A sunny September evening with Autumn giving us a subtle wink, we all gathered at Arnolfini for a much anticipated sell-out talk by graphic designer for film and TV, Annie Atkins.
First up was sunny warm-up act Flora Fricker, self-described maker, dreamer and storyteller. Flora spent her childhood making furniture for her doll’s house, crafting tiny little books and collecting eclectic ephemera, such as old bus tickets, vintage stationery and calling cards. Daughter to a wedding dress designer mum and travel writer dad (who came along to the talk and heckled!), creativity and the art of observation were clearly ingrained in the fabric of the Fricker family.
Flora spoke with warmth, wit and sparkle. We heard how she studied typography at Falmouth University, lured by the world of old fonts and historic lettering, and how she happily stumbled across film graphic designer, Annie Atkins in her third year and found her vocation. Attending Annie’s renowned Dublin workshop was the cherry on the cake – this was the beginning of a love affair with a world of make-believe.
With open-eyed excitement and the occasional giggle, Flora described her intricate portfolio piece exploring the miniature world of Eliza Doolittle, designed to win her that crucial break on a major film. And it did just that. She was chosen to work as an assistant designer on the forthcoming Cats film; a true baptism of fire, she entered a world of scaled up sets, art departments, vast film studios and global stars such as Judi Dench and Idris Elba.
A stunned audience of (many) graphic designers learned how she would spend hours designing tiny details such as labels on tins or background posters, many of which didn’t even make it on screen, and ultimately met their end in the bin. A world apart from the commercial design world of high profile awards, portfolios and obsessive kerning.
After a warm thank you to her teacher and mentor, Annie took to the stage. Originally from Wales and now based in Dublin, Annie’s laid-back and self-effacing air hugely contrasted someone who’s clearly at the top of their game. Another avid hoarder and collector of objects that have a story to tell, Annie is known for her beautiful work on Wes Anderson’s visually rich films.
— Annie Atkins
All the things that everybody sees and nobody cares about
She began by posing the question, ‘why do we go into so much detail when things are unlikely to be seen?’. Because every intricate and carefully considered object adds up and helps to tell the story through their own medium. Dog tags in the Isle of Dogs and painstakingly hand drawn maps of the Japanese Archipelago, the iconic Mendl’s box in The Grand Budapest Hotel, period correct posters from 1980s Brooklyn for the new Joker Movie and the unique character’s boxes for The Boxtrolls, inspired by the wonky and top-heavy buildings in York’s Shambles. Interestingly, Directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi insisted that the entire Boxtrolls film didn’t contain one straight line. Amazing.
Annie found her way into the world of production design on the back of a career in advertising and it was as a result of this happy accident that she re-discovered her love of design. Through listening to Annie’s fascinating stories and anecdotes, it became clear that what we thought was the glamorous and magical world of film is in actual fact, a world of intensely hard work, long hours and set life. Irrespective, she clearly thrives on being part of a dynamic and dedicated team that all do their bit to create the immersive and magical experience that is film.
As viewers, we generally don’t consider the detail of what we see, but instead take in the whole picture. The death warrant written by the calligrapher, the stained glass crafted by the glazier, the hieroglyphics created by the cave people – all the job of the graphic designer. In effect, it’s their job to replicate real life, whether that’s using a Mac or their own hands. Annie made the comparison with life drawing – it’s the art of truly studying the life in front of you and re-creating it in all its imperfect perfection. She spoke of having to commission a calligrapher to write Virginia Woolf’s suicide letter for a recent film, but her version was deemed ‘too perfect’ because it lacked the fundamental erratic style that typified Woolf’s state of mind at that time.
This is the art of storytelling at its best; the ability to tell a particular story in intricate and perfect detail, even if that detail is deemed ‘imperfect’. And clearly, it’s a very different world to the graphic design world most of us know. Annie calls herself ‘a technician realising a director’s vision’, designing for the actors and director, not just the audience. Her latest project is her childhood favourite, Westside Story, and will no doubt see her help to re-create another beautifully imperfect world on screen. Thanks to Annie and Flora’s engaging and insightful talk, I think we’re all going to look at film very differently from now on.
Photography by Ben McCluskey