by Almas SadiqueJun 16, 2023
The black screen moves. An old long brick wall. In large capital letters, the writing on the wall reads 'OLD LUTZ CEMETERY,' broken into two by a small classical arch opening. A vintage white and aqua-blue Volkswagen van is parked on one side, and a few road construction blocks are kept on the other. On the backdrop of the wall is an old English town, spread uphill. The snow accumulated on the roofs of these faraway buildings and at the curb of the roads denotes it is winters. A female character walks into the frame, pauses at the arch and proceeds to move in.
The frame changes and she is walking past the many tombstones erected on the snowy ground. She passes three men wearing black suits, seated on a bench, in the middle of the cemetery. She proceeds to stand face-to-face with a small monolith, with the head of a person placed on a square pedestal. The tall pedestal has keys hanging on all sides of it. She takes out another key from her pocket and hangs it along with the rest and takes a few steps back. The frame changes to an engraving on the monument which reads, 'In Memory of Our National Treasure,' and moves up to introduce another engraving, 'Author' and then to the head of the statue. The frame changes again towards the female character and then zooms into a pink book she is holding.
How often does one pause to read the many frames that lead to the main scenes? While waiting for this story to unfold, did you think about the letters in the cemetery’s name, the many tombstones which might or might not have been made especially for this, the many keys which were differently designed and hung on the monolith, the font and texture of the engraving, the statue's head or the book she was holding? Unless you are a diehard movie lover, most people wait for the characters and stories to unfold, not deciphering what every frame holds. However, there are some creative minds who tirelessly work to create these intricate, well-researched, and detailed props that dramatically appear to disappear in the background.
If the above-defined scene rings a bell, the pink book with graphics on the front facade, was titled The Grand Budapest Hotel. The comedy-drama film, written and directed by Wes Anderson, gained popularity for its unique storytelling and attractive visuals and frames. But we are discussing the hands that crafted the little things that came together to create the perfect frame, for every scene, Welsh graphic designer and prop maker Annie Atkins.
While the name Annie Atkins might not seem familiar, you must have encountered her art through movies—sometimes in MENDL'S box, in treasure maps, in the signboards or sometimes on the compromised piece of evidence in a thriller movie. Atkins started her career as a graphic designer for the third series of The Tudors. Since then, Atkins has moved on to create graphic design, props and calligraphy for movies, series, and branding.
While almost 90 per cent of what she makes for a film belongs firmly in the background, STIR talked to Atkins about 100 per cent thought, brainstorming, and creative energy that goes into creating the 10 per cent that shows.
Sunena V Maju: From The Tudors to The Grand Budapest Hotel, it has been quite a journey, what transformation have you witnessed in your role as a graphic designer?
Annie Atkins: The best thing about period filmmaking work is how much you learn from each movie. It’s such a huge scope of research in creating props: you learn about the design processes of the time, but also about life at that time. I never had any interest in history in school but now it’s nearly all I think about. I love it.
Sunena: How does it feel to create a design that is so immaculately detailed that it often 'disappears' into the overall scenography?
Annie: I am really interested in design that's been made by the layman, the stuff that surrounds us that we don’t notice, made by people whose names we don’t know. There’s a mechanic around the corner from my home and he’s made his own sign, in the shape of a man, made out of old tires. That’s the kind of thing I love emulating for a film.
Sunena: You have previously mentioned that a lot of your props are handmade. For instance, the hand-drawn signages and street posters and typography on MENDL’S patisserie boxes. Is there any specific reason as to why some props are handmade, even when they can be replicated with the help of digital tools?
Annie: I think the main thing in period filmmaking is to try (and) not make anything that looks like it was made by an art department, a week ago. That’s a fail! I try to use the tools that people would actually have used at the time. Which is often a nib and ink, or a pencil, or paint. Yes, you can imitate digitally sometimes, but is it always the quickest way? I think it’s a rookie mistake to say yes. How are you going to imitate fingerprints for a police document? Are you really going to spend an afternoon trying to draw fingerprints on your iPad or are you going to get an ink pad out and spend 10 seconds making them for real? This can apply to all kinds of things, you'd be surprised. Handwriting is never going to look like handwriting made with a font.
Sunena: While designing for movies (from period dramas to contemporary stories), where does your research begin? Does it only cater to graphical representations or does it go beyond that?
Annie: Well I should say that I rarely work in contemporary filmmaking. It’s just not my space. Almost everything I do is period or genre, fantasy or children’s animation or what not. And you can start researching a poster for a scene and end up knowing everything about cholera in 1850. It’s a rabbit hole, but you need tons of information to put on these things. The content has to come from somewhere.
Sunena: Where does the work of a graphic designer end and that of a production designer begin on a film set design?
Annie: The production designer has a vision for the film as a whole and leads the art department. The graphic designer is a smaller cog in that wheel. If the production designer is thinking about a formidable castle hall, then they’ll ask us to design the pattern for the drapes.
Sunena: Could you tell us a little about your book, Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps: Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking?
Annie: It’s the first book explicitly about the graphic design process in filmmaking, which is crazy really. I remember the first publisher I spoke to about it thought there wasn’t enough crossover between people who are interested in film and people who are interested in graphic design. But I think it’s sold 20k copies now so I do think it’s an area that people are interested in. Everyone watches films and TV, anyway.
Sunena: In the cover of the book, the title Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps is detailed to disappear in the graphics of a matchbox. Is that the best representation of what graphic design means to films?
Annie: Haha, yes most of my work is supposed to be invisible, that’s true!
Sunena: A craftsman of the 15th century or a graphic designer of the 21st century?
Annie: 15th century craftsman.
Sunena: Creating a periodic set or a futuristic set?
Sunena: Graphic design for a fictional story or a non-fictional story?
Sunena: Working by hand and tools or on a computer and software?
Sunena: Graphic Design for movies or graphic design for branding?
Sunena: Finally, what’s NEXT for Annie Atkins?
Annie: Next thing to come out, that I did some work on is the new Indiana Jones movie. I wasn’t in the art department but I made the map for it. That was fun.
The Monotype Creative Characters episode with Atkins can be found here.