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Comments (26) Posted 07.17.07 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Jessica Helfand

Harry Potter and The Enchanted Letterforms

Warner Brothers Pictures, 2007.

Followers of the Harry Potter films have long been groomed to anticipate a certain amount of change, particularly where the director is concerned. (After Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell, the newest Potter film is directed by David Yates, who brings a crisply modern editorial sensibility to the J.K. Rowling epic.) And that's not all: since its inception, there have been deaths on screen as well as off, new characters, odd creatures, mysterious plot permutations and a host of new-and-improved villains. Reinvigorating the genre in the latest Potter film is Ministry of Magic hatchet-woman Dolores Umbridge — who the American horror expert Stephen King recently proclaimed to be "the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter."

But it's not just the villains who pull focus, for this most recent theatrical release includes an even more pronounced paradigm shift: it may just be the first film in which letterforms, once the purview of the production designer, break free and actually join the cast.

There have, of course, been cameo appearances by letterforms before Harry, primarily related to title sequences. Who can forget the illuminated skyline in My Man Godfrey, or more recently, the opening titles for Thank You for Smoking? Emily King devoted considerable attention to this very area in her expert (and exhaustive) dissertation on the subject, and there are several other notable efforts regarding the evolution of title sequences, which constitute an important piece of design history — a history in which expressive typography crafts a visual overture, creating, in essence, a prologue for the ensuing film. (Film title designer Kyle Cooper once told me he named his company Prologue Films for precisely this reason.) But beyond titles and end credits, there's been perhaps a kind of additional change afoot, in the introduction of type on screen during the actual film. Examples include last year's brilliant Stranger than Fiction which flirted with the idea of screen-based typography as a kind of fairy presence — whimsical and translucent, with numbers and letters cavorting onscreen in a kind of dreamlike dance.

But the animated visual sequences in the latest Harry Potter are something else entirely: here in the surreal environment of Hogwarts, change is the norm, and nothing ever stops moving. This includes typically stationary things like portraits (characters move about in paintings) and correspondence (self-propelling paper airplances take the place of inter-office mail) and even posters (paper proclamations take on an absurdly choreographic twist, framed and hung by the hundreds on the wall of a high-ceilinged room). Yet of all of these visual antics, the most mesmerizing is the reincarnation of The Daily Prophet — a black-and-white tabloid which has the miraculous capacity to write and rewrite itself while it is being read.

It is The Daily Prophet which emerges in this film as a secondary character, performing interstitial cameos made all the more exhilarating because the camera sweeps in and out, ricocheting off the page, magnifying and dramatizing a typographic vocabulary that combines a slightly mottled, letterpress-like display face with great portions of illegible calligraphy. The result is a stunning visual texture that merges the efficiency of greeking with the elegance of Farsi. Photographs become miniture film reels, drained of color and slightly slower-paced, injecting a kind of film-noir palette — a visual tactic that further distances the action from anything even remotely contemporary. What's more, all that careening camera work makes reading in general (and reading the newspaper in particular) look hugely entertaining. Will more kids start reading newspapers as a result of this film? (Will they want to grow up and become graphic or editorial designers, or journalists?) True, It's not like all that moving typography is likely to supplant the supremacy of the superhero anytime soon, but it's still enchanting. Or rather — enchanted.
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Comments (26)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

Apologies for the self-link, but relevant to this post... The subtitles in Man on Fire also played a nice role in that movie by adding a little extra layer of meaning and interpretation of what was ocurring between the characters with subtle typographic nuances. Although maybe to a lesser extent than the newspaper in Harry Potter, which I haven't seen.

And let's not forget The Pillow Book.
07.17.07 at 04:20

A whole new meaning for movable type.
07.17.07 at 04:34

I noted the same when watching the film. In fact, I'll admit that I was planning to make a blog post of my own on the topic. Still trying to compile some more screenshots.
Prescott Perez-Fox
07.17.07 at 04:59

Your entry has me curious enough to go see this movie. Thank you for that.

Another film that comes to mind that type and letterform becomes the star is Peter Greenaway's The Pillowbook. This luscious film set in Japan and Hong Kong is a story of the daughter of an author who takes revenge on his evil publisher. She presents chapters of her father's book beautifully written on a series of bodies. This is the first film that I can recall that multi-lingual subtitles are designed specifically for the screen as opposed to being added as an after thought. A calligraphic feast!

Can't take the kids to this one though.

07.17.07 at 06:09

Looks like now I'll definitely have to catch up on this series...

(The "Stranger then Fiction (sic)" link, by the way, is incorrectly linked to "http://url/".)
Editors note: thanks Alfonso. Typo and link corrected.
07.17.07 at 06:31

There's still much exploration to be done in using text in film. Aside from the Pillow Book, as previously mentioned, Greenaway's Prospero's Books is an earlier experiment of his with text. Scorcese's The Age of Innocence, too, with the calligraphic correspondence of that era.

Rarer still seem to be foreign language films that embrace the visual experience of beign watched with subtitles. Lars von Trier's Europa comes to mind, but I haven't seen anything comparable to 2004's Nochnoy dozor (Night Watch), which at different points animates the subtitles with mixed (but occasionally spectacular) results.

I was disappointed that the dvd for Pan's Labryinth wasn't handled with similar consideration, instead relying on the standard pixellated yellow subtitles. Pan's Labryinth deserved better, in my opinion.
07.17.07 at 07:33

For me it was the close-ups of the beautifully letterpressed Educational Decrees that Filch was periodicaly hammering into the wall that made the film bearable.
The sweeping shots of the Daily Prophet were a nice idea, but it seemed as if they wern't included for their own merit, rather they were there to fill in the gaping plot holes and narrative jumps that were a result of the writers and director trying to cram every detail from a dictionary-thick tome into just over an hour and a half.
07.18.07 at 06:17

Apologies for the self-link, but relevant to this post... The subtitles in Man on Fire also played a nice role in that movie by adding a little extra layer of meaning and interpretation of what was ocurring between the characters with subtle typographic nuances. Although maybe to a lesser extent than the newspaper in Harry Potter, which I haven't seen.
07.18.07 at 07:35

Felix: but it seemed as if they wern't included for their own merit, rather they were there to fill in the gaping plot holes and narrative jumps that were a result of the writers and director trying to cram every detail from a dictionary-thick tome into just over an hour and a half.

Actually, just under two hours twenty. And still the shortest in the series so far, weirdly enough. But yeah, there were some definite "TIME PASSES" moments.

It was a bit surprising/disapointing that the credits were so plain, given what they did with the newspaper throughout and how stylized they've been in previous installments.
07.18.07 at 12:24

Yet of all of these visual antics, the most mesmerizing is the reincarnation of The Daily Prophet — a black-and-white tabloid which has the miraculous capacity to write and rewrite itself while it is being read.

So Hogworts has a blog?
Stephen Macklin
07.18.07 at 04:45

Let's also not forget Wes Anderson's obsession with Futura:

The Royal Tenenbaums also features other design detail such as the specially-created book jackets, some of which can be seen on that page. And The Life Aquatic continues the Futura theme.
John C
07.18.07 at 05:26

I just have to chime in with some examples of text within movies.

The Russian movie 'Nightwatch' has a great use of subtitles where instead of just switching on an off, they flicker and fade to resemble smoke, or perhaps a fading shadow.

'The secret life of words' has a great opening sequence where the cast names morph from themes in the movie (pain, suffering, scream, hate etc...)
Mathew Sanders
07.19.07 at 02:21

you muggles sure have a lot of time on your hands
val de more
07.19.07 at 10:43

I totally agree.

The movie's in general are sub par to the experience of reading a book and having it happen as my minds eye percieves it. (Although still good)

However, the daily prophet was absolutely amazing, just the way that headlines and stories zigged and zagged in such and engaging manner.

I did a search on harry potter typography recently after seeing the movie, but it did not yield many exciting hits. Any idea what group was responsible for creating the paper portion for the harry potter movie?
randy h
07.19.07 at 10:53

I'm sure many music videos have implemented type on screen, but this article made two come to mind (links are to Youtube): Mos Def's 'Ms. Fat Booty' and Justice's 'DANCE'.

Perhaps if newspapers were capable of the magic displayed in the Daily Prophet, more youngsters - having grown up with a fetish for animation - would be drawn to the trade. Personally, I might find it very distracting, but I'm sure some spell exists to pause the Prophet while reading. :)
07.19.07 at 01:52

Also, note the early scene in Fight Club where the typography appears to make his apartment look like an Ikea ad.
07.19.07 at 01:52

On the subject of type in music videos, I recall Alex Gopher's 'The Child' getting a lot of attention when it was released.
07.19.07 at 02:07

One more, this one's quite neat:

From Pulp Fiction.
07.19.07 at 03:30

I loved these sequences too...can't wait to freeze frame it on DVD and try reading through some of the little details.
07.20.07 at 02:23

Wizards have much better taste in their civic buildings than Muggles as well. Could you imagine Hogwarts as a generic P.S. ## ?
Sam S.
07.20.07 at 05:01

This is totaly off topic.

I don't know where to comment on the articles you highlight under the observed column so I am just going to do it here.

The "attack any photoshopping done to fotos" trend is rather disappointing design wise. And yes, it can be overdone, but truth be told the bright lights of photography many times accentuate lines and wrinkles on faces that are barely there in a average lit room. Softening is the result of taking away these lines and shadows. Airbrushing, dodging and burning is correction to the inaccuracies of light recorded on film at times. Even an amateur knows that or something like that.

So let's not let jealousy and ego go completely to the wayside, huh?

07.20.07 at 06:11

The Daily Prophet sequences in the new movie were great. So were the letterpressed rules that Felix mentioned. And let us not forget the Sagmeister-eque "I will not tell lies" that Umbridge forces Harry to cut into his hand.

I have to say, however, that the end titles for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban were some of the best I've seen.
07.20.07 at 07:02

Along the lines of the Reservoir Dogs motion type sequence is an interesting series of passages from classic literature set to motion and music. (Bad Flash site; must click on "portfolio" > "motion").

Full disclosure: I was that senior design student.
07.21.07 at 12:12

I really enjoyed the typographic roll in "Man On Fire" then even more in Stranger Than Fiction So now reading this post I am really intrested in checking out this latest induction of the Harry Potter series.
Shane Guymon
07.23.07 at 02:31

I knew there would be a post about it here. :) The whole typographic treatment in OotP was excellent IMHO, from Umbridge's little framed rules to the best application of the spinning newspaper cliché in decades, without forgetting that awesome Weasley moment near the end.

On the sub-topic, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance has a great use of type: when an important character is introduced, the titles interact with the scene (think HEROES' chapter titles.) Also, whenever a character speaks in anything other than Korean, the words appear in the order they are being spoken... it's a bit hard to explain, but it's a cool touch nonetheless.

Satoshi Kon's TV anime miniseries Paranoia Agent cleverly uses elements from the background to present the chapter titles. And the series is quite good, too.

Kubrick also did this thing where important bits of text in his movies were translated entirely depending on the region the movie was shown. I recall being shocked while watching Eyes Wide Shut at the theater, seeing a whole newspaper page in Spanish (not even lorem ipsum.) I wonder if those versions exist on DVD...

Luis Sopelana
07.24.07 at 04:58

Does anybody have an idea of who was actually behind the designing of the Daily Prophet in this lastest HP movie?

Any ideas on what fonts some of the typefaces were based off of?
08.30.07 at 07:35

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Jessica Helfand, a founding editor of Design Observer, is an award-winning graphic designer and writer and a former contributing editor and columnist for Print, Communications Arts and Eye magazines. A member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and a recent laureate of the Art Director's Hall of Fame, Helfand received her B.A. and her M.F.A. from Yale University where she has taught since 1994.
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BOOKS BY Jessica Helfand

Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media, and Visual Culture
Winterhouse Editions, 2001

Scrapbooks: An American History
Yale University Press, 2008

Reinventing the Wheel
Winterhouse Editions, 2002

Paul Rand: American Modernist
winterhouse Editions, 1998

Looking Closer 3
Allworth Press, 1999

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