Annie’s movie magic

From Willy Wonka’s golden ticket to the Mendl’s Cake Box in The Grand Budapest Hotel, graphic design plays a subtle but magical role in the world of film-making. Designer Louise Duffy meets Annie Atkins, probably the best-known graphic designer specialising in film

The role of the graphic designer in films and television is now about so much more than designing the movie poster. Visual artists are needed to convey so many aspects of the film beyond what the actors, costumes, sets, lights and sound can deliver on their own.

The designer creates all the details of everyday life from street signs, newspapers and books to the more obscure treasure maps and wanted posters. They’re needed to create a character’s passport, a driver’s licence or a business card. Their work sets the scene for a time and place for the story to unfold.

A lot of the time, the work that these designers put in is barely noticed. In fact, if they are doing their job right, they will have created props, signs and graphics that blend so seamlessly into the world around them on screen that they do not stand out to the viewer at all. A ‘hero’ prop on the other hand is given its own airtime. This might be Patrick Bateman’s business cards from American Psycho, the Daily Prophet from Harry Potter or the Grays Sports Almanac from Back to the Future. All of these items are an integral part of the film’s plot.

In recent years, the role of graphic design in film has become more apparent, helped largely by designers like Annie Atkins. Annie is trailblazing the niche expertise of design through her exquisite work on films such as Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.

Her designs brought the imaginary world of Zubrowka in The Grand Budapest Hotel to life. Annie worked closely with Wes Anderson to create a highly aestheticized world full of stunning intricacies and details. She created stamps, handwritten letters, maps, newspapers, posters, signage and the now famous pink Mendl’s cake box. In a unique style of direction Wes Anderson would put most of Annie’s graphical elements front and centre in the shots creating a stylized film adored by creatives and filmgoers alike. 

The responsibility to be authentic

Bridge of Spies on the other hand is a real story and so here she had to be aware of the historical importance of being truthful and authentic to the era. Her portrayal of both New York and Berlin during the cold war era was based on extensive research. Signs that would appear on the street on New York are very different to those that you would see today and so the typography and the vernacular had to be just right to transport us back in time.

Annie, originally from Wales, now lives and works in Dublin where she holds graphic design for film workshops several times a year. There are 10 coveted places for those wanting to have a peek into her studio and learn the tricks of the trade and I was thrilled to bag a place last year. We were sworn to secrecy as to the methods we learned there, but I’ll let you in on one … one of the most important tools for a graphic designer for film is the humble tea bag. This isn’t for the countless cups that you will need to get you through a long day on set but for ageing paper. The process is no different than how you might have done it as a child. Steep your crisp white A5 paper into some cold tea, let it dry, give it a scrunch and a tear here and there and voila, an old piece of parchment!

Never start with a blank page

We also practiced our calligraphy, created a telegram and an extremely authentic looking passport – I may not need to renew my current one! Annie talked through her process from when she receives the script, to working with the production and set designers. She explained that her research for a film could include visiting flea markets for old telegrams, buying up old paper from eBay or trawling online archives. “Imagination doesn’t compare to our real-life design history,” she said. “So we never start with a blank page.” Her skills are extremely varied, but she makes it clear that to succeed in her profession it is not necessary that you are an expert; it’s better to be good at making lots of things.

As well as her successes, she talked about the mistakes she has made over career, most notably the misspelling of the word ‘patisserie’ on the delightful Mendls cake boxes in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. She had drawn hundreds of boxes by hand before Wes Anderson called her up to break the news. The boxes had to be corrected using CGI in post-production. Her honesty is so refreshing because, as designers, we have all made mistakes, but thankfully they don’t normally appear on feature films.

Annie would say: “If you concentrate on the little details then you contribute to a much bigger picture”.  So the next time your watching a film or TV show, take a moment to look out for the graphic design that helps to transport you into the story. Think of what we would be missing if we didn’t have One Eye Willie’s treasure map from The Goonies, Willy Wonka’s golden ticket or the Jumanji board game. All of these items are key to the telling of the story and someone had to design them so that they slotted perfectly into each magical world.

For more details on workshop dates and to get in touch with Annie Atkins please visit