Annie Atkins has what many designers would consider a dream job – she creates graphics and typography for film. This not only includes movie posters, but any props and set pieces required for a period film such as signage, letters and invitations, and currency. Her work has included prison escape maps and telegrams to help create Wes Anderson’s fictional State of Zubrowka in his stunningly visualized film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, as well as neon shop-front signs and fake passports for Spielberg’s Cold War spy thriller, Bridge of Spies.
With degrees in Visual Communication and Film Production, this Dublin-based designer cut her teeth in filmmaking when she joined the crew of the Emmy-winning series The Tudors. She loved working on a historical drama and began to specialize in the reproduction of antique graphic design for the screen, creating stained glass, scrolls, telegrams, vintage cigarette packaging, book covers, signage, and calligraphic documents for all kinds of period filmmaking.
Typography and lettering play a huge part in the creation of many of these props. Historic replication requires a lot of research to emulate the look of the type – and overall design – of another era. Get it wrong, and not only with the film suffer, but any inaccuracies will be called out by type-loving graphic designers everywhere! This video shows Annie’s inspiration and process, in her own words.
Believe it or not, Atkins has never set foot in Hollywood. Once she takes on a job, she often works on location to get the feel and the mood of a film. She says about being part of the hidden world of graphic design for film, “The thing is, it doesn’t really matter if you’re on a small TV show or a cinema blockbuster, learning how to make this stuff is what’s important. My most fun job was on a show called Camelot which you will have no recollection of whatsoever, but I got to make some rather convincing ancient tombstones by carving Roman lettering in to soft, wet plaster… Graphic props have to work in the actors hands, take after take, and sometimes in heavy rain or snow, or being splattered in fake blood, but at the end of the day it’s about the visual – how is this going to look on camera? It makes it a particularly fun branch of graphic design to work in.”
Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel, the 2014 comedy written and directed by Wes Anderson, won nine Academy awards, including one for best production design. A big part of the impact and beauty of this film was in the beautiful and authentic-looking props. Atkins was the lead graphic designer for this film, which consisted of designing and creating all graphic props that helped to create the imaginary world of Zubrowka. They could be as obvious as flags, newspapers, currency and signage, or more subtle things such as the pattern on the carpet.
The process and logistics of creating props is challenging, at best. Research for each and every piece can be tedious, often calling for looking at hundreds of pieces from a particular time and place. Once the design is conceptualized, they are meticulously handcrafted. Annie says, “Graphics by their very nature are fragile, so we make six of everything. If something happens you can use another one but you have to make sure it’s identical. And if you’re working for Wes Anderson you have to make 30 or 40 of everything, as he might do that many takes.” This can be extremely tedious, as many props are made by hand.
What was it like working with Wes Anderson? Annie says, “Wes Anderson is the most experimental and hands-on director I’ve ever worked with, and I worked closely with him and his production designer Adam Stockhausen every day. The whole job was an incredible rollercoaster from the moment I got the first call from the producers, to the winter I spent with the cast and crew in the fictional Empire of Zubrowka, to the day I sat down in the cinema to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel for the first time. I doubt I’ll work on a more beloved film that pays so much attention to graphic design again in my lifetime, so not a day goes by when I don’t thank my lucky stars (and Wes and Adam!) for that opportunity.”
Atkins occasionally works with interns, but only if they have completed one of her workshops, which she gives at her studio in Dublin. The workshops are aimed at teaching commercial graphic designers and graduates how to translate their skills to filmmaking. She says, “I try to teach as many tricks of the trade as possible in exchange for an awful lot of cutting, sticking, and folding of old cigarette packaging and fake airmail etc.”
Want to get into movie prop design? Annie’s advice: “You have to know your onions if you want to work in a [filmmaking] art department, and you really need to understand the principles of layout design and typesetting to make convincingly authentic graphic props. Yes, even if they’re for stories set in the Middle Ages.”Tags