How to become a graphic designer in film and TV

The British film and TV industry is growing fast with box office up 3% and admission up by 5% in 2018. Couple that with the fact that Netflix and Amazon are predicted to overtake UK cinema box office spending by 2020, it’s not surprising that the UK is the second largest film market in the European Union after France where, despite being home to the iconic Cannes Film Festival, attendance is actually declining. It’s a demanding but highly prestigious industry but how does this relate to graphic designers we hear you cry?

Well, every major movie uses a graphic design team because, in addition to promotional material and that pretty on demand graphic you see on Netflix, everything you see on set from the newspapers, to shopfront signage, to handwritten letters or even cereal boxes all have to be painstakingly created from scratch. The Founder of Artwork Bazaar Attila Raczkevy has witnessed the increasing demand for graphic designers in the British filmmaking firsthand, having worked in the industry for more than two decades, he explains: 

“If you consider the rapid growth of the film industry and the integral role that graphic designers play, it stands to reason that there is an increased demand for graphic designers that are able to deliver custom graphics to the right spec and a platform that enables researchers and producers to get hold of what they need, fast. By creating an image library specifically for the industry and putting the artist front and centre, we hope to resolve these challenges and bridge the talent gap. Bringing more work to graphic designers and helping busy production teams to find what they need from our library or enable them to make a direct request to an artist they know is able to deliver.” 

Many graphic designers end up in commercial design or branding but what about graphic designers who dream of making it in the film industry? How do they get started and what experience is needed to specialise in this niche artistic field? 

In our recent interview with successful producer Chris Croucher, when asked about graphic design resources he said:

“You work with the best and you get the best. I’ve been blessed that I’ve worked with some amazing designers who bring with them amazing graphics teams.”

So, is it not what you know but who you know? Maybe a little. But if you truly want to work as a graphic designer in film and TV, then here’s some top tips to help you get started and find the right people.

Do you need specific qualifications to work in graphic design for film or television?

A quick Google search will show you that film-related graphic design degrees don’t really exist. General work experience and the basics you learn from a graphic design degree will stand you in good stead, but you still need to get your name out there.

This is not to say that there aren’t any key differences in working styles between specialisms. For example, the purpose of commercial graphic design (such as logos or packaging) is usually to stand out and attract as much attention as possible from a buyer, while graphic pieces for film are often there to blend in or to reinforce contextual cues about the period, the location or the narrative of the movie. 

Design pieces in films also hold importance for the actors, since they can lend a busy set a sense of greater authenticity, helping actors get into character. 

How do you find graphic design jobs in the film industry?

So you’ve got a great portfolio, but how do you reach the decision-makers in the film industry and demonstrate that you have what it takes? 

Sometimes you have to be in the right place at the right time. Speaking at the AIG Design Conference, graphic designer Annie Atkins, who now specialises in film design, recalled how she got her first break on television series, The Tudors:

“I went for an interview as the assistant in the art department, but when I showed them my portfolio (because I came from a graphic design background) they saw that I had a portfolio full of commercial graphic design and they said: we’re actually looking for a full-time graphic designer on the show.”

On The Tudors, Atkins designed pieces like royal death warrants and stained glass windows, but she also learned that designing for film brought with it a new set of challenges: 

“Because we don’t shoot in story order, we have a problem with continuity. Copies need to be identical. We have to make as many identical copies as they might need to do takes for.”

Attention to detail matters. Anyone who has seen the latest series of Games of Thrones knows that a single goof in a film sequence (*cough, Starbucks cup*) can immediately go viral. 

Mistakes can be expensive to fix in post-production, or hugely embarrassing if they aren’t caught in time. Watch the video of her talk to learn more about her personal experience, along with lots of great insights into the joys, pitfalls and realities of graphic designing for film. In the talk, Atkins also shares her personal experiences working on major projects like Bridge of Spies, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Boxtrolls. 

Will filmmakers work with freelance designers?

“I have a core group of close friends that I often work with because we have already built a great understanding and effortless working relationship. So for commissioned client work, I usually call upon this core group because trust is so important in the creation process. Although when I have been able to expand my professional network, I see the effect of my work evolving in new ways from that partnership. Therefore, I really enjoy starting out new work relationships first on personal passion projects; this allows me to really see how well we can work with one another for future collaborations.” 

Ash Thorp,  Director, Animator and Graphic Designer

Ash Thorp is best known for his graphic design work on feature films like X-Men First Class, Total Recall, Ghost in the Shell and Ender’s Game. As a man who has held every filmmaking role from writer to animator, and production designer to director, it is fair to say he knows the industry inside-out.

This once again begs the question: is it who you know, not what you know that counts here? 

Let’s start by understanding where your client is coming from. Producers are already busy overseeing actors’ schedules, financing, editing, shooting and every other aspect of making a film. Sourcing graphic designers is not top of their priority list. This explains why they are more likely to use a tried-and-tested team, than to spend time looking for budding creatives. 

But don’t despair. With only a limited talent pool available to supply a growing industry, filmmakers know that they need to open the doors to new artists. All you need to do is make it easy for them! Demonstrate the excellent quality of your work and make sure that prospective clients can find it.

The good news is, once clients in the film industry like you, they will probably use you again and again – just like their favourite actors or directors.

How can freelance designers promote their work to the film industry?

To make it as an unknown outsider, you’ll need to showcase your work and your transferable skills. Do this by playing to your strengths, building your reputation and creating a strong graphics portfolio.

Think about what you can design that no-one else can offer. If you specialise in a particular style or theme, use this as your trademark and a USP. 

Remember that saying you can do something means nothing. Your client needs to see at least one perfect example of what they are looking for, but they’re probably after at least five!

Join our community of graphic designers in film and TV

Finding the right online platform to promote yourself can make all the difference. Artwork Bazaar is a specialist freelance website for graphic designers working in film, TV production and events. 

You can display your work, find projects or clients, and gain professional recognition as an artist. Another great benefit is the online community, which allows artists to collaborate with each other and find like-minded creatives to work on bigger jobs.

Film producers looking for new talent on the platform can really get to know you, as well as your body of work, because they have access to your personal artist profile and bio. Find out more about the benefits of joining the Artist Bazaar platform.

If you enjoyed this blog, you might also like these interviews by professionals in the industry:  graphic designer Josh Riley

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