Typeface documentary proves an international hit

By Alastair Bull

Amid documentaries about suicide, pollution, religion and Nazi hunters, a film about a typeface shapes as a highlight at this year's Film Festival.

A documentary about a typeface? Why not a kind of asphalt or a colour of paint?

For New York filmmaker Gary Hustwit, the sheer pervasiveness of helvetica makes it every bit as worthy of screen treatment as anything else in the world.

And as this typeface becomes the prevalent means by which we receive written messages in some parts of the world -- it can be seen in business logos, public transport networks and numerous posters around the western world -- Hustwit thinks its story is worthy of broadcasting.

Perhaps just as curiously, plenty of moviegoers at film festivals around the world have wanted to see Helvetica, his documentary about the font which began life as Die Neue Haas Grotesk in Switzerland 50 years ago.

Hustwit, who will attend screenings of the documentary at the New Zealand Film Festival in Auckland next week, admits he didn't think his historical tale of graphic design would find such a wide audience.

"The reaction has amazed me. I made this film for myself. I'm the audience for that film, if I hadn't made it I'd be standing in line to pay $10 to see it," he said.

"But I don't think I really had a concept of the global appeal. Graphic design is as popular in Thailand as it is in Turkey as it is in the UK or New Zealand or wherever. Even the countries that don't use the Latin alphabet are interested in the film. "

Hustwit says there are two common reactions to the film.

"Non-designers come out of it asking how graphic designers get so worked up about fonts.

"But the other thing is that when they walk outside, they look around and they start to really notice all the type that's in their environment."

Hustwit's film tells of helvetica's origins in Switzerland, how the font was renamed after Switzerland itself, its popularity in the 1960s and 70s due in part to its modern neutrality, how it fell out of favour in the 1980s and 1990s and its re-emergence in more recent years.

Hustwit, who dabbled with font design himself while working on record labels and book publishing, says the idea came to him while walking down New York streets in November 2005.

"I was walking around the city and looking at people interacting with type and looking at all the words that are just everywhere in big cities. I would see a big word or company logo in helvetica, and cars would go by and people would walk by it.

"That became the blueprint for a lot of the film. That's the moment that I saw the whole film in my head, and I was just filling in the blanks when I went out and shot it.

"The day after I had that epiphany on the street I started e-mailing designers. Almost everybody said yes, and I was filming people in March."

Along the way the viewer meets numerous graphic designers from the United States and Europe, all of whom come across as extremely passionate about their work and the Swiss font, which they either love, hate or grudgingly admire.

"That's what translates to people who don't know anything about graphic design or just know a little bit," Hustwit says.

"All the people in the film love what they do and it shows, and they're really great at what they do, and I think that comes across whether you're talking about graphic design or rug weaving or any creative outlet.

"If someone's passionate about it and they're incredibly talented and have a great sense of humour, I don't care what they're doing, I'll want to watch it."

Adding to the film's appeal is the fact that anybody with a computer can now use commercial fonts, and many do as they design web pages or YouTube and Myspace pages.

"Twenty years ago pre-Mackintosh nobody knew what fonts were. Today, little kids are growing up with a computer with desktop publishing software and design software," Hustwit says.

"There have never been more graphic designers and there's never been more type designers and there's never been more people who use fonts on a daily basis than today."

Helvetica is Hustwit's first film as a director but he had produced a number of films beforehand, mainly about music.

The benefit of that can be found not only in the way he's put the film together, but also with a well-chosen soundtrack.

Also helping was the availability of cinematographer Luke Geissbuhler, fresh from a very different project.

"He was the cinematographer on Borat. He had just done six months on the road with Sacha Baron Cohen," Hustwit said.

"The shoot was a little bit more low-key, shooting letters on the wall, but we did almost get run over a couple of times.

"One time we almost got assaulted. We were filming a carwash in London and I think the Russian operators of the carwash did not want us filming the possibly non-documented workers and got physical with us, but that was pretty much the only time. Unfortunately we didn't get enough footage to use in the film."

So now the film is over, has Hustwit got sick of his subject typeface yet?

"I liked it before the film. I still like it. I can't look at it anymore though," Hustwit says. "I'm constantly subconsciously looking at the fonts on any billboard or storefront I see and IDing helvetica.

"It's a disease that I'm trying to get cured of but it'll take me a few more months at least. In October when the screenings around the world are over maybe I can go to font rehab."

* Helvetica screens in the New Zealand Film Festival series at Auckland on July 14 and 16, Wellington on July 27 and 29 and Dunedin on August 2 and 3. Screenings at other Film Festival venues are yet to be scheduled.


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