I specialise in graphics for filmmaking, which means that as well as creating artwork for movie posters, I also make any graphic pieces outlined by a period film script – like prison escape maps and telegrams to help create Wes Anderson’s fictional State of Zubrowka; or neon shopfront signs and fake passports for Spielberg’s new Cold War spy thriller.
Before I worked on The Grand Budapest Hotel the only e-mails I ever got were reminders about outstanding invoices, and now my inbox is swamped with questions about working in the art department. I read every lovely mail I get and I try to answer them all individually, but my invoices still need paying! So here I’ve compiled a list of the questions I receive most often…
How did you start working in graphic design for film?
I have one degree in Visual Communication and one degree in Film Production. My first job after I graduated was on the third series of The Tudors, designing all kinds of royal scrolls, stained glass, and ancient maps. No job since then has ever been as exhilarating as that first season I spent on a film set, surrounded by beautiful princesses in corsets drinking coffee out of styrofoam cups.
Is there a quicker way?
I wouldn't recommend skipping the design part or the film part of your education. You have to know your onions if you want to work in the art department, and you really need to understand the principles of layout design and typesetting to make convincingly authentic graphic props. Yes, even if they’re for stories set in the Middle Ages.
Should I go to Hollywood?
Ah, here, I’ve never set foot in Hollywood. We made Penny Dreadful in a little seaside town in County Wicklow, so you never know what’s going on right around the corner. I think you have a better chance of employment starting local than you do hopping off a bus on Sunset Boulevard with your CV and your backpack, which is how I’m imagining you now, wistfully. Part of me is wishing you a wonderful adventure and the other part of me is thinking look, come on, you should really be at home categorising your serifs, no?
But I only want to work on big box-office movies…
Er, you might want to reconsider why you want to be a graphic designer for film. Is it down to your love of old-fashioned prop-making using a variety of tangible and traditional graphic materials, or is it because you want to stalk Bill Murray? The thing is, it doesn’t really matter if you’re on a small TV show or a cinema blockbuster, learning how to make this stuff is what’s important. My most fun job was on a show called Camelot which you will have no recollection of whatsoever, but I got to make some rather convincing ancient tombstones by carving Roman lettering in to soft, wet plaster. Mmmmm.
How do you counterfeit money?
All the shows I’ve worked on so far have been set either (a) in the past or (b) in a fictitious country. So that means counterfeiting large quantities of banknotes for use on set hasn’t been a problem, as it’s either old or imaginary currency. If I ever work on a film set in the modern day, well, I’ll have to cross that bridge when I come to it.
Do you take interns?
Yes, I work with interns for 4 week periods, during which time I try to teach as many tricks of the trade as possible in exchange for an awful lot of cutting, sticking, and folding of old cigarette packaging and fake airmail etc. The internships are only open to people who have already attended one of my workshops.
What was it like working with Wes Anderson?
Wes Anderson is the most experimental and hands-on director I’ve ever worked with, and I worked closely with him and his production designer Adam Stockhausen every day. The whole job was an incredible rollercoaster from the moment I got the first call from the producers, to the winter I spent with the cast and crew in the fictional Empire of Zubrowka, to the day I sat down in the cinema to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel for the first time. I doubt I’ll work on a more beloved film that pays so much attention to graphic design again in my lifetime, so not a day goes by when I don’t thank my lucky stars (and Wes and Adam!) for that opportunity.
Are you running any workshops soon?
Yes! I run a Weekend Workshop from my studio in Dublin where we, among other things, get ink all over ourselves, so please wear old clothes! The workshops are aimed at teaching commercial graphic designers and graduates how to translate their skills to filmmaking. You can read all about it and sign up for news on upcoming dates here.
Do you ever speak at design festivals?
There is nothing I love more than talking about the hidden world of graphic design for film, complete with fancy slides. I’ve spoken at the D&AD Festival, at Dublin’s brilliant Offset design conference, in Stockholm, Oslo, Mexico, Copenhagen, Philadelphia, and North Carolina, and at Apple’s flagship store in New York. Look here for a list of upcoming talks, and please contact me by email if you’d like to chat about your own event.
I’m starting my first art department job tomorrow, any tips?
Huzzah! Wear old clothes, be in bed by 10pm every night, and never, ever use glue on a cutting mat.
“We’re not always designing for the cinema audience, sometimes it’s purely for the director and actors.”
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