Before she worked on The Grand Budapest Hotel, the only e-mails Annie Atkins ever got were reminders about outstanding invoices. Now though, Wes Anderson’s lead graphic designer has an inbox swamped with questions about working in art departments. The gorgeously surreal Grand Budapest Hotel was Annie’s career breakthrough, so we chatted to her about working with Wes, designing for sci-fi, and what comes next...
Did you always have a career as a graphic designer within film in mind? Even when you were undertaking your first degree in Visual Communication?
I have one degree in Visual Communication and one degree in Film Production. My first job after I graduated was on the third series of The Tudors, designing all kinds of royal scrolls, stained glasses and ancient maps. No job has ever been as exhilarating as that first season I spent on a film set, surrounded by beautiful princesses in corsets drinking coffee out of styrofoam cups. So I suppose if I didn’t already know, my decision was then sealed!
Tell us more about working with Wes Anderson and the scope of your tasks on The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson is the most experimental and hands-on director I’ve ever worked with, and I worked closely with him and his production designer Adam Stockhausen every day. The whole job was an incredible rollercoaster from the moment I got the first call from the producers, to the winter I spent with the cast and crew in the fictional Empire of Zubrowka (which was really on location in rural Germany), to the day I sat down in the cinema to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel for the first time. I doubt I’ll work on a more beloved film that pays so much attention to graphic design again in my lifetime.
As lead graphic designer for the film, I had to plan and create every single item that would be designed in real life. This ranged from packaging, newspapers, stamps and flags to more bizarre things such as carpet patterns, maps, prison cells and money.
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.
What's been the most bizarre creative challenge that you've had to get your head around on a project?
I worked on a sci-fi movie once that was set 500 years in the future on a spaceship. I thought it would be more creative than a historical piece, but I found that sci-fi audiences have certain expectations about the way things should look. There's a brilliant episode of the 99% Invisible podcast called Future Screens are Mostly Blue, which examines tropes in design for science fiction. I actually found it more restrictive in the end than working on a period piece, because the only references are fictitious and that felt quite limiting.
Where do you go or what do you watch for inspiration?
I just try to get as far as possible from my desk! I like walking in the woods or in the park near my house. It’s good just to let your brain relax for a bit. I don’t go to the cinema as much as I used to. Some scenes can really remind you of upcoming problems at work.
How do you go about designing the historically specific props? They must require a lot of research to ensure accuracy. Are you something of an expert?
I do a lot of research in museums and by combing flea markets. But I’ll never be an expert in any period I don’t think. The thing with film prop design is that you get a little bit good at lots of different styles, but never brilliant at any one thing. I have a daydream that when I’m an old woman and my kids have left home I’m going to quit prop-making and learn to be an expert sign painter and dedicate the rest of my life to it.
Is there a film which you wish you'd worked on?
I love all the Harry Potter graphic work by MinaLima. They’re a great pair of graphic artists, I’m a big fan of theirs.
What are you working on now that you can talk to us about? Any exciting new projects?
I’ve been working for Wes again on his new project, but I’ve just taken time away from it to have a baby. I’m still running workshops teaching commercial graphic designers how to translate their skills to filmmaking though. I run the workshops from my studio here in Dublin once a month, it’s great fun introducing people to this world.
What are you most proud of creatively?
I love working on film posters and I think they’re probably my best work. I mostly make posters for small-budget indie films, which means I get more freedom on the design. It’s the area of my work where I can let loose a little bit, make something more contemporary and work to my own style.