To celebrate the summer’s long-awaited arrival, I have teamed up with filmmaker and animator Tommy Levi Morenos to create a list of films that will challenge and inform your understanding of creativity. Together we have cherry picked ten great films that explore the subjects of hands-on crafts and human imagination, hoping to provide inspiration for designers – and indeed anyone who is passionate about visual culture. So, on with it! Here they are: ten films to get your creative juices flowing.
Why Man Creates
Meandering and stream-of-consciousness in its tone, ‘Why Man Creates’ comes across as a student film from the 60s as it hops irreverently through a series of vignettes about the state of man, from cave-wall scrawlings to contemporary caricatures rendered in glorious Technicolor! It can be aptly described as a thoughtful semi-animated work the likes of those by Terry Gilliam and more contemporarily, Don Hertzfeldt. Some segments of the film stand the test of time well; others are thick with that brand of campness particular to the late 60s – and they’re worth the watch just on that basis.
The Machine that Made Us
This BBC monograph of Gutenberg’s printing press is framed by Stephen Fry’s mission to replicate the original machine, a technology long lost in the mists of time. Fry guides us on a journey across Europe to examine fifteenth-Century printing through an illuminating multitude of contexts: monastic scribes, typesetting, paper production, the life of its inventor and the businessmen who were to invest in the realisation of his vision. Surprisingly, very few original artefacts remain from Gutenberg’s time. Unsurprisingly, Fry is eloquent and humorous in his well-researched commentaries. When the film arrives at an educated approximation of the first ever printing press, today’s hyper modern derivatives are given greater contextualisation and the ingenuity of early printing pioneers is made all the more relatable.
Director and producer Doug Wilson explores the world of the Linotype casting machine and the highly-skilled operators and typesetters whose lives revolved around it. In its celebration of what Thomas Edison called ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World,’ the film goes on to consider the nostalgic allure of this fabled technology that, from the late 1800s to the 1970s powered mass media communication, newspapers, magazines, and posters across the globe for almost a century. It’s a fascinating escape from the familiar world of instantaneous digital communication to an era when daily battles against time were a pervasive reality.
‘Typeface’ makes use of a rotating cast of artists and retired craftsmen to examine the convergence of modern design and traditional technique; mass production and local produce. Situated on the suburban street of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, the mighty Hamilton wood type factory serves as a museum and workshop, welcoming designers and print enthusiasts from all over the country to discuss the evolution of letterpress printing and to redefine the grammar of print. Peppered with laughter and wonderfully personal moments, Justine Nagan’s film manages to communicate her strong optimism and desire to revive the increasingly distant art of wood type.
Made You Look
But analogue is not dead! Despite the proliferation of electronic alternatives, how can we explain the persistent demand for artisanal products and commodities? ‘Made You Look’ explores the enduring relationship between man and the analogue world, engagingly portrayed via candid interviews with the UK’s art/design legends among which include Anthony Burrill, Kate Moross, Ed Cheverton and Sam Arthur from Nobrow, to name only a few. With a sure hand the film weaves a fascinating analysis of all aspects of craftsmanship and give us a comprehensive sense of DIY graphic arts fellowship.
Situated right at the intersection of crafts and commerce, ‘Sign Painters’ is a beautifully arranged film centred around those who earn their keep by putting paint and brush to buildings and billboards. Directors Faythe Levin and Sam Macon belie claims of the slow death of artisanal sign painting with discussions about its recent renaissance, set against the backdrop of historical analysis. It is a celebration of artisans and their skill in the manipulation of a lettering brush, bringing to the screen an undoubtedly fitting contemplation of its 50 year-old history and culture.
Part of a design-based trilogy by Gary Hustwit, this unusual and insightful feature-length documentary focuses entirely on one of the most universal and critically-acclaimed typefaces: Helvetica. Fixed across countless buildings and public spaces – from storefronts to subway signs, letterheads to logos and products and publications – it seems impossible to go a day in this world without sighting Helvetica in some form or other. This great documentary unravels the mysterious tale of this neutral face, and tackles head-on the question of why some love Helvetica and others loathe it.
Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight
Milton Glaser, perhaps best known as the father of “I ♥ NY” (which by now has been plagiarised by every major city on Earth) delivers illuminating anecdotes brimming with the wisdom of years of experience in the industry. As an artist whose work can be found in just about every urban landscape worldwide, Glaser is in a unique position to observe that “a graphic designer’s work is seen but they are not necessarily heard.” Key to his musings in this documentary is the recognition that a graphic designer’s job is about the “creation of affection,” and this helps us to understand where his career has led him to today — “mostly supermarkets,” he notes wryly.
This is simply a beautifully put-together work of animation, supercharged by a lush and expressive score. ‘Shape’ portrays our world as one that shifts under our feet with growing freneticism; a world that’s responsive to anybody daring enough to reimagine it. For all its simplicity, ‘Shape’ is richly conceived, packed with brilliant and witty animation, playing with simple geometry to convey complex ideas. A multitude of themes are touched upon, including architecture, city-planning, the environment, technology, family, education, work, and so on. Antfood’s mellifluous sound design is thick with detail, injecting life into the minimalistic visual style and polishing the piece to a high gleam.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
With all his enigmatic magnetism and irony-suffused style, Banksy brings us this love letter on street art as told through one of its principal soldiers, French immigrant Thierry Guetta. In this stylish and kinetic documentary Guetta and Banksy guide us through the history of this fairly new art form, from its shaky but bold beginnings to the contemporary fame that has been fought hard and won for it. Fans of the wit and humour that characterises Banksy’s work will find satisfaction in the film’s effortless style, and it isn’t short on social commentary either. For those who are curious about the origins of Banksy’s provocative approach to art, this is a must-see.
Ten films that have something for everyone, covering centuries of time and just about every major aspect of design under the sun. Enjoy!