I almost didn’t see the final talk at the TOCA ME conferences. I jetted home during the second break, said goodnight to the bambina and hesitated to go back out. Fortunately the pal I went with was still there and texted me that the talk I missed was boring, there was still plenty of time to catch the final one and that she was saving me a seat. So I went.
Good thing! Annie Atkins' talk was my favorite of the entire day. A real treatise on process and craft. Atkins, a Dublin based designer who describes herself as a Graphic Designer for film, games and real life, opened the talk by acknowledging the fact that her imagination is not greater than everything that has already existed.
Some examples of her work:
This makes finding reference material a central part of her process. She lead us through an exercise asking us to imagine we were working on a film where the protagonist was walking through 1980s London and needed to buy a sandwich. What does the signage look like for the sandwiches?
She then showed us an image from an actual sandwich shop in London in the 1980s and the little handmade signs were nothing that you would dream up now. I couldn’t find it with Google search, so you’ll have to check out one of her talks if you want to see for yourself.
Although she’s worked on a number of films and TV series including Bridge of Spies and The Tudors, the talk focused on the work she did creating all the graphic props for Wes Andersons visually intense Grand Budapest Hotel.
Atkins and her team had to create an entire graphic universe for a fictional European country ‘Zubrowka’ that was taken over by fascists in the 30s.
She starts every film by going through the script and highlighting any scene which has some graphic element in it: menus, hotel key chains, paper coffee cups, subway signs, etc. Then she creates an estimate of the work - office scenes are especially time consuming with all of their paper and ephemera. 'It’s a scope matrix!’ I thought to myself while looking at the slide showing how she documented the effort.
Just when I was starting to think she had the most glamorous job in the world ,she told us about 'Repeats'. For each graphic prop Annie and her team create (usually by hand), they have to create dozens of identical copies or ‘repeats’. These are in case someone on the set knocks over a coffee cup and ruins it, like the telegram prop above.
These repeats have to be IDENTICAL. The work is painstaking and meticulous. And even if she thinks they’re pretty damn good, someone with way too much time on their hands will fine discrepancies and post them on IMDB Goofs:
She shared an anecdote that illustrated her point about basing her work on actual historical references. She had to create a calling card for one of the main villains in the film. She figured she could just crank it out. Wes Anderson, who sounds incredibly meticulous, asked for the reference for the calling card design.
She confessed she had none. ‘Are there any examples of calling cards from fascists in the 30s?’ he asked? Turns out there are:
The revised design for the calling card that made it into the film:
After the talk I watched Grand Budapest Hotel (I had never scene it - it’s great). My husband graciously let me have the remote and listened patiently every time I paused a scene and explained something like: 'See all those Mendl’s pink pastry boxes? She did the hand lettering herself and since there’s no spell check with hand lettering she misspelled Patisserie!!! They didn’t catch it until after shooting, so they had to go back and correct them all digitally!! So if you ever want buy one on eBay, if Patisserie is correctly spelled, it’s a fake!'
In short, she’s great, the talk was great. Find out more about her at her website. This is also a great article on her workshops, studio and process (and where I got the photo of Atkins herself).