Ever since she designed those delicious Mendl boxes (and other props) for Wes Anderson’s Grand Bupadest Hotel, Annie Atkins has been one of the most sought after graphic designers for film – particularly those set in the past – traveling the world to talk about her work and teaching workshops at her studio in Dublin. Here we talk to her about how she found her calling, significant moments in her career and more.
Growing up, studying in London and working in Iceland I grew up in the sticks in rural North Wales, so as a kid I couldn’t wait to move to London and go to art school. That was the dream: go to the biggest city I knew. But after 3 years there I couldn’t wait to leave. I like small places, it turned out. I went to Reykjavik with my portfolio and landed a job with McCann almost straight away. It was the boom and people were hiring. I loved Reykjavik: small enough to be considered a town but actually the capital city. Over four years there I worked my way up from junior graphic designer to art director. I also learnt how to have a short but informative conversation about brochure design in Icelandic.
Quitting advertising and going to film school I was working for the same clients all the time at the ad agency and I was beginning to lose interest. My heart wasn’t in it anymore. I thought I was bored of design and I’d go to film school and learn how to operate a camera or be the director. But when I got there I discovered that I had zero interest in camera operation and I really, really didn’t like directing actors. Luckily for me a whole new world opened up to me there though – design for film. It turned out it wasn’t design in general I was bored with, but specifically design for advertising. It was like falling in love with design all over again.
Getting my first job in filmmaking The production designer Tom Conroy came to the film school to teach a module in set design. I was designing a set for a short film we were making and I showed him my portfolio. He said I should come for an interview for a role in the art department on the third season of The Tudors. I couldn’t understand why a show set in a time before graphic designers existed would need a graphic designer on set, but that was pure naivety! I ended up making all kinds of maps, royal scrolls, stained glass, and wall hangings. It was a completely different world to the digital layout design I’d been used to.
On falling in love with crafting historical worlds After I worked on a few series set in the middle ages I got a job on a TV show about the Titanic, set in 1912. It was the first show I’d worked on set in a time after the invention of the printing press. It felt so modern to me! I loved it—I was designing telegrams and newspapers and old cigarette packaging for the first time. Something really clicked with me then.
I made some of my best work on that job, even though the show itself wasn’t great. It went straight to Netflix, which, back in 2011 wasn’t really considered a good thing.
How Grand Budapest Hotel happened Wes Anderson and his team were looking for a European graphic designer with some examples of graphic prop-making from the early 1900s in their portfolio. Because I’d recently finished up on the show about the Titanic I had all kinds of pieces to show them.
How life changed after Grand Budapest Hotel The film completely changed my career. All of a sudden I was being asked to talk about my work–at design conferences, to magazines. It was as if a light had been shone on a craft that had seemed almost invisible before. Now I get all kinds of calls about work that I would never have been offered before. Not a day goes by when I don’t thank my lucky stars for that job!
A typical work day on a film set There’s no typical day on film, which is part of the buzz of it. You might be working with a blacksmith to make a wrought iron sign, or with a sign painter to make a whole street scene full of shopfronts. Or you might be glued to your desk trying to stay on top of your paperwork. Lots of phone calls chasing up suppliers, lots of back and forth with art directors, set decorators, and prop masters. Lots of shouting at your printer. Lots of tea.
The challenges of working in film There are lots of downsides to working in film. It’s like running away and joining a circus, so it’s thrilling, and fun, but it does remove you from real life somehow. It’s hard to have a life outside of film work. The hours are long and the pressure is high.
Choosing to live in Dublin I love Dublin. It’s the right size city for me. Small enough to know everyone but big enough for a good few different cinemas, art galleries, and museums. I also love Dubliners—they’re genuine and talkative, which I like very much. Living here means I have more work from ye olden days in my portfolio than I would ever have imagined, as a lot of costume drama and films set in the middle ages are shot here. I’ve been offered jobs in the States and it’s been tempting to move sometimes, but ultimately I like my life here. I’ve worked temporarily on productions abroad but it’s always good to come home again.
Motherhood and the changes that comes with it Everything has changed now [since I’ve become a mum]! I don’t work abroad anymore on films, I do everything via my own studio and Dropbox.
At the moment I’m working on a movie being shot in New York but I haven’t left Dublin. Animation is a great one to work on like this – I did all my work for Isle of Dogs from my own studio, except for a couple of weeks in London at the start of the project. I’m also doing more movie title work, and film branding.
Conducting workshops and teaching graphic design for film After Grand Budapest I started getting emails from students asking me where they could study graphic design for film. It’s such a niche area that there aren’t really any courses specialising in the subject. So, I started my own two-day workshop and now I have students visiting from all around the world every month.
I have a large studio space, lots of desks, and a complete willingness to spill all my secrets!