Erica Dorn is Lead Graphic Designer on Wes Anderson's latest film The French Dispatch. Here she talks to us about early morning starts, learning on the job and staying humble in a big and brash industry.
Were you a fan of Wes Anderson’s films before you were approached to work on Isle of Dogs?
Sure. I wasn’t a huge fanatic like some people are though. I’d seen a lot of his films and liked them but wasn’t hovering near the studio to take photos of him! I remember I was really excited back then, and I’m still excited now… it’s just a different emotion because I now know what comes with the job and I know that it’s not always fun and glamorous... it's also really hard. I was over the moon on the first day of work, cycling down the canal and couldn’t believe where I was going. It was nice also because it was a two year project, so I really had time to get into it and learn the ropes. It was kind of a soft introduction into movies because generally they’re much shorter and much more chaotic.
How did it differ from jobs you’d done as a graphic designer before?
It’s a completely different industry, different pace and different briefs, so where I was spending months creating one logo at a creative agency you have sometimes a couple of hours to design a logo and then the side of an airplane, a book cover, a plane ticket and a bottle of wine all in the same day, so it’s a much wider variety of things that you get to do. The research is also based more on whether it’s period correct, is it legible and does it serve the purpose of the prop as opposed to does it communicate the values of the client? So it’s a different approach and it can be really fun because of that. You do spend months and months working on one movie but it’s an accumulation of the talents of many people and craftsmen… model-makers, painters and builders, cinematographers, camera-operators, sound-operators, and everybody is at the top of their field, so it’s a very high level of craft with so many different people coming together to make a final piece, which I love being part of.
Was that overwhelming or daunting in any way?
It was. Not so much on Isle of Dogs but I felt it much more on The French Dispatch because I was going in as lead, whereas on Isle of Dogs I was there as a supporting graphic designer and eventually became lead (Annie Atkins was lead designer until going on maternity leave leaving Erica to take over). Isle of Dogs was a stop motion film so everything was very drawn out… we were impressed if they managed to get 40 seconds of footage in one week. We would go up on a Monday and watch the rushes and they’d always have to play it through twice because it was so short, even though there were multiple stages shooting at the same time. With The French Dispatch it was a really insanely dense movie in terms of graphics, visuals and sets… just the sheer number of sets even was a lot but when you then looked at what each set entailed it was just tons of detail packed into each one. You’d have montages where it was one second per set… but not only is it a montage but it’s also a split screen so you double that again. I think it was even daunting for Adam (Stockhausen) the production designer. I read in an interview where he sort of admitted that he had a little moment of panic when he first read the script, and Adam is the most calm, together person… so it was reassuring for me to hear that because I thought it was just me panicking all by myself.
"With The French Dispatch it was a really insanely dense movie in terms of graphics, visuals and sets… just the sheer number of sets even was a lot but when you then looked at what each set entailed it was just tons of detail packed into each one."
Wes Anderson through his career has developed more and more as a ‘stylist’, but it always feels like he’s upping the ante with each new movie – working with lots of other people to create his world building. Could you explain a bit about the way the art department works?
Well Adam leads the entire art department, so props, set decks, construction, graphics – it all falls under his umbrella and he does a lot in terms of translating Wes’s vision into reality – so I always felt very supported in part of that structure. You’re never left out in the cold to figure it out on your own, but I do have to pick my battles on what I go to him for help with as there are times where everyone is so busy meaning he can’t cast his eye over everything.
But you’re always supported because Wes isn’t going to let something be in his film if it’s not to a certain quality, so there’s no risk of doing a shit job because he’ll have you re-do it. It can be tough when there are times that you hear ‘no’ over and over, but eventually you get it right. I did find that it got easier as I learned to understand the world that we were trying to build and create things that fit into it and the things that were important to Wes. Legibility for example, which is far more important to him than flamboyant style because text is onscreen in his movies for such a short time, so everything that flashes up there momentarily has to be extremely legible to communicate what he needs to get across.
Authenticity is important too… things being of the right period, things feeling like they’re the right age… all of these things become instinctive, because instinct is holistic pattern making, so each time you make something you file away all the things you learned in the process – things that didn’t work, things that worked, and then I guess that becomes something that appears naturally in the next thing you make. Wes isn’t someone that offers a lot in elaborating his feedback – he doesn’t explain to you why something works or doesn’t work – he’ll just tell you whether it works or not, so you have to figure it out for yourself, and that can be tough… but you learn.
"It can be tough when there are times that you hear ‘no’ over and over, but eventually you get it right. I did find that it got easier as I learned to understand the world that we were trying to build and create things that fit into it and the things that were important to Wes."
Were there certain scenes or sequences from The French Dispatch that you’re particularly proud of?
I don’t think there’s a specific scene; holistically I’m proud of it all and I’m really proud of my team, the other graphic designers, that put work into it. I think I admire the work they’ve done in the film more than the things I have done because... there’s always sort of an imposter syndrome associated to the work that I do for the movie…, there always has been and there always will be for me because I didn’t train in the art department and I didn’t train in movies. I made a lateral move from senior graphic designer in an agency to working on movies. If you look on the IMDB page of any other graphic designer who’s working at the level that I’m working at, they’ll have 30 or 40 entries of movies or shows they’ve worked on and I have four!
But two of those four are Wes Anderson movies…
And that’s the other thing that contributes to my imposter syndrome is that when people say ‘oh I love your work’ it’s actually a lot of Wes’ work and a lot of Adam’s work, and so when it’s me I always have this little voice which says ‘it’s not really your work’ because it’s so heavily directed by Wes and guided by Adam. So it’s still difficult for me to watch the movie and feel really proud of what I did on it, but I know that I should and I’m proud of the work the team has done. I think though If I had to choose a sequence it would be that opening montage of the film because it’s just such an insane thing that we had to do – and it’s also fun to see. It’s a great demonstration of what graphic design can do to set a time period because the split screen is the past and the future and it’s exactly the same shot, the same angle for the past and the future… the only thing that changes is the set dressing, the signage and the costumes, so it’s a great exercise in how to dress a set from two different time periods.
What was it like working with the illustrator Javi Aznarez who did all the work for the magazine covers for the film?
He was an external artist that we folded into the team, but he was somebody that Wes and the producers found to be the illustrator for the magazine. He created all the work supposedly created by the character Hermès Jones, The French Dispatch’s in-house illustrator played by Jason Schwartzman. All the scribbles on the walls, the turkey drawings, the Bill Murray portrait, the magazine covers. He was such a pleasure to work with because he wasn’t daunted by anything. We sent him in to a freshly painted, decorated office and said, can you just draw some stuff on the walls and the decorators looked at him like ‘you’d better not mess this up!’ It must have been terrifying to draw freehand onto a Wes Anderson set when you have no time to fix it because they’re going to shoot the next morning… I would have been terrified! But he was a trooper about it. He’s just one of the most optimistic, hard-working people that I’ve met, so was a real pleasure to work with. He also has a real dark humour that I think comes out in a lot of his illustrations that was perfect for the magazine covers, but I won’t take much credit for those because he was working directly with Wes, exchanging ideas. It was more about bringing him in to do little sketchy things for the offices and the work-in-progress wall which has all the articles on for the forthcoming issue, so I think he ended up doing a lot more that he signed up for on this movie.
"Javi (Aznarez) has a real dark humour that I think comes out in a lot of his illustrations that was perfect for the magazine covers, but I won’t take much credit for those because he was working directly with Wes, exchanging ideas."
Wes’ films have been compared to the films of Jaques Tati and Stanley Kubrick in the visual approach to framing and the way shots can be full of information, so have you gotten a greater appreciation of film generally by working with Wes Anderson?
Yeah sure. I agree with you – I think Wes is someone who gets a lot of his inspiration and his cues and his ideas from older films. For Isle of Dogs it was a lot of (Yasujiro) Ozu films and Kurosawa films… there was a whole archive. For The French Dispatch there’s a lot of Tati and Godard. If you’re talking in terms of watching a film and thinking, not just being carried along with it but noticing things because I’ve worked in films then yes, I do appreciate background things a lot more. If a character is standing talking in front of a bulletin board and it’s full of background ‘bumph’ then I notice those things and the time people spent on doing that.
What was the inspiration for you to become a graphic designer?
I was into comic books as a child. Because I grew up in japan I was just reading them alongside reading novels, but I had a lot of comic books and I guess that’s how I started drawing as well, copying my favourite characters. I studied illustration at LCC not really knowing what kind of career it would lead to… I just thought ‘I guess I’m good at this’ and people were telling me I was good at it so I thought ‘I guess I should study this’. I wish I had known in University the range of creative jobs that exist, including this one, as I didn’t know that this was an actual job. There are different avenues of creativity… you don’t have to study illustration just because you’re good at drawing… and I’m starting to learn that now. I guess I’m really lucky that I was able to find film because I remember at the time that I started working on the Isle of Dogs I was feeling a little bit lost because there were so many graphic designers, it was so saturated back then… everybody was studying graphic design, everybody wanted to be a designer and everybody was kind of doing similar work. Some were more exceptional and outstanding than others but one tier down we were all doing very similar work inspired by that top tier of people, and I kind of remember feeling like what I was doing wasn’t that special. It wasn’t that I didn’t have skill or talent, it was just feeling like one amongst many. So when I started working on films I discovered that there was this whole other wing that was under represented and which has a union (Graphics Union UK), but I think there are only 250 or 300 of us. There’s room for a lot more and it’s a really lovely community of people… nobody’s competitive, everybody’s super supportive of each other, there’s no egos and everyone bands together to fight for contract rights and working conditions. It’s not quite like a Union in the States, more like a Guild I guess but it’s a very small handful of people doing this type of job here.
So, what more can be done to get people interested in this area of work
We’re talking about how we can open up avenues for people to come into the industry because film is really difficult to break into. It often comes down to knowing somebody who can introduce you to somebody else. I’m always a little bit lost when people want to know how I got there because, as I mentioned before, I didn’t go down the normal route of starting as an assistant and working my way up, so I’m not sure what kind of advice to offer. But it would be really nice to be able to say to people ‘here are some links and here are some talks where you can get portfolio surgeries to help’, or a programme to introduce people to entry level positions. We’re starting to work on that, but it is a fairly new post as films didn’t always have graphic designers. It would usually be part of props or an art department assistant would do the lettering… there wasn’t always a dedicated designer on a movie. But now there are teams of graphic designers… it’s still often one designer and an assistant, but there are films such as The French Dispatch where there were four or five of us plus assistants, so it’s becoming more and more established as a department and not just a single role within the art department, which is great.
It’s also about communicating what it’s really like. Maybe people see the work and they think ‘I’d love to make work like that for Wes Anderson’ but maybe they wouldn’t like to get up at 7am every day and stay at work until 9pm. Maybe they’d prefer to be a concept artist or a storyboard artist… you know there’s so many different creative jobs within the art department, it’s not just graphic design. You could be a sign painter for example… and that’s part of it, showing people that there are so many different things you can do. It’s good to ask the question ‘what’s my goal?’ Do you want to be a production designer ultimately, do you want to be a costume designer, do you want to be a character illustrator for the costume department? So I think that’s also part of it, just introducing people to the many different roles that exist within film.
"...there’s so many different creative jobs within the art department, it’s not just graphic design. You could be a sign painter for example… and that’s part of it, showing people that there are so many different things you can do. It’s good to ask the question ‘what’s my goal?’"
What’s the most rewarding part of the job for you?
I guess the most rewarding part is always sitting down in the cinema and watching it, ideally with a whole bunch of people from the crew. It’s also nice to see it in a cinema with general film fans but it’s always more rewarding to sit down with people that you made the movie with and enjoy it together.
Is that quite different from the agency work you did as a graphic designer – something different about how you see your work in context when it’s finished?
Yeah I think there’s two things… there’s a finality of working in movies, you know it starts and then it ends, whereas on many client projects you stay with one client for a long time – you do different things for them, you do different aspects of their communication… there isn’t really a point where you wrap and go ‘ok, that’s great, it’s finished, onto the next thing, goodbye’. And also in cinema there’s a longevity… you know that it’s a film that can be watched 10 or 20 years from now, whereas with advertising everything is so fleeting, or in publishing where you work on something and it disappears, and you work on something else and it exists in people’s feeds or on newsstands or on youtube or tv for a little while and then it goes. That’s nice in some ways as you’re constantly refreshing your work and you’re only really as good as your last project, whereas on movies I’m talking to you now about work that I did in 2015, 2016, 2017. I think a lot of graphic designers will relate… you don’t look back on your work from 5 years ago with too much pride, because if you’re doing it right you’re evolving, so the work that you did many years ago isn’t your best work anymore.
Perhaps there’s also a difference in that you are all working in a creative field with other creatives – with most no doubt being movie lovers and enjoying the experience of narrative and storytelling… things they can immerse themselves in emotionally?
Yeah It’s a giant collaboration which is always more than the sum of its parts.
What kinds of skills or preparation should people have if they want to go into your line of work?
I always look for people who can make things, because today I think it’s very easy to be a desktop graphic designer and be very good at software… creating things onscreen and making them beautiful for the screen. But we actually have to make things and have to be able to recreate an object as opposed to a file, so I think the more made objects there are in a portfolio the more impressed I am. It shows that you have the resourcefulness to go out and find the right materials, not just research fonts but recreate lettering and apply it in a way that looks authentic. So not just an inkjet print that bleeds around the edges, but how do you make it look like a real letterpress print? How do create a stamp with your graphic on it from a period reference? It’s a lot about paper quality and print quality and also about physical qualities of materials – like how things bend and are scored or how they are aged.
"...we actually have to make things and have to be able to recreate an object as opposed to a file, so I think the more made objects there are in a portfolio the more impressed I am."
It’s like you were saying before about the nature of authenticity, because film is very much of time and place and needs to get those things right, which I guess is why research is so important for film-makers and the work you do in the art department.
Yeah and I think also if you’re a student and applying to assistant positions, creativity and resourcefulness is not just about being creative and researching for the prop it’s also how creative you are with problem solving. We have constant emails flying back and forth about ‘hey has anyone done fake stained glass…’ I need to figure out how to do this or that… so there are so many graphic problems, and if you can demonstrate that you can come up with solutions for these wacky briefs that we have to deal with every day then that’s definitely a plus. It’s not always easy because we’re creating things that are usually industrially made in large quantities and we just want to make a few. That’s a big part of the job as an assistant; finding solutions for things like that and knowing your suppliers, being able to call someone up to find a solution. And that’s how you also build up contacts to eventually lead a team on your own, which is the bit I skipped and is why I rely a lot on my assistants when it comes to things like that.
What was the last movie that you watched which made a real impact on you?
I really loved The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos) and also loved Portrait of A Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma) which I was really moved by… it was one of the few times I was bawling in the cinema! In I love all of the actresses in The Favourite – each in their own way. I thought there was such a dramatic element to the power play between them and find that really interesting. I think I’m really drawn to films with power dynamics between people, especially female relationships.
This is an abridged version of an audio interview.
The French Dispatch is currently in cinemas.
All Images © Searchlight Pictures