Despite having resisted the siren call of Hollywood, Annie Atkins has made quite a name for herself in the hermetically sealed world of cinema. As a graphics and prop designer, most notably for Wes Anderson in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Isle of Dogs (she also worked on the coming The French Dispatch), Dublin-born Atkins has elevated an oft-neglected craft into the realm of art. Metrograph recently caught up with her to talk about her exacting research and eye, as well as her new book, “Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps: Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking.”
Horacio Silva: So much of your work is rarely seen in close-up, but crucial to the overall project. Is it fair to suggest that if you're doing your job properly, I'm not noticing it?
Annie Atkins: I think so. Most of this work belongs in the background. It's part of the set, and rarely seen in close-up. But if something's not quite right with the graphic design, it really jumps out. It's human nature that people want to read things, so if there's text in the background, for example, your eye is drawn to it and it's very easy to spot mistakes or things that feel out of period or off genre. Sometimes what we call hero props are supposed to be seen in close-up and they have to pass the scrutiny of the camera and the audience. But most of the work is not made for a close-up and you’re not really supposed to notice these things, no.
Horacio Silva: How much do you design for the audience versus for actors?
Annie Atkins: Most of the work is made for the set and the directors, but it's really the actors that I'm thinking about when I make most of my pieces. I try to make things that can help create this fictitious world that the cast have to inhabit all day. I think most actors can act just as well in front of a green screen, but we try to give them pieces that feel authentic and nudge them a little further into character.
Horacio Silva: The book makes pretty clear the importance of continuity. Talk to me a bit about that.
Annie Atkins: In terms of graphic design, most of the props we make are usually made out of paper so they're quite fragile. If someone spills a coffee over something, it's ruined. So we always make multiple copies and we call them our repeats. The repeats have to be identical for continuity’s sake. Let's say you have two actors talking to each other, and they're holding a telegram that's been ripped up, and one of them misses a line. They put the telegram down, someone spills a coffee over it, a new telegram is handed in and it looks a little bit different.
Later on if the editor is slicing shots together, their priority is in the acting, so they want to use the shot that has the best delivery of the lines. So if they have to use two different telegrams in that scene, it will become a continuity error. Maybe if there's blood on the telegram, it might look like the blood is jumping around the page. So we deal with that before anything gets to set by making sure all our repeats are identical—well, as identical as they can be. These things are often made by hand so they're never going to be exactly the same.
Horacio Silva: I think one of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the tremendous amount of detective work, the research that you do to arrive at these decisions that you make. I was particularly interested in that story about the prison map you made for The Grand Budapest Hotel. For the uninitiated walk me through the story of all of the dependencies and minute details behind that particular prop.
Annie Atkins: First of all, we were shooting the prison scenes in an actual old prison in Germany and had to draw it as a map that one of the characters in the movie had drawn. It wasn't just a map, there’s also an element of comedy to it. It described moats full of crocodiles and prison guards in towers and 500-foot drops, and all these things, because there was a lovely sequence later on in the movie where the prisoners break out of jail, basically.
Then of course it has to look like it was not drawn by somebody in the art department. It had to look like it was drawn by Ludwig who was this gnarly prisoner played by Harvey Keitel. These are some of my favorite kind of props to make, when you have to step into a character's shoes and try to imagine what that character would have drawn like.
Horacio Silva: But didn't you, as part of that exercise, also have to conceive not only the packaging on the back of which it's written but also the stamps, the country, the emperor?
Annie Atkins: Every time you make a prop, what the set decorator or the prop master or the director want to know is what's on the back of it because quite often, when a character is holding a graphic, they're looking at the front of it but the camera's looking at the back. So what they don't want is just things that look like plain sheets of paper.
So in this case, Wes Anderson said, "Okay, what would the prisoner actually have drawn this on? What kind of paper would he have had access to?" Wes suggested a piece of old packaging, as if someone had sent a package into the prison and he was drawing on the back of it. But then, of course, a packaging label is going to need postage stamps and as it was set in the fictitious country of Zubrowka, we had to create all these pieces like emblems for postage stamps and franking marks for a fictitious country. And because it was an empire we had to design an Emperor of Zubrowka to feature on our postage stamps, all these tiny little details. In the end I don't think we got a close-up of the back of it at all but, as I say, sometimes these things are done more for the actors.
Horacio Silva: The story about Jopling's business card was also pretty interesting. How in God's name did you track down Hitler and Goebbel’s calling cards?
Annie Atkins: So we start every piece with a reference, even if it's something really, really, simple. Jopling’s calling card was a very simple prop. But regardless we always start with something real. Because this was for one of the movie's baddies, a kind of fascist character, we looked at real calling cards from the 1930s.
Horacio Silva: How?
Annie Atkins: We just put into Google, “1930s fascist business cards” [laughs]. They all just pop up. As a prop designer Google's your best friend.
Horacio Silva: I also love the stories about some of the cock-ups, like the Mendl’s cake box. For people who may not know that, how did you screw that up?
Annie Atkins: I worked on that box with my two colleagues and the word Mendl's was beautifully hand-lettered by our illustrator, and I did the filigree around it and the word “pâtisserie.” Because everything was drawn by hand, it just never went through a spell check and I accidentally added an extra “t.” We printed hundreds of those boxes, and I'd say it was seen in nearly every set in that film at some point.
Horacio Silva: There's a huge stack of them at one point….
Annie Atkins: Exactly. I think Agatha and Zero fall into a pile of them when they're making an escape. It was towards the end of the movie that the mistake was actually detected and we had to go backand then correct the spelling in post-production. It's lucky that we're able to do that but it's not ideal.
Horacio Silva: That’s obviously an accidental gaffe but do you ever put in deliberate anachronisms just to be cheeky or keep people on their toes? You know, like how Alexander McQueen used to allegedly write obscenities in tailor’s chalk inside the lining of Prince Charles' suits when he worked on Savile Row?
Annie Atkins: No, I would never do that [laughs]. One thing I sometimes do, in like a TV show or something, if it still seems period correct, is put a friend's name into a piece of shop signage or something like that but this would be just deep background on a TV show, or low budget production. Things are really strict in movies. Everything you make has to go through legal and it also has to go through multiple people. Someone would catch it.
Horacio Silva: Yours is a very specific milieu. How did you get into it?
Annie Atkins: Originally I was a graphic designer in an ad agency and then I left advertising and went to study filmmaking, I suppose with the idea that I would have some other role. I wasn't looking to work in design and film. Until I went to film school, I hadn't realized that there was so much design needed for film. It's funny because I'd been watching movies and interested in design my whole life, but I just hadn't really put two and two together.
But then in film school I began to understand design for film, and I met a production designer who came in to teach a module and was designing a TV show called The Tudors, which we made here in Ireland some years ago. He invited me for an interview and hired me on the third season, which was my first job. All of a sudden I was making old royal scrolls and having to fake calligraphy.
Horacio Silva: How did Wes Anderson’s production designer Adam Stockhausen find you?
Annie Atkins: He was coming to Germany with Wes for Grand Budapest and they were looking for a European graphic designer and I had worked with the production designer from Fantastic Mr. Fox on another animation project. So they asked him for recommendations and he put them in touch with me.
Horacio Silva: Oh, wow, cool.
Annie Atkins: Yeah. I was really lucky. At that point I'd only really done some local Irish TV shows and that one animated feature. Even just getting a phone call from New York was crazy. Nobody had ever called me from New York before. Suddenly my phone was ringing and it was the producers asking me about my availability. They wanted to see examples in my portfolio of things, the kind of things that Wes was looking for that film, so telegrams, things from the early 1900s, telegrams, old newspapers, cigarette packaging. Luckily, I had just finished a TV show about the Titanic so I had loads of period-correct pieces in my portfolio.
Horacio Silva: Speaking of old newspapers, I know you're not allowed to talk about The French Dispatch, but speak to me about what it's like to work with Wes Anderson?
Annie Atkins: Working with Wes is amazing. I suppose it's different from the other work I do in the sense that he's an auteur. He’s the artist and I'm really just helping him realize his vision. He pushes every single prop. He really experiments a lot and develops each piece, and we try lots and lots of different things. I think that has really rubbed off on me in my commercial work (I do some packaging and branding design and stuff) because I feel like I push my own work further now. He's a real inspiration.
Horacio Silva: What's the oddest request that you've ever been asked to design?
Annie Atkins: I suppose everything is a little bit odd in its own way.
Horacio Silva: In the book there's the reference to the bullets that you were asked to design for Bridge of Spies.
Annie Atkins: Come to think of it that was peculiar, yeah. When you work in a certain country, you start to do the same stuff over and over again. So in Ireland we make a lot of old costume drama, a lot of shows about the Tudors, mediaeval times, the Viking Age, that kind of thing, whereas in Berlin, they make a lot of films about WWII.
On Bridge of Spies the art director asked me one day, "Can you make some bullet holes?" I didn't know what he meant, but Lily, my co-graphic designer, who is German, had made them before and she explained that we print what look like bullet holes on a wall, on acetate, and we stick them up to look like the city streets in Berlin that are sometimes peppered with bullets.
So we made those for Bridge of Spies. But I think in the end they couldn't use them because it was so cold there, we were there in the winter time, it all just kept flaking back off the wall. Again, we ended up doing it in post-production.
Horacio Silva: I've heard you talk, self-deprecatingly, about graphic design being the bottom of the filmmaking totem pole. Now with a book coming out and the success you’re enjoying, do you still subscribe to that view?
Annie Atkins: I’m not that self-deprecating! What I meant by those comments is that when a movie is scheduled, they prioritize things like actor availability and location. The graphic designers, we are a small part of a much bigger art department, and really just another cog in the moviemaking wheel. But I think it's really great that there's been a bit of a light shone on the craft in recent years because graphic design is an integral part of the process, even if it is a small one.
“Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps: Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking” ($35) is published by Phaidon. Click here to buy.