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Features / Graphic Design

“Imagination doesn’t compare to our real life design history”: Annie Atkins on the art of graphic design for film

Every month, ten people descend upon a basement studio in Dublin’s historic Merrion Square. The streets are lined with grand Georgian houses and pristine iron gates protect a well-kept public park. Each person is there to attend a two-day workshop organised by a tenaciously talented Welsh woman in order to learn how to make film props.

She’s been a visionary behind big blockbuster films including The Box Trolls, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and her name is Annie Atkins, a graphic designer for film. On each project she’s tasked with crafting graphic pieces outlined in film scripts that blend seamlessly into the sets and transport the viewer into alternative worlds. For over a year now she’s been holding weekend workshops in her studio, explaining what she does to university students and design professionals alike, letting them know how they can get in on it too. Annie is happy spill all her secrets to thankful ears, but to learn why, it’s important to understand the journey she’s been on.

Annie’s career didn’t start in film; straight after graduating with a degree in visual communications, the designer went on to become an art director in ad land for McCann Erickson at the agency’s Iceland offices. After a few years her enthusiasm started to wane when she found herself doing the same work for the same clients, over and over again: “I never felt like I was particularly good at it and I started not to enjoy it,” she says. Needing a break from design Annie enrolled in a master’s in film production at Dublin City University, “I thought I’d leave design completely, that I’d study film and be a camera operator or a technician, and then I found this whole other world of design,” she says.

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This “whole other world of design” unearthed itself during Annie’s master’s in a unit that specifically taught graphic design for filmmaking. It had never really occurred to Annie that the people behind film props like letters, maps, notebooks, posters she saw on screen, were all the work of a graphic designer.

Gaining insight and knowledge into this specialised area, meant she left behind thoughts of being a camera operator and soon after graduating, Annie landed a job assisting as a designer on the BBC TV show, The Tudors, which was shooting in County Wicklow just outside of Dublin. “The show was a big costume drama about Henry VIII, and it was great working out what kind of graphic design was around at that time.” For Annie, the challenge was to imagine what a graphic designer back then would do when the role hadn’t even been invented yet, so she took on the role of stonemasons, signwriters and scribes and created props that felt authentic to the period.

Annie remained in Dublin after dabbling in Tudor design, and bounced from one job to the next, initially “taking any job that had the green light”. The day to day remains taxing even after years of practice. “Time is always against you in film. The role requires an awful lot of time management and it suits those who can multi-task,” explains Annie on the misconceptions of her role. “Direction doesn’t come from the producers or the production designer, you really just have to figure things out for yourself. You have to compare your graphics breakdown of the script to the shooting schedule and hope there’s no schedule change because that really throws a spanner in the works.” 

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The designer found the limelight working on one particular job, The Grand Budapest Hotel for Wes Anderson, for which she created an entire aesthetic that’s still lusted over on Instagram, Pinterest and interiors mags. The response to the film shone a light on the work Annie and her colleagues commit months of their lives to and she started getting a lot of emails from graduates and commercial graphic designers about how to get into the industry. “They wanted to know if I could recommend any books or courses. At the time, and even now, there isn’t anything on this specific subject, it’s quite a niche area,” explains Annie. “I’d started doing a couple of workshops at different schools, which I found really fun, and then I got this lovely big studio and it just seemed perfect for a classroom. So I started running workshops from there.”

Throughout the workshop there’s an emphasis on the handmade and there aren’t any computers in the neatly arranged classroom that’s decorated with old props and posters of Annie’s from over the years. “Working without computers isn’t true of working in the industry, I use my computer everyday. But I know that all my students are also using their computers every day as well. I don’t need to teach them how to use Adobe software, they already know this,” says Annie of the digital ban. “What I need to teach them how to do is how to create graphic design without a computer, because that’s how design would’ve been created for the period pieces they’re most likely to get jobs on.”

Annie’s workshops open up the mystery behind design for filmmaking, and the two days are filled with intricate prop making (the results of which you can see in this article), insightful stories and practical advice on working with scripts, as well as how to create a portfolio and who to send it to. “Sometimes people say to me ‘are you not afraid of giving away all your secrets?’ But no, there’s enough room for us all,” says Annie. “The thing is, I want to work with talented, skilled people who understand the process. I want to be able to share the tricks and the secrets and the skills I’ve learnt over the years, because the better we make this work, the better the industry is that we create.”

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The designer admits she’s in a position now where she’s established enough in her career that she can be “a bit more picky” about jobs, but through her work with Graphics Union UK, she’s keen to point out that there’s still work to do to make sure opportunities don’t always go to the people who are already in the industry. “The world of film should be accessible to everybody,” she says. “It’s such a fun world to work in and it needs so many different people from so many different walks of life. I think it’s a shame that people feel it’s inaccessible.”

The high demands of the industry may not be for everyone and it requires a thick skin, which Annie has developed over the years, nurturing her ability to “walk down the corridor and stick [her] head in the prop room and start conversations with people”. This air of confidence is a lesson she learnt while at film school: “I remember we got to make couple of short films and I ended up directing one of them and feeling really nervous,” says Annie. “I spoke to our course leader and I remember him saying to me: ‘you just have to pretend to be confident and then you will feel confident’. It’s the best advice I’ve been given.”

“I’m not brilliant at anything, I just know a little bit of everything and have learnt to cheat over the years.”

– Annie Atkins

The variety in the work Annie does is what drives her in that she never knows what period she’s going to be working on next. “The projects I work on are only really six to nine months long. They’re relatively short and it’s always a new story set in a new world. So it’s always something interesting. Every script has its own interesting things in it, so you don’t get bored.” As such, in order to get noticed in the industry, being a chameleon and not having a “signature style” is imperative. You need to adapt to whatever film, period or character you’re working on and Annie has become a magpie of sorts, collecting the various skills needed to create authentic props.

“I’m not brilliant at anything, I just know a little bit of everything and have learnt to cheat over the years,” she says. It’s an approach she encourages her workshop students to adopt and reminds them to not be afraid to copy. If you don’t know how to freehand ornate calligraphy – trace it, if you need to make something look old quickly – stain it with tea bags and rub it in some gravel, but for God’s sake don’t ever just make it up – do your research.

“As designers we have a tendency to want to correct things, but human errors keep things authentic even in a stylised world… Reality is more interesting than what we conjure – it’s the key to why we’re so fascinated by these things,” Annie says on the importance of research in her work. “Imagination doesn’t compare to our real life design history. So on every project we never start with a blank page.” In her own archives, Annie has built up a catalogue of images she’s found on the internet and divides them into decades and places providing a wealth of references that she uses again and again on various projects.

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It’s also vital that she doesn’t just consider the environment that film takes place in, but the characters as well. “We’re not designing as designers, but for the character we’re making the props for,” she says. “But it’s also for the actors and directors who use the props, to help the story come to life for them. It’s our responsibility, even though it may seem quite insignificant to everyone else.”

Wes Anderson places the utmost importance on this, and her experience working to his exacting methods meant she’s just finished collaborating with him on Isle of Dogs, a stop motion animation due for release in 2018. While she remains tight-lipped on the project, Annie does shed light on what it’s like to work with him. “If you’re working for an auteur director like Wes Anderson, you work to his style, you’re his technician… but he’s quite clear. With some directors you have to second guess what they’re thinking. Wes is clear about what he wants to try, change and experiment with, so in a sense it’s easier, it’s just the process is longer.” For instance, on a normal project each prop has typically around 12 duplicates; on Grand Budapest that number was tripled, meaning Annie and the team had to set up production lines for various props in order to make sure they were identical.

Annie is the antithesis of Hollywood, sharing her trade secrets to the masses and never even venturing to Tinseltown, proving that great work can be made wherever you are: “It doesn’t really matter about the budget and the scale of your first jobs. The important thing is to do really well in them and it will be a credit to you,” she advises. While she might not win the Oscars – “the production designer and set decorator get the awards” – Annie’s work is unparalleled and you can bet that she’d be able to make you a pretty convincing set of replica Academy Awards with the right archive images, the perfect shade of gold and the mammoth legal clearance.

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