Annie Atkins | The secret world of graphic design for filmmaking

So my name is Annie Atkins and I’m a
graphic designer for filmmaking which means that I make all the graphic design
pieces that the actors have to interact with and engage with on set. So the
graphic props and the graphic set pieces. But when I say graphic design, it doesn’t
necessarily have to be a complicated piece of graphic design. It could be
something as simple as a tiny handwritten note that you need a
magnifying glass to read and then other times it might be pieces on a larger
scale for example patterns for carpets and floor tiles or lettering for signage
in the background and then other times it is more complicated like if you have
to design an entire national press for Wes Anderson’s fictitious Empire of
Zubrowka. Basically, any time you see a character in a movie read a newspaper
somebody has to make that newspaper and I hope that by the end of the talk
today, you’ll understand why we never just use a newspaper that’s lying around.
We always design everything from scratch These are all slides from “the Grand
Budapest Hotel” and I’m going to talk about that in some detail. It makes a
great case study for graphic design in filmmaking because of the way Wes
Anderson shoots his movies, he really puts graphics at the center and at the
forefront of the film whereas most of my work, about 90% of my work, is
actually supposed to be in the blurry background, right, you’re not supposed to
see it. So I’m going to tell you a little bit about the other work the other
projects that I’ve worked on first. So my first job after I graduated from film
school was on a TV series called The Tudors which we made in Ireland, where I
live, about about 10 years ago now and I went for an interview as the assistant
in the art department but when I showed them my portfolio because I came from a
graphic design background they saw that I had portfolio full of commercial
graphic design and they said we’re actually looking for a full-time graphic
designer on the show at the moment. I thought this was quite peculiar because
why would you need a full-time graphic designer on a show that was
in a time before graphic designers existed, right? But as I did my
training, I realized quite quickly that just because there were no graphic
designers in the 15th century didn’t mean there was no graphic design it’s
just that at that time it would have been the craftspeople who were the
graphic designers right so for example if Henry the eighth wants to chop his
wife’s head off he’s going to need a death warrant and if he needs a death
warrant he’s going to need a calligrapher right because at the time
it would have been the calligraphers Jobs who design the layout of all the
royal documents and the the style of the lettering and then likewise if we’re
making any kind of set that has stained glass in it, for example, in the 15th
century, it would have been the glazier who was responsible for the design of
the glass whereas today in filmmaking it’s the
graphic designers job to try and imitate what they would have done and then we
can go back a few hundred years to Roman times if you’ve got any kind of
headstone or tombstone, at the time, it would have been the stonemason who was
responsible for the style of the lettering that they carve into the stone
and today it’s the graphic designers job in film to imitate what they would have
done and then we can jump forwards a few hundred years to a time after the
invention of the printing press. Who would have been responsible for the
graphic design of zoo information boards in the late 1800’s? It would have been the
printer who was the graphic designer. Okay, so I think like the term graphic
designer wasn’t coined until I think the 1920s but we can say that graphic design
has existed since as far back as cavemen were painting on their walls, right? So as
I began to work a more and more different TV shows and films about like
Roman emperors and kings and so on and so forth, I began said a little rule for
myself and that was that if something was made by hand at the time then I
should make it by hand now and if something was made by a machine at the
time then I can get away with making it with a machine now okay so for example
any kind of Victorian shop front signage would have been painted by hand at the
time. I draw the lettering by hand now. It’s given to the sign painters on set
and they paint up into the film set for us. but things like Street posters which would have been perhaps letterpress
printed at the time I can now cheat and use fonts and work
on it digitally on my Mac. So, this is a piece that I made for the TV show
“Penny Dreadful”, it’s a kind of gothic horror series and it was the Grand
Guignol theater so we made this big cast-iron stained-glass theater front and the
first thing I did was I started drawing the lettering by hand rather than use of
font because it would have been created by hand at the time. I think the show is
set in a scene 1894 I think, and also drawing the lesson by hand means that no
two letters are ever going to be exactly the same and you get these really lovely
organic shapes and curves. I find that if I start with the font, when it’s not
supposed to be a font, I’ll spend all day battling against it so to try to stop it
looking like a font right. It’s easier to just pick up a pencil. And then later
on I digitize it and I bring it into Photoshop and illustrator and whatever
else I need to make a proper architectural technical drawing that’s
then issued to the various metal workers and glassiers who are actually going to
make this piece for us and then when all the pieces are made they’re brought down
to the paint workshop and the painters then add all the color and the texture
because this wasn’t actually glass it was made of perspex because in
filmmaking we really have to use materials that are cheaper and lighter
and safer than perhaps the real materials that would have been used
at the time, because this was a piece that was going to be on set up above the
actors heads you know so you don’t want to chop an actor’s head off him you’ll
never work again. But of course, not all the signage that we make for film has to
be like this beautiful elaborate stained glass pieces. A lot of the signage we make
is used when we shoot on location when we’re shooting real street scenes. We
have to make a really high volume of graphic material to cover up existing
modern advertising. This is the opening sequence to Steven Spielberg’s film
“Bridge of Spies” which is it’s a Cold War spy thriller and it’s
also a true story so Spielberg wanted us in the art
department to really kind of recreate 1950s Brooklyn for him. So our primary
primary aim then in the art department is to establish the period and to
establish the location so that the cinema audience know as soon as they
start watching the film they know where they are and they know when the story
is set. But I really think that’s kind of a given that we’re going to set the
time in the place you know that’s kind of the lowest bar I think we can do
something cleverer in our design for film than that as well and that’s that
we can use the design to actually tell the story and drive the story forward so
if you see a sign in the background that says “WALK, DON’T RUN”, for example, you can
bet any second now those characters are probably going to start running. There
they go. So we can use graphic design and use of
language to to really drive a story forward and almost become a part of the
action itself you know even though it is just a subliminal part of the action. But
what if your what if the film that you’re working on isn’t a true story
what if the film that you’re working on is set and much more fantastical or even
mythological land? Well, I think the process is actually
surprisingly similar. This is an animated feature of “The Box Trolls” that I worked
on for the studio Leica. And, it’s about all these monsters who live
underneath the ground and they wear cardboard boxes as their clothes and
Leica brought me into the project to help design the packaging labels that would
go on top of the cardboard boxes. Let’s take a look at the trailer. Sometimes there’s a mother. Sometimes
there’s a father. Sometimes there’s a father and a father sometimes both
fathers are mothers. Sometimes there’s a mother, father, grandmother, grandfather,
weird aunties with funny hats, a butler, and old uncles who do nothing but eat
rare smelly cheese. Rare. Smelly. And sometimes, there’s no one at all. But sometimes,
there are boxes. Families come in all shapes and sizes
even rectangles. It’s such a lovely film. So, you can see that a story
like this is kind of much more imaginary than something like “Bridge of Spies”
which is a true story. But when I started the project, I
actually started in it– I approached it in exactly the same way that I
approached all film projects and that is to dive into research and try and steal
and borrow and take from real life. “The Box Trolls” was set in a kind of loosely
loosely Victorian world so I started researching packaging design from the
late 1800s and I found all these beautiful and medicinal packaging.
Copperplate engravings and they all seem to be cure-alls for any known ailment.
I like this nerve builder brain tonic and stimulant which seems to be made
entirely out of celery and my other favorite was Dr. Worden’s female pills
for weak women. So I took them to the production
designer and we used them as our starting point but one thing that he
stipulated was that the way he was designing the overall look of the movie
was that he wasn’t going to have any straight lines in it whatsoever. So there
were there would be no straight lines on any of the set design or architecture
there would be no straight lines on any of the characters and there would be no
straight lines than any of the graphic design, either. So for the duration of the
project not one person in the art department used a ruler. And we brought this into the lettering as well so all the
lettering you see in the movie was drawn by hand we didn’t use any fonts
whatsoever and it meant that everything kept this lovely kind of organic curvy
curvy lines which I think I think contributed to the movement and the
energy of the movie. Bearing in mind that you know this was actually all models
made essentially out of clay. I think it really contributed to the energy of things. Okay, let’s look at “The Grand Budapest Hotel” So this is the Grand Budapest Hotel
that was designed by the production designer Adam Stockhausen
with Wes Anderson, the director, and they brought me in to create all the the
graphic pieces for it and on the left is the hotel that they designed and on the
right is the real hotel in the Czech Republic that was the inspiration for
them okay so we’re always if even if the film seems to have quite a fantastical premise or a fantastical look to it we’re always borrowing from real life.
And then, this is the actual building that we worked in which is an old
department store in a little town in the east of Germany called Gerlitz
on the Polish border. And it was a really interesting building to work in actually
because on the inside it had this beautiful balcony mezzanine structure
and we shot all our hotel scenes on the ground floor and the art department sat
on the top floor. But because of the balcony structure it meant that we could
actually look down and see the action that was happening below us which was a
real treat because usually the art department on a film is in a building
next door to the set or we’re in some kind of cold warehouse somewhere or in a porter cabin in a muddy field.
So that this was quite nice. So I’m gonna take you through the process of how we start designing
graphics for film. The first thing I do on my first day at work is I sit down
with a script and I had take a highlighter pen and I go through the
whole script and I start marking out anything that sounds like it might be a
piece of graphic design okay this is just the first page of “The Grand
Budapest Hotel”. It’s the first half of the first page of the script for the
Grand Budapest, and because there’s so many highlighting marks on it, I knew
immediately that it was going to be a high volume of graphics so we hired a
local German graphic designer Liliana Lambriev who came in to work
with us and then also a couple of PA’s and together the four of us made up the
little graphics department which was part of the bigger art department for
the movie. And while I’m highlighting all the pieces of graphics in the script, I’m
also filling in what we call a scripts breakdown which is essentially a
spreadsheet of all the pieces that we’re going to have to make and this becomes
then my Bible for the show so that anytime I need to know how to make
something I can I have a quick reference guide to it so I don’t have to go
through the script again and some things are really obviously pieces of graphics
right like a menu we know that we know that if a character picks up a menu and
starts to read, menus are made by graphic designers, we’re going to make this piece.
Right? But then, other pieces I think are less obvious, for example, if a character
dries another character’s eyes with a handkerchief, we need to ask ourselves is
that handkerchief going to have a pattern on it? And if it has a pattern on it is that
something that we are going to take responsibility for in the graphics
department? Is that something that costume are going to come up with or is
it something we’re going to use from real life? With “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
because Wes has a very specific and distinct style, we really did create
everything from scratch. And then while we are making our script
breakdowns, the assistant directors are doing an even more complicated job and
that is that they’re scheduling every shot in the entire movie so they’re
deciding where we’re going to shoot things and when we’re going to shoot
things. Because we never shoot a film in story order instead they prioritize two
main things: location and actor availability. So with the location we
would shoot all our hotel scenes in one go, maybe over a couple of weeks, and then
all our prison scenes and one go over however many weeks that takes. And then
they account for active availability, as well. The one thing they don’t care about
when they write the schedule is graphic design, okay?
we’re think we’re the bottom of the food chain but because we don’t shoot in
story order, we have a problem with what we call continuity okay and I’ll explain
continuity in terms of graphic design. Say for example you have a telegram and
the telegram is ripped up and covered in blood.
Well, first of all, we never make just one telegram okay we never make just one of
any piece of graphic design because graphics by their nature tend to be
quite fragile they’re usually made out of paper okay so if somebody spills a
coffee on a graphic it’s ruined if somebody spills a coffee on a
candlestick you can wipe the candlestick clean again right but graphics tend to
get destroyed really easily so we never make anyone one of any piece, instead we
always make maybe five or six identical copies. Now these copies have to be
identical because of continuity so if you have two actors talking to each
other and they have the telegram in the hand and one actor misses a line they
put the telegram down on the table someone spills a coffee on the telegram
they pick up a different telegram that’s not identical six months down the line
the editor is splicing the shots together and they don’t match it’s going
to look like the blood is jumping around the page right so that makes sense yeah
so instead we make them identical and then continuity isn’t a problem right
but what happens if the telegram isn’t just ripped up and covered in blood but
it’s ripped up uncovered in blood in front of the camera okay which is what
we call an action-graphic, so something actually happens to
the graphic in in the action in that case we have to make as many identical
copies as they might need to do takes four okay so for example they might want
to do six, seven, maybe eight takes of any given shot to get it right then we
supply our twelve identical copies so that they have more than enough to work
with okay so nobody’s running up to the art
department looking for more telegrams because these things take time to make
but then what happens if you’re working on a Wes Anderson movie when he maybe
wants to do 20 takes of any given shot 22, 23, 24, then we make our 30 identical
copies okay so I mean does it matter like how much does continuity matter I
mean our attention is really on humans right at the cameras on people’s faces
and on the drama that’s unfolding between people people aren’t really
watching for continuity errors in graphics, are they? This is what happens.
You end up on the IMDB goofs page. “On the train Henckles gives M. Gustave a permit with
the folded corner. In the close up, the permit has no folds.” Five out of nine
people found this interesting. The thing is, they’re right, you know?
This was the permit we made and I think you can see immediately that this
wasn’t something that we just pressed go on, on a photocopier ten times or however
many it was, you know first of all we sourced this beautiful Japanese paper
that would take aging really well and then we did some some digital printing
on it and then we put it through a 1930s typewriter and then we made some rubber
stamps to do our franklin marks and then we made an envelope for it because there
was no envelope in the world that was exactly the right size and then we made
our twelve identical copies and one of them didn’t have the folded corner. “When Jopling is at the gas station, the calendar on the wall says October 1932 which shows
October 5, 12, 19, and 26 as Sundays. In 1932, those dates fell on Wednesdays.
30 out of 35 people found this interesting. Again, they’re right. When we made the
calendar we didn’t think to check the dates against the days but we didn’t
think anybody else would either. One last one, “Every newspaper that features a date
has the wrong day of the week.” 21 out of 29 people found that interesting. Again, they’re right.
You know, I’m not I’m not really bothered by this.
I think it’s funny. I like to show it to people but I’m not really worried about it I don’t
feel like it’s really, it’s really that these people have a beef with our
work. I think it’s more that they’re having a competition with each other you
know they’re freeze-frame on the DVD but I do think it’s a good example of how
much detail we actually do go into and get right if this is what they’ve got on
us, right? Then, other mistakes actually are
embarrassing. We were about halfway halfway through the shoot when Wes
got in touch and said “I think there’s a spelling mistake on the Mend’s box.”
And I said, “I don’t think so because like I take great pride in my
spelling and grammar. I’m quite careful with it.” And he said, “No. I think that
there seems to be two T’s in patisserie” and I looked at it and he was
right. There was a spelling mistake on the Mendl’s box and because all the
lettering had been drawn by hand, it had never been through a spellcheck and my
mistake was that I didn’t double-check that so this this really was
embarrassing because at this point we’d shot quite a lot of Mendel’s boxes. I think two thousand of them so it was
something that had to be fixed in post-production which is a kind of a lengthy
process when you’re fixing 25 frames per second and it’s quite costly and then of
course after the movie, the box, you know it almost became a symbol for a movie.
It was a kind of a hero prop, and it took on a life of its own. So I
started seeing people selling fakes on eBay but I always know if they’re the
real thing on not because if it’s got the spelling mistake in it then I was
actually in movie right so if you see a box for say over two T’s in patisserie
you should buy it. And then sometimes people ask me about the kerning the
strange kerning and the sign above the hotel can you see this this it seems
like there’s a little bit too much space between the a in the N in ground and
also maybe between the D in the EA in Budapest you can see that, yeah? Again
this lettering was hand lettered and the hotel that we built was a scale model so
it was only ever about nine foot high it was just against that green screen and
then later on it was superimposed onto that beautiful Alpine background that
you see in the film. So I drew the lettering by hand and I sent the drawing
to Wes and he approved it and then I sent the drawing to the model
makers who cut it out of mild steel and of course what the model makers did,
because there are also designers, is they corrected the funny kerning, right? And that photograph was then sent back to Wes and he said, “No it should be back
the way I approved it in the drawing.” Like that. But why?
Why would you want to put a mistake like that in your movie? Well
because we’re always taking from real life, right? So this is the sign that
we used as the inspiration which is on a real brand old hotel in in Cairo in
Egypt I think and it’s clear what’s happened here right at some point in
history that E has fallen off the has fallen off the roof from someone else
has climbed back up a ladder and put it back up again right so what we’re trying
to do in film is take and steal and borrow from the real world around us
that has been built by incredible craftspeople over decades and decades
and then we can get a step closer to creating something that feels like it
might be authentic right. You know a graphics department is just a really
it’s a small part of a much larger art department and the art department in
turn is another cog in the wheel of a much larger filmmaking process but I do
think that if you concentrate on the little details that are your
responsibility then you can contribute to something that is a much bigger picture. Thank you very much. That was delightful. So I want to know if when you make something that says “WALK DON’T RUN” in the
background, do you get satisfaction from me noticing that or do you get
satisfaction for me not noticing that and maybe feeling it? Well I don’t think you’re supposed to notice it yeah like I think you know most of my work shouldn’t
really be seen. I think Grand Budapest is a bit of an
exception because the way Wes uses graphics in his filmmaking. But most
of the films I work on you shouldn’t really notice the graphics at all.
You should be concentrating on the characters but subconsciously. Yeah, is there an IMDB page of things clever things that you put into things? Fucking Internet. Yeah. That would be good. I might start one myself. That’d be nice. So tell me about the research you do, Do you enjoy the research phase of this? Yeah, research is a huge part of it. I usually start work on a film about six
to eight weeks before the camera starts rolling and I use most of that time to
research the period because it usually the period is completely new to me. You
know, I’ve made if you’ve worked on a few films that have been all set in like
Victorian times for example but usually the period is completely new and I need
to do an awful lot of research, yeah. And, what’s the nature of that kind of
research? I try not to look too much at Google, it can be quite misleading.
Nothing on the internet is labeled correctly. Fucking Internet. So if you have to make a telegram you know I don’t know what size the telegram is by
looking at a picture of it on the screen you know I really need to hold it in my
hands to understand the scale of it and also the texture of the paper so a lot
of the time I’m going to flea markets or libraries or book shops or museums or
like even even just like looking rifling through your grandmother’s attic you’ll
find treasure there. Wow. So you have to actually hold it to know
you’re gonna make it. And so you do all this research but is there occasionally
this situation where kind of like the the squiggly line drawings in “Box Trolls”
where the reality of the object doesn’t serve the story you want to tell and so
you have to actually do something that’s different than reality or hyper-real in
some way? Yeah, absolutely. I mean I’m always championing like looking at real
pieces and being authentic to reality. But actually of course what we
do is we start with a real piece and then it’s developed by the director and
the production designer to suit suit the story at hand. What are some examples of that type of– something that like that always
has to change because this never matches reality in a certain way that we expect I would say newspaper design is something that comes up time and time
again every, every movie you watch has got a newspaper in it yeah are you
are you gonna spend millions of dollars shooting a war or are you gonna have
somebody reading a newspaper that says there’s a war on? It’s cheaper! But actually broadsheet newspaper design at the start of the
last century didn’t have headlines it was all the front page at the Times in
England for example was all small adverts, right? So I mean I take that
information to the director and the production designer and say this is
really what it was like and then it’s their call whether they stick with
historical accuracy or they say we need a newspaper headline make that headline
bigger Right, and so … I’m sorry to bring up the tragedy of the Mendl’s box but how
much of what you can do can be fixed in post, has that changed over your career,
and do you ever have it in mind when you’re, as yourself, when you’re making
something that you know that you could possibly do it? I should say no we never
want to fix anything post we’re always trying to get it right for the camera
but I think there is a point in any production where you can see the whole
kind of props team start groaning “Oh, just fix it in post.” but I mean my career in film has
only really been in the last 10 years so we’ve always been able to fix things in
post but, no. We should avoid it whenever possible. Wherever possible. Okay, how did you get into this? how did you start making the bridge in
this world between graphic design and filmmaking? You know I didn’t I didn’t know this was
a career I mean I all my life I’ve been into design and graphic design. I studied
graphic design and all my life obviously I’ve been watching movies but I never
put two and two together early until I went to do my master’s degree in
filmmaking. So my original degree was in visual communication design. Then I did a
master’s in filmmaking. And all of a sudden this whole new world of design
was opened up to me and the production designer from the Tudors actually came
into our school to do a module with us and that’s that’s how I got my start. Yeah, and now you teach this to other people? Yes. So now I run workshops from my own
studio in Dublin trying to trying to teach commercial graphic designers and
design graduates how to translate their existing skills into filmmaking. So they don’t have to go to film school like you did? Yeah I mean even even in film school
like they they don’t they don’t really teach graphic design for filmmaking. It’s
such a tiny tiny part of the filmmaking machine. It’s really a niche area but I
think you know I don’t think don’t be afraid of being niche you know yeah
don’t be afraid to specialize. That’s great. Thank you so much. Annie Atkins everybody.

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