Sophie On: Writing on Walls

Hey Guys,

    I realised something this afternoon, whilst I was sat with my sandpaper and a pot of cold tea. Today was the last day I would be ageing costumes for Wasteland.

    That's a weird feeling. I've spent over a year working on it, and made some great friends along the way, and all of our efforts have paid off thus far. It's already on IMDb, and the footage is looking amazing. Plus it gave me one thing no film had given to me before - a fully designed and built set.

    The set's in the process of being dismantled and sent to the tip, and I've been quite nostalgic about it. Not just about all the memories shared within those hand-built walls, but also how it worked in terms of design. In spite of all the intricate little bits of vintage electrical clutter, my favourite part of the set was the simplest, and happened by accident. I filled a gap with a cardboard box which had the word ' fragile' taped on the back. And it sat in the background perfectly during the scenes where actor Shameer Seepersand sat on the radio, talking sadly to a friend he'd never met in person. Basically, he looked fragile, and the word behind him emphasised that.

Forces of Nature, dir. Bronwen Hughes 1999
   I've always loved written words on sets, before I was trained to design for films or even to 'read' them.  The reason designers use them (or editors sometimes, when they put text over a shot which isn't subtitles) is to emphasise the scene, or to make an ironic comment about what we're seeing, generally. It works best in scenes where there is no dialogue - so that the walls do the talking for the characters, and for the director. I just like the use of words because they make the audience stop and think.

   The first time I noticed 'words on the wall' was in Bronwen Hughes' Forces of Nature, designed by Lester Cohen & Christa Munro - a film which most people don't look to for inspiration, but I've always loved. During a tender scene in a laundrette, in which no words are spoken but brooding thoughts are obvious, someone has written on the wall "Jesus is a truck heading for Gods Wherehouse". Spelt wrong and grammatically incorrect. I've never known what the designers were trying to say but I've spent years trying to figure it out!

   Then, at the start of the 21st century, I saw Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge! - designed by the great Catherine Martin - and instantly fell in love with every aspect of it. Baz used letters and words throughout the film, starting with close-ups of the font on Christian's typewriter (a technique also used in Joe Wright's Atonement years later), and featuring montages where the characters sung in front of giant standalone words. 

A 'wordy' montage scene from Moulin Rouge!, dir. Baz Luhrmann 2001.

Baz Luhrmann's Chanel Advert
   After further research, I discovered that Baz loved words in film design as much as I did. His first feature film, Strictly Ballroom, featured scenes where lovers danced in front of a giant Coca Cola sign (on a rooftop, again. I love rooftops as well, even if I don't love product placement) and his advert for Chanel, again starring Nicole Kidman, featured a similar set-up to the Moulin Rouge! 'Come What May' montage, but this time working to advertise the brand.

   In spite of my love of words on sets, I didn't get to indulge in them until about half a decade later, when I worked on a film called Fireworks. During that time I was also quite inspired by graffiti, and I'd walked home one day and seen the word 'you' spray-painted on the floor. As with Forces of Nature, I was left wondering what the hell the 'artist' was trying to say, and I thought about it for the rest of the walk, and into the evening as well. I never did figure it out but I knew that I had to get it into a set some time.

   Fireworks seemed like a good place to put it, since it was a quirky romance and featured a girl - the 'you' of the story - who turned the lead character's world around, if only briefly. Originally we were going to build a set so we could paint whatever we wanted on the walls, and director Ollie Caswell was happy to let me have my creative streak. The set was to be a bathroom, built because we wanted to flood it, and it would have been my first proper set (rather than the Wasteland one).

My rarely-seen concept art for Fireworks, dir. Ollie Caswell 2009

    But the script was changed so that it didn't actually have to flood, and we filmed on location. The only part we built was the shower curtain with collapsible rail, since there wasn't an existing one, and I got to paint the word 'you' onto that. We only get a little glimpse of it in the finished film, but it's enough for the audience to go back and think about on a second or third viewing, and I like things that do that.

    The next time I got to 'indulge' wasn't for another few years, when I co-wrote and co-produced Jar of Angels. Since I got to add details into multiple drafts of the script, and had as much control over the design of the sets, I wrote words onto windows, onto ceilings, and pretty much everywhere in one rather striking scene:

My concept art for Jar of Angels, dir. Crash Taylor 2011

     You can see this scene in full cinematic fashion within the Jar of Angels official trailer, property of Taylor | Winter Films:

    Another time I used this technique was more of a result of the current consumer craze for hand-made items; in Stop/Eject, the lead character is a costume designer, and crafty by nature - with beautiful similarities to the film's actual costume designer, Katie Lake - so it made sense for us to fill her living space with handmade fabric items. Fabric letters have always been popular in nurseries but are now popular in living rooms as well. So all that was left was for me to choose the perfect word which summed up the character, scene, and message of the film: Live.

Screengrab from the Stop/Eject trailer, dir. Neil Oseman 2012

    To find out more about my work on the Stop/Eject living room set, including pieces of concept art which showed how I integrated the word 'live' into it, please read this blog post I did about it a few months ago. And if that inspires you, please, please chuck a few pennies towards the film's post-production funding campaign, because we're all so keen to get the film finished, but festival entry fees don't come cheap!

Wall-writing in Ashes
   With my most recent film project, Ashes, I returned to the director's seat and let someone else do the set design for a change (much praise to Gina Hames for taking that job!). But again, because I was the film's writer as well as the director, the words seeped their way into the film's visuals, so much so that they became the third character of the film. They weren't just ironic words on the wall - they were the voice of Sarah's conscience, giving her advice in a difficult situation.

   I wonder if I'll ever get bored of writing on walls - hopefully I will do so before my designs become too predictable. But at least the words have changed over the years, and I've noticed that I've started branching out from single words to full phrases. Perhaps that should be my next challenge - getting a full quote onto a wall!

   Besides, words never go out of fashion. There aren't many years which pass where I don't see them used on film sets, and with the increase in cinematic television programmes, they've started appearing their too. Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss' Sherlock is abundant with text-type put onto the screen, visualising everything from thoughts to character's text messages, and they've been used within sets to dramatic effect as well:

Screenshot from series two of Sherlock, 2012

   And what's more, that wonderful series has even inspired some bizarre graffiti in my neighbourhood (not by me, for the record):

   Words surround us; not just in films or graffiti, but on plaques, clothing, and even tattooed onto people's skin. That's how much people care about certain letters, names and phrases. As designers we should embrace the world's love of words, and occasionally exploit it too.

   But I still don't understand "Jesus is a truck heading for Gods Wherehouse".

Sophie x


Popular Posts