Why The Grand Budapest Hotel’s typography is the star of the movie
As a carefully constructed miniaturized universe, The Grand Budapest Hotel is that most Andersonian of endeavors, evincing the deadpan drolleries, screwball action and dollhouse aesthetic that have alternately charmed and chagrined filmgoers for the past couple of decades” says Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday of a movie that is destined to be the best homage to typography in this year’s Oscar race. But if there is a single star in Wes Anderson’s pure moviegoing pleasure, this has to be the typography and Annie Atkins, the film’s lead graphic designer is to blame.
Responsible for every single graphic prop in the movie, this 34 years old Irish woman designed and created newspapers, letters, shopping bags, police reports, wills, menus, books, every piece of paper that appears on screen. Her striking graphic designs for Wes Anderson’s universe was a massive undertaking. “On the one hand, you’re working in the style of the period, but you’re also working in Wes’s style,” says Atkins. “So it’s an amalgamation of two very special worlds and a lot of imagination.”
It was a labour-intensive job commented The Independent. Documents had to be typed on a vintage typewriter, letters hand-written in calligraphy, cake boxes screen-printed, a rather immense task for Atkins who had never worked on a feature film before but Wes Anderson made anything possible.
“Wes has such a graphic sensibility” she told to Creative Review. "He is completely involved in every aspect of his filmmaking, and I worked very closely with him and the production designer, Adam Stockhausen, every day. This film was particularly fun, I think, from a graphics point of view, because we were creating this entirely fictional country that Wes had written - the State of Zubrowka. It meant that every little detail had to be made from scratch - flags, banknotes, postage stamps, everything. Adam had already collected a huge amount of reference from 1930s Eastern Europe when I joined them, and I would start each graphic prop by showing Wes a real artifact from the time. I would show him redrafts of designs sometimes 20 times a day. Wes has a very graphic sensibility - that’s evident in all his films, of course.
“I use traditional methods in graphic prop-making wherever possible: a real 1930s typewriter for typewritten documents; a dipping pen and ink for any handwriting. Pieces have to be aged, too, as nothing should look like it was made in an art department five minutes ago.”
Once the layout of each design had been decided, then it was time to make the prop physically, and make something that will work on set in an actor’s hands. I use traditional methods in graphic prop-making wherever possible: a real 1930s typewriter for typewritten documents; a dipping pen and ink for any handwriting. Pieces have to be aged, too, as nothing should look like it was made in an art department five minutes ago. Madame D’s last will and testament took a lot of aging, for example, as it contained over 600 pieces that were scripted as being some 46 years old. I have some tricks of the trade that I’ve learnt over the years... mostly involving a big vat of tea and a hair dryer.
CR: It’s a very type-rich film, from the hotel itself, to the subtitles, Mendl’s, even the prison gates have huge type on them - can you talk us through the major typefaces used and why they were chosen?
We actually used comparatively few typefaces in the movie, as most lettering was created by hand. Wes and Adam had been on location recess all around Eastern Europe and had references of all kinds of hand-made signage from the last 100 years or so. The beautiful thing about period filmmaking is that you’re creating graphic design for a time before graphic designers existed, per sé. It was really the craftsmen who were the designers: the blacksmith designed the lettering in the cast iron gates; the glazier sculpted the lettering in the stained glass; the sign-painter drew the lettering for the shopfronts; the printer chose the type blocks for the stationery.
The Grand Budapest Hotel sign itself, up on the roof of the hotel, is my favorite example. It was based on an old steel hotel sign from 1930s Cairo that Wes had picked out. I hand-drew the lettering for our own hotel in the same style, somewhat unevenly, with rather jaunty serifs, and then gave the drawing to our model-makers who sculpted it for the hotel miniature. I remember they corrected the rather wide kerning between the letters A and N, and we asked them to widen it again just like it was in the reference. It’s the little idiosyncrasies like this that Wes loves - it’s all part of his aesthetic. On the one hand he’s a perfectionist; on the other hand he doesn’t want anything to look machine-made, or digitally produced in any way.
CR: What was your favorite piece that you designed for the film?
My absolute favorite piece is the book itself that opens the story. It’s a modern pink hardback with a drawing of the hotel on the front, and the name of the movie as the hotel sign. It’s a relatively simple piece, but it’s really special having a prop that you made with the movie’s name on it like that. I remember Wes had sent me a quick sketch showing his idea for the book, and I really loved being able to help make that work for him. I treasure that piece, actually - we made three for the shoot, in case one got dropped in the snow, and so I brought one home with me.
CR: And the most challenging?
Probably the hotel’s local newspaper, the Trans-Alpine Yodel, as there were so many issues with so many different stories, and each one had to be typeset with new articles and weather reports and dates. It was the first piece I worked on with Wes when I arrived in Germany, so this was the prop that I cut my teeth on. I really got a feeling for his fastidiousness on this one - we must have gone through almost 40 different page layouts until he was happy to shoot it! I also had to think about the aspect ratios he was shooting, too, as they were different for the different time periods in the movie, and he wanted the newspaper columns to fit nicely within the frame of each of them. Wes wrote all the newspaper articles himself - not just articles to accompany the main headlines, but the surrounding ones too.”
A calligrapher herself, Atkins is amazed. “I started learning as a teenager, when I set up a Calligraphy Club with my equally nerdy friend Cathy at school lunchtimes. Needless to say, we were the only members. Then we started Embroidery Club and History Club but nobody wanted to join those either. And now, 20 years later, Hollywood wants in. Take that, scornful classmates of 12N!”. Typography just entered the blockbuster era.
“We actually used comparatively few typefaces in the movie, as most lettering was created by hand.”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel sign was based on an old steel hotel sign from 1930s Cairo. I hand-drew the lettering for our own hotel in the same style, somewhat unevenly, with rather jaunty serifs, and then gave the drawing to our model-makers who sculpted it for the hotel miniature.”