January 29, 2010

Having Typographic Heart: International Designers Meet Amazing Craftspeople of the Midwest in Film “Typeface”

During April 2008, I discovered the documentary Typeface, with its rich collage of people, local and distant, connected to the enduring craft of printing amidst fast changes in digital devices—all having a sense of place in the Midwest, especially the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Knowing about this film led to Geek Girl Meghan Wilker, a virtual connection of mine and who, along with co-Geek Girl Nancy Lyons, participated in my Blogger’s Quest(ionnaire) series. We exchanged tweets about the film Helvetica. Meghan shared her involvement with another type-centric film. Much to my delight, she knew its creator Justine Nagan, the Director and Producer of Typeface. I quickly wanted to reach out to Justine. With Meghan’s encouragement, I did. Read about Justine’s making of a fascinating documentary for everyone.

Can you please tell a little bit about yourself?
Where are you from? What do you do for a living?

I’m originally from Minnesota but have lived in Chicago for the past six years with my husband Matthew, who is a social worker with Chicago Public Schools. I’m the Executive Director for Kartemquin Films, a 44-year old non-profit documentary company in Chicago. I recently finished my first film Typeface.

How did you get involved in filmmaking?
I did just about every media internship and job possible in Madison, Wisconsin, while I was in college. I came back from studying abroad in Australia and interning at Saatchi, when I discovered filmmaking. I wanted a career that was creative but that “made a difference.”

Why did you make Typeface?
Initially, it was because the Hamilton Museum is a fascinating place, and I thought it should be documented. Over time, it grew into a more complicated story. I guess one of the motivating forces was the desire to explore how our culture is transitioning from analog to digital—what are the positive and negative consequences?

What was your process in making Typeface?
How was it created
and how much time did it take to complete?
It started as a small project with friends, after my husband and I had stumbled onto the museum on the way home from a wedding. Over time as the project grew, I decided to pitch it to Kartemquin as a project we might collaborate on. In some ways, it didn’t seem initially to fit. However, Kartemquin had previously done a wonderful film on the impact of art in society, Golub: Late Works are the Catastrophes, so I knew art, in a larger context, wasn’t off the table. As we built the film, it was apparent that there were the compelling characters and larger social issues that Kartemquin Films are known for. I worked for four years on the project with an amazing team of filmmakers—particularly our Editor Liz Kaar. She’s immensely talented. Gordon Quinn, Kartemquin’s Founder and the Executive Producer on the film, was very helpful too in crafting the final piece.

Who/what is the major character in Typeface?
Designer and Professor Dennis Ichiyama has a great line in the film that has become a tagline of sorts, “Great Characters, both wooden and human.” In some ways, the type itself is the main character, in some ways, it’s the people, who are inspired and affected by it, who shine. Retired Pantograph Operator Norb Brylski is amazing.

What was the most rewarding part of the project?
Meeting the graphic design/type community has been amazing. They’ve been very welcoming, and I’ve learned a ton! Additionally, watching the film connect with audiences is immensely rewarding. To witness a group of people become engrossed in the same material that moves you as a filmmaker is a wonderful experience. Lastly, watching the museum blossom has made me very happy and hopeful.

Was there a part of the project that was particularly trying?
And how did you deal with it?
Raising money is brutal. But, that is just the business we are in, so perhaps it’s a bit boring for this interview. I think trying to balance all of our different story strands in an hour-long film was very challenging—lots of long hours spent in the editing room with Liz (even more hours spent by her alone!), testing one combination of scenes, and then another—trying to get it just right.

What are some current film projects that you’re engaging?
Kartemquin has never been busier! Check out our site Kartemquin.com for the latest news—we have several documentaries in the works including films on late-onset PTSD, modern dance, gang violence, ideas of beauty, and women’s sports. It’s an exciting time!

How do you stay creative? Do you draw? Or keep a journal?
Good question. Well, I have a craft group that meets weekly—young professionals who seek creative outlets and good company. That is a motivator. (I am a quilter.) As far as day to day, I doodle (below) all the time. Most of my notebooks are covered in ink—although they say it helps stay focused, for what it’s worth.

What are some of your sources of inspiration?
I am surrounded by talented, caring people who inspire me everyday. Family, friends, colleagues. I’m often inspired by old works of art. I love old books. A good latte does wonders for my inspiration.

What's your advice to people who aspire
to do something in filmmaking?

Find people to collaborate with! Intern and volunteer and learn who is making media in your community.

Who should go see Typeface and where can it be experienced?
I think Typeface has a little something in it for everyone and appeals to a broad audience—but the easy answer is anyone interested in art/design/culture/type/the Midwest. Get the latest screening information at TypefaceTheFilm.com.

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Typeface premieres tonight, through February 4, 2010, to a sold-out audience at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center.

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All images courtesy of Justine Nagan.

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Jim Moran, Director of the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum, spoke at Cusp Conference 2013. Read my write-up.

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Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
with people who love making things.