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07 Mar 2014 : Paul Byrne
Ever wondered what it would be like to do the graphics on a Wes Anderson film? So did Dublin-based Annie Atkins as she headed out to the Alps to work on ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’...

Having cut her teeth on the Emmy-winning TV series ‘The Tudors’, Welsh-born but Dublin-based graphic designer Annie Atkins has come a long way in the last five years.

As she completed work on ‘The Boxtrolls’ - the latest stop-motion blockbuster from the ‘Coraline’ crew - she got a mysterious email, informing her that she had something completely different coming down the pipeline. Namely, the latest, luscious offering from Wes Anderson (‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, ‘Rushmore’, ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’), set in the Alps, and featuring a stellar cast of such quirky heavyweights as Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton and, of course, Anderson’s lucky charm, Bill Murray. It wasn’t the stars that blinded young Annie Atkins though - it was the fact that ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ was set in the 1930s, which is pretty close to graphic designer heaven, according to the lady who has just wrapped on Showtime’s TV series ‘Penny Dreadful’.

PAUL BYRNE: Young Wes has a very distinctive look about his films - was it easy to slip into his world?
ANNIE ATKINS That's right – Wes has a very distinctive style, and he's absolutely meticulous about the visual. The film is set for the most part in the 1930s, so the graphic design was in a time before graphic designers existed, per sé, and Wes and Adam (Stockhausen, the production designer) were determined to recreate that. If a sign was supposed to look like it was painted by a 1930s Eastern European signwriter, then paint it freehand – don't type it out first! I guess we were a good fit because I'm used to adopting a different style to my own, after doing mostly period work. Well, we made upwards of 30 different versions of some props. You had to constantly re-evaluate what it was you had in front of you. But Wes gives incredibly thorough direction – right down to the kerning of some pieces...

I’m guessing pouring over old Wes Anderson movies was a big part of your research - did he recommend any other pointers?
I have poured over his films in the past, yes, but I didn't watch any of them during the making of this one. We were too busy watching Lubitsch – one morning when I got to my desk there was a bundle of DVDs from Wes waiting for me and they were all Lubitsch movies. There was ‘The Shop Around the Corner’, ‘The Love Parade’, ‘One Hour With You’... I took screen-grabs of every graphic shown in the films and stuck them up on the wall in the studio. There were love-letters, sign-painted trucks, wine labels... they were a huge resource. Any time we were stuck for a graphic reference we'd look through them. Like, for example, Madame D's fancy shopping bags from the department store were scripted, but I couldn't find any reference of 1930s shopping bags at all. Then I watched ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ and of course I realised they didn't exist – they were all boxes wrapped carefully in brown paper with beautiful copperplate printed labels. Voilà!

Production designer Adam Stockhausen said of The Gorlitzer Warenhaus - which stood in for ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, of course - that it “had beautiful bones”. Discuss.
The department store was a really amazing location. Although it was in a bit of a sorry state when we first moved in there – Adam and Anna (Pinnock, the set decorator) really worked some magic on it. The hotel lobby was on the ground floor and we set up our offices on the floors above it, so it was fun watching it come to life from up on the balconies. Wes likes to start every prop and set-piece with a real reference from the period, and work up from there. Yes, beautiful bones is a nice way to put it.

This is your first feature film, after debuting with ‘The Tudors’ in 2008 - how did you get the gig?
I had wanted to work with the American animation studio Laika for ages, so I sent them pictures of the antique graphic props I'd made and they brought me on board ‘The Boxtrolls’. I was just finishing up graphics for them when they sent an email that said: "Something wicked your way comes..." I was confused. Were they going to kill me?? It turned out they'd recommended me to Wes, and that week I got a call from his producer about "a movie set somewhere in the Alps between the wars." I had a fake public service pamphlet I'd made on my website called ‘How to Write Telegrams Properly’, so when I got the script and saw that it had a telegram in it, I thought perhaps it was that that had won Wes over? I don't know, I'm guessing!

A baptism of fire, or a joy to behold?
It was a journey. It was nerve-wracking at first. I was one of the few crew members who wasn't either from Wes's original American team or one of the local German crew. And I was also nervous because I admired his work so much, you know, and I knew how much importance he put on graphics, so yes, that first week I really felt the pressure! My instinct under pressure is to keep my head down, though, and work like a dog, so it was grand. But you know what, they are all such a nice bunch of people: Wes and his producers, the set decorator and propmaster and designer... as soon as I began to relax it became really fun getting to know everybody and work really intensely together like that. I also had an excellent supporting graphic designer with me, Liliana Lambriev, who was just great. These jobs are such hard work, with such a high turnover of design and construction, you really bond with your workmates, particularly when you're all stranded in a small town in the snow for the winter.

What drew you to the fine art of graphic design?
When I was a kid my dad bought his first computer, a little grey Apple Mac. There were no games on it, needless to say, so I used Quark Express to make a magazine. It was called ‘Growl! The Magazine for All Young Animal Enthusiasts.’ I'm afraid it only secured a print-run of one copy. Later on I made fake IDs so my schoolmates could get served at the pub in the next valley. What can I say? It was Snowdonia in the 90s.

Do you feel particularly drawn to Irish productions, given that you’re based in Dublin, or is it all about where the good work is?
I love working in Dublin – I'm just finishing up on ‘Penny Dreadful’ at Ardmore. Ardmore Studios was where I worked my very first job in the industry so it holds a special place in my heart. It's totally 70s and all the floors are wonky so you can't draw anything without someone walking past and ruining it but still, I love it. All the trees, the view of the Sugarloaf, Bray seafront at lunchtime, the Irish crew... there's a real sense of fun working here.

You made the move into animation before working with Wes, with ‘The Boxtrolls’ - a very different kind of gig, or just a small shift in gear?
Ah yeah I loved working on ‘The Boxtrolls’ because the graphics were based on Victorian packaging design - which is my favourite era - but with extra magic. Laika are a really imaginative studio. Also, I was drawing from my studio on Liffey Street and literally just scanning things in and emailing them over to America. There was no worrying about making props or sourcing materials or schedule changes. It was a very different gig. Animation is SO SLOW! That was two years ago and the film isn't even due out til September. I think it's going to be pretty special when it all comes together. [You can see the new trailer here]

The move from Wales to Ireland - it was because of the weather, right? You needed less sun.
Heh! I actually moved here from Iceland – I haven't lived in Wales for 10 years or so. My mother's a Galway woman and I lived there when I was a teenager, so it felt natural to come back to Ireland. I think of Dublin as my home now.

You’re hoping your next project will be futuristic science fiction - any particular reason you’re hoping that? Do you know something we don’t?
Oh yes, futurism would be good! I love period filmmaking but I've done six different historical dramas now and I'm ready for something different.

Finally, to finish on something light and trivial, how do you feel about the Irish Film Industry? And if you were running it, what would you do differently?
I think Irish art departments are really fantastic, we've built some pretty challenging sets. You know, who would have thought that a show from Bray would scoop so many design and costume Emmys? But ‘The Tudors’ did. So, sometimes I wish young Irish screenwriters would set their scripts in more imaginative environments than contemporary Dublin. I know there are budget restrictions, and I know that much of our literature comes from a write-what-you-know model, and I love that, but how about writing what you know and then relocating it to a dystopian island, or another solar system, or 18th century Stoneybatter? I promise you: we are itching to make this work for you!

The Light House Cinema, Dublin is currently exhibiting a selection of Annie's original graphic props from the film. The exhibition runs from March 7th-24th and more details can be found here.

The Grand Budapest Hotel hits Irish screens March 7th.

See a trailer for the film below:

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