Flickering dreams

Graphic artists, with their visual flair, should have a head start when it comes to thriving the film industry, you might think. But think again, says Mike Dempsey, as he casts his eye over the history of designers turned film-makers

It is a natural desire for graphic designers to want to see their work move, rather than have it simply frozen on the printed page. The last decade has made moving graphics a simple process with the many sophisticated programmes now available. But over the years few designers have graduated to fully fledged film-makers.

You would have thought that the god of film title design, Saul Bass, would have moved naturally into features. In fact, he only directed one, Phase IV (1974), often referred to as an overlooked masterpiece. But the truth is it’s not. It’s visually driven, as you would expect, but that’s about it. Bob Gill – of the 1960s trail-blazing graphics trio Fletcher Forbes Gill – turned his hand at directing resulting in Double Exposure of Holly (1976), a rather dubious and forgettable porn film.

So being a graphic designer doesn’t necessarily make a good film director. Unless, that is, you happen to be Ridley Scott, arguably Britain’s most successful director. He originally studied graphic design at the Royal College of Art in London. Another veteran designer, Arnold Schwartzman, won an Oscar for best feature documentary in 1981 with Genocide.

Interestingly, Bass’s natural heir, Kyle Cooper, who had such great success with his groundbreaking title sequence for the eerie thriller Seven (1995), was quickly approached to direct the resulting New Port South (2001), a very disappointing entry. Cooper admitted that his move to the director’s chair was far too early in his career. He returned to designing titles, where he has remained ever since.

One-time graphic designer Lucy Blakstad directed the most sublime documentary, Lido (1996), which centered on the life of a swimming pool during a summer season. Her designer’s eye was present in every frame, but with the added nose for real human interest.

More recently, another clutch of graphic designers have turned their hand to the silver screen. Ex Newell and Sorrell, Body Shop and Fitch designer Elise Valmorbida was nominated for the Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature for Saxon (2007), which she produced. Meanwhile, the highly inventive typographical designer Oliver Harrison has taken the complexity and inventiveness of his dark type fantasies and has woven them into his feature debut, Badinage (2010), which took five years to make.

Past D&AD President Garrick Hamm of Williams Murray Hamm directed a 12-minute short, Lucky Numbers (2008), which is doing the festival circuit, and has just started post-production on his second short film, The Man Who Married Himself, photographed by Michael Seresin (Profile, DW 27 August). And James Bull of Moving Brands has directed his own-penned short drama, Scotch Corner, in post-production as I write. In true 21st-century communication style, Bull has been blogging, Twittering and Flickering with the addition of a video dairy chronicling his directing debut.

Daniel Barber – who cut his teeth as a graphic designer at Lambie-Nairn and was responsible for the award-winning BBC2 idents – went on to direct commercials. Using his graphic sensibilities he built up a solid body of work leading to the formation of his own production company, Knucklehead. Like many commercials directors, he pulled money together to make a short, The Tonto Woman (2006), which netted an Oscar nomination in 2007 and led to his first full-length feature, Harry Brown (2009), starring Michael Caine, in cinemas now. The economics of making a film has fallen dramatically since the onset of the digital age. The surprising success of Once (2006) cost a mere $175 000 (£105 000). Despite its shortcomings in production values and performances, it was a charming and compelling story.

The key to a successful entry into the world of features is via the many film festivals – Cannes and Sundance being highlyinfluential. You might think that the graphic designer’s visual sophistication is the key to a successful film, but it’s not.

The vital ingredient is the script, followed by believable performances. Get those two things right and you could shoot it with the most primitive digital camera. If it stands up on that level it can only get better.

This has been borne out with the Dogme 95 school of film-making, where the normal sophistication of production – such as quality sound, lighting, editing, sets and music – are abandoned in favour of story and performance. A perfect example is The King is Alive (2000), directed by Kristian Levring.

If you are fortunate enough to get your film actually made, the big stumbling block is getting it seen. In addition to film festivals, the Internet is becoming a method of attracting attention. But, ultimately, it is the distribution and publicity spend that will determine a general release. Sadly, many films that start out as a dream end up on a dusty shelf, never to be seen.

Perhaps that static, beautifully crafted piece of typography on the printed page is not so bad after all. But then again, there was a young designer in the 1920s who hand-lettered caption cards for silent movies.

His name was Alfred Hitchcock.

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