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Mis-casting

Thursday night, I saw an advanced screening of The Life Aquatic in Seattle. Of course, Futura appears as the signature typeface. As much as I like Wes Anderson’s films, his latest does not compare to the predecessors on a number of levels. And due to some typographic missteps, I believe the movie fell short.

The Life Aquatic 2004 Touchstone Pictures

You’ll see Futura all over The Life Aquatic. It’s easy to fall in love with its friendly appearance and breadth of weights. Anderson isn’t the only director that has an affinity for letterforms. After changing faces for his film titles over the years, Woody Allen moved to what looks like Windsor Light after 1980. And Stanley Kubrick’s Futura applications in 2001 signal a sans serif future. But Anderson relies on Futura for much more than titling or marketing materials. Watching The Royal Tenenbaums, we see Futura in the opening credits and painted on book covers like “Nakedness Tonight” by Margot Tenenbaum. Designer Mark Simonson points this and other instances out in great detail. Used in varying weights across The Royal Tenenbaums scenery and set dressing, the face looks fresh each time. Sitting through The Life Aquatic, I paid special attention, looking for Futura at every turn. Anderson calls out each adventure of Steve Zissou’s journey with a day count and title in—you guessed it—Futura. But on occasion, I noticed Arial in its place. Disappointing. Examine it for yourself in the webisodes.

The Royal Tenenbaums was so overpopulated by Futura, but The Life Aquatic seemed to miss Anderson’s obsessive touch. It’s tattooed on Team Zissou wearables and equipment. Throughout the film, he employs it during transitions from one adventure to the next—although inconsistently. The website playfully casts the typeface on its wayfinding system, titles, and body text. If Mark Simonson gives The Royal Tenenbaums four out of five stars for its typecasting, I’ll give The Life Aquatic a two. I appreciate how typographic variation denotes one vernacular from another, such as Operation Hennessey’s yuppie logotype, but why forsake consistency in a noticeable place like the transitions? And Arial?! Pay close attention to the posters and website, and you’ll feel a little cheated too.

For those interested in Anderson’s typographic inspirations, rent the Rushmore DVD in the Criterion Collection with his commentary. Finally, at the time of writing this, I looked everywhere for the official Tenenbaums site—done beautifully in Flash—but cannot find it. Any tips would be appreciated.

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 2164 FILED UNDER Typography
PUBLISHED ON Dec.11.2004 BY Jason A. Tselentis
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
Drew’s comment is:

www.burningsmallfires.com/ did the site, which is no longer live.

It's one of my favorite websites ever.

On Dec.11.2004 at 05:57 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:

Stanley Kubrick is indeed associated with Futura as well, but its use in 2001 was limited to the advertising. The titles are some kind of cross between Trajan and Optima, and Eurostyle appears in the set decoration more than any other typeface that I recall.

Others have agreed that the production design in The Life Aquatic isn't as tight as they expected and have pointed out that this is the first film Wes Anderson has done without his longtime production designer David Wasco.

On Dec.12.2004 at 12:17 AM
Jason T.’s comment is:

How true, Michael. Wasco has been credited with attaching Futura to Anderson's films. (Anecdotally, Wasco's brother worked for Adobe and Agfa.) I enjoyed The Life Aquatic for its humor and campy sensibilities, but the film fails to hold up visually the same way that Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums did.

Rumor has it that Anderson is moving into the world of stop motion animation for his next feature. It seems that animation—which detracted from The Life Aquatic—has gotten his attention.

When watching Anderson's films, you want to commit scenes to memory, hit the pause button, or own a still photograph. You're captivated. The Life Aquatic did not have as many of those moments. I'm curious to see what happens next in the world of animation.

On Dec.12.2004 at 12:22 AM
Bradley’s comment is:

Probably not the deepest comment you will read on this topic. Yet...

I have an ongoing discussion about Futura with some fellow designers, and my better half. Seems it's everywhere in print and publications. Now that it's seeping into feature films, my previous joy over the comeback of the font has turned to a love-hate relationship.

I used Futura on my résumé years ago. In between college spurts, I left the design field and picked up a temporary position at a local BestBuy. All of BestBuy's printed internal materials are Futura. Funny... I seriously think my résumé really impressed them, because it blended in so well. Still cracks me up... talk about giving them what they want in your first interview.

But, seriously: It's a decent sans font. But it's everywhere, and we're not talking Arial. It's worse. Comic Sans worse.

So use it. Use it on ultra-immitative clients (corporate is often monkey-see-monkey-do), and refrain elsewhere. Works for me, seems to please. :)

Nice article on a growing trend.

On Dec.12.2004 at 01:29 AM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Back when David Letterman was on NBC, he occasionally had various professionals critiquing films according to how well it fit their professional practice. The first segment featured a dentist explaining how a certain period film, set a couple hundred years in the past, was not believable because everyone's teeth were too good.

So Jason, you didn't like the film because you saw some Ariel? Which makes me wonder if my hairstylist friends would like the film because of Angelica Houston's ever-changing hair extensions.

On Dec.12.2004 at 04:22 AM
sam rector’s comment is:

In Dodgeball, which was recently released on DVD, there is a fake "educational film" done in the scratch black and white style so common to that genre. The logo for the film company Uber Films (or something like it) is an eagle (and when combined with Uber, well you get the idea - and its funny). The type is some kind of trade gothic face, a hybrid from the 40s/50s. If you looked hard enough you'd see it was a recent cut. BUT if you simply blink it looks as real as real can be.

Sometimes these facsimilies work, other times they seem a little off.

Dodgeball was great because all the graphic ideas worked (more or less) and its hilarious too.

On Dec.12.2004 at 01:02 PM
Jason T.’s comment is:

The movie fell short on typographic terms. Arial botched some things up, and the overall production value did not compare to Tenenbaums and Rushmore. The story itself has a different flair to it. More campy humor. All Bill Murray. It has more of a Bottle Rocket sensibility. Typographically Aquatic gets a two out of five. Cinematically, I give it the same.

On Dec.12.2004 at 02:00 PM
Mark Simonson’s comment is:

A few notes about the type in 2001: A Space Odyssey...

Most of the titles are in a version Gill with a Futura-like alternate S. The main title is pure Gill. Oddly, the "JUPITER MISSION" title and the closing credits seem to be set in Futura with a Gill M.

One title, "THE DAWN OF MAN," is set in Albertus.

On the computer dispays in the film, virtually all the type is Eurostile (or possibly Microgramma) with some kind of sans serif typewriter face for text. It's interesting that the computer displays are all square. Video screens are shown in wide screen format (on the space shuttles) and portrait format (on the Discovery).

Aside from continued use of Eurostile/Microgramma on the Discovery, there is also extensive use of Futura Bold on warning signs and such, and on the access hatch to HAL's memory banks. There is also a bit of Univers Bold Condensed (some of it stretched!) on the life support displays in the scene in which HAL murders the sleeping crew members.

In case anybody was wondering.

On Dec.13.2004 at 11:17 AM
Jason T.’s comment is:

…a very detailed and appreciated addition, Mark. Thanks. Things do look pieced together in 2001, as far as typography is concerned.

On Dec.13.2004 at 03:51 PM
Mark Simonson’s comment is:

Here are some grabs of scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey featuring Futura:

Dave Bowman about to blow the hatch on the EVA pod.

Dave shutting the emergency hatch airlock a few seconds later.

The panel on the door to HAL's memory closet.

I've always liked that panel design. It's sort of etched in my brain. But then, I was rather obsessed with this movie as a teenager.

On Dec.13.2004 at 08:34 PM
Jim Coudal’s comment is:

Good thing we were only obsessed with it as teenagers, eh Mark?

On Dec.13.2004 at 10:19 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> I've always liked that panel design.

If applied to a: brochure, annual report, shampoo package, book cover or some sort of self-promotion it would be award-winning!

Although that letterspacing in "L O G I C" would have to be fixed.

On Dec.13.2004 at 10:23 PM
Mark Simonson’s comment is:

> Good thing we were only obsessed with it as teenagers, eh Mark?

Don't think I haven't noticed that Kubrick section in your archives. I've got a story about my teenage 2001 obsession I should post some time.

> Although that letterspacing in "L O G I C" would have to be fixed.

Yeah.... The word spacing is rather extreme in places, too.

On Dec.13.2004 at 11:00 PM
Jason T.’s comment is:

Nothing like force justification. I feel like that happned a lot throughout type treatments in 2001's production.

On Dec.13.2004 at 11:28 PM
Mark Simonson’s comment is:

> Nothing like force justification.

Maybe Kubrick foresaw Quark's default H&J settings...?

On Dec.14.2004 at 12:09 AM
Michael B.’s comment is:

Mark, thanks for posting those pictures. So much more Futura in 2001 than I remembered. And Armin is right: that panel design would fare well in a design competition today. Almost all of the graphic, product and interior design in 2001 still looks great.

I am a big fan of the "design" of the computer, HAL: just a tall rectanglar (wood veneer?) panel with a below-center "eye." Amazing that Kubrick managed to turn such a thing, shot straight on, into the movie's most emotionally affecting character.

On Dec.14.2004 at 07:53 AM
Jason T.’s comment is:

Gaze denotes so much emotion—even with a machine it seems. And we see a lot of Murray's gaze into the camera in Aquatic. He's not as handsome as HAL.

On Dec.14.2004 at 10:28 AM
Frank’s comment is:

I don't understand:

With Futura being used so

consistently in the past, how

could somebody just employ

Arial out of nowhere?

It's akin to me pouring OJ into

cereal instead of milk...It just

doesn't seem plausible..

Who was in charge of the type?

On Dec.14.2004 at 03:54 PM
Jason T.’s comment is:

When you're reading a book, you don't expect to see a change in typography in the chapter headings—unless Chip Kidd is the writer and designer.

Good question, Frank. I wonder if somebody left the boat in the middle of production.

On Dec.14.2004 at 03:57 PM
Armin’s comment is:

An interesting parallel to The Life Aquatic's typography.

On Dec.16.2004 at 04:19 PM
Jason T.’s comment is:

I can't believe I didn't make this connection myself. Living in Seattle, I see that silly Starbucks lockup everywhere!

On Dec.16.2004 at 04:34 PM
Wing’s comment is:

I would be willing to argue that the "misuse" of type was done on purpose. Notice that the "misuse" is only in the Team Zissou films WITHIN the film. They are not in the film itself. Only the documentary films. This leads me to believe that it was perhaps done intentionally to add to the feeling of the films having an amateurishness, and create more of a random inconsistency between them in look and in feeling. Sure, we all know Arial is a poor typeface, but in my opinion it wouldn't surprise me if it was used with the intent of making the documentary films look more amateur, random, inconsistent, and as if they were done by a crew that didn't really know what they were doing-- which is exactly what team zissou is.

On Dec.27.2004 at 11:53 AM
Jason T.’s comment is:

Wing, you've managed to turn view this in a fresh light. I like your idea that it's an ironic approach. Cheers. Very insightful of you.

On Dec.27.2004 at 09:40 PM
Paul’s comment is:

Ok, this is admittedly off-topic, but this thread is the best place I can think of to post it.

Saw Pedro Almodovar's latest movie "Bad Education" last night and really dug it. Especially loved the art direction in the film, starting off immediately with a terriffic Bass-Hermann homage title sequence, extending through some great faux-vintage poster art, and even ending on a strong typographic note (the explosion of the word "passion" through an extreme close-up).

[On this site in the past people have linked to really good titles. I tried to do this, but couldn't find it anywhere. Any hints would be appreciated.]

Regardless, go see this movie. It's pretty kick-ass.

On Dec.30.2004 at 12:23 PM
Nary’s comment is:

anybody see Ocean's 12? i think they used something akin to papyrus for one of the day/location counts. but just for that one day. i wonder what the purpose of that was. anybody?

good point, Wing. of course Team Zissou would combine Arial and Futura.

On Dec.30.2004 at 01:54 PM
Max Power’s comment is:

I just found this page in a google search, and since you all seem to be so interested in fonts, I thought perhaps you could answer my question - does anyone know what font the Criterion Collection uses for their logo across the top edge of their DVDs? Thanks!

On Nov.22.2005 at 04:17 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Max, it's hard to tell. But check with the smarty-font folks at Typophile's Identification board.

On Nov.22.2005 at 07:59 PM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

I'd go straight to the source, and email the folks at Criterion. Surely, they've got some contact information online. Anyhow, why do you need this, Max?

On Nov.22.2005 at 08:10 PM