Annie Atkins on designing graphics for Isle of Dogs, taking influence from the past - and why she'll never do sci-fi.
The last day of Adobe’s annual MAX conference is always an odd one. Journalists fly out, all the big announcements have been made, and more than a few folk are still recuperating from the night before due to the MAX Bash, a concert that takes place on the penultimate evenings and which this year paid host to none other than Mr. Beck Hansen.
As such, finding a jewel in the post-party MAX comedown is always a welcome discovery, and I was surprised to discover one of the most intriguing events for this year’s conference scheduled on its closing day. There in the long list of workshops and technological presentations was a talk by Annie Atkins on the hidden art of production design, something which ended up being one of the best MAX happenings for 2018.
This'll be no surprise to anyone familiar with Annie, one of the biggest names in graphic design for cinema thanks to work on Wes Anderson classics like The Grand Budapest Hotel and this year’s Isle of Dogs. You’ll also have ‘seen’ her meticulous, vintage-led work in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and animations like The Boxtrolls.
A wide body of work, then, and after her packed out MAX talk I ask what genres she’d like to try next, or whether she’s up for anything and everything. Anyone expecting ‘Annie in Space’ won’t like the next answer, where she talks about working on a shelved sci-fi project from a few years back (which eventually morphed into a certain two-hander from a few years back).
“I hate science fiction,” she confides. “I used to think, ‘God, it’d be so interesting to do the future, to get a job and do something futuristic, that’d be fascinating.’ And then I did a sci-fi movie, set on a spaceship flying 200 years in the future, and I actually found it really weird.
“I had to design interactive screens for use on a spaceship. So, my instinct was to look at the interactive screen that I have on my phone, but it’s tricky with sci-fi, because what do audiences expect? The golden age of sci-fi was the ‘70s, so we started letting that inform the design instead.
“It was interesting, actually, but I was totally out of my comfort zone. Even contemporary stuff doesn’t really interest me that much. I like to work in the past.”
The through line of Annie’s work does indeed involve more historical pastures, starting with her early work on shows like The Tudors and Camelot. The past also coloured her talk at MAX, where Annie revealed her main influence is junk, or “stuff you find in your grandmother’s attic.”
She enjoys showing her working process on films, explaining how she breaks scripts down to pull out all the relevant elements that will be shown on screen — or, as Annie says in the talk, “all the things everybody sees and nobody cares about.”
“It’s just not something there’s a lot of information out there about. That’s what people wanna know about,” she explains.
The MAX presentation was full of historical intrigue, revealing how Annie's research into fascists’ business cards for The Grand Budapest Hotel turned up one belonging to Adolf Hitler, meaning they did exist (although such paper credentials in those days were more like ‘calling cards’ to leave at the home of someone you’ve visited only to find they’re not there).
When I ask Annie what’s the most fascinating historical tidbit she’s found during her many researches, she gives me an intriguing tale from her family history.
“I find that we’re with any kind of period piece that’s set pre-mid century, we’re always making telegrams. Screen writers and directors love bringing telegrams into a narrative, because they’re so of their own time, and I remember a story of my grandfather, when he was a boy in Germany just before the war started.
“He got a telegram one day while he was over there that said, ‘Your brother is ill, come home at once.’ He didn’t have a brother, so he knew immediately that something was up, and he’d got straight back on a boat over to Dover, and within days the Second World War had started.”
It’s a story Annie loves, and she still wishes she had the telegram in question.
“After he died we found all kinds of pieces of things from his past in his house, and the telegram wasn’t there, but maybe I’ll make it myself,” she hopes.
Continuing our discussion of time, Annie reveals how she finds all of Wes Anderson’s time periods to be fascinating.
“I really enjoyed working on Isle Of Dogs with Wes, because it was almost like a fictional time. In the script it was said to be 20 years in the future, but from when? It wasn’t clear, you know.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel (meanwhile) was in four different time periods. The '80s, the '60s, the '30s and then present day. But again present day wasn’t necessarily ‘now.’ So, I love that playfulness with time. I’m a technician when it comes to working with Wes; I’m making stuff to his vision. It’s always a really fun way to work.”
Asking Annie what time periods she’d like to play with next, and she has a few ideas.
“I’d like to do some more fantasy periods from the past, you know? Like, Game of Thrones is very much a fantastical time, but it’s all rooted in real historical times as well. Maybe also a ‘Gold Rush’ Western. I’ve never done anything like that, that would be fun.”
Looking to the future, Annie is bringing her much loved Graphic Design for Filmmaking workshop to the States for the first time, where students will learn how to design graphics that can help tell a director’s story.
“Traditionally, graphic designers in art departments didn’t necessarily come from a graphic design background,” Annie notes about what inspired her to set up the sessions. “They often come from a general art department background and fell into the graphic design role, because they knew a bit about Photoshopping. Whereas now, I think there’s been a little bit of light shone on the field, and professional graphic designers are wanting to make that transition.
"That’s something I’m encouraging in my workshops. I want to teach people who are graphic designers how to get into the industry.”
Annie enjoys the luxury of time presented by the workshops with her students.
“I find that when you’re working on a movie production, it’s really high pressure,” she bemoans. “Time’s always against you, everyone’s up to the nines; there’s not a lot of time to actually enjoy what you’re doing. Whereas with the workshops, I’m spending time with students who are really into the subject and we can explore things a little bit more and have some fun with things.
“It’s just nice being with people who are so interested in the subject, and being able to inspire them and help them make great portfolios and get into an industry that they think is like a closed door.”
I hark back to how after her MAX talk, various attendees came up for a chat with Annie about getting into the industry, full of questions.
“I remember I did a screen writing course years ago, and somebody said at the end of the course, ‘Film just feels like a closed door. It feels like you have to know somebody to get your foot in the door.’ And I’ll never forget what the tutor said," Annie recounts.
"She said, ‘Yeah, that actually may be true. But the best way to get to know somebody is to introduce yourself to them. If you can introduce yourself to somebody with a really great piece of work, they will want to bring you on board. They’re always looking for good people.’ That advice has actually stayed with me forever; I thought it was a really encouraging thing to say to people, and I try to teach my students that same thing.
“I want film to be an industry that’s open to the best talents and the best people, and I want to be able to give people opportunities to get in. After people come to my workshops they go off and they make props and I see such good work, and I think the door should be open to them all.”
Aside from the US debut of her workshops, Annie also has her first book in the pipeline.
“I was approached by Phaidon over a year ago now, because I sometimes post online about each subject and they asked if I had ever considered writing a book about it all.
“I’ve been writing it for the last year or so. It’s basically everything that was in my MAX presentation, but it’s much more expanded upon. I’m coming towards the end of the deadline now, then it’ll take a year for it to be edited and published.”
Moving away from future and past, we look at the present and Annie‘s recent projects.
“The last big thing that I worked on was Isle Of Dogs, and it was such a treat to sit down in the cinema and watch it, and see what happened with all the pieces that we made.”
“Every time I work on an animation I definitely feel like I’d like to stay in that field,” she continues, “because you really are creating everything from scratch.
“It’s always a very imaginative world. Nobody every makes a super realistic animation, you know? It’s kind of a nicer way to work because you have that little bit longer, and it’s much more involved.
“I think this is also why I love working for Wes Anderson so much, because he takes that 'involved' approach in his live action and his animation. We’re always building everything from scratch and taking care of every tiny little detail.”
And in the end with Annie, it’s those little details that shine - even if not everyone notices them.