Master at work: The Art of Hermann Zapf is a vintage must-watch short film of typographic brilliance
“I would now like to make a few comments about my experience in the film industry. Produced in 1967, the film The Art of Hermann Zapf was shot in Kansas City, Missouri, at Hallmark Cards Inc. and in my studio in Dreieichenhain, Germany. A German version entitled Die Welt der Buchstaben was also produced by Linotype. This title was for several years the title of the permanent exhibition I held at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. This beautiful old library is famous for its books and manuscripts. It was the idea of Hallmark to make an educational film to be lent to art schools and TV stations. The beginning of this interesting project was very difficult. I was not at all familiar with the Hollywood English of the movie people, so I had to learn that first” reads Herman Zapf’s account about a movie that unveils the talent of a true master in type design aka The Art Of Hermann Zapf (1967) in which Zapf himself walks us through the art of typography.
A kind reminder about the origins of western typography and a great introduction to calligraphy by Zapf, the movie is insightful and probably a must-watch for those who like to delve deep into the history of type with the help of a letter master who welcomes the viewer with freehanding large caps with chalk on a chalkboard. Yet, the production of the short film was not an easy task.
“Our cameraman, Frank Robinson by name, came from Hawaii. He was used to big outdoor scenes with professional models. He spoke in his Polynesian accent only of shooting and takes in connection with my story board, of stills he wanted to include, etc., demonstrating his ideas with sweeping gestures” adds Zapf.
“My God, very quickly I realized we had absolutely different conceptions about the film. I wanted no outdoor shootings at all, no expensive movie stars. I wanted to show only single letters, my paw manipulating a broad-edged pen, and for the letterforms, close-ups to explain the movement of the pen. In addition, I wanted special close-ups through a glass on which I would write. Turning the film during copying will make it look as though I was writing on air. At once my friends at Hallmark had a new term for this: frog views. How could I tell my thoughts to a wild man from the film business? But the frog view idea persuaded him and suddenly he said: Great, Hermann, let’s start tomorrow.”
“I would like to add just one detail of the making of the film. After long discussions and the help of a lot of alcohol, we started late in the night. I was sitting at a slanted glass table with a hot spotlight on my neck. Frank Robinson was lying on the floor with the camera ready for a frog-view shot. My task was to write beautiful letters with ink which dried as soon the pen touched the slippery surface of an astralon sheet. Not an easy job at all with a nervous cameraman at your feet. But with whiskey and many words of praise at the end, we all finished the film. It was a painful experience and I swore never to burn my fingers as a pseudo-Hollywood production manager, but to stay with my humble pen and design alphabets.”
Hermann Zapf (pronounced “tsáff”), is the iconic calligrapher, type designer, and typographer whose Palatino, Optima, Zapfino, Melior, Aldus, and quirky, yet very beloved, Zapf Dingbats fonts defined our culture. Read more about his massive, prolific career here.