Graphic design is an increasingly important element of production design. The world around us is comprised of signs, ads, brand logos and typography, which we are tasked with recreating on the silver screen. Our colleagues discuss their relationship with their graphic designers.
"In the midst of composing an entire universe, I adore paying attention to the smaller graphic gesture."
"When tackling a new space, the graphic layer is as important a consideration to me as the set decoration, or the props, or the construction elements."
"the conversation leading to the collaboration must be as open and exploratory as the tools that allow them to create."
"Even though my approach is loose and organic, it is important that my graphic artist and I have a short-hand and stay in constant communication, since locations, characters and ideas change every minute."
August 25, 2018
How do you collaborate with your graphic artist?
Patti Podesta is an LA-based Production Designer with a background in fine art. Notable projects include television "American Gods" and "Hannibal", the pilots for “Snowpiercer”, “Homeland” and “Elementary” and feature films “Memento” “Love and Other Drugs” and “Bobby.” She has been nominated for a Primetime Emmy and the Art Director’s Guild Award three times. In 2012 she designed the exhibition dedicated to the work of director Stanley Kubrick for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
I preface this by saying that I did quite a bit of graphic design before I became a production designer; books, catalogues and posters mainly for clients in the art world, and I also designed titles for film and television. I’ve always been interested in how ideas conveyed by image reveal themselves over time. In the midst of composing an entire universe, I adore paying attention to the smaller graphic gesture. Which is to say I fully admit to being demanding about the graphics. (The word obsessive has been used.)
So I warn graphic designers before I hire them that I am persnickety about this aspect of production design. I always have an initial conversation with my crew to share my ideas for the project, which are conceptual and abstract about meaning, paired with descriptions for color, flatness, texture, etcetera. I expect them to keep the overall arc of our project in mind and to have a thought about how a specific assignment might perform within it: Is it the centerpiece or background; is it counterpoint or funny or sad; is it part of an historic description. I dislike standard-looking graphics just as much as overly self-conscious designs. I usually give some specific direction and/or reference to begin. Schizo thinking on the part of the graphics team is welcome, because we want to produce a complex sense of place and not settle into a single style. I am happy when the designers present something not previously discussed, although I maintain veto-power. It can be frightening to have the production designer looking over one’s shoulder, so I avoid this, but often my people would rather I just sit with them for revisions. There are always revisions, and it can be frustrating if you’re trying to give direction from an image on your phone in a scouting van! So it is helpful that I speak the language of 2d design, which allows the process to go a little more smoothly. I have been known to say, “try again” if the design does not warrant critique. This is usually accompanied by a heavy sigh, but I try to be patient with designers who are not as experienced and have often been told, “I learned a lot working with you on this project.”
Clearly, graphics is no longer just signage and paperwork, and its redefinition is evolving with technology. I’ve done elaborate floors and ceilings, thousands of Egyptian hieroglyphs and TREES with my people in the last few years. I often use my graphic designer to help present visual ideas to producers and directors. The possibility that we can design and then produce what is in our heads is what keeps many of us working, at least it’s what keeps me working! The new graphics squad allows production designers to push further and the multitasking designers on my crew are a bigger and bigger part of that.
I’ve worked with a few brilliant ones: Aaron Morrison in Toronto, and Joel Waldrep from New Mexico, whom I have brought with me on projects. He surprises me. And Martin Charles, whom so many of us have collaborated with: Martin came to Pittsburgh for the film Love and Other Drugs. Although it was not in the script until production began, we were asked to produce an entire Pharmaceutical Convention. From scratch. I’m quite sure I would have lost my mind had he not been there.
Toni Barton is an NYC-based production designer that studied architecture at USC and theatre design at NYU. She is currently designing a Netflix/Marvel project and previously worked for many years as an art director and as an NYU adjunct professor.
Computers are a tool, but not the artist itself.
When building an art department, I prefer working with a graphic artist whose interests and talent extend beyond their computer and various software programs. I rely on their knowledge of history, art, architecture, typography and their ability to navigate comfortably from graphite to a stylus – with all media in between.
Creating environments can be specified thoroughly by the writer or only painted in as broad strokes – void of definitive details. While I am breaking down the script, selecting research, creating concept sketches and color palettes; the graphic artist is starting to conceive options to propel our discussion. I try to come to that conversation with clear conceptual parameters that lead to answers and further the conversation… Meaning, I am completely invested in hearing how the graphic artist understands the story development.
When the script lists artistic details all the way down to each piece of art, every book on the library shelf and certificates framed on the wall that has to be created verbatim to the script; I love the challenge of finding the character’s back story in the design of these elements, their hierarchy and placement in the environment. Over the arc of a television season, we design multiple elements that appear very similar but need to vary greatly. How many different non-descript posters are needed to plaster a venue wall, meet the clearance requirements, align with a color scheme and still allow for our hero concert poster to easily be seen? And how do you begin the design of the poster, that will turn into concert tickets and then finally an album jacket cover when you don’t even know the songs the character will eventually sing?
The graphic artist took the concept and created five different designs initially. These designs were not merely a matter of changing a serif font to a sans serif font strategically placed over a stock photo but exploring all artistic aspects of the concept. With the five designs, he then made three completely different title font selections of those designs – rendering 15 options in total. The time required to create this many options is not usually available, but his passion for the task led to more options than expected…and allowed for a thorough dialogue with the showrunner, supervising producer and director.
Often, amazing ideas come without prompting. While on another project we were looking for a specific wallpaper design for a hero bedroom in a decaying house in the woods. The graphic artist drew seven sketches of simple country life from a century past and proposed a unique toile wallpaper. Telling this story betrayed the recreation ideals of the past in this rundown house and its current occupants.
It doesn’t matter if the graphic artist is designing a neon sign, gallery art installation, newspaper article or a mad scientist’s computer screens in his technology lair… the conversation leading to the collaboration must be as open and exploratory as the tools that allow them to create.
James was born and raised in New York City, starting his career in film as a carpenter in the low-budget feature world before stepping up to design in the indie film world in the late 90’s ("Requiem for a Dream", "The 25th Hour", "The Fountain"). Since that time he has moved on into the studio world ("Avengers", "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes", "War for the Planet of the Apes"), most recently working on "The Lion King" at Disney, which will be the first feature ever shot entirely in virtual reality.
When tackling a new space, the graphic layer is as important a consideration to me as the set decoration, or the props, or the construction elements. It is an essential element to help realize a complete world. The best graphic designers bring a deep knowledge of history to the game but can also fly free into new concepts and help develop a new language for the look of the world.
Over the years I have had some amazing collaborations with various designers and always find them a critical ally. I try and bring them on in the first week or two in prep as we can start cracking open larger graphic concepts in the calm before the storm. For example on War for the Planet of the Apes, graphic designer Andrew Campbell and I engaged on the designs for the abandoned ski lodge that Bad Ape called home. The design of the set was loosely based on the WPA era lodges of the Northwest and I was interested in saturating the space with carvings and patterns reflecting the period. During our explorations we began to work up designs for a bas relief mural that ran throughout the space representing man’s conquest of nature, the irony of the images was apparent as they hung, long forgotten, in a world without humans.
On the previous Apes film Dawn, Andrew developed a language of glyphs that we used to write a history of the Apes that we etched into the stone walls of their encampment. On that film in particular there was so much unspoken history that needed to be translated through the graphic design to help the audience plug into the events that brought them to this place and time. I always treasure the discoveries born of the relationship of graphics and set design as sometimes when the storm of the show is blowing and time is short it becomes a forgotten element, sometimes the last tool a designer would reach for. But in reality I find it can be the most powerful tool in the box when building a new world.
Bret Tanzer most recently designed the first two seasons of Lena Waithe’s Showtime series “The Chi”, as well as “Gone Baby Gone”, an action pilot for director Phillip Noyce. He started his career as a Graphic Artist and Prop Maker.
Since I started my film career as a Graphic Artist, it’s only natural I work with them very closely. I’m always looking for new, dynamic ways to incorporate them into the thick of it; and often will encourage them to send their contact sheets and mock-ups to the Producers themselves after we’ve gone over them, if it’s something that begs approval; such as a scripted name or object. It’s paramount that a Graphics Artist working with me is not only intuitive, but adaptable to change and outgoing. It not only helps the process for them to be more involved, but it also helps prime them to communicate with more of the people involved, for when they are Art Directors and Designers some day (If that’s in-fact their trajectory).
I sometimes ask the artists to read the script, break it down, and start mocking-up ideas right away; without any reference or influence from me. I will also mock up a few and we will compare what designs, shapes and colorways we envisioned when seeing that sign or company logo while in the world of the script. Sometimes, we’re eerily on the same exact page, and other times we’re miles apart. Regardless of which, I honestly believe that the version that we end up seeing on the set and screen —Whether it’s their design, mine or an amalgamation of the two—will be the absolute best because of that collaborative workflow.
Even though my approach is loose and organic, it is important that my Graphic Artist and I have a short-hand, and stay in constant communication, since locations, characters and ideas change every minute; especially when working on something episodic. After an episode or two of getting to know each other, I should be able to walk into the office and their first reaction will usually be to volunteer their ideas based on the script that just came out or a revision they just read. Their position is a sort of anomaly, as they are very much a part of the department, but the independence of the job can very much f make them feel like a separate department at times.
I try my best not to micromanage Graphic Artists, as I was once in the same seat and very much enjoyed when I was left to my own devices, with enough direction and information to be a team player; but also an independent artist with my own ideas and adaptations of what I’ve read... That’s not to say I don’t hover over their monitor every so often, wishing I could grab their mouse and do the damn thing myself. It’s in my blood, and always will be.