back to when they landed a full-sized helicopter onstage, and then you’re reminded of the haunting melodies that Kim sings seconds before her story reaches its climax. This heavy, romantic, and tragic image serves as an effective marketing tool as well as a link to some of the most well-known moments in the show. An entire experience symbolized by four colors, a circle, and some scribbles. cropped-art-of-making-art-logo-header11.png

Sources

Thank-you!2

 

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