Sunday, 18 December 2011

Hand Lettering

I love how the opening titles to a film can really set the tone for what is about to follow, even if we are not really conscious of the fact most of the time. My brief to everyone working on The Last Belle was to produce a traditional style cartoon but placed in a modern day setting, so when I started to think about the titles I wanted something that echoed that idea: something that had overtones of classic 1940s cartoon text, but with a slightly modern twist.

Mark Naisbitt at work.

Mark Naisbitt was the perfect choice to develop the fonts we needed as he is one of the few hand-lettering artists still left around, as well as an animator, layout artist, and technical draughtsman. Mark was trained by Raymond Guillaumet (both worked at Richard Williams' studio); Raymond did much of the lettering and technical animation at Dick's studio, and prior to that had worked on the lettering for many feature films including the early James Bond movies as well as the infamous 'floating lettering' sequence at the beginning of Barbarella.

For The Last Belle Mark started by looking at the classic Tom and Jerry cartoons because I really liked the style of lettering they had: classic 1940s cartoon style, encased in a bold white outline. I wanted to combine that with the yellow to orange graduation effect within the letters often employed in action-adventure titles like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future. This was our jumping off point and Mark started to sketch around these ideas.

Once we'd got into a style that we both felt comfortable with Mark developed the exact structure of how each letter would be formed. This took quite a bit of tinkering because each individual letter had to work not only by itself, but also within the context of those around it - and sometimes letters would work together very pleasingly while spelling out the name of the title, but not so well spelling out the name of an actor. This is the amazing craft of font design and proportion, and there are a whole host of rules, and occasions where you can break those rules, which are beyond any training I have - this kind of stuff isn't generally taught in Art Schools any more. Because of this I loved peering over Mark's shoulder as he pieced the fonts together, using a combination of maths, geometric proportion, technical drawing, and simple 'taste'.

Beginning to form the structure of 'Last'.
Underlying circles define the curves of the 'S', pushing it
slightly above and below the height of the other letters. For
some reason this always feels more balanced to the eye.
Constructing the 'E'
I wanted the last 'e' of 'Belle' to be in lower case so that
the word could be read as 'Bell' and 'Belle' - a word-play 
reflecting the plot of the film.
The final artwork, inked with technical pens onto cel, painted, 
and backed by a graduated colour card, rendered with coloured
pencils and marker pens.
The opening title as it appears in the film.
Amanda Donohoe's credit was tough for Mark to balance as
 it is fairly unusual to have three alternate 'O' letters in a row.
A close-up of some of the construction. All this effort should
result in something that looks clean, clear and completely effortless!
The back of the final painted cel, with its black surround
and white edges. The interior shape of the surname has been
left clear to reveal the graduated colour that will be added beneath.
The final set up, ready for filming. I chose purples and blues
inside the actor's credits as they immediately precede a storm
sequence featuring a similar colour range.

There  is no denying that hand lettering takes a long time, but the great thing is that you can design bespoke fonts to reflect the exact style of your film, and you can balance them far better than a computer does when it's working on auto-pilot. On the other hand, I was extremely grateful that we could use a computer to generate the roller credits at the end of the film as this would have taken an age to hand letter, and it would have been a nightmare to make last minute changes and additions to (which we had to). As ever it's horses for courses: vive la difference!


  1. Hi Neil,
    Hey, scott here, captain!
    Jeez, you are a beggar for punishment...but no, it's all worth it.
    Anyway, still out here, and wishing you a Merry Hand Lettered Christmas!

  2. Beggar for punishment!? This from the guy who hand drew every conceivable detail on Notre Dame..! Have a very Merry Christmas too - it's great to hear from you.