How important is type as an ingredient in filmmaking? We asked CHIPS, SPIN and Quentin Coulombier
As a craft, filmmaking is akin to conducting an orchestra. To bring a director’s vision for a film to life, in exacting detail, requires a symphony of sorts – numerous discrete, complex elements of light, sound, and motion need to fall into place, and come together to create an immersive world. Often argued to be one of the greatest art forms, it is a truly collaborative craft, which requires a careful braiding of different strands of creativity. Typography, albeit an often-overlooked element of a film, is a crucial slice of the big picture that adds to the intricate worldbuilding, subtly elevating the cinematic experience. To understand how nuanced decisions of type, both on and off screen, can add to the atmosphere of a film, we spoke to three designers – CHIPS’ Co-founder Teddy Blanks, SPIN’s Creative Director Tony Brook, and Paris-based graphic and type designer Quentin Coulombier – who’ve all been there, done that.
For anyone who stuck around for the main-on-end sequence of Midsommar, Ari Aster’s unsettling horror film about a Swedish cult, there was a special treat tucked in the end. As the names of the cast and crew appear on screen, forget-me-nots, sweet peas and butter cups appear within the folds of the glyphs, often replacing an ‘O’ or an ‘I.’ The addition of the quivering blooms – which both nods to the now-iconic last shot of Florence Pugh wearing a dress and crown made of flowers, and also softens the stark form of the serif typeface – was an idea that sparked quite suddenly. Imagined by the New York-based design studio CHIPS, who also crafted the titles for Aster’s Hereditary and Beau Is Afraid – is a classic example of how a title sequence can help a motif or a theme of a film linger visually, as the credits roll.
“Ari leans toward simple, elegant titles, but also wants them to have an impact,” says Co-founder Teddy Blanks. “To design the title for Midsommar, which takes place on a Swedish commune, I went to Thomas J. Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and looked at books about runes and rural life in Sweden, and Swedish typography,” he recalls, adding that some of this research led to ideas that were striking, but felt a bit ‘too much.’ Ultimately, CHIPS chose Berling, a handsome serif designed by Karl Erik Forsberg. “There is nothing inherently Swedish-looking about the font, but these associations can come through to an audience subconsciously – maybe that’s a little out there, but I believe it,” he notes. For most of the post-production process, the titles were just all-caps white text, set in the centre of a black screen. “The movie was very special, but the titles were… Well, they were nice looking, but also pretty boring,” admits Blanks. “Even though he seemed happy with them, I felt like I had somehow let Ari and his movie down.”
A few days before he was supposed to deliver his work, Blanks was struck by the idea of extending the final image of the film – Pugh in her dress and crown brimming with spring blooms – into the title. “I found some royalty-free stock footage of a series of beautiful time-lapse videos of flowers blooming over a black background. I started playing around, and intertwined them with the names in the titles. I mocked up a few and pitched the concept to Ari. He approved it, and I made the whole sequence in about a day.”
Tugging at the feeling a film evokes to create a typographic direction that both reflects and celebrates it is a speciality of CHIPS. Like Midsommar, other projects too called for winding research, such as the studio’s work for Beau Is Afraid, for which Blanks referred to “hand-painted titles from early Hitchcock and Preston Sturges movies, vintage theatre posters, and books about Jung and Freud, you name it,” Blanks tells us. Ultimately he arrived at a slowly-expanding, bold, shaky sans serif for the opening title, “sort of like a Godard title if it drank too much coffee,” and a custom typeface for the main-on-end, based on the cover of an old book of Italian fairy tales. “I don’t know if I can tell you clearly how either of these things relate to the movie, but they feel right in context,” he notes.
For a title, the only thing that matters is what it feels like the moment it lands on the screen.
The decisions of a typographic treatment are also governed by where it shows up, whether in a title sequence, a poster or an online campaign. “For a title, the only thing that matters is what it feels like the moment it lands on the screen, and how it behaves in the context of the movie,” says Blanks. Just as a title lives within the immediate world that a film conjures, posters or other promotional material distil how it presents itself to its audience. However, whether it appears on or off screen, considering how typography can capture the feeling of a story is what informs and leads the creative process. This is an exercise SPIN is very familiar with, having created numerous campaigns for MUBI. “Great design is fundamental to MUBI. I guess the love of truly great cinema comes with an appreciation of art, craft, beauty and originality,” says Creative Director Tony Brook. “Each film is a distinct challenge in its own right, demanding its own individual treatment, and this is essentially why we often end up developing bespoke typographic responses for MUBI’s films.”
The London-based studio has designed custom typefaces for the campaigns of many MUBI films, including a sharp, spiky typeface for David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, an otherworldly type for the Tilda Swinton-starrer Memoria, and a title treatment for Sebastián Silva’s Rotting in the Sun, where the letters bleed into each other, as if they’re truly rotting after being left out in the sun too long on an unbearably hot day. “For me, typography can be such a massive win in communicating the feel of a film and selling it to an audience,” reveals Brook. “The idea behind Crimes of the Future, for example, was to suggest scalpel blades in the sharp extended serifs, a reference to the discomforting transformations and mutilations that feature in the film.”
There are many great movies with bad or unremarkable typography.
In the recipe of a film, then, type should ideally be an indispensable ingredient. Yet, it is “only as important as the director wants it to be. There are many great movies with bad or unremarkable typography. And many bad or mediocre movies with cool typography,” notes Blanks. “But type can be a very exciting ingredient if it is allowed to be. It can establish genre, create a mood, or ground you in a specific time or place. It can be serious. It can be creepy. It can even be funny – or, at least, mildly amusing.”
As a title designer, Blanks says his job, sometimes, is to “just to get out of the way of the story.” However, even when it appears subtly, in the corner of the screen, Blanks argues that the choice of typeface is always saying something. “The directors who care about what a type choice means even when the type is making an extremely minimal impression are the same directors who care about all of the little details in their films – it’s how you know they’re the real deal. My strategy has always been – find a handful of these people, and do whatever I can to make sure they come back to me again and again.”
Within a high-stakes, high-budget industry like filmmaking, generic typographic choices can point towards a proclivity to avert creative risks. Nevertheless, when given the space to experiment, designers often wield typography as a tool; when in “sync with the film, it can pack a real punch,” notes Brook, or conversely, it can “surprise, by subverting the expected notions of genre,” as Quentin Coulombier points out. The Paris-based graphic and type designer has crafted posters, lettering and title sequences for several films, notably, the title for MUBI’s A Day in a Life, for which he fractioned the title into the individual words, which flash separately on screen, creating a striking, cinematic atmosphere. “Just like an actor plays a character in a film, typography can also play a role,” he notes. No matter where the type appears in a film’s journey, it is an intrinsic part of the story it’s trying to tell. According to Coulombier, whenever given a chance to push the envelope, it is never a bad idea to imagine something that’s not expected. “A designer is the author of the tone and texture of a typographic treatment,” he says. “We have the opportunity to not just spell out a name or a title, but through it, create an impression, and evoke a reaction from the viewer.”