Graphic Design in Film: The Substance of Visual Storytelling

Graphic Design in Film: The Substance of Visual Storytelling

Editor’s note: It’s that time of the year again where office pools are circulated and friends attend food-filled parties to scream at the television (or computer, as the case may be), revel at the cool commercials, and wait for an extended period of time for the end results of one of the most watched television programs all year. I’m of course talking about The Oscars.

In addition to the in-depth, practical and tactical feature articles we bring you every Monday, starting this month we’re also going to publish an occasional additional article to educate and inspire the creative in you. With the pending Academy Awards on February 24, we thought this month would be a good opportunity to explore other aspects of the filmmaking process beyond post-production (our usual article du jour).

Up first is a look at one of the most important aspects of any film production: graphic and set design. Enjoy!

Graphic Design IRL and in Film

Film and television are visual mediums, which at the most basic level means that almost everything that happens in front of the camera (unless it’s removed in post) is meant to be seen. The director, cinematographer, and editor unite to play the role of the Wizard, putting on a show and distracting the audience from all of the pieces behind the curtain that keep Oz afloat.

While you’re reading a character’s facial expression, the time on a clock, or noticing a possible threat looming in the background, there can be dozens if not hundreds of other objects in the frame that are meant to complement, not detract from the main subject—tangible, presumably non-sentient objects that add dimension and a lived-in quality to human environments on screen.

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Everything you see here had to be designed and/or created for the scene. Screenshot from “The Post” ©  20th Century Fox.

Look around yourself right now. Odds are that in your immediate vicinity there are everyday objects that you only notice when you need them, when they are explicitly singled out, or when you’re bored and your eyes begin to wander. Leafed-through newspapers, stacks of magazines, shelf-worn books, posters, letters, fabrics, signs, postcards, clothing and box labels, wallpaper, and candy wrappers are all examples of objects that exist in our world whether we actively acknowledge them or not.

On screen, as it is IRL (in real life), someone (or several someones) is responsible for designing and producing those physical objects. Those people are often credited on IMDb as graphic designers.

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Screenshot from “Bridge of Spies” © Disney & 20th Century Fox

To be honest, the job of a graphic designer for television or film is a thankless one. It’s great for producers and directors to have graphic designers around because sourcing and using real products from actual brands would be a logistical nightmare (not to mention expensive), but if a designer is doing his/her job well, the average viewer won’t be able to tell that a job was done at all, or that it was done several times over. But there are exceptions.

We spoke to a couple of professionals who have worked in television and film to learn more about the career.

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Enter the auteurs

Google “Wes Anderson + graphic designer” and you’ll find the work of Annie Atkins. Actually if you just Google “graphic designer for film” you’ll see Atkins’ name and links to interviews, profiles, and features about the work on shows and films including Isle of Dogs, Bridge of Spies, The Boxtrolls, Penny Dreadful, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Atkins got her start out of college working on the third season of The Tudors and has since built a career out of designing and often hand-making objects for productions so that they are as accurate to the time period as possible. Aktins’ work with Anderson is her best known, largely because of the nature of Anderson’s films.

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Screenshot from “The Grand Budapest Hotel” © 2014 – Fox Searchlight Pictures

While handmade scrolls and newspapers go largely unnoticed in a show like The Tudors or Penny Dreadful, they take center stage in a Wes Anderson movie where every frame is a perfectly symmetrical painting and the camera often zooms in and lingers on objects of importance. That sort of attention welcomes scrutiny, which we will talk about more later, but it’s a good place to jump into our interviews with other designers who, like Atkins, have gotten their hands dirty on the big and small screen and have useful insights into how it all works.

Let’s meet the crew

We connected with two accomplished graphic designers for this article.

Robert Bernard has worked in the art departments for a number of popular television shows including NCIS, Ugly Betty, The Office, Castle, The Newsroom, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Veep, and several seasons of American Horror Story.

Martin T. Charles of SagaBoy Productions also has credits for episodes of The Newsroom and other television shows, but a long scroll through his IMDb page reveals dozens and dozens of film credits from the ‘90s until today, with D2: The Mighty Ducks, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, The Artist, The Avengers, 42, and A Wrinkle in Time, to name a few.

To accommodate their busy schedules and to get two different perspectives, we gave both graphic designers the same prompts. Here’s what each had to say about their experiences, things they’ve learned along the way and tips for budding graphic designers, and what they think about the current state and future of graphic design for film/TV.

The Process

Walk us through the process a bit: what’s the first step after landing the job? Are you given a script? Do you get to meet with the director/writers?

RB: “The first thing to know is that every project is different and will have different needs. Features and episodic are also very different animals, in terms of prep time and managing the workflow during filming. Typically the graphic designer is one of the final members to come onto the art department. The Production Designer, Art Directors and Set Designers have already been very busy getting construction going, and it’s up to us to come in and work on the specific art unique to this new world. Getting familiar with the script and the needs of the project are the main focus early on, and meetings with the director/writers is not common during prep. Those meetings happen with the department heads, while the rest of the crew is busy doing what they do best, trying to make those words on a page into something an audience will enjoy.”

MC: “Landing your next job is quite exhilarating! If it’s a new production designer, before I interview or when I get the call, the very first thing I do is research him or her and the director. That sets the time for the approach of the project. Once the deal is made, it’s time to dig in after the NDA is signed. I would read the script to get an overall scope of the movie, but immediately go back to take carefully detailed notes. Every word and scenario has to be interpreted and cross-checked with the production designer because he would already have an idea of the graphics. My hope is that we would be on the same path or at least close. When there are specific scripted terms or descriptions that need further clarification, we then go to the director and writers.

MCharles Retouch2 v2FINAL

Research

What percentage of the job is research and what percentage is physically designing/making the objects?

RB: Some shows are very, very research-intensive. Period pieces for example, where recreating that world is paramount. Other shows will use limited research to guide a style for a specific location or set. We have to create a convincing environment for the actors to work in, so knowing what big and little details will help the audience suspend disbelief and keep the focus where it needs to be: the story being told.

MC: As a general rule, period films are mostly research for the overall look of that era, but factious companies, props, products, etc. have to be designed to match the period. For example, ‘42’ was all about baseball, and all of the advertising at the ballpark was about recreating the actual products and companies. But when you walked down a neighborhood street, the businesses were all fictions designed to fit into the period.

What Does & Doesn’t Work On-Camera

Are there any general tips you’ve learned along the way about things that do or don’t work on-camera that have changed your process?

RB: In many parts of the job, things are simply what they are: company logo, a billboard, a newspaper, a tube of toothpaste, etc; and as the graphic artist, it is important to know when your designs will need to be the center of attention or need to blend into the background so as not to distract from something else going on. It’s a learning process for learning which materials work based on where filming will happen, for installation at a location, on set, or if the work will be going straight to a playback company or post-production. A simple rule is that bright whites and glossy surfaces make the job of the DP much harder, so it makes everything easier to avoid those unless specifically needed.

MC: One of the first simple rules you learn is if you want white on camera, your graphics have to be off-white or it will create hot spots on film. You learn as you go, and after 80 plus films, I’m still learning on how to make my graphics read better on film. You have split seconds, if that, to communicate your ideas, so the graphics have to be absolutely clear. You can’t expect the audience to figure out your thoughts. What works in life almost gets lost on film unless it’s part of the story.

The Future of Graphic Design

Where do you see the future of graphic design for film/TV? Are there enough filmmakers who still want that authenticity, or has it all gone to post?

RB: There will always be a place for artists in film and TV, and where our work makes its way into the film, either on set or in post, is not as important as the finished project. Those hundreds of names you see in the closing credits are there for a reason—each has a unique skill and expertise. Without each of their contributions and talent, the film would be lesser for it.

MC: As long as there are physical sets, there’s going to be the need for graphic design. “Charlie Wilson’s War” is a perfect example. How could you have Tom Hanks standing on the Capitol lobby floor without the physical tile floor and the ceiling and wall graphics? His and the director’s reaction to the set was priceless and most rewarding.

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Screenshot from “Charlie Wilson’s War” © 2007 – Universal Pictures (we briefly contemplated titling this article “Graphic Design in Tom Hanks movies.)

Related: The Most Iconic Title Sequences of All Time and Why They Work

When graphic design goes wrong

Like Martin T. Charles alluded to in his final thoughts, graphic designers do sometimes get it wrong, and it does show. One of Annie Atkins’ classic stories, which she shared during a lecture at the 2017 AIGI Design Conference, is from the production of The Grand Budapest Hotel and involves a missing letter on one of the film’s most iconic props.

grand budapest hotel 02
Screenshot from “The Grand Budapest Hotel” © 2014 – Fox Searchlight Pictures
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Atkins says that half-way through production, Wes Anderson contacted her department to let them know that there was a spelling mistake in the word “patisserie” that appears on the pink and blue Mendl’s boxes, which play a major role in the film. Because each of the boxes (of which there were around 2000) had been painted by hand and had already been used in filming, there was no way to start over or to physically fix the mistake. “It was something that had to be fixed in post-production,” Atkins says, “which is a lengthy process when you’re fixing 25 frames per second, and it’s quite costly.”

That example is not meant to diminish the hard work that Atkins and the rest of the art department did on that film, nor is it meant to show that post-production is a more efficient method for achieving the same result. Filmmaking is a collaborative process, and while technology is at a place where it could and often does replace the work of skilled craftspeople, something is lost when entire worlds are created using computer graphics.

Robert Bernard, Martin T. Charles, and Annie Atkins have each spoken about the importance of their work for the actors, who deliver their most compelling and believable performances when they have real props to look at, hold, and interact with. Graphic designers for film and television are not the most lauded names in the credit scroll, but they are among the most important.

What have been some of your favorite elements of graphic or set design in a film? Who do you think will take this year’s Oscar? Share in the comments.

Call for entries: would you like to be a contributing writer for one of our Thursday bonus articles? Perhaps you have a favorite NLE tip you want to share. Or maybe you have a great tutorial video on some aspect of filmmaking. Is there a topic germane to the industry you’d like to write an op-ed about? Fill out this form and let us know.

Thank you to Andrew LaSane for contributing this article.

Andrew LaSane is a freelance writer from South Carolina currently based in Brooklyn. He has written for Mental Floss, Complex Magazine, and Thrillist. He has a Bachelor's in American Studies from Skidmore College, and a Masters in Media, Culture, and Communications from NYU. Andrew is a member of a weekly movie trivia team and spends his free time customizing sneakers with pop culture themes. Follow him on Twitter at @laptop_lasane.

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