Updated: Jan 8
From The Great Gatsby, to Monsters, Inc., to The Godfather, typography has a significant role to play in film. From typefaces on movie posters, through to rolling the end credits and everything in between, today’s episode takes a scene out of the world of typography on the big screen (or your screen at home, for the time being). There’s a lot to learn about typography by examining it through the entertaining and very relevant lens of fonts in film.
When recently watching the Helvetica documentary (how on Earth did I only JUST see it in 2020?!), one of the best ideas that I took away from the film had nothing much to do with Helvetica at all. It has to do with the idea that designers play the role of casting director; selecting actors (typefaces) for roles to convey the core message and help with storytelling in a project, literally giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘type cast’. The ‘typographic voice’ helps represent a brand, a message or an idea with a sort of ‘subliminal prompting’. For example, by applying two different typefaces to the same message (a grunge font and Helvetica, for example), the designer wants that message to be perceived in different ways. Type designer, Tobias Frere-Jones likens using the wrong typeface in a project to casting the wrong actor in a role. Ultimately, it will affect your experience. You’ll still follow the plot, but it will be less convinced or affected by the production.
Taking this type casting role one step further and in a more literal sense, I thought it would be fun to examine type in film. Today’s episode looks at the ways in which typographic type casting choices can affect the success of films. First, let’s look at some incredible examples of type in film and then let’s break down the concept of kinetic (moving) typography into its four key components to better understand why it works so well.
Fonts in Film
There are so many excellent examples of type used in film that it’s tricky to narrow it down to just a couple of examples, but here I go. The three movies that I’ve chosen exist in three different genres and really couldn’t be more different from one another, which is also why I love them as examples. It shows the breadth and depth of the ways in which typography can, and have, been used in film. From indie films to some of the highest grossing films with the biggest actors and directors on the planet, type in film adds another layer to the story, helping to build emotion, helping make scenes more memorable through their creative use of words on screen, and ultimately tell a stronger story.
First, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, one of my favourite movies for a number of reasons, including the fact that it unapologetically features Toronto throughout and it also stars my favourite Brampton-born awkward teen star, Michael Cera. This movie is based on a series of graphic novels of the same name by Bryan Lee O’Malley. There’s this video game quality to the entire film and typography is used in nearly every scene to visualize movement and sound effects; to help showcase the evolution of time, forward movement and speed; and to communicate to the audience who’s winning and who’s losing during fight scenes. It’s really well done. The trailer for the film is riddled with ridiculously good examples of the variety of type used throughout (check it out in the show notes www.talkpaperscissors.info). Typography was not merely an afterthought; it’s completely integrated into the movie, it helps establish the film’s brand and differentiation from other films in the category, and it helps tell the story.
Another excellent example is Catch Me If You Can. Big shots, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, star in this Steven Speilberg-directed film based on a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson. The mid-century modern title sequence is where the film’s typography shines. The illustrations were created by Nexus Productions that features tall, monochromatic characters moving through their daily lives while the names of key people peel in and out of the shot. Long ascenders and descenders extend from names set in sans-serif Coolvetica, a typeface that was only 4 years young when the film was released. A secondary slab-serif face was used (Archive Antique Extended) to juxtapose Coolvetica. Naysayers have voiced their disapproval of the use of Coolvetica, an amended version of Helvetica intended for use as a display face, designed by Ray Larbie (who started Typodermic fonts in 2001 in Canada). Some have said that using this new-age reboot font doesn’t feel appropriate for a film set in Helvetica’s hey-day. Perhaps Helvetica or a completely different face more true to the mid-century modern time of this story, would have been a better choice.
And finally, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...." there was Star Wars. The iconic franchise, now owned by Disney, created the opening ‘crawl type’ sequence with text disappearing into a vanishing point in the galaxy, that has been described as being “as iconic as movies themselves”. A typographer by the name of Dan Perri is the person behind the scrolling yellow letters and he’s brought type to life in an incredible 400 films in the last 40 years. As the Independent reports, George Lucas asked Perri to study serials from the 1930’s and 1940’s, such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers for inspiration for the first Star Wars film. But it was the 1939 film, Union Pacific, about building a railroad across America that gave him the inspiration he needed. In this film, text is seen crawling along a railroad track in a very similar fashion to the final Star Wars crawl. (This is a great story of remix culture at it’s finest, too!) The Star Wars crawl type tells the backstory before the film starts. Achieving the crawl effect in the 1970’s was not nearly as easy as it is today. The sequence was shot using a physical model of the type laid out on the floor that was 2 feet x 6 feet in size. The camera moved along the printed type to create the effect and it was time consuming to get a smooth scroll. Although the typography for the first six films were set in Universe Ultra Condensed, the seventh film The Force Awakens, is set in a condensed version of News Gothic. Oops!
Let’s move into breaking down why kinetic typography can work so well.
What is kinetic typography?
Kinetic typography builds motion into text and adds additional sensory inputs, such as sound, to draw in and capture attention. Kinetic typography in films can help further the narrative and add layers of additional meaning.
There is a really excellent video on YouTube called pop culture typography created by a guy named Isaac Moores. He has created a three minute and 24 second masterpiece that showcases some of the most famous examples of typography in pop culture and in movies. It exemplifies what can be created in the world of kinetic typography and I encourage you to check it out for yourself in this episode’s show notes at talkpaperscissors.info.
Let’s break down type in motion (otherwise known as kinetic type), into its basic variables, outlined in Ilene Strizver’s book, Type Rules! The Designer’s Guide to Professional Typography:
Typeface selection - Considerations in regards to texture and weight and style all play into telling a story. Resolution and frame rate are also key factors when selecting type for a kinetic project. From this perspective, legibility could be one of the most important factors when it comes to kinetic typography because the viewer will only have a split second to read and recognize the words before they move some place else or completely off the screen. Unless they take the time to pause and rewind they don’t have the luxury of being able to just go back and reread a word or line of text.
Movement - This variable is the key to what makes kinetic typography kinetic typography. By playing with scale, direction, repetition, velocity and/or speed to direct type around the screen, a story is told. Unlike many static ways typography is used in everyday life, (to inform or to persuade, for example), a key purpose of kinetic typography is to entertain. Telling a story through text and the movement of that text has to grab the attention of the viewer quickly and keep them engaged. Keeping your audience at the forefront of your design decisions will likely mean that your kinetic typography piece will not be very long. It can be very tiring and taxing to follow text darting around the screen for any length of time; but that said it can also be an incredibly effective way to capture attention in the short term.
Colour - There are many technical considerations when it comes to colour for kinetic typography projects. When colour printed, the brand owner has a significant amount of control as to the final look of the colour in print. This then translates to each viewer seeing the printed colour in much the same way as one another (except in instances of visual impairment and colour blindness). This is not the same for viewing colour on screen. Whether it be a computer screen, a phone screen, a TV, or a movie screen colour can and will look very different depending on the way in which that colour is calibrated on each device. So if you’re a control freak, you’ll need to set your ways aside when applying colour to the type that will be viewed on screen. It’s very difficult to control what colour your audience will see with any sort of accuracy. Pleasing colour (for example, a blue that we recognize as the colour of the sky or grass that looks healthy and green) is what you should be aiming for versus accurate colour. A very important part of choosing colour for kinetic type projects is to consider colour contrast. Black text on a white background will always be the most readable and have the highest contrast. The same can’t be said for white text on a black background because it’s more taxing on our eyes to read reverse type. It’s not to say that you can’t incorporate reverse type into your design, but having viewers read reverse type, especially if it’s darting around the page can lose their attention fairly quickly. Whatever colours you choose, think about creating excellent contrast between the type and the background.
Sound - in my opinion this is one of the most exciting ways to make type come to life. Overlaying music to set the scene, whether it be suspenseful and building intrigue to a climactic moment or just a happy tune that reinforces a happy message, sound can go a heck of a long way to helping engage an audience. Voice, spoken word and any other sound effects can also help add emotion and tell a story in a way that type alone (or for that matter graphics alone) can’t do as effectively.
Ultimately, when bringing together the powerhouse forces that are appropriate font selection, strategic movement, smart colour choices, and layering in sound, you’ve got a winning formula and a world of possibilities of what can be created with kinetic type. This is especially true when great actors are paired with great typefaces on screen. Good typecasting everyone!
Music by Freesound
Let’s Go to Zanzibar - lena_orsa
Epic Logo - Andrewkn
Piano Bach - InspectorJ
Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle