Anyone who’s seen Wes Anderson’s very pink, very stunning, and very, very meticulously created masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel will be aware of just how complex a setting it is. But until we heard from the movie’s graphic designer Annie Atkins at this year’s Offset festival about the painstaking processes the art department went through behind the scenes, the complexity we thought we understood turns out to be just the tip of a very, very deep graphic iceberg.
As graphic designer on the film, Annie’s role involved planning and creating every single item that would be designed in real life; so that’s the obvious things like packaging or newspapers, and the not so obvious things, like the pattern of a carpet. And as anyone aware of how Wes Anderson works will know, his are films characterised by creating another world. In the case of The Grand Budapest Hotel, that world is the fictional land of Zubrowka, and it’s a very beautiful one indeed.
Annie and the rest of the team were moved out to a remote area of Germany very near the Polish border for the duration of shooting time, where the art department was stationed on a mezzanine directly above the actors on set.
“Graphic design is at the bottom of the food chain in filmmaking. You always shoot according to the availability of the actors or the location.”
The first step for a graphic designer on a film, Annie explains, is to read the script, then highlight anything that might be your responsibility: usually one or two marks per page. On Budapest, however, she frequently found herself faced with pages that were almost entirely neon yellow. Then she creates a script breakdown of exactly what needs to be done, and in what order – not an easy task. “Graphic design is at the bottom of the food chain in filmmaking,” she says. “You always shoot according to the availability of the actors or the location.”
As such, creating the order for props becomes a logistical nightmare. "Continuity is the most tedious bit of working on a film, but people notice it if you get it wrong,” she says. “Graphics by their very nature are fragile, so we make six of everything. If something happens you can use another one but you have to make sure it’s identical. And if you’re working for Wes Anderson you have to make 30 or 40 of everything, as he might do that many takes.”
“In a sex scene, nobody’s ever going to pull out a newspaper or start looking at a map,”
For a graphic designer, sex scenes are usually some of the least labour intensive. "In a sex scene, nobody’s ever going to pull out a newspaper or start looking at a map,” says Annie. But in Wes Anderson films, even the usually graphics-light prison scenes call for some serious work. A map is drawn on packing paper in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and not just any map – one praised by M. Gustave for its “great artistic promise.”
Even props nodded to in the script, though, are only seen for a couple of seconds: the intricate stamp designs by an illustrator commissioned especially for the task are barely visible. So why spend so much time on the graphics? "We’re not always designing for the cinema audience, sometimes it’s purely for the director and actors,” Annie explains. “Film sets don’t look like film sets – they’re full of lights and people standing round in North Face jackets drinking coffee so everything we can do to make the experience more authentic for the actors, we do it. We’re building this world brick by brick and if that means stamps, then that’s what it means.”
“We’re not always designing for the cinema audience, sometimes it’s purely for the director and actors.”
For names shown in shot, legal issues mean that to avoid having to use clearance lawyers a common film trick is to use names of crew members. So a cafe might be named after a cameraman, or a list of wanted criminals may well feature the names of a few runners or make-up artists.
Another fascinating revelation concerned the newspapers in The Grand Budapest Hotel, including The Trans Alpine Yodel, The Daily Fact and The Continental Drift. For each paper, Wes Anderson wrote every single story, whether or not they were directly in shot, or anything at all to do with the film’s overall narrative. But authenticity, Annie insists, is everything: she even studied Hitler’s actual calling card to design a fascist character’s business card in the film.
On a more Art Attack level of advice, Annie advocates ageing paper using Barry’s tea bags: three for each ten years of age. She points out that even if the props in the film are new in the narrative, for a film set in the past the audience expects an “old” aesthetic.
But for all this authenticity, perhaps the most charming part of Annie’s talk came with the reassuring admission that even someone of her calibre can make a huge, embarrassing cock-up. The beautiful Mendl’s cake boxes seen countless times throughout the film – of which about 3000 were made – each bore one glaring error. She’s put two “t”s in patisserie, which were edited out in post-production.
“As graphic designers we have a responsibility to language and words and grammar as we work with it all the time. You have no copywriter or editor; you’re alone in film and no one else is watching out for that stuff for you.
“Everything in the film is there for a reason. Except the two ’t’s in patisserie.”
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