Designing for The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game, the movie which tells the story of how Alan Turing and his team cracked the Enigma Code during the Second World War, was a huge success last year. As well as being a gripping tale, the film was beautifully styled and rich in period details. We talk to graphic designers Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima about their work on the film, and how they contributed to getting its look just right…

The Imitation Game, the movie which tells the story of how Alan Turing and his team cracked the Enigma Code during the Second World War, was a huge success last year. As well as being a gripping tale, the film was beautifully styled and rich in period details. We talk to graphic designers Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima about their work on the film, and how they contributed to getting its look just right…

Design studio MinaLima specialises in the creation of props and documents for movies, an area of graphic design that is expanding (last year we also interviewed Annie Atkins, lead graphic designer on Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel about her work). You will most likely have seen the pair’s work in the Harry Potter films, for which they created a vast array of items including copies of the Daily Prophet, posters, packaging, and the books of magic featured in the films. They are particularly interested in working on projects that require detailed research so when The Imitation Game’s production designer Maria Djurkovic, who they’d worked with previously, requested they join the project, they leapt at the chance.

“It was slated as quite a small production,” says Mina, “but the story and content were so interesting that we really wanted to get involved. Our bent is very much doing either period films or fantasy films, ones that involve research, so it just seemed like the right thing to be involved in.”


Shown top: Turing’s notes and schematic drawings in his house; Above: The crossword used by Turing to recuit cryptographers to Bletchley Park; The book given to Alan Turing by Christopher Morcom at Sherborne School; Cigarette boxes and train tickets for background dressing; notebooks


The duo were required to create all the printed ephemera for the film, which included piles of papers containing code-breaking notes, and also Alan Turing’s drawings, which feature in the post-war scenes. “The typical process is it’s up to us to go through the script, work out what’s needed for the story, and then all the peripheral stuff that isn’t scripted that you think would be necessary for each scene or each character,” explains Mina.

“Maria’s very hands-on when it comes to graphics, so, for example, when we were putting together the big map that was on the wall, she was there setting it up…. In terms of any real hero props, things that are going to be in the actors’ hands or help the story, [these] are often shown to the director. They will need to see and approve anything that’s going to be a key piece in the film.”

As much of the documentation and equipment at Bletchley Park was destroyed at the end of the war, there were not many real documents for MinaLima to work from to create their props, so a bit of artistic license was required. “Things like magazines and newspapers were easy to find but for the documents at Bletchley, it was a little bit tricky to get everything,” says Lima.

“Certainly to try and identify the exact procedure that the decoding went through, that wasn’t entirely clear,” continues Mina. “We had some quite good bits of reference, of layered documents where you’ve got the ticker tape stuck onto a piece of paper and then the notation. All those different bits of the process were all done by different people in an environment where they were trying to decode, so each person didn’t necessarily know what the other people were doing. It was passed along a chain of people – so that was quite interesting to try and work out exactly what that process was.”


Above: Map in Hut 8 at Bletchley Park; Zygalsky sheets, intercepted messages and paperwork dressing in Hut 8; German Enigma documents for background dressing; Identity cards for those at Bletchley Park; Intercept and decrypt documents at Bletchley Park

The duo worked closely with Bletchley Park and in particular with historian Dr Joel Greenberg to piece together the story of the documents and make sure they were as authentic as possible. “Like always with films like this we’re supposed to suddenly be experts – you’ve got a few weeks to pull that all together and someone’s spent their life researching it so we’re always dependent on that kind of help,” says Mina. “Likewise, with some of the drawings that Turing made of his thinking, his visual notes, we had quite a few of those and then we had to run with that and create other things in the style of them. So some of that’s not specifically his.”

While being authentic, the graphics also have to fit with the general mood and feel of the film. They are there to add richness and depth to the story, not to stand out on their own merits. “It’s trying to get into the mood and the flavour of the person whose story you’re trying to tell or the environment that you’re trying to describe,” says Mina of the overall aim. “That’s really the interesting bit for us, filling the gaps visually for the audience so that you as a viewer don’t necessarily notice, it just feels authentic and it flows. It’s still a storytelling process and you want to enrich it for the viewer… Where the job is interesting as a graphic designer for film is where you have to research something and then transport it into the two hours you’ve got of screen time and make it both authentic and visually interesting and engaging for the viewer.”


Above: Turing’s notes and schematic drawings at his desk in Bletchley Park; Detail of Turing’s notes and drawings; Pressed leaves and sketches at Turing’s house; Turing’s sketches at his house. All images © Black Bear Pictures/The Weinstein Company

The code-breaking documents were the most difficult to recreate, in part due to the sheer quantity that the pair had to produce. “We always do repeats of everything,” says Mina, “because sometimes you’ve got a wide shot and then a close up…. So [we had to] create what looked like quite impulsive, spontaneous documents, and then recreate them, each time with the crayon marks in exactly the same place, and make sure they had some credibility, because they’ll be some people that know… There were lots and lots of them as well, there were scenes where he stole some of the papers and went to her flat with them – we had to have bundles and piles of this stuff. Also they set fire to it, which was not right at the end of shooting so all that had to be back on set again a few days later.”

As to whether the team managed to pull off the look convincingly, Mina admits that they have not had much direct feedback from the public either way. Viewers are quick to point out errors these days though, so this is probably a sign in itself of their success – plus Bletchley Park has now decided to include a number of props from the film in the exhibit there, which, as Mina says, is “kind of a nice endorsement of the work”.

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Graphic Designer

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

Integrated Designer

Centaur Media