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So You Wanna Design for the Movies?

8 lessons from graphic props master, Annie Atkins

Just say her name and most graphic designers will inwardly ooh and ahh: Annie Atkins, that art department star of some of the most visually rich films and series made today (Joker, Bridge of Spies, Isle of Dogs, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch, West Side Story). But she didn’t start there. Her film world roots stretch back to her school days, when she studied to be a director. It wasn’t until she discovered that she had more of an affinity for finessing a film’s minute details than say, working with actors and running a set, that she rerouted her career. Now, she spends her days making graphic props: from major movie moments and hero props (like the Grand Budapest hotel sign) that vie for screen time with the actors, to the ephemeral minutiae of the everyday that lend a fictional world real-world credibility.

Her enthusiasm for the graphic design niche she has carved out for herself, the obvious pleasure she takes in honing her craft, and the sense of both humor and wonder that she approaches every project with radiates from her when she speaks—it’s hard not to catch it. If you have the pleasure of seeing Atkins talk about her work at a conference, you will inevitably file out of the room afterwards amidst hundreds of excited whispers, everyone wondering how they can get in on some of that Atkins action. She makes it sound that exciting. Now, she’s written a book, Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps: Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking. In it, she chronicles some of her biggest projects and offers insights into a lesser known nook of filmmaking along the way (should you want to follow in her footsteps). 

Read on for the stories behind some of her most exciting props and prop-making methods.

1
Just because the camera doesn’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there

Case study from Bridge of Spies (2015, dir. Steven Spielberg)

“Most of the graphic props created for a film aren’t necessarily hero pieces but rather sheets of paperwork used as background dressing. [We created a] collection of documents for various scenes in Bridge of Spies. Although it’s unlikely that much of it was ever seen in close-up, the hawk-eyed prop master, Sandy Hamilton, and set decorator, Rena DeAngelo, still pored over every detail. 

“We used real, legible copy on the “top sheets” (the pieces that sit on the top of the stacks), actual typewritten notes, rubber stamps, and carefully selected paper types, which can all add up to create a more authentic experience for both the cast and the audience.”

2
Sometimes the props do the storytelling

Titanic menus from Titanic: Blood and Steel (2012, mini-series)

“The restaurant menus printed for the RMS Titanic’s maiden voyage tell a story about the different qualities of service you might expect based on the ticket price you paid. In first class, you could dine on roast beef and chicken a la Maryland, washed down with tankards of ice-cold beer. In second class, Yarmouth bloaters and grilled ox kidneys are a treat. This particular menu was printed on the back of a blank postcard, so that you might send it to a friend when you docked (if you docked).

“The caveat stamped on the bottom of the third-class menu—that you could report ‘any complaint respecting the Food supplied, want of attention or incivility’—might not fill you with confidence about the quality of the gruel and pickles you were about to receive or reassure you that, in the unlikely event of an emergency, it wouldn’t be your lot who’d be left to drown below decks. The three replicas shown here were made without the printed photographs of the ship as they appear on the originals—we just didn’t have the budget to pay the licensing fee.”

Prop from Titanic: Blood and Steel , as featured in Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking, by Annie Atkins (Phaidon)

3
Continuity is key

Love Letters from The Tudors (2009, Showtime)

“Script breakdowns and nervous breakdowns go hand in hand. Every spreadsheet I compile, I start out excited at the prospect of all the new, interesting pieces I’ll have to create and end up wondering how I’m going to achieve any of it in the given time frame. Shooting a film in story order is almost unheard of, although there are some famous exceptions: E.T. was shot almost completely in chronological order, as Steven Spielberg wanted his young cast to be able to express the emotional arc of making and saying goodbye to a friend. The Shining was scheduled for a one-hundred-day shoot but ended up taking 250 days—Stanley Kubrick shot chronologically so that he could add and make changes to the story as he went.

“Usually, it isn’t cost-effective or efficient to repeatedly move a film crew, setting up all their rigs and lights time and time again. Instead, the assistant directors schedule every shot in the entire movie prioritizing (a) location and (b) actor availability. All the hotel scenes, for example, will be shot in one go over several weeks no matter what kind of action is scripted. Then the entire crew will relocate to another set (a “unit move”) and shoot all the prison scenes there. This lumping together of what can be quite varied scenes—often chronologically far apart in a story—can be confusing, and personally I would not want to be a script supervisor or an assistant director for all the money in the world. 

“In turn, I’m pretty sure the one thing the assistant directors don’t give a second thought about when they’re scheduling a movie is graphic design: we are at the bottom of the food chain. I learned this the hard way on my first job, on the set of the third season of The Tudors, when a last-minute schedule change meant that the antique maps I was having flatbed printed on vellum in England wouldn’t arrive in Ireland by courier in time. The maps were crucial to the scene—Henry VIII was scripted to be poring over them, deciding how to invade France—but looking back, I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to take this issue to the First Assistant Director while he was coordinating a noisy medieval court scene on the set of “Westminster Palace.” I explained the situation about the vellum, the courier, the flat-bed printing, and then waited for him to say he would change the schedule accordingly. He didn’t, of course. I quietly printed the maps locally on heavy paper instead and made a mental note never to bother an A.D. about a prop again.”

4
It is rarely—but sometimes—okay to make mistakes

The Mendl’s box from The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, dir. Wes Anderson)

“The pink Mendl’s boxes appeared, at some point, in almost every set in the 1930s chapters of The Grand Budapest Hotel. The prop master, Robin Miller, had hundreds of pieces fabricated, using a specialist box maker in Berlin, while… the screenprinter silk-screened the patisserie’s emblem onto each one in bright red ink. The graphic was all rendered manually: the word ‘MENDL’S’ by our illustrator and the rest of the lettering and filigree by myself, which, because it never went through a digital spell check, meant that the extra ‘T’ I’d inadvertently included in the word ‘pâtisserie’ went unnoticed until about halfway through the shoot. I was embarrassed to have made such a glaring error on a hero prop, especially because at that point we’d already shot on hundreds of boxes. But the producers were pragmatic about it: the mistake would be fixed in post-production, at least on any boxes that were legible to the audience.

“Months later, after the movie’s release, imitation Mendl’s boxes began to appear for sale on eBay. Some of these weren’t too far off from the original–although the particular shades of red and pink and the very specific texture of the ribbon were hard to match exactly. It could always be confirmed, though, if a box had really made an appearance in the movie–it had that extra ‘T’ in ‘pâtisserie.’”

5
Take your research offline

From Atkins’ personal archives: Goods invoice for a fabric dying company; Manchester, England, 1936

“References for vintage lettering design can show up on the strangest objects. Scouring flea markets, antiques shops, and your grandmother’s attic might offer up more interesting results than keying search terms into Google.

“Even the most ordinary office documents can be surprisingly beautiful resources for imitating paperwork from a pre-digital time. This invoice from a fabric dyer in Manchester shows at least six different printing methods, including an elaborate copperplate engraving of its factory’s smoking chimneys. (Clearly, something to have been proud of, in 1930s Northern England.) Pieces like these provide invaluable inspiration for methods in making any paper prop feel more finished: rubber-stamped dates, pencil signatures, two different pens, typewritten notes, and even the holes punched into the paper for binding are a different size than the ones we’re familiar with today.

“The red lines were the product of the Shaw Pen Ruling Machine, a large wooden and brass loom operated by two people at a time, “automatically” drawing lines onto pages that were then bound into ledgers and copybooks. Multiple pens were set at different points across a bar at the front of the machine, with ink-saturated cloths positioned just above, dripping ink onto sheets as they were fed through the machine. This process would need to be repeated up to four times, depending on the specific pattern of the lines designed for the sheet. The machine printed about one thousand sheets every half hour: a huge improvement on earlier methods, which typically involved drawing each line by hand with a ruler and a red pen.”

6
Be your own archivist

From Atkins’ personal archives: Diary of a young German girl, 1920s

“In the very early days of The Grand Budapest Hotel, when the crew was still stationed at Studio Babelsberg, I trawled a Berlin flea market one weekend with Robin Miller, the prop master. While he hunted for treasures–spectacles, watches, ashtrays, wallets–I searched for trash, and found that all sorts of paper rubbish could be traded for cold hard cash: used train tickets, canned food labels, old passports belonging to long-dead strangers. In a crate full of old books at a market on Arkonaplatz, I found my own treasure: a 1920s diary that had belonged to a German girl, who had used the journal to collect pages of poems and well-wishes, all handwritten by various friends and relations. Why was she collecting these writings? Was she moving away? Sick? Dying? I try not to get too sentimental about these things: her diary is now my go-to reference manual for all the varied cursive handwriting styles of the early 20th century. You just couldn’t get a result like this using Google image search.”

7
What’s historically accurate isn’t always believable

From Atkins’ personal archives: The white fiver, 1700s

“Britain’s first five-pound note was issued in 1793. Nicknamed the ‘white fiver,’ the note was in circulation for more than 150 years, not replaced with the modern fiver until 1957. Printed beautifully and simply with black ink on white paper, at 12 x 19.5 cm (4.7 x 7.7 inches) the banknote was much bigger than today’s equivalent of 7 x 13.5 cm (2.8 x 5.3 inches). When you hold one in your hands, the biggest design surprise is that there’s nothing printed on the reverse–impossible to know when you’re looking at a scan of the printed side of the note online. Still, some set decorators prefer to use double-sided notes in films: even when it’s accurate historically, a blank back can sometimes look a bit too ‘proppy.’”

8
Learn how to work with your hands

A note on staining and aging paper

“There’s nothing quite as satisfying as sinking a piece of crisp white paper into a tray of tea and watching it turn a lovely antique brown. Tea staining is a staple of art departments, used to make piles of paperwork look old. It also makes the paper look like it was once dropped in a puddle, so we have to choose the right stock and give everything a good iron to try to flatten things back out again. (Some coated papers will never flatten properly again, but handmade textured papers absorb water well without any crinkling.)

“Tea can be substituted with instant coffee granules—if you’re working in a country outside Ireland or the UK where cheap, stringless teabags are less readily available. The color is comparatively the same, although the result is a much lighter stain that requires a longer steep. Lemon juice can strip the color from some darker papers, making them look blotchy and sun bleached. Actual bleach can take that even further—just don’t let it soak too long. Potassium permanganate crystals can create a sprinkled, stained effect; burnt edges immediately conjures up a pirate ship.

Recipes for tea-staining, from Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking, by Annie Atkins (Phaidon)

 

“The key to staining paper is to experiment for each individual prop, keeping a careful log of recipes. If we’re called to remake a document for a reshoot, continuity of tone can be tricky if we don’t have ratios and timings written down. An old recipe used for staining a last will and testament, a document that was meant to look like it was written in 1886, calls for ten tea bags steeped in one kettle of water for five minutes.

“Of course, not every document in a period movie needs to be aged: many of the pieces we make are supposed to be brand new in a script’s storyline. Still, giving graphic props a slight patina can help convince an audience that they belong to a different time—and weren’t actually printed in a film’s art department the day before the shoot.”

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