The art of a silent film is sometimes largely forgotten in this digital age where the movie industry focuses on great effects, compelling dialogue, and outstanding musical scores. Back in 1916 a lettering artist sat down, picked up a Speedball pen, and carefully constructed intertitle cards for the silent film The Good Bad Man starring Douglas Fairbanks. Nearly a century later, a renowned Minneapolis graphic designer and a 2013 UMD grad gathered around a Mac and tried to recreate this work—right down to the slight wiggle within the characters.
The project is a multifaceted mashup: 1916 and 2014, preservation and art, fossilized fonts that can be used in new apps, and the collaboration between an expert and a novice. At first glance, it might seem like a familiar storyline: kind mentor extends an opportunity to mentee. But, there’s a twist. Or, as they would say in the movies, “Things were not as they seemed.”
UMD graphic design grad Sierra Kamatchus’ met an artist featured in the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Chank Diesel. “We first met at an American Institute of Graphic Arts portfolio workshop and stayed in touch. That’s how I got going on this project,” Sierra said.
Chank, based in Minneapolis, has designed for established clients like Huggies, Pizza Hut, Target, and Walt Disney, but seeks out opportunities to work with recent grads, catching a ride on the momentum they have coming out of college.
Sierra, ’13, and Chank’s paths crisscrossed enough times for Chank to appreciate Sierra’s skills. Her senior project, a partnership with alum Logan West that twisted the fundamentals of font design, was even wing-manned by Chank. So when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival gave him a ring last winter, he knew who would help answer the call.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival had a challenge for Chank: Recreate the font used in The Good Bad Man using an abridged 1923 copy of the film, the only example that survived into the new millennium. It was like being handed the ring buoy in a design 911, “We had a chance to save a font that would be lost forever.”
The film is a classic western tale. Douglas Fairbanks plays a Robin Hood-type character who steals from the rich and gives to orphans. The titles were printed on paper and then filmed, absolutely essential to the storyline, but also setting the tone, “The font is mood setting for the story. Each generation has their set of typefaces. This one feels like the early 20th century,” said Chank.
He could have gone it alone. He certainly had the credentials and was personally recruited for the job, but he called Sierra. For one thing, he prefers collaborating with fonts. He also learns about new apps when working with hip, young designers like Sierra. But the two key reasons he worked with her focused on a belief in the power of projects as well as the understanding that opportunities given are connections returned.
For most graduating seniors it’s all about how to “get a job,” but Chank thinks the focus should be “find a project.” He explains that “for Sierra, this was an artistic opportunity and a really great portfolio piece.” Beyond building a solid portfolio, Chank finds that the power of a project is that designers can really sink their teeth and taste a greater reward. “The whole thing is that recent graduates have so much emphasis on getting a position in the industry, but they need to think about projects they can be passionate about.”
Sierra recognizes this and says that working on The Good Bad Man was an amazing opportunity. She’s lucky enough to have both this experience and a great job in her field. Now working at an ad agency in Mankato, her hometown, she’s already thinking about what’s next for this font. “It’s older, but it will have a use in the future. It will look good on the web and on mobile. It brings the historical aspect into today’s world, and that’s really neat.”
The font is scheduled to be sold on chankfonts! in about six weeks. In the meantime, Chank anticipates that it will pay off in other ways. Part of the reason he works with young designers is because they include the partnership in their portfolios, which gets his name in front of major marketing firms. “Recent grads have a lot of motivation and desire to do great work, and I want to be in as many of those portfolios as possible.”
Chank and Sierra’s work on The Good Bad Man premiered during the SF Silent Film Festival on May 31. Neither Chank nor Sierra could make it, but were given an appreciation award for their help returning it to the screen. The awards sit on their desks: Chank’s in Minneapolis and Sierra’s in Mankato. Reminders of the power of preservation, projects, and partnership.