Lights, camera, action! Designing and printing for entertainment

A behind the scenes peek at cinematic magic

They call it movie magic. Watch any movie or television show and anyone in trade can immediately spot all the things that were printed. But if the movie credits have taught us anything, it’s that there is a whole body of people working behind the scenes, including printers and graphic designers. I set out to explore how these props come to be and what it means to be a graphic designer in this field.

Production process

The first thing to know is that the creative process and production happens at a breakneck speed. According to Michaela Cheyne, art director for Kim’s Convenience and Spotlight, from the minute you have the script production starts. Once the aesthetic of the show is established, there are meetings with various departments—visual effects, staff, graphics, and playbacks—which begin the cycle for the design, approval, and production.

While the art department designs many items, there are other sources they can use to provide resources to make the scene “more real,” such as stock photography and newspapers. Everything is interconnected and collaborative; a photoshoot one day can supply the photos needed to create a fake magazine cover and, if the magazine needs a name, the art department can have the writers vet their choices, but everything needs to be approved. 

A studio’s Clearance Team signs off on everything. As Cheyne put it “to make sure it doesn’t look too much like the real thing but it has to look enough like the real thing.” Clearance can tell you whether models have signed a release for their photo to be used for a particular purpose, what typefaces you are allowed, and whether your packaging looks too similar to products being aired during commercial breaks.

After approval, productions are looking to partner with printers that are capable of short-runs, quick turnaround times, and extreme flexibility. Some productions have basic printing equipment, but art departments work with local printers with whom they have developed strong relationships. Although they can be asked to get multiple quotes by a studio, ultimately, it all comes down to time. For those printers who have the resources and equipment to dedicate to getting the job done, once they have proven themselves, this can either become their core business or another revenue stream. 

Graphic design skills

For those interested, your journey begins at the Director’s Guild of Canada (DGC). Across different provinces, there are different programs in place but in Ontario, you join the Guild Apprentice Program (GAP) during specific intake periods. GAP is a 12-month long initiative that gives apprentices access to training, places them on an availability list for potential employers, and provides production lists of future and current productions filming in Ontario. After working a specific number of days and fulfilling the mandatory training requirements, the apprentice can become an Associate Member of the Guild. 

To join the DGC there is an interview process where your portfolio and work is assessed. An applicant is streamed into specific skillsets but, according to David Seymour of the DGC, “ideally, the broader the spectrum of skills you can display in a portfolio across these streams the better, but an applicant should always highlight their strengths.” Samples from multiple projects should be present in your portfolio and demonstrate the conceptual, the design process, and the finished product. Demonstrating strong competence in drawing, software expertise, and design know-how is imperative. 

While employment will depend on what is being filmed, art departments vary in size depending on production demands. As Arlene Lott, first assistant art director put it, “You should be most prepared for everything to change – both the art and the requirements of the production schedule.  You can expect a minimum 12-hour day, which can be rigorous and test the limits of your artistic productivity. You’re there to serve. You cannot become so attached to your own individual aesthetic vision that you become inflexible to the needs or whims of those designers above you who are making the final decisions.”

Whether a printer or a graphic designer, working in entertainment is a unique experience. Cheyne comments “printers are so important because in the end they’re the ones that are making it tangible so you can dress the set. That relationship is really important in the industry because we’re always throwing stuff at them last minute and they’re always making it happen.” If you are ready for long days in a fast-paced industry, maybe one day your work immortalized on an IMDb page.