The design of graphic props and how a graduate animation got nominated for an Oscar
At April’s Nicer Tuesdays, we welcomed renowned designer Annie Atkins and animation director Siqi Song to the online stage.
A couple of days after the 93rd Academy Awards, Nicer Tuesdays Online continued the filmic celebration of talent, inviting graphic props designer Annie Atkins and animation director Siqi Song to our online events platform to tell us more about working in the oh-so glamorous industry. Annie, most well known for her work on Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and Isle of Dogs amongst other Hollywood classics, dialled in from her home in Dublin and shed light on her career to date; from prop making tips to advice on how to start working in film. Siqi, on the other hand, joined us from LA where the Chinese-born animator now resides, talking us through the behind-the-scenes process of stop motion animation. First discussing her debut short Sister, and her latest commission, All in a Day’s Work.
Along the way, our two coveted speakers touched on a myriad of topics intersecting film, animation, design and storytelling. From how to embody a character in an animated puppet to the importance of historically accurate props and how actors interact with them, April’s Nicer Tuesdays was packed with creative insight. Find out more about what Annie and Siqi had to say below. Also, did you know that by becoming an Extra Nice supporter, you’ll receive tickets for all It’s Nice That’s online events, including Nicer Tuesdays, for the entire year. That’s just one of the perks to becoming a supporter, find out more about Extra Nice here.
Annie Atkins: The Grand Budapest Hotel (Copyright © Wes Anderson and Disney, 2014)
Siqi Song: All in a Day's Work (Copyright © Siqi Song for Mailchimp Presents, 2020)
A high quality animation on a student budget
“Making a film is like running a small business,” called out Siqi Song as our first speaker at April’s Nicer Tuesdays. It’s not every day that you hear about a graduate project getting nominated for an Oscar, but this is the fascinating story Siqi divulged during the talk. Making her graduate film Sister during the three years she studied animation at Cal Arts, Siqi was a pro even before she’d stepped out the university doors.
She told us more about Sister, the eight-minute short released in 2018 and nominated for Best Animated Short at the Oscars one year later. Based on autobiographical experiences, the short focuses on a man looking back on his childhood memories of 90s China, and specifically, recollections of his annoying little sister. The film questions what life would have been without her, set against the backdrop of China’s former one child policy. Drawing direct inspiration from her childhood home – leather sofa and all – Siqi took us through the various research phases in preparation of the film in order to make the short “as authentic as possible.”
Creating the film with very little budget – around $300 – was no mean feat, and Siqi explained how she created a short with such a high production value on this budget, a budget provided by a graduation film fund. Touching on the technical processes behind the magic of animation, she ran through the list of programs used to make the animation and along the way, gave some words of wisdom on how to “take advantage of the media you are using”.
Moving on from Sister, Siqi also discussed her latest commission, All in A Day’s Work for Mailchimp Presents in partnership with It's Nice That. A “really fun project” centred on entrepreneurs and start-ups, the animator took us through specific aspects of this process including the meticulous character design which starts off as a generic template onto which idiosyncratic character traits are applied, and how the mouth and eye movements were applied post production, once the stop motion part of the process was complete.
Lettering for Wes Anderson which purposely doesn’t look quite right
Having started out as a graphic designer in the advertising industry, Annie Atkins progressed to create some of the background details in some of the world’s best known films. From Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel and Isle of Dogs, she’s also touched Bridge of Spies amongst other Hollywood blockbusters. But little did we know that her first role in prop making began with the BBC adaptation of The Tudors.
Taking us through her uncertain early years as a designer until she found her feet in graphic props making, Annie, like many others, wasn’t aware that she could be a graphic designer for film. Explaining how she got into it (through a tutor who guest lectured during her master’s in film) Annie offered fruitful advice to anyone hoping to make a career in the industry: “Start making props, don’t apply with an advertising portfolio,” was one instance while other nuggets of wisdom included, “the best way to introduce yourself is by showing a portfolio that you want other people to see”, which in her opinion, is far more valuable than being someone’s personal contact or cousin.
Going on to do discuss the art of graphic prop making, throughout Annie’s conversation with our editor-in-chief Matt Alagiah, images from her new book Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking circulated alongside. Matt and Annie talked all things prop making, from the obvious tea stained paraphernalia to the heavily researched typography that appears in period drama signage. “You have to step into the shoes of the character,” Annie indicates on how to design an authentic prop for any given situation. Remodelling peoples’ behaviours and taking on their likes and desires to create an apt prop for said character to use, Annie also discussed the logistical aspects of her process; taking cue from whether the props are made from scratch or not, as well as the historical and cultural setting.
“The actors should feel like they are inhabiting a different world,” explained Annie. “Some props might only be seen for a second,” but these are often the ones that take the most time to create, for instance, a sign in the background of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Going on to discuss the difference between typography and lettering, as Annie said she resonates more with lettering, Annie talked about her own personal style when it comes to drawing type and how her strength is “making lettering which doesn’t feel quite right”.
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Left: Annie Atkins: The Grand Budapest Hotel (Copyright © Wes Anderson and Disney, 2014)
Right: Siqi Song: All in a Day's Work (Copyright © Siqi Song for Mailchimp Presents, 2020)
Nicer Tuesdays Online is our monthly event of creative talks. You can find out more here.
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