Prop Art

In its meticulous creation of the State of Zubrowka, Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a typographic treat. The film’s lead graphic designer Annie Atkins was responsible for every graphic prop in the movie. We spoke to her about her work

CR: How did you get into working on feature films?

AA: I worked in advertising for years, at McCann in Reykjavik, Iceland. Around that time I started writing a blog, too, which I began to enjoy much more than art directing. When I spoke to the creative director about moving on, he said he’d been reading it and was wondering if maybe I should do something ‘with more emotion’ for a while. At the time I was quite taken aback – emotion?! – but he was right, I think, and I left to go to film school in Dublin to do an MA in film production. It was there that I met Tom Conroy (production designer of The Tudors) and he introduced me to this whole new world of design. I’d had no idea that a graphic designer was so essential to filmmaking. Making graphic props wasn’t something I’d ever considered to be a career until then.

Tom needed a new graphic artist for the third season to make all Henry VIII’s royal scrolls and stained glass and medieval banners. I knew next to nothing about the Tudor period, so I was completely thrown in at the deep end! The set decorator was Crispian Sallis – I remember being terrified of him at first as he was so particular, but he taught me so much about paying attention to detail in prop-making. He watched everything like a hawk.

CR: Working on The Grand Budapest Hotel would seem like a dream job to many – how did you come to be involved?

AA: Yes, it’s an absolute dream job and my head still spins when I remember the first call from Wes’s producer. It was a shock – I remember trying to sound really professional and calm on the phone, but I was actually doing cartwheels around the room. I’d been drawing some graphics for Laika’s new animated feature The Boxtrolls (due out in September), and a designer at the studio had recommended me to Wes (Nelson Lowry, who had designed Mr Fox). He’d tried to give me some warning, I think, by emailing me with the line “Something wicked your way comes…”, but to be honest I had no idea what he’d meant, or exactly how wicked it was going to be!

CR: What was the process for creating the various graphic props in the film? How closely was Wes Anderson (the director) involved in this process?

AA: Wes is completely involved in every aspect of his filmmaking, and I worked very closely with him and the production designer, Adam Stockhausen, every day. This film was particularly fun, I think, from a graphics point of view, because we were creating this entirely fictional country that Wes had written – the State of Zubrowka. It meant that every little detail had to be made from scratch – flags, banknotes, postage stamps, everything.

Adam had already collected a huge amount of reference material from 1930s Eastern Europe when I joined them, and I would start each graphic prop by showing Wes a real artefact from the time. I would show him redrafts of designs sometimes 20 times a day. Wes has a very graphic sensibility – that’s evident in all his films, of course.

Once the layout of each design had been decided, then it was time to make the prop physically, and make something that will work on set in an actor’s hands. I use traditional methods in graphic prop-making wherever possible: a real 1930s typewriter for typewritten documents; a dipping pen and ink and for any handwriting. Pieces have to be aged, too, as nothing should look like it was made in an art department five minutes ago. Madame D’s last will and testament took a lot of ageing, for example, as it contained over 600 pieces that were scripted as being some 46 years old.

CR: It’s a very type-rich film, from the hotel itself, to the subtitles, the Mendl’s patisserie, even the prison gates have huge lettering on them – can you talk us through the major typefaces used and why they were chosen?

AA: We actually used comparatively few typefaces in the movie, as most lettering was created by hand. Wes and Adam had been on location recces all around Eastern Europe and had references of all kinds of hand-made signage from the last 100 years or so. The beautiful thing about period filmmaking is that you’re creating graphic design for a time before graphic designers existed, per sé. It was really the craftsmen who were the designers then: the blacksmith designed the lettering in the cast iron gates; the glazier sculpted the lettering in the stained glass; the sign-painter drew the lettering for the shopfronts; the printer chose the type blocks for the stationery.

The Grand Budapest Hotel sign itself, up on the roof of the hotel, is my favourite example. It was based on an old steel hotel sign from 1930s Cairo that Wes had picked out. I hand-drew the lettering for our own hotel in the same style, somewhat unevenly, with rather jaunty serifs, and then gave the drawing to our modelmakers who sculpted it for the hotel miniature. I remember they corrected the rather wide kerning between the letters A and N, and we asked them to widen it again just like it was in the reference.

It’s the little idiosyncrasies like this that Wes loves – it’s all part of his aesthetic. On the one hand he’s a perfectionist; on the other hand he doesn’t want anything to look machine-made, or digitally produced in any way.

CR: You spent a winter on-set, what was a typical working day like?

AA: Yes, it was crazy. There was a tremendous amount of graphics in this one, so my script breakdown was as long as my arm. We started in Berlin and then after a month the entire cast and crew moved to a little town on the Polish border called Gorlitz, where we all lived together and shot the movie.

Adam had designed the hotel set to fit into the bones of a beautiful old Art Nouveau department store, with six floors and balconies, and we set up our offices on the top floor. We could look down over the balcony every day and watch the set come to life, which was pretty special.

I spent my day having back and forths with Wes over details in graphics, talking their production through with the supporting graphic designer Liliana Lambriev, and then liaising with the designer, set decorator, propmaster, and art directors to make sure they had everything they needed from us.

There’s probably more to graphics in film than is immediately apparent. If a character has a noticeboard in his office, for example, then you have to fill that board with relevant material, all in the right style for both the period and the director’s vision. You’re not always designing for the camera: much of this work will never be seen by a cinema audience, but still you have to create an atmosphere and a world for the actors to work their magic in.

I was talking to Ralph Fiennes one night and he was really appreciative of the graphics work in the film – he particularly liked the personalised notebook we’d made for his character to keep in his pocket. When we were developing it, he had asked that the pages be lined, rather than blank, as he felt that was more in keeping with Gustave’s style. It’s that kind of small detail that the camera is just never going to pick up on directly, but goes some small way in helping the scene, for example, in which Ralph is striding through the hotel lobby taking his notes. Every department pays the same amount of attention to detail – costume, set dec, make-up, props – and it all adds up.

CR: What kind of research process do you go through for each project?

AA: I find the best research is to go to museums with special exhibitions from the period you’re being asked to recreate. Don’t think you can do your research using a Google image search – you need to see these things in front of you, to understand the texture of the paper, the scale of the lettering, how pieces were folded or stitched or printed. When I was on a show about the building of the Titanic I flew to Glasgow to the National Archive to study the original drawings of the Lusitania, which was a very similar ship. I have a good collection of printed ephemera now that I’ve bought from flea markets over the years – lots of old banknotes and postage stamps and vintage photography. I also have some much older pieces too, from auction, like a love letter from 1733 that was sealed with wax. That one’s particularly precious to me.

CR: Have you had any anachronistic bloopers where viewers have picked you up on the use of a font that wasn’t around at the time or similar?

AA: Oh God, it doesn’t take much for people to send a letter to The Telegraph! The thing is, as much as you base everything on real reference material, at the end of the day you’re working to create a story, not a documentary, so you’ll need to use artistic licence here and there.

A good example is newspaper headlines. Most English newspapers in Victorian times didn’t have any headlines at all on their front pages, it was all small ads. But headlines are such a strong storytelling device in filmmaking, so we turn a blind eye. I’ve also worked on a TV show where we had to reduce the real size of old banknotes as the director felt they were comically large. I totally understand that filmmakers don’t want the tone of their story interrupted by a prop, but yes, we are sometimes rewriting history.

CR: Do you try to use materials which are appropriate for the period in which each project is set or do you use contemporary materials and age them?

AA: I remember we tried to use vellum on The Tudors once but it was near impossible to work with. Every document I send to set has to have at least six copies – sometimes 30 if it’s going to get covered in blood or sweat – and I just couldn’t get the vellum through my printer. With construction pieces it’s usually a cheaper, lighter, safer material than what was used at the time. The canopy for the theatre set in Penny Dreadful, for example, was designed as stained glass framed in cast iron, but time and safety were against us so we painted Perspex with French enamel paint and laser-cut mild steel for the cast iron, which was then painted with a patin to add age and texture. Up close you can see the technique used, but once this work is on camera it’s very hard to know the difference.

CR: Can you share some of your techniques for ageing and distressing the props?

AA: Sometimes it can be very obvious – if a piece of paper is meant to look like it’s spent the day in someone’s pocket, then just keep it in your pocket all day – no ‘scrumpling’! Other times, ageing paper can be trickier. When I was working in Germany the prop buyer found us reams upon reams of old paper from the DDR. It had been sitting in a warehouse for 50 years and was just beautifully and perfectly yellowed at the edges and very slightly buckled. This is the kind of thing people will chuck in a skip, but it’s absolutely priceless to a graphics department. If I’m working on a prop that’s supposed to have been dragged through hedges over the years, then I’ll use tea-staining and an iron and sandpaper. For large graphics in street scenes – shopfronts and posters – ageing is the painters’ job, and they’ll go in adding texture with paint and varnish and dirty wax and blowtorches. I love going on to set as the painters are working, especially grimy or particularly old sets, like the East End streets we’re making for Penny Dreadful. The ageing is the finishing touch.

CR: How much work do you do before a shoot and how much during it? Or does it very much depend on the project?

AA: You generally get about six weeks prep on a project before shooting starts. When I was working with Wes I got three months, which is unheard of really for the graphic designer, but he had so many graphics scripted and he was keen to get going. Then, when shooting starts, you’re absolutely full steam ahead until wrap, constantly trying to stay ahead of the schedule. Time is always against you, always, so you have to be super organised and prepared for anything.

CR: What are you working on next?

AA: I’m on Sam Mendes and John Logan’s new show Penny Dreadful, which is a horror series set in 1891. I really love the Victorian period for graphic design, and the show has a supernatural element, too, so it’s a fun one. I’ve also written some calligraphy for the titles of the new Darren Aronofsky movie Noah, which is really nice work and probably the most ancient period I’ve worked to so far. I’d like to do something futuristic soon, I think, to take me out of my comfort zone … but you never know what’s going to come up, so I just have to wait and see what happens.

CR: What would your advice be to any graphic designer wanting to get into film?

AA: My best advice is to make some pieces physically with your hands – don’t go in with just a digital portfolio – and go and see your local TV or film studio about an interview with the art director of whatever show is being made there at that moment. They may be able to offer you a trainee position with the graphic designer – which usually involves cutting and sticking cigarette boxes for a month, and ironing hundreds of sheets of paper…. Graphic design jobs in film are few and far between, as there tends to only be one or two on each project – there’s also a ladder system in place in art departments which means you really have to start as a trainee and work your way up. That can be quite unappealing to graphic designers who already have a lot of professional advertising experience, but film design really is an entirely different beast.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is on general release, more information at grandbudapesthotel.com. See more of Annie Atkins’ work at annieatkins.com

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