Hero Props: Graphic Design in Film & Television

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
When new movies come out, most of the praise goes to the director and lead actors, but there are so many other people involved in the film, and a lot of them are designers. There are costume designers and set designers, but also graphic designers, working behind the scenes on all of the graphic objects that you might see in a film, and I do mean every single graphic object.

Annie Atkins:
Anything with lettering on it, anything with pattern on it, and anything with illustration on it, and most things made out of paper.

Roman Mars:
This is Annie Atkins.

Annie Atkins:
My name is Annie Atkins and I’m a graphic designer for the film industry.

Roman Mars:
Over the course of her career, Atkins has designed all kinds of graphic props.

Annie Atkins:
Telegrams, vintage cigarette packaging, maps, love letters, books, poems, any kind of chocolate box or food packaging at all, labeling, passports, fake CIA identification cards.

Roman Mars:
And with all of these objects, Atkins needs to choose or design the lettering and make sure the paper is just right. All of these small design decisions that contribute to creating a cohesive visual world for the film.

Annie Atkins:
As graphic designers in film, we really have two main priorities when we start designing any proper set-piece. The first is to set the period and the second is to set the location so that when the audience starts watching the movie, they know immediately where the story is being told and when it’s taking place.

Annie Atkins:
But I think the other thing that we have to do is we have to also try to tell the story at hand, as well, with graphics. So for example, if you see a sign in the background of the New York subway scene that says, “Walk, don’t run,” you can bet any seconds after you see that the characters are actually going to start running.

Roman Mars:
All the graphic design you see in a film has a job to do. It’s moving the story forward.

Annie Atkins:
Even if background signage seems to have a kind of a subliminal message, it’s always put there on purpose. Everything that we put in front of the camera is there for a reason.

Roman Mars:
I met Annie Atkins at the AIGA National Design Conference and I interviewed her on stage. And I just loved hearing her talk about our work, so I asked her to come on the show and talk more about it. Today, we’re just going to run part of that interview.

Roman Mars:
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into this business?

Annie Atkins:
My very first job was on a TV show called “The Tudors”, which we made here in Dublin and Ireland about 10 years ago now. I went for an interview for the job as an assistant to the art department, but when they saw my portfolio, they realized I came from a graphic design background. They said, “Well, we’re actually looking for a full-time graphic designer on the show to create all the graphic pieces.” I couldn’t understand this, because it didn’t make sense why they would need a graphic designer on a show that was set in a period before graphic designers existed. I’d come from this advertising background where we were making logos, design, websites, magazine layouts, and there were none of these things in the court of Henry VIII, right?

Roman Mars:
Right.

Annie Atkins:
But then I learned very quickly when I started the job that just because there weren’t any graphic designers in the 15th century doesn’t mean there wasn’t graphic designers, just that at that time it would have been the craftspeople who were the designers. For example, if Henry VIII wants to chop his wife’s head off, he’s going to need a death warrant. And if he needs a death warrant, he’s going to need a calligrapher, because at that time it would have been the calligrapher who was responsible for the layout of the royal scrolls and documents, and also the style of the lettering.

Roman Mars:
So you’ve become the graphic designer for the 15th century.

Annie Atkins:
Yeah, exactly. So now it’s the graphic designers role in film today to try to imitate what the craftspeople would’ve done, whether that’s the ironmonger, or the glazier, or the stonemason.

Roman Mars:
Talk us through the process, like how do you begin? How do you know what your job is going to be? What does it mean to be a graphic designer for a certain film?

Annie Atkins:
Well, first of all, I never know what my next job is going to be, so I can’t really prepare myself and I can’t really learn every skill that I’m going to need. Like, I don’t know if my next job is going to be set in Victorian London or if it’s going to be on a spaceship 200 years in the future. What happens is I get the call, I arrive on set, I set up my toolkit, I sit down with the script, and I go through the script and I mark out anything that sounds like it might be a piece of graphic design.

Annie Atkins:
And while I’m making this list, which we call a script breakdown, I’m also beginning to research the period or the genre or the storyline that I’m designing for. I do that for about six to eight weeks prep and then shooting starts, and during that time, time is always against me and I’m churning this stuff out.

Roman Mars:
How often are you making stuff right before someone has to hold it on film?

Annie Atkins:
Well, we try to get everything made…. If it’s a prop, then we try to get it made at least a week before it’s shot on, because there’s inevitably going to be some changes that need to be made. When I was working on the “Grand Budapest Hotel”, I had to make a a little notebook for Ralph Fiennes’s character, Gustave. Gustave is a very precise character. And when Ralph Fiennes came in for his costume fitting, he had his notebook and all the other prompts that he needed for his character, and he just noticed that there were no lines and the notebook. We’d made them a notebook with a blank pages. He questioned that because his character was so precise, he thought maybe it should have lines in it.

Annie Atkins:
We took the prop backups to the studio, we remade the notebook and we sent it back down again with lines and that was fine. But then after the film came out and I started doing some magazine interviews about designing graphic props, I use this as an example because I thought it was quite interesting and quite a good example of the level of detail that we actually go into. But of course, all the journalists heard was that, I was saying that Ralph Fiennes is some kind of diva. I actually stopped using that as an example because that’s not what I was saying at all, you know? It’s really his job to make sure that the props are right, and there’s our job to make sure that the props are right, and this is just the kind of the every day back and forth that we go through when we’re making things for a film set.

Roman Mars:
When you’re doing that script breakdown, what are some of the keywords that you’re looking for that indicate that you have work to do in that scene?

Annie Atkins:
The word that always stops me in my tracks when I’m reading a script would be the word “office”, because offices are just absolutely full of paperwork. You know, like noticeboards, and filing cabinets, and desks covered in all kinds of paperwork. That’s a that’s a huge set for the graphics department. There are lots of scenes that have very low volume of graphics naturally. You can kind of skim-read a sexy scene, really. Nobody ever pulls out a newspaper or starts looking at a map

Roman Mars:
That’s so funny. Let’s talk a little bit about, so once you get the list of things that you’re have to work on, you begin to research what those things are, what they’re like for this film. Could you describe what the research is like?

Annie Atkins:
I start my research, I do a little bit of research online, but I find that looking things up on the internet can be misleading for a couple of reasons. First of all, nobody really ever labels anything properly online. Like if you find a beautiful vintage map on Tumbler, there’s absolutely no way it’s going to tell you what year it’s from or what the dimensions of it are. Then also it’s really difficult to judge by looking at pictures on a screen, the scale of things and also the texture of things. If I have to make a telegram, for example, I really need to go to a flea market and find an old telegram that I can hold in my hands, and then I know what kind of paper to make it out of and I know exactly what the measurements of it are. So I do a lot of my research in flea markets, in junk shops, buying old pieces on eBay, raiding my grandmother’s attic, that kind of thing.

Roman Mars:
What are some of the other tricks? Like, so you do everything by hand when it would have been done by hand. What does it take to make a piece of paper look old? You know, you’re making it brand new and handing it to somebody. How do you make it seem and feel real?

Annie Atkins:
The aging process for a prop is a little bit of a tricky balance. It’s a tight rope because the pieces usually should have been brand new at the time that the show is set in, but when you’re making a period drama, a lot of the time audiences need to see a little bit of aging to really believe that they’re in the period. You know, it’s like we need to see the cracks in the canvas of the oil painting, because that’s how we see it in the gallery. We need the paper to be off-white or slightly yellowed, because that’s how we look at old documents now.

Annie Atkins:
But if you go too far in that direction, then all of a sudden everything looks a bit like an old pirate map. Right?

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Annie Atkins:
It’s a tricky balance and it varies from shows or show. Some directors and production designers want to go for a real kind of sepia look and everything, and then other directors want to really work with the colors that they would’ve used at the time, which is one of the reasons why it was so wonderful working for Wes Anderson, because he really embraced the colors of the period. Instead of doing that whole sepia-tone thing that we do a lot of the time if we’re working on some kind of old drama.

Roman Mars:
Right. I want to get back to “Grand Budapest Hotel” and Wes Anderson in a second, but are there other examples of things that you researched and you know what is accurate for the time? For example, if something being new when it was actually new, but you’re balancing that against expectations of what people want or expectations of the story so that for some reason the accurate representation is not the proper representation for the thing that you need for it to do and that story?

Annie Atkins:
We try to start every single prop that we make for a film with a real historical artifact that we can copy, basically. That means that we’re making things that feel really authentic instead of like a movie prop. One example would be newspaper design. Newspapers are used a lot in film, because there a really good storytelling device. If you need to tell the audience that there’s a war being fought, then you can show a newspaper headline saying there’s a war on, rather than shooter 30 seconds battle sequence, which is going to cost however many million dollars.

Annie Atkins:
We would start with a real reference of the newspaper, but actually a lot of the time, particularly in England, in the beginning of the 20th century, the broadsheet papers didn’t actually have newspaper headlines on the front pages at all. The front pages were covered in small ads, advertising, local businesses and things for sale. What I do when I start a project is I’ll talk to the director and the production designer about this. You know, I’ll bring them the information and tell them like, this is actually what a newspaper front page was like, and then they make the call whether they want to stick with historical accuracy or they just want to ignore that and design the newspaper to suit the story that they’re telling.

Annie Atkins:
There’s a line that gets bandied about in film art departments, and it always goes something like, “we’re not making a documentary about 19th-century newspaper layout. We’re telling a story”.

Roman Mars:
Is there a part of you that really enjoys it when it’s really accurate or do you get more pleasure from it just being really good and serving the story the best way possible? Or you get the most excited when you can just kind of marry the two?

Annie Atkins:
It’s exciting to study real references, because what I find a lot of the time is that the truth is more interesting. You know, like if I started a prop with just a blank page in Illustrator, I wouldn’t be able to create something as interesting as what has actually been designed before me, right? My imagination can’t compare to the collective imagination of the hundreds and thousands of craftspeople that have gone before me over the last hundreds of years. So, it’s interesting to look at something real and then develop it with the director and the production designer to suit the story, because then you can make something that feels authentic, but it’s also interesting visually.

Roman Mars:
When I’m watching your work in movies, you put a lot of time into them, but do you want me to notice them or do you want me to kind of ignore them?

Annie Atkins:
I kind of feel that if the audience is looking at my pieces of graphic design, then the film isn’t necessarily working, right? The attention of the audience should really be on the drama that’s unfolding between the characters, like the drama between the humans. I think you should notice it, but only subconsciously. Like, we are building a world and we’re using graphic design to do that, but the pieces are so fleeting, I don’t think you should really register everything consciously. When I watch things that I’ve worked on back with my mother, I’m always very keen that she notices everything. I’m always shouting at the TV, you know, “I made that, I made that, I made that.” She’s always like, “What? What? I didn’t even see anything.”

Roman Mars:
This is a conundrum of almost all design that the best stuff is meant to work and do its job, but kind of not be noticed. Is there a state of mind that you’ve gotten into where you can accept that or is it just come naturally to you?

Annie Atkins:
I’ve never felt cheated in any way that my work doesn’t get screen time. I only ever feel thrilled when it does get a little bit of screen time. There’s something thrilling about having your work shown on a cinema screen. I don’t know what it is. When I worked in advertising years ago, I would design billboards. I never got really excited driving past a billboard that I designed. Whereas if I’m sitting in the cinema and something gets like a fraction of a second of blurry screen time, then for some reason I’m really excited by it. I don’t know what that is. I suppose it’s like the whole Hollywood star system thing getting to me.

Roman Mars:
I think that’s fair. You can give yourself that enjoyment of being on a movie screen. Have you ever really labored over something that got cut from the scene and that that pains you at all?

Annie Atkins:
Yes. You work on things all the time that you put a huge amount of effort into that just never gets seen at all on the screen or by the camera. I would actually say that most of my work is like that, but there are people who see it, and the people who see it are the actors and the director, and it’s really exciting to build, say for example, a street scene, and put up all these street posters, and front signs, and hanging signs, and pieces of period advertising, and to see the actors arrive on set in the morning and take in the surroundings, and really you can see them feeling like they’re being transported to another time. Then they go and they do their acting, and I hope that maybe our work as film designers contributes a little bit to them really getting into their roles.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Have you ever had an instance where an actor really fell in love with a prop or something that you made?

Annie Atkins:
I remember when we were shooting “Grand Budapest”, there was a prison scene with Harvey Keitel and Ralph Fiennes, and Ralph Fiennes was admiring the prison escape map that Harvey Keitel’s character, Ludwig, had drawn. And Gustave, the character played by Ralph Fiennes, admires its artistic promise. I remember when I read that script page being really excited because it’s very rare that characters in the script admire a piece of graphic design, you know? I knew that this was going to be a big one for the graphics department.

Annie Atkins:
We made this prison escape map and it was drawn on the back of a piece of packaging paper, so we also included like packaging labels, and postage stamps, and franking marks. We really went all out on creating these pieces for this imaginary country, the empire of Zubrowka that Wes had created. When Harvey Keitel arrived over from LA to do the scene, he suggested that all the other actors in the scene actually go and stay in the prison. It was a real prison that we were shooting in, go and stay overnight in the prison and take these props with them so that they could get into character. That was really fun, the thought of them all going off to remote prison in the East of Germany in the middle of February in the snow, and taking the props that we’d made to help them get into character.

Roman Mars:
If you were to pick up the script tomorrow, what would you read in the script that would make you really excited to make that thing?

Annie Atkins:
I liked designing things that you have to design as a character in the film, rather than as a graphic designer. For example, a prisoner escape map. It’s not really a graphic designer’s job, traditionally, to design that, right? It’s a prisoner’s job to draw that themselves, so you really have to get into character and try to figure out how that character would have drawn something like that and what tools they would have used to do it. You know, would they have had access to pens, or charcoal, or crayons, and what kind of paper would they have had access to and what would their style be like?

Roman Mars:
Well, so you mentioned that for the most part your work isn’t noticed and that’s by design, but with the world of streaming video and the internet where people can pause and discuss the graphic design of things, people do notice, and probably notice mistakes.

Annie Atkins:
Yeah. The IMDB goofs page is absolutely full of continuity errors, and a lot of them are about graphic pieces. One example is when Joplin is at the gas station, the calendar on the wall says October 1932, but shows October 5th, 12th, 19th, and 26th as Sundays. In 1932, those dates fell on Wednesdays. When we made the calendar, we didn’t think to check the days against the dates for 1932, but then we didn’t think anybody else would either.

Annie Atkins:
I can read that kind of thing and think, God they’re such pedants, but they’re right, and when I look back at the pieces that we made, I see that yes, there is an era there. The next job I went onto, it would’ve been Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies”, which was a true story. We made a lot of newspapers for that film. I remember us beginning to check the dates against the days because I wanted to get it right. Then eventually the prop master said to me, “Do you know what? I think we’re just going to leave the dates off” because it wasn’t clear in the sequence that these things were going to be shown in. He said, “If you leave the date off altogether, nobody will look for it. But if you put something there that’s wrong, then it might jump out.” We went with no dates in the end for those newspapers.

Roman Mars:
When you were doing the design for the “Grand Budapest Hotel”, there was an error that caused them to have to redo a bunch of the work, and it was on these little pink cake boxes and from the fictional bakery called Mendl’s. Can you tell us that story?

Annie Atkins:
Yeah. Halfway through the shoot, Wes got in touch and said, “I think there’s a spelling mistake in the Mendl’s box.” I said, “I don’t think so, because like I take such great pride in my spelling and grammar.” He said, “There’s two T’s in patisserie.” And I looked at the box and I realized that he was right, and of course, I had hand-lettered that text, so it had never gone through a spell check. You know, it’s a word of French origin. I really should have double-checked it. I should have triple checked it and I just didn’t.

Annie Atkins:
At that point, we had shot so many Mendl’s boxes, which shot I think 2000 of them, and it had to be fixed in post-production. Which is great. It’s great that we have the options fixings in post, but it’s kind of a lengthy process because you have to change whatever it is, 25 frames per second, so it can be quite expensive as well. That was embarrassing.

Annie Atkins:
Since the film was released. The Mendl’s box has kind of taken on a life of its own. It’s kind of become a bit of an icon for the film. People are selling them online and people are making their own fake boxes and selling them and trying to pass them off as real props from the movie, but I know when I look at them that if there’s two T’s in patisserie, then it was really in the movie. If you ever see a box of two T’s and patisserie, you should buy it.

Roman Mars:
And these were really iconic looking. I mean they’re in piles and they’re these pink cubes, and so they’re really up a very active part of the scenes that they’re in, too.

Annie Atkins:
Yeah, they’re what we call a “hero prop”. A hero prop is any prop that gets a bit of screen time or has the kind of character of its own. You can generally tell what a hero prop is because it will have a description in the script. Like, a lot of things that we make aren’t even mentioned in the script. If there’s an office scene, then it’s just assumed that we will know what to address into that office. You know, the script won’t go into details about notice boards and filing cabinets, but a hero prop will always be at least named and mentioned, and sometimes described as well.

Credits

Production

Host Roman Mars spoke with graphic designer Annie Atkins who has worked on shows and films including The Tudors and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Comments (10)

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  1. I just wanted to say thank you for all of the great, great podcasts you produced over the last years. 99pi has become my absolute favourite! I loved this episode and am looking forward to part two. I wouldn’t mind having more than two parts, either! :)

  2. Grimstod

    This is an awesome episode and refreshingly absent was politics. The discussion on calligraphy and how she does research on her designs is very inspiring.

  3. I just want to write in and say how much I loved this episode!
    It’s delicious!!!!

    99pi has also become my favourite podcast, since I discovered it in the past year.
    I also loved to discover the relationship between Alvar Aalto and skateboarding.
    it’s just sooooo cool.
    Keep it up!

  4. Fascinating! I’ve often wondered how graphical props and set pieces are researched and designed for film and TV, so thanks for this episode. As an archivist by profession, it did make me wonder whether Annie Atkins ever uses archives or library special collections in her research. These places are like the flea markets and grandma’s attics she visits, except they specialize in historical written, printed, visual, and graphical materials of all kinds. What’s more, items are cataloged, accurately described, and preserved —
    specifically to be used for all types of research! We are in virtually every locality (and online) and, no, we generally won’t make you wear white gloves!

  5. Mark

    I guess this doesn’t quite cover costuming, but I was reminded of the Minnesota Museum T-shirt that appeared in Stranger Things, and the fan demand for it.

    What is the overlap in the costuming and graphic design groups when it comes to creating or finding these kinds of props?

  6. Neal

    So I just want to add, I just watched episode 2 of the new season of The X-Files and there is a scene in it with a QR codeā€¦ and the QR code is legit scannable from your TV screen, and leads to a fake URL with the name of the newspaper published by The Lone Gunmen. And all I could think about was this episode of 99pi, because someone put some serious thought into that tiny little prop.

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