© Annie Atkins
Films feed our imaginations. And it takes imagination, craftsmanship, precision, revision, and practical knowledge to create a detailed fictional world. Everything you see in a film, in a good film at least, is there for a reason. Those hundreds of names you see in the closing credits are there for a reason, and I always stay until the end credits have rolled. Because each of their contributions and talent are what have made the film.
Film graphic design requires intensive research, specialized hand-work and hard work, dedication, an obsessive flare for detail and enough grace to accept that you will most likely remain one of the unsung heroes in a film. There is a whole world dreamt up in a movie, and that world is made up of hundreds of objects in the background that are meant to quietly assist, not distract from the story being told, that add depth, authenticity and a lived-in quality to the environment on screen, especially for the actors who have to convincingly inhabit that world. Newspapers, magazines, books, posters, company logos, signs, postcards, maps, clothing labels, wallpapers, shop and street signage, merchandise packaging are all examples of objects the actors come in contact with or make up their world and which are the responsibility of the graphic designer. And although much of a graphic designer’s work must blend into the setting, there are also moments when the design needs to be the center of attention. And a talented graphic designer knows the importance of those moments.
In few films is that aspect more relevant than in Wes Anderson’s films, and The Grand Budapest Hotel may very well be the Wes Anderson film that takes the cake in that department. The graphic artist behind it is Annie Atkins, one of Wes Anderson’s amazing team of hand-picked production designers who have brought their contribution to the unique visual universe of the filmmaker and whose influence runs so deep with film lovers and artists alike. Annie started her film design with the tv series The Tudors, has worked on Penny Dreadful, The Boxtrolls, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, continued to collaborate with Wes Anderson on Isle of Dogs, and most recently on Joker. In our interview, Annie talks about her creative process, about what it is like to work with Wes and about the biggest misconception on Hollywood.
© Annie Atkins
Annie, you’ve recently designed graphics for Joker. Is it a bad thing I didn’t notice them in the film?
These things are really meant to be invisible… we don’t want to make anything that distracts from the storyline, so, no, it’s not a bad thing! I really only played a very small part in this movie, I dressed two sets with graphics, the social worker’s office and the signage for a Papaya King on a street scene. The social workers office was absolutely full of paperwork: medical records, noticeboards, box files, and it all had to be dressed with completely legible and relevant material. Sometimes these things aren’t made directly for the cinema audience: sometimes they’re really for the cast.
What was the biggest challenge in working on a film whose main character’s story has already been told in different ways?
I don’t really think about other iterations of stories when I’m designing props. I only think about the story at hand. The filmmakers stipulated that this shouldn’t be seen as a Gotham City that we might be familiar with from other DC movies, they really wanted it to be New York in 1981, so I took my reference from real paperwork from that period. I always start each job with real research material, even if it’s for fictitious lands.
Hardly any of your work is visible on screen in a very obvious way, or at least that’s how it is meant to be, but it plays a huge role in helping the actors get into a time and place, into a certain world and atmosphere. Yet, Wes Anderson has created such a unique universe in his movies and he is well known for his painstaking attention to details, therefore every little thing and letter in his movies are an integral part of the storytelling, the props are often filmed in close-up, are meant to be noticed (or at least his influence runs so deep that the viewers have started to look for them more avidly than in any other films), are having their own screen time, are characters in their own right. As was the case with the pink Mendl’s box for The Grand Budapest Hotel. How would you describe your experience working with Wes?
Wes Anderson is an auteur director with his own very distinctive visual style, so working for him is a little different to working on, say, a historical costume drama. But we still start every piece with a real reference from history. It’s just that we then develop that piece to fit into the world that Wes is creating. One of the great joys in working for him is that these things often get a close-up, and they’re often fun, distinctive pieces. I feel like most of the work I create belongs in the blurry background, but with Wes you know at least a handful of the props you make for him will get some screen-time.
From designing and lettering packaging and newspapers (because Wes Anderson writes every story that appears in every single newspaper in his films), to hand-drawing maps and hand-lettered signage, these are all part of your film work. What less obvious props does film graphic design involve? And what is your creative process like, where do you start your research, do you have any unexpected sources of inspiration, how do you attain the authenticity so important in a Wes Anderson production?
The graphic design team basically makes anything with lettering on it, anything with pattern on it, anything with a picture on it, and anything that’s made out of paper. It could be piles of paperwork on someone’s desk or a prison escape map, or a tiny handwritten note. The first step in my research process is usually the internet, but we also go to museums, libraries, flea markets… raiding your grandmother’s attic usually turns up some good finds. The pieces of research material I need aren’t generally particularly beautiful pieces, it might just be an old menu from 1960 or a bus ticket. We then study those pieces to try to really imitate the printing and type setting styles of the time.
I have to bring up your poster for the film as well. Pure graphic beauty, no people in it. Five years have past since the film’s release and I still love it, want to frame it and put it on my wall. And that’s what I believe a good poster does, that it will have a life past the release date, and will always linger as a reminder of the film it represents. What makes a good movie poster in your opinion?
That poster was all Wes, I was purely a technician there! I don’t think I would have thought to make a poster for a film like that without people in it, but it worked beautifully. I’m very proud to have been able to help him execute his ideas on that one.
© Annie Atkins
You have also worked on Steven Spielberg’s Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies. What do you prefer, period or contemporary movies, and why?
I love period movies. I love designing for the mid-century. It’s so fascinating to design for a time before computers. I haven’t really done much contemporary work at all.
How much handicraft and how much digital work does your job involve?
Half and half I think, I’m constantly switching back and forth between my computer and my drawing desk.
You are a maker, your work is about craftsmanship, it’s niche handiwork and you said it is fascinating to design for period films, a time before computers. Has your work become even more challenging with the rise of CGI?
I often create pieces for the VFX team to drop in to scenes. Say, for example, a city street scene shot from a crane or a drone, we might make billboard posters for signs high up above the rooftops. My working process is the same, it’s just that I get to deliver a digital file rather than have to employ a printer for these things.
What led you to film graphic design and what sparked your passion for cinema in the first place?
I loved Spielberg movies when I was a kid, Jaws, ET, Indiana Jones, all those family adventure films. It’s a real treat getting to work on pieces for him now. I studied a masters in film production, but I’d already been a graphic designer for several years, so it was a natural progression for me.
If you could choose one classic or contemporary film to design the graphic props for, which one would it be?
I saw the Melissa McCarthy film Can You Ever Forgive Me and thought that looked like a fun one to design for – it’s all about a woman forging letters from famous authors and selling them to dealers. She has all kinds of different typewriters, she bakes paper in the oven to age it: it’s basically a masterclass in our craft! Much respect to the graphic designer on that film, it looks fantastic.
I know your entire body of work for a film plays a subtle but crucial part in setting the scene and atmosphere for the story, but can you think of a specific moment in your film career when your props helped an actor get into character?
We actually very rarely hear back from the actors! I once heard from Timothy Dalton that he liked a notebook I’d made for him. Did it help his performance? I don’t know, I’d be immodest to say yes!
© Annie Atkins
Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps: Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking,
by Annie Atkins, is available for pre-order and will be out in February 2020.
Website: annieatkins.com | Instagram: @annieatkins