8 things you didn't know about design for film

Last night, Wes Anderson's stylised action-comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel took home best production design, costume design, makeup and score at the 2015 Oscars.

For graphic designer and prop-maker Annie Atkins, it was a huge night. As lead graphic designer on The Grand Budapest Hotel, she handcrafted Anderson's fictional empire of Zubrowka one postage stamp and pastry box at a time, working closely with production designer Adam Stockhausen and Anderson to bring the cult film-maker's meticulous vision to life.

Meanwhile, another of Atkin's projects – Laika's stop-motion masterpiece, The Boxtrolls – was also up for an Academy Award; this time for Best Animated Feature Film (alongside Cartoon Saloon's beautiful Song of the Sea).

Atkins developed the graphics for the incredible Victorian packaging worn by the curious underground creatures who inhabit Laika's fantastical world.

The Grand Budapest Hotel, in particular, is exceptional in its use of graphics and typography. Leading a small team, Atkins created every single graphic prop and set piece that features in the film from her on-set studio.

We caught up with her ahead of OFFSET 2015 in March (where she's joining an all-star line up of speakers, including Matt Willey, Veronica Ditting and Hey Studio; grab your ticket if you haven't already) to find out what it's like to work as a graphic designer in the high-profile world of film.

Read on for Atkins' top tips, tricks and advice – and don't miss the full interview with Atkins in Computer Arts issue 239, on sale 31 March…

01. It's not all about the cinema audience

Close up of The Grand Budapest Hotel signage. "Some of the inaccuracies in the typesetting came straight from real references from the period," says Atkins

When we create graphic props and set pieces, we're not always making them for the cinema audience – these are pieces that are dressed into the sets to create a more authentic experience for the director and actors to work in.

Every period film you see will have shopfront signage and street posters and offices full of paperwork and maps and documents. These are all items that are made by the show's graphic designers specifically to fit the genre, period, and style of the script. It's about setting up a scene.

02. Your props must feel real

Setting the scene: Wes Anderson wrote every single article inside the Trans-Alpine Yodel newspaper

Your job is to make props that feel authentic for the actors. In real life, film sets don't look like they look in the movies – they're full of lights and cables and people standing around in North Face jackets.

So anything you can do to give an actor or director a more authentic experience on set is going to go some small way in helping the final cut of the movie. And there's a lot of waiting around on film sets, so people tend to read the fake newspapers.

03. Set design is all a trick

The art department is made up of teams of people specialising in all kinds of areas of design. The model makers, the painters, the scenic artists, the draughtsmen, the plasterers… We're like an army.

Design is rarely neglected in filmmaking, but sometimes it seems invisible because an audience assumes that everything they see on a screen was already there. They don't think for a second that it was all built up from nothing on a stage in Bray. That's the magic of design for film: you're not always supposed to be aware of it. It's all a trick.

04. Learn the period quickly

Ralph Finnes asked for his character’s notepad to be personalised with lines, even though the camera can’t see that level of detail

I usually get around 6-8 weeks prep before shooting starts, and that's the essential time I take to become fully immersed in the period I'm working to. Every show is different and it's unusual to design to the same period or style twice.

I knew nothing about Tudor times when I started that show, and nothing about Eastern European 1930s when I started the Grand Budapest Hotel. You need a good understanding of the history of the printing press, for example, to be able to imitate it convincingly on a laser jet.

05. Study antique design in the flesh

Hundreds of hours of research goes into making realistic graphic props for film

One piece of advice I always give to design students is that they really need to study antique graphic design in the flesh – there's no point doing a Google image search for a telegram. You need to understand the scale of the text and the texture of the paper in your hands, otherwise it's never going to work in an actor's hands.

06. Be prepared to live on set

"You can work remotely sometimes, but you’ll need to add extra days to every schedule for carriage, which is a nightmare when time's against you," says Atkins

Film sets are very physical environments and you need to be there with the rest of the crew wherever possible, so you can go down to the prop house or nip in to the set to take measurements.

And the prop master and the set decorator need you there, so they can grab you and show you stuff as it's being turned out. You also need to see the textures and weights of materials, and understand the scales of sets.

07. Check your spelling

You know you’ve got an original Mendl’s box from the movie if there’s two 'T's in 'patisserie'

[If Atkins could go back and do anything differently] I would have double-checked the spelling on the Mendl's box before I sent it to print. I'd spelt 'Patisserie' wrong – we only noticed it after we'd shot it a hundred times in various different scenes. I was mortified.

We corrected it in post, and Wes was so nice about it, but I burnt bright red when I realised what I'd done, especially as spelling and grammar is something I take quite a lot of pride in and go on and on about to junior designers.

08. Last but not least…

Atkins' favourite prop is the book that opens the story

Never run on a film set – they'll know you've forgotten something. Also: keep your paper supplies high… It's better to be looking at it than looking for it.

Annie Atkins is speaking at OFFSET 2015, Dublin's three-day creative conference, 6-8 March. And don't forget: to celebrate OFFSET 2015, Computer Arts is offering a whopping 13 free issues of CA with a two-year subscription (for a limited time, so be quick).

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