A whimsical introduction to graphic design for filmmaking

Having spent last weekend in Annie Atkins’ basement studio, attending a two-day workshop on Graphic Design for Filmmaking, Salonee Gadgil now knows a thing or two about the inner workings of a film’s art department – and how to make Dracula a passport

You don’t expect to find a graphic designer on film or TV set. But Annie Atkins will tell you that everything you’ve ever watched on Netflix has had at least two graphic designers working on it. Graphic designer Atkins has worked on films such as the Boxtrolls, Penny Dreadful, Bridge of Spies and (as we covered here) The Grand Budapest Hotel. She designed those delicious pink Mendl’s boxes, the hotel signage and the patterns on the lobby carpets that played such a key role in setting the mood for the film.

The role of the graphic designer in filmmaking isn’t as obvious as that of a costume designer or a camera man; expectedly so. If you notice the work of a graphic designer in a scene, they probably haven’t done a very good job. Sometimes, their skill lies in creating the little details that sit in the background and tie the story to a certain period – like street signs designed in the style of the time or a historically accurate political poster on a wall behind the actors.

If your eye lingers too long on the telegram and misses the look of horror on the face of its recipient it hasn’t quite served its purpose.

Other times they create ‘hero props’ that play a crucial role in a film – like a telegram that brings tragic news to the central character, taking the plot down an unexpected path. Either way, if your eye lingers too long on the telegram and misses the look of horror on the face of its recipient it hasn’t quite served its purpose. It’s an unsung aspect of filmmaking and an unconsidered niche within design. Which is why aspiring graphic designers don’t often think of it as a career option.

At Annie Atkins’ Graphic Design for Filmmaking workshop

After The Grand Budapest Hotel Atkins began receiving several enquiries from people who were curious about designing for film, where one could study it and how to break into the industry. At the time there really weren’t any courses that specifically dealt with the subject, she says. Unable to make recommendations or point students to resources, Atkins did something better. She started running her own workshops out of her studio in Dublin. I attended one this past weekend and left charmed by the magical world of filmmaking.

Inside Annie Atkins’ studio

Craft

Aktins’ artistry lies in being able to use graphic design to create a mood; an atmosphere for drama to unfold. She dresses her basement studio where the workshops are conducted with much the same care. Even the music is chosen with purpose – light jazz or bossanova for a cold rainy morning. Bits of aged paper, beautiful lettering and handwritten notes are everywhere, the desks are lined with a curious selection of tools.

Ageing paper with tea bags

Much to my delight we did get a chance to use our hands and make the things like a pretend passport for Dracula, lettering for imaginary signage and a telegram. We got to do wonderful things like bind books by hand, brand things with rubber stamps and type on an actual typewriter. Most workshop participants were either fresh design graduates or professional creatives, all of whom were thrilled to step away from a screen for two days and lose themselves in actual ink and paper.

You have to be a little bit good at doing lots of things. Designing for film needs a very wide range of skills and you can never be an expert at them all.

You don’t need to be a trained illustrator or calligrapher to enjoy these aspects of the workshop. Designing for film is a lot about hacking and faking it. “You have to be a little bit good at doing lots of things. You don’t need to be an expert at lettering or a masterful illustrator. If you are that’s an added bonus. Designing for film needs a very wide range of skills and you can never be an expert at them all. What you do need though, is to be adaptable, learn quick and know which parts to delegate to the skilled experts.” Atkins is generous with sharing little tricks she uses to design the variety of props needed to fill up a set and candid about the realities of being a master of none.

Hand lettering

Theory

The crafty bits of the workshop, while delightful, aren’t the main focus. They punctuate the theoretical aspects of Atkins’ teachings. These involve working with film scripts and breaking scenes down to identify where a graphic art element is needed for the set. Atkins also talked us through what sort of research is required before the physical making of props begins, and how to draw inspiration from history and reality when designing the suite of props the script demands. We watched and broke down scenes from films, identifying aspects that would be created by the graphic designer and analysed the role of the props in the scene. There were many ‘aha’ moments as we went on these deconstructive journeys from raw script to final scene.

In a two-day period it isn’t possible to master or fully understand the nuances of this process. But what Atkins successfully does is spark a match, that briefly casts a light on the inner workings of her own mind and gives participants a sense of what sort of knowledge they will need to acquire.

Annie Atkins

Practical advice

After the make-and-do sessions and the more cerebral theory aspects of the workshop, Atkins delved into the real practical aspects of working in filmmaking. She started by explaining the anatomy of an art department, how the hierarchy works and who reports to whom. While this may seem obvious to anyone who has studied filmmaking or worked in the industry, it isn’t common knowledge and was very enlightening. She also explained how employment contracts work within the film industry, what sort of hours you should expect and the sort of legal clearances you will need when you design something.

Students at the workshop

This is all the sort of stuff you would learn if you work as an intern in a film’s art department, but by no means is the workshop a substitute for apprenticeships. Atkins ends the workshop with some very valuable advice about how to go about looking for a job or internship in the industry, right from how to put together your portfolio to whom to write to and how.

Prop-making is all about the little finishing touches. It ins’t enough to make a fake letter, you then need to fold the edge to make it look like it was held. To make sure the workshop feels finished and complete you get a certificate at the end of the two days – it’s every bit as whimsical as I’d expected.

For more details on workshop dates and to get in touch with Annie Atkins please visit annieatkins.com 

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