TypeCon 2016 Talk

Hey, I just spoke at TypeCon, and initial reviews are positive! 🙂
Someone asked if my slides were available online, and… well… I had to say no. But I’m putting them up so now I don’t have to say no!

Here’s the slide-deck.

Here’s my unedited notes for my talk:

Says something about us, our product, and the story we’re trying to convey
Filmmakers the product is the story, and every piece of type serves a purpose.

Rather than looking at individual films, I chose to look at pairs of originals and remakes in a sort of “twin study.” Nominally, each pair has the same plot. But with different actors, scripts, sets, props, and type, they’re all different enough to make meaningful comparisons.

Through a quick (and hopefully entertaining) examination of these films, we’ll see how type sets audience expectations, tells us about the characters, differentiates settings, and so on.

Titles and Expectations

The first relationship we’re going to look at is between titles and audience expectations. Think about the last time you went to the cinema. You bought your ticket, you got your popcorn and coke. You found your seat. After a few trailers, the lights dim, and it’s time for the movie.

Now, until this point you’ve probably seen movie posters and commercials, but when all is said and done–and it’s just you sitting in that theater with the movie about to start–it’s the title credits that make the first impression.

The title credits tell you the genre of film, the production value, the time period, and so on. In essence, it sets all your expectations.

To explore at this relationship, we’re going to look at 3:10 to Yuma and Casino Royale.

3:10 to Yuma

3:10 to Yuma is a story about a down-on-his-luck rancher, Dan Evans, who volunteers to transport a dangerous outlaw, Ben Wade, to a prison train in exchange for $200.

The original film is a classic black-and-white Western. Filmed in 1957, starring Van Heflin as the rancher Dan and Glenn Ford as outlaw Ben Wade.

The opening titles do not use typefaces that I’ve been able to identify. If you recognize them, please let me know.

Regardless of their name, designer, or publisher, the titles accomplish a very specific purpose. They setup the film as a straight-forward western. To viewers in the late 50s these styles were not so clichéd as today–at the least–they weren’t so plaid out.

The main title font actually varies throughout the sequence. With two main styles and at least two size specific adjustments.

These small changes help to make it feel almost hand painted, reminiscent of the old West (an aesthetic that is repeated throughout the film).

If we saw a western today, and it had the same typographic treatment, we might perceive the film as a B-list movie, a comedy, or both.

The remake, which came out in 2007 starring Christian Bale as rancher Dan and Russell Crowe as outlaw Ben Wade, uses a very different title sequence, but sets up similar expectations.

The remake’s sequence uses Kommissar Condensed Medium. But notice the extra grunginess and varied point sizes. These contribute to a sense of grit and uneasiness, characteristic of modern action films.

With both film titles, viewers expect an honest, semi-realistic rendition of the story. The original title says: I’m a western. The remake’s title says: I’m an action western. And both prove to be true.

As far as plot goes, there is little variation between the films other than the addition of more gritty action in the remake.

The plots are so similar that the remake’s script lifts entire scenes of dialogue directly from the original. Creating shot-for-shot parallels.

The main plot difference comes at the end, but harkens back to the difference in titles. Like we saw, the original title is clean and constructed, so the happy ending–rancher Dan going home successful to his loving wife–fits. The remake, on the other hand, has a more dirty title–one that looks almost out of place–so when Dan is shot down in cold blood, right in front of his son–the viewer is not all-that surprised.

Casino Royale

Casino Royale is the first story about everyone’s favorite womanizing spy, James Bond. (I say womanizing spy because here in America, Jason Bourne has a serious argument for favorite spy.) In the story, 007 must compete in a game of cards against villain Le Chifre. And that’s about the extent of similarities between the original and the remake.

The original Casino Royale, released in 1967, came out two months before You Only Live Twice, the “fifth” bond movie and stared David Niven. not Sean Connery–as 007.

The original film’s opening sequence uses hand-drawn characters, with elaborately illustrated and animated initials. You might notice, beyond their ornament, these initials are constructed mostly out of lady-parts: bosoms, legs, and bums.

Now, to anyone familiar with Bond intro sequences, this may not seem too strange, but remember–this film was not produced by the same people and tried its hardest to fit in–from gadgets to cars to title sequences, the original Casino Royale emulated other Bond films.

Back to the title sequence. Incredibly, the over-sexed, elaborate text does not over-promise. In fact, the film is precisely that–over the top and focused on sex.

The film begins with an unknown agency trying to tempt Bond out of celibacy with a house filled with young, attractive women.

Even worse, the plan of the main villain, played by Woody Allen, involves killing every male taller than he and transforming every female on earth into a stereotypically sexy woman. Yes, you heard me right–his evil master plan was to become a Casanova by default.

The remake, released in 2007, staring Daniel Craig as 007, was the first in the latest reboot of the franchise.

The remake’s title sequence uses Century Gothic and Avenir. While still elaborately animated, it ditches the lady-parts in exchange for clean typography and highly-stylized action clips. This sets the right tone for the reboot–it takes Bond out of the age of gadgets and silly one-liners and into the modern-action era, where the Bond-girls have names like Vesper, nor Pussy-Galore.

The plot delivers on that promise, with only one “gadget” use (if a defibulator even counts), far more hand-to-hand combat, true emotions and relationships , and believable villain master-plans. (Without going into too much detail, LeChifre bets against a major airline’s stock the day before trying to bomb their new plane; Bond foils his plan, so he’s forced into a high-stakes game of poker. Which Bond again foils.)

Consumed Type and Setting

The next relationship is potentially the most obvious; it’s between type and setting. Most people assume this connection–that signage and other type is a given when crafting a scene, but anyone who has lived in a place with a distinct typographic landscape knows that the texture of a location is often informed by very specific type treatments.

Walking through New York looks and feels different than walking through Seattle, and that feeling comes from more than just the weather and people–it’s the type, too.

To explore this relationship, we’re going to look at Red Dawn.

Red Dawn

Red Dawn is the story of two brothers who turn into guerrilla fighters after their hometown is invaded by Russia or North Korea. The way type helps create setting in these films revolves around the distinction between American type and occupier type (type added by Russia or North Korea.)

The original Red Dawn was released in 1984 and stars Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen. In it, the brothers live in a small town called Calumet, where Russians and Cubans invade. The film then follows roughly a year of their lives as they fight the occupying force.

Before the attack, the type palette of Calumet consists of Century Schoolbook, custom lettering, and custom lettering. After the invasion, we see the appearance of sharp-edged sans serifs and militaristic stencil fonts.

These distinct palettes–hand-made versus utilitarian–successfully create a different urban texture after invasion, something the remake fails to do.

The Red Dawn remake came out in 2012 and stars Chris Hemsworth and Josh Peck.

Unlike the clear differences between American and Russian type in the original, the remake does not use different type before and after the North Korean invasion.

Before, it’s all Helvetica and after it’s all Helvetica and Arial. I genuinely believe that this was unintentional, as even the captions are set in Arial Italic.

The Red Dawn original and remake give two very different examples of how type can create setting: one done successfully, and one done poorly.

Chosen Type and Mental States

The next relationship to explore is the type chosen by characters and what that says about them.

In many movies, the characters need to make type decisions. Just like normal people, their chosen typefaces say something about them–it shows what they like, what they think others like, and so on.

Now, of course, the filmmakers are actually making the type choices, but they also write the scripts and decide the costumes. They shape the characters by making choices for the characters.

To explore this relationship, we’ll look at one of the most characteristic characters in film: Willy Wonka.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory/Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The story of Charlie and the Chocolate factory everyone probably knows, but essentially: the fantastic and reclusive chocolatier Willy Wonka invites 5 lucky ‘Golden Ticket’ finders to his factory for a day. The entire plan is basically a ruse, though, as he weeds out the naughty children in order to find the perfect heir.

We’ve seen two film adaptions to this story, 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The original film stars Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. He’s an unpredictable, mastermind. He sings and dances. He confuses his guests and keeps the audience guessing. He’s also a complete control freak.

You know he’s a calculated person because he plants an actor in the room every time someone finds a Golden Ticket. This can mean only one thing: he knew exactly who would find the tickets and when.

The first type choices we see that’s by Willy Wonka are on the Golden Ticket: Garamont BQ Italic, Crystal, and Clarendon. It’s a classy-looking. It’s regal, even.

With the type in his factory, though, Wonka favors hand-drawn letters. From the contract all the visitors sign to the labels on his private office door, everything is hand-made, reflecting his idiosyncratic nature.

The remake’s Willy Wonka is played by Johnny Depp and is less mastermind and more troubled mind. While the main conflict in the original lies with the temptation to sell Wonka’s secret everlasting gobstopper recipe, the conflict in the remake relies on Wonka’s daddy issues.

The remake’s Wonka uses a solid palette of Coliseum and Rosewood–both his posters and golden tickets use the combination.

Internally, though, the remake’s Wonka is not so put together. He uses an assortment of typefaces, most of which are sans serif: from Helvetica to DIN to Akzidenz-Grotesk and everything in between.

It’s as if he decided “I’m going to use Coliseum and Rosewood on everything outsiders can see!” But never made any choices for his factory’s text.

While the original Wonka showed his oddity with handlettering, the remake Wonka shows his literal craziness with his inability to stick with anything

Leave a Comment