film fonts dos and don’ts

Sometimes I see a film where I wonder if there was anyone that film passed through in the journey from set to screening that had even the most remote knowledge of typography. If you’re going through the pain and torture of creating a film (I know that pain and torture, I make films myself), it’s not that much more difficult to dedicate a little extra effort to the credits. Simply inserting whatever font in Final Cut works is really just half-assing it. Let’s be honest. So, yes, I can be a bit of a typography geek, but there really are some basic typographical rules that one should adhere to:

1. Avoid fonts that any person with a basic knowledge of Microsoft Word can name: Courier, Arial, Times Roman, several others, and of course, Comic Sans. The use of Comic Sans in film credits is kind of like capital punishment in the mind of a liberal: acceptable under no circumstances, ever. Ever. Helvetica presents a mixed bag. Some love it, some hate it. There’s even a documentary to that effect. I, personally, can’t see it without thinking of Douglas Coupland. Without recapitulating the utter horror of Comic Sans (there is even an entire website devoted to its banishment), the simple reason not to use these fonts is that they undermine any credibility you were hoping to achieve. It’s a similar experience to when I was watching Battlestar Galactica and recognized the market in Caprica City as the main courtyard of my university. If you see a font and think “Hm, Papyrus,” it instantly snaps your belief that was already suspended so thinly. It’s like a seeing a boom mike hanging from the ceiling. It breaks the verisimilitude (*gasp* there’s that word again!). The only situation in which you would want to use one of these fonts is if this reaction is exactly what you are going for; if you are aiming for that golden bough of irony, passing off an in-joke,or  smothering yourself in self-reflexivity. Even then, Comic Sans is still, never, ever, ever acceptable. Even as a punishment for high treason.

2. Avoid handwriting fonts, or even handwritten credits unless you’re okay with your film garnering the  label “Hipster Wet Dream”: In the not-so-distant past, handwritten credits were acceptable, quirky even. Cute. Then, along came a film which ruined it for everyone. I’m speaking, of course, about Juno. Personally, I liked Juno, but then I saw it way back when it was only playing in one art house theatre, before the Oscar hype, before the inevitable backlash. (I liked Slumdog Millionaire, too.) The thing I didn’t really like about Juno was the opening credits. I thought they were rather pretentious and totally unnecessary; as if Jason Reitman had a friend who had been bugging him for years, “Can me animate some credits? Please, please, PLEASE?!” until Reitman finally gave in just for the sake of peace. Not to say that only Juno is to blame, but now any handwritten credits instantly scream “HIPSTER! LALALA LOOK AT ME, I’M SO EDGY AND COOL!” It’s a shame, because there are instances when handwritten credits really work well; when they aren’t pretentious, but are sweet and… *ahem* wild. I’m thinking, of course, of Where the Wild Things Are. In Spike Jonze’s latest (and, I think, his masterpiece), the handwritten credits work because they are used so sparingly. They are of the subtle type, rather than the bright day-glo variety . They underscore Max’s childlike subversiveness. They connect the audience to both the innocence and the wildness of childhood without slapping you across the face with the typographical equivalent of a giant fish. 

3. Keep it Simple: Always a golden rule. Now, this is a generalization, but the point of opening credits is to transmit information without distracting the audience from everything else that is happening on screen, and the point of closing credits is to provide all the legally necessary information without somehow ruining everything everyone has just seen. If you’re going to get fancy with the opening credits, there better be a damned good reason. I think immediately of the short film, Boxed In, where the Very Important People credits are in that could-be-cheesy style of “hey! the credits are ACTUALLY WRITTEN ON THE PROPS!” In Kial Natale’s short, this works wonderfully because it is so perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film. In fact, it actually helps to establish it. Another brilliant example: Zombieland. With a film like this, an opening credits stance of “cheeseball chic” really works. If the credits can’t help establish tone or mood, keep them so I barely notice they’re there. As for closing credits, simplicity is even more important. Serif fonts are okay, but I don’t want feel like I’m analyzing artwork rather than processsing information. Every credit should not look like a logo. Please, no calligraphy. 

4. Respect intertextuality: People who see movies usually see a lot of them. They are familiar with general touchstones of popular culture. You’re going to have to be aware of any fonts you use that are used elsewhere. People don’t always notice fonts explicitly, but they sure as hell notice them subconsciously. If you go around throwing Impact in all your films, people are going to associate you with Lolcats, even though they probably won’t realize why. Of course, if your intention is to draw this comparison, then all the power to you. Just so long as you know. The Informant! used intertextuality in its credit fonts with pitch-perfect resolve. The opening credits in their yellow bubbliness slyly stuck their tongue into their cheek, remarking with a wink, “I know exactly what I’m doing here. Trust me.” You sigh comfortably, knowing that Steven Soderbergh is safely steering the ship, and sit back to enjoy the cruise. 

Typography is an art, but one of those subtle arts that has been dragged kicking and screaming into the contemporary, post-modern era where it has a chance to sink or swim. While even an eight-year-old could pick Arial out of a line-up, there’s enough evidence to suggest that apparently there really is a knack to using typography effectively. Take note. Learn it, love it. And never use Comic Sans. Ever.

6 thoughts on “film fonts dos and don’ts

  1. Just saw Avatar, and all I have to say is… 10 years, half a billion dollars and the best font you can find for your subtitles is Papyrus…?

    Honestly?

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    1. Avatar did not use Papyrus, look at the strokes of the two ‘a’s – yes, it’s a similar style, but they created their own title.

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  2. I’m struggling with the closing credit font for an artist’s short film, it will be screened at a film festival soon and i don’t want to commit any major faux pas situations that you’re describing here, God forbid. My opening titles are in Didot, which suits the subject, but these are in big bold capitals believe it or not, as Didot seems more sensitive than that. However, my credits are smaller and Didot is falling apart in lower-case, this is typical of such fonts, which leaves me stuck with your standard Arials for their simplicity to hold up in home-editing software. Any suggestions?

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    1. Hm, that’s a tough call, as it totally depends on the film. Since you’re going with Didot as the opening credit font, I’d think something simple but classic looking, like perhaps “Baghdad”? It’s a sans serif but classy like a serif (kinda like a pair of jeans you can wear to a nice restaurant).

      In my humble opinion, a lot of short films try to do “too much” with their credits, so it’s a careful line to tread between simplicity and amateurism.

      It’s like finding the right prom date, sometimes we have to settle, sometimes we get it disastrously wrong, and sometimes it all works out and we get warm fuzzy kitten feelings.

      Like a soulmate, I think you just /know/ when you’ve found it.

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  3. Yeah, as much as I’m leaning towards a serif for this I’ll have to capitulate on those little tails and strokes that give a nice nod to the past. There’s no danger of my short ‘doing too much’, it’s positively early 80’s in its 16mm to VHS production values.
    However awkward I was growing up, I have always been SO grateful for not being born American, purely for being excused the social suicide of high school prom pressure and general popularity stakes. At least that’s what I gather from every film I’ve ever seen, I wouldn’t have made it out alive.
    Thanks for your help!

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