Annie Atkins is a Graphic Designer for film. Between projects, she leads workshops in her Dublin studio and travels the world to speak about her work.
Gaining worldwide recognition for her work as Lead Graphic Designer for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, Annie’s work creates an immersive sense of authenticity on the screen, providing sumptuously textured detail for audiences and actors alike. Annie talks to Turf and Grain about living in Dublin, teaching students, and the importance of versatility.
Tell us about your path into graphic design- was it something that you always felt that you wanted to do?
I always wanted to be a graphic designer, ever since I was a little kid. It was what my dad did, so it wasn't much of a stretch to imagine myself taking that route too. I just liked playing with Letraset. I studied Visual Communication Design at Ravensbourne in London and then went into advertising when I graduated.
What made you decide to make a change to film, and how was the transition out of ad land?
I loved advertising at first. It was so glamorous! I worked at McCann Erickson in Reykjavik. All the office furniture was black, red, and chrome. All the staff had asymmetrical haircuts, even the ones in accounts. There was a pool table. My desk looked out over a snow capped mountain. I had a fancy Mac and got to sit on my arse using Photoshop all day. Still, I was doing the same work over and over again, the same layouts, working to templates, and my mind drifted to other things. I started writing a blog and my boss read it. He was great. I told him I was thinking about writing. He encouraged me to make the move to film. I left Iceland after four years and I moved to Dublin to study film production at UCD.
How do you find living in Dublin; is it a city that you find conducive to working in the creative industries?
I like small cities. I'm from rural North Wales so Dublin feels like the big time to me. I like living on a small island at one of Europe's most westernmost points. That makes me feel creative. It feels like there's a lot going on here creatively considering how small we are, but maybe everyone feels like that in their city.
You have worked quite a few period projects- what is it like to design graphics for a time before graphic design really existed? How must historical reference do you bring into your work?
I always start with a reference, always, but I try not to be a stickler for historical accuracy. It depends on the director and production designer a lot of the time, but generally we don't let the truth get in the way of a good story. Starting with a real reference helps things feel rooted in some kind of reality though. I use the word 'reality' lightly though. I think we're more concerned with making things feel authentic, more than realistic, whatever that difference is.
Making graphics for films must be incredibly practical - do you enjoy getting away from the computer screen and that more practical side of your role, or do you prefer to work digitally?
I always say I love the tactile side of things, and it is great to have physical pieces to hold up, but honestly that side of things can be a real pain. There's no undo key when you've mistakenly glued two fake passports together. Sometimes I secretly delight in having to make a tiled floor or whatever, something digital, and getting to spend a week with my head lost in my computer.
How does your creative process unfold from the moment a new brief lands on your desk?
The brief is usually the script. From that I write a breakdown, a list of all the scripted items that need to be made, then I start finding reference material. Then I show the refs to the director or the production designer, or the prop master or set decorator, whoever it is this particular piece is for. Then we develop it from there. I mostly just squirrel away at my desk. There's not an awful lot of time to spend on things usually, so we fire it all out.
I imagine that the actors in the films you work on have much more of an opportunity to spend time around and looking at your work than the audience can. How much of what you design for films is for them?
The actors are the people who really get to see these things in close-up. I'm always adding little touches here and there that are just for them. Embossing seals, for example, on official documents, that would never be picked up on by camera, but that they can feel in their hands.
How important is it to be versatile? I imagine having a 'signature style' could be seen in some ways as a limiting factor when working with directors?
Yes, you have to be completely versatile. You never know what your next job is going to be – it could be set in Victorian London or on a spaceship flying two hundred years in the future. Or a combination of the two. There's no point having a style. We're not always designing as graphic designers, but having to step in to the shoes of the character we're making the prop for, whether that's a baker putting a name on a cake, or a medieval king signing a scroll. That's the biggest difference between designing for film and designing commercially.
Do you find it rewarding to pass on your skills and experiences through your workshops? What do you teach your students – where do you place the emphasis in their learning?
I love running the workshops. People are so enthusiastic about film design. The two main things I try to teach the students are (a) step away from the computer and start drawing and making things by hand, and (b) stop starting projects with a blank page. Is there anything less inspiring than looking at a new document in Illustrator? We really have to look at the world around us and copy from life. It's like life drawing – look at the model, not at the paper. We have to find reference material first to work from before we start any piece, even if that's just a note on a noticeboard in the background.
Can you tell us a bit about what you do in a typical day at work?
Hmm, there's no real typical day. A good day is when I can sit in peace drawing lettering, but that never happens. There's always fires to put out and suppliers to chase up and amendments to make.
The film industry is famously demanding – do you get much time off?
There are weeks and months between projects sometimes. I usually keep working on projects for my commercial clients then. Or go on holiday and spend more time with my kid. The trick is not to panic. The phone always rings again in the end.