We correct that today.
If you follow pop culture, you’ve probably seen his Sopranos logo, some of his fonts, or his movie posters, most recently, his work on Watchmen, which opens everywhere at midnight on Thursday.
Indeed, Watchmen, based on the celebrated graphic novel, gave Holms an opportunity to do a lot of highly visible poster work. But it’s the relatively invisible details that we’ll talk about here.
Like many typophiles, Holms noticed that something was off with the Watchmen logotype, which was set in a cut of Futura Extra Bold. Someone manually scrunched the C in WATCHMEN so it would sit on the baseline, eliminating the top and bottom overshoots, making it appear smaller than the other letters. Such a trivial detail, but a huge deal to someone who deals with letters. Holms, and his agency, Los Angeles-based Mojo, set out to make things right.
After Mojo got the Watchmen account, how apparent was it that you might have to fix up the logotype?
When we received the call from Warner Bros., we were all so excited about getting it that the idea of the logotype never entered our minds. I don’t think it was until we saw the Comic Con posters in situ that we realized it didn’t sit right. We thought we were being faithful to the comic, but it still didn’t look right. But without better ammunition than a gut feeling to back us up, we didn’t feel it appropriate to change the Watchmen logotype.
Can you describe how and why you ended up remaking the entire logotype from scratch?
The director was really behind the idea of everything being as authentic as possible. You can take the comic book and see that the panels are used as key frames throughout the movie. We felt that it would be appreciated if we followed suit. The work that was done for Comic Con was based off the logo used on one of the trade paperback versions of the comic. My creative director, Andrew Percival, was somehow able to track down an original promotional pack that featured large-sized versions of the comic covers, the French comic covers, and the original ads that accompanied the launch of the comic. So with more accurate source materials, we were able to see some details that we were unable to tell for certain on the set of original comics that I brought in. That was when we were able to redraw the logo and make it as faithful to the original comic as possible.
Did you work in Illustrator on this one, or FontLab?
I worked in Illustrator. Since I wasn’t planning on redrawing the typeface, just the logo, I felt it more convenient to work in Illustrator (besides, I’m much more comfortable drawing in Illustrator than FontLab).
You guys sweated some details for something that most people won’t notice. Did you find that it was worth it?
Without question, absolutely. It can be a pain at the time, but it’s always worth it.
Funny that you bring up details that no one would notice—at one point in the project, my creative director and I had an argument about redrawing all the type for an electronic billboard. Since they are very low resolution (700 pixels wide enlarged to the size of a full-sized billboard), I thought that we shouldn’t spend the time redrawing the copy that went on them since the difference would never be perceived. He reminded me that since we don’t always have the opportunity to do things correctly, we need to capitalize on the times we do. I may have been a little burned out at the time because it took a couple reminders before it sank in what he meant, but now I’m very happy that we can say that it was all done to the best of our abilities.
Have you seen the movie?
I have seen the movie three times; some of the other art directors have seen it more, some less. Actually, this week is the premiere, and several of the art directors will be attending to see it another time. It’s weird to see movies in their different stages—it was the same thing with 300. We were privy to early cuts, so we saw a lot of scenes pre-computer animation. It’s fun to see how exponentially tighter the movie becomes when the color is balanced correctly, the CG is in place, and the sound has been sweetened. You get pulled into the story on the cuts I’ve seen, but you get pulled into the experience of the movie with the final cut in the theatre.
What did you learn about Futura Extra Bold during this project?
We learned that the copy of Futura we own was not the correct cut that the comic book used. Doh!
I was unable to source the original cut, but am taking a guess that it was a display cut that was only available as phototype. There was a variance in how the letters were drawn, probably adjusted optically for a larger point size—and the main difference was the lack of ink traps. That ended up being the key to making the type look authentic. Whenever we used Futura in collateral, we redrew it so that it lacked the ink traps.
What are some other custom movie projects you’ve done or are working on?
A myriad of hand-drawn logos for titles, but full typeface work hasn’t occurred all that frequently.
My first one was a billing typeface for the movie American Splendor. The billing block is the very condensed type at the bottom of the poster that contains the movie credits. Since there is a very specific formula for the point size of the billing, it is invariably set in an ultra-condensed typeface like (Univers) 39, (Univers) 49, or Bee. The formula for determining the point size of the billing is to take the average height of each letter in the logo (not the cap height, or the x-height, but the physical measurement of the height), attain an average height, and the billing is typically 25 percent or 35 percent of that size. There were no existing comic book styled fonts that we could find that would work in this style, so I figured out what the width of the letters had to be and drew it up from that. It worked out fairly well.
At Mojo, we recently worked on a custom typeface for the Warner Bros. movie Where The Wild Things Are. It was meant to look like the writing of the lead child actor, and the studio responded very positively to the lettering of Erik Buckham, one of our art directors. So he drew up a bunch of the characters, I digitized them, and built it all in FontLab. One of the problems with making a typeface that is supposed to look hand-drawn is that it never does because of the uniformity of characters when placed next to each other. For example, the double o in book. Erik drew up some alternates, and I programmed an OpenType substitution that made certain that no two versions of the same character ever sat next to each other. Although the computer knows what it’s doing, it appears to randomly select from the alternate character as you type. If you look close, you can see the repetition, but on first blush you don’t see it at all. We felt this was a great combination of utility and art—this allows what appears to be hand-drawn lettering to be stylistically consistent across multiple vendors. We set the tone with the poster, and the people making the T-shirts, or action figure packaging, will be able to have the same lettering without our art director hand lettering every single piece of type for the promotion of the movie for the rest of his natural life. We also recently did a custom psychedelic typeface for the movie Taking Woodstock. Evan Wright (another art director) had some type that he artificially condensed to fit the billing, but when the poster was chosen to be printed, he spent the weekend redrawing the typeface so that the strokes were all consistent and had the custom serif flairs that he wanted. I then imported the whole thing into FontLab, redraw a couple troublesome glyphs, and in relatively short order we had a functional psychedelic typeface that is condensed enough to fit in the billing.
Mojo has done a lot of Custom Letter work for movies lately. Burn After Reading was another bespoke project that we haven’t mentioned. Do you see this as a trend?
I’m hoping it is, because I’m really enjoying it. I don’t think that it was really that much of an option before—sometimes they would do it with a really big movies like Batman, but it was pretty rare. Now that we’ve made it available, the clients seem to be amenable to the idea.
How did you get into fonts, and what do you enjoy about letters?
I think it began in college, the school I went to (CalArts), really supported the idea of independent type design and experimentation. The last semester of my senior year, Jeff Keedy offered the first type design course at CalArts, and I very excitedly took the class. He had us draw calligraphic forms, to teach us the basics of typography, then at the end of the course, we digitized them into a font. To be completely honest, I think he gave me a mercy pass as I was utterly miserable at it. But it only made my interest in type stronger, so I kept working on typefaces on my own after school. I was lucky enough to sell a couple of them to companies to use as their bespoke typeface. Several years later, I discovered Typophile and put a typeface of mine up for critique, which later became the typeface Brea. Grant Hutchinson took a shine to the font and was the one who is responsible for my getting distributed by Veer.
I find working on letterforms to be very relaxing. It allows my mind to slow down and I can background process the day’s events while focusing intensely on something on a very micro level. I get stressed very easily, and working with type forces me to focus intently, which calms me down considerably. I also have insomnia, and I spend that time working on type, which keeps me from getting upset that I can’t get to sleep.
Fontwise, what’s next?
I’m currently working on a new display face that I’m putting the finishing touches on. Hopefully it will be released soon-ish. I’ve got about 4-6 sitting on the hard drive unfinished that I still need to decide if there are going to ever go beyond the sketch stage. Probably not.
Finally, wanted to ask you about Trajan and some of the other ubiquitous movie fonts. At your agency, do you guys revere Trajan, or make fun of him behind his back?
Actually, we had a hang-up about it for quite a while, and would do everything in our power to avoid using it. For the most part, we were able to swap out Requiem in its place and it would slip through the approval process. But now it doesn’t bother me so much. It’s funny, I’ve not really given much thought to it—after asking around the office, none of us can remember that last time we used Trajan on a finished poster. There must be a conscious decision on our part to avoid it, although it has gone unspoken for at least three to four years.
“Trajan had about a 10-year lifespan in movie poster design, and has just simply fallen out of fashion.”
I mean yeah, we all laugh with a bit of arrogance when we see Trajan, the same way we all laugh at Comic Sans or other typefaces that have fallen out of contemporary favor. But when Titanic came out in 1997, no one was chuckling that they used Trajan. I think it’s just a recent meme to bash Trajan as it’s been so grossly overused and it makes you feel clever. I think that the approval process can be so grueling sometimes that it’s tempting to take the easy way out. We’ve found that as long as you use a typeface that holds the same gravity as Trajan, you don’t have to use Trajan. We’ve never been forced to use it—we have had a client ask us to use something more like Trajan, which was just a challenge to find what they were seeing in Trajan, and find another not so commonly used typeface to replace it with.
Trajan had about a 10-year lifespan in movie poster design, and has just simply fallen out of fashion, as does everything. The typeface was overused because it had been used very successfully.
What are five things that people don’t know about you?
I don’t really know very many people, so anything at all is something that people don’t know about me.
1. I have issues with textures, and am completely freaked out by wet paper.
2. I love movies about super animals attacking and hunting people—Anaconda, Deep Blue Sea, etc.
3. I am color blind (mild, it’s rarely an inconvenience).
4. I used to work at Disneyland, where I wore lederhosen and listened to yodeling all day.
5. When I was a child I literally cracked my skull doing the hokey pokey.