Films with Typefaces From the Wrong Time Period

Hello. I've been lurking here for several years, but never logging on. I've gotten great help from everyone here for that long just from reading all the wonderful posts here. So firstly, thank you for being amazing people.

I had a question that has been bothering me for a good long while.

Have any of you ever encountered a typeface in a film or other work that did not belong in the setting's time period? Especially if it just wasn't invented during the era in the film?

quadibloc's picture

Hmm. This Basic Commercial - is it supposed to look like a wider News Gothic, or is it Akzidenz Grotesk (Standard)?

Martin Silvertant's picture

When Trajan is used on a poster I think you can almost guarantee it's contextually wrong. As I said in an other thread, don't put a glyphic roman typeface on a movie about Egyptian mummies (The Mummy) or on a movie about a 1912 British ship (Titanic).

I don't really agree with Mark Simonson when he says the title on a movie poster doesn't have to be contextual. Indeed the rules are not as strict as on in-movie typography, but selecting a glyphic roman typeface to represent everything surrounding the RMS Titanic is just ignorant. Other than that, I greatly enjoyed the blog posts.

Bert Vanderveen's picture

I saw The Book Thief while visiting Melbourne and was struck (in a totally wrong way) by the close ups of some books, that should have been in German but were in English, which would not be much of a bother, but you could see at first glance that the pages were PRINTED on an inkjet...

quadibloc's picture

I think Mark Simonson is right. Text on a movie poster, and on the opening titles and closing credits of a movie, should be appropriate aesthetically, emotionally, and evocatively to the content of the movie. But there is no question of anachronism involved, unlike the case of typography on props within the movie.

It isn't a question of the same rule applying, only less strictly. The rule against anachronism does not apply at all, but an entirely different rule applies, although that rule may be best satisfied by a typeface which was available during the period of the events in the movie, since by being associated with the time, it might also be evocative and suggestive of the movie content.

Amaris's picture

^ That's an interesting point. In The Artist, for example, it's clear that the typeface used for the opening credits, I think, are supposed to be evocative of the era, but not a perfect representation of that time period.

However, after reading Simonson's article and some of his list, I was struck by how much other glaring anachronistic and misused type was present in The Artist! For such a high profile, critically acclaimed film, I honestly expected more. I don't think the surprised expression has left my brow yet.

I simply do not understand why one would not enlist the help of a professional typographer to make things accurate. Even without, google is more than helpful when it comes to choosing a proper typeface. Just as they research costumes and the like, so, too, should they research typefaces.

But I guess google searches (like dystopias and accurate science) are too hard for some movie-makers to accomplish. Too harsh?

donshottype's picture

In my view a font should evoke the style of a period, but I have no problem with the use of appropriate fonts that were designed after the time period. For example, I'm using a TV series rather than a movie here, but it's the first thing that comes to mind. In Downton Abby, the classy lettering is Bernhard Modern. Designed more than 20 years after the the series time period begins, it's an expression of the sophisticated tastes of Upstairs at Downton Abby in a way that speaks more clearly to modern viewers than alternative typefaces from the immediate pre Great War period, which might be distracting because they are generally unknown or seem quaint to the modern eye.
BTW Trajan is the Comic Sans of contemporary movies with a historical theme. Some imagination needed here!
Don

Nick Shinn's picture

Becoming Jane is a typical example, set in late 18th century England (watch the Preview).

Baskerville, Bodoni or Bell would have been correct. Even Caslon. But Adobe Garamond? That is so 16th century. Or 1990. And letterspaced?

This is the same practice as book designers, who will use old-styles for 19th century subject matter, not the more appropriate Scotch.

(However, the handwriting in that Becoming Jane title is nicely done.)

John Hudson's picture

I recall Adam Twardoch having a fit over the appearance of Arial Cyrillic on a document in _Enemy at the Gates_.

quadibloc's picture

@Nick Shinn:
This is the same practice as book designers, who will use old-styles for 19th century subject matter, not the more appropriate Scotch.

Bwa-ha-ha-ha!

Finally, I, William Morris, have achieved my ULTIMATE VICTORY!

Amaris's picture

I like that train of thought donshottype. Evoking the feeling of the era to the modern viewer... it does look nice.

I don't think that I have such a problem with using typefaces for their aesthetic appeal over historical perfection. It looks really lovely when it's done well.

It's just when movies that have every other detail perfect, right down to the shoelaces, but the typography is horrendous that it really grinds my gears.

It's not fair, darn it.

Rob O. Font's picture

This, is from Da Vinci's Demons, Florence circa 1476, and had me wondering on future product placements for us in the past.

donshottype's picture

Emanual brought to our attention Da Vinci's Demons, Florence circa 1476. Incredible! The font says strip mall, nothing happening here folks, keep on moving.
Don

donshottype's picture

Amaris says "It's just when movies that have every other detail perfect, right down to the shoelaces, but the typography is horrendous that it really grinds my gears." The only way this is ever going to change is if movie critics could be dragged kicking and screaming from their fascination with special effects and star worship into slashing their ratings for movies with rotten typography. IIRC I have almost never heard a movie critic mention typography, with the possible exception of The Artist where a few dimly gathered that something was not spot on.
Don

JamesM's picture

I agree it's annoying when incorrect fonts are used. But costumes, hairstyles, language, historical facts, and many other things often aren't accurate in movies. The director is just trying to evoke a time in history, not be accurate in every detail.

Martin Silvertant's picture

It isn't a question of the same rule applying, only less strictly. The rule against anachronism does not apply at all, but an entirely different rule applies, although that rule may be best satisfied by a typeface which was available during the period of the events in the movie, since by being associated with the time, it might also be evocative and suggestive of the movie content.

You seem to be insinuating this is objectively true. I can't completely agree with that. For some reason we became accustomed to the idea that in-movie typography needs to be contextual while the typography on the movie only needs to be aesthetically pleasing, but that's very different from arguing that this should be the case objectively. There is logic in placing the typography in the movie in the correct time and setting of the movie, but there is also logic in the design of movie posters. A movie poster is a visualization of a mood of the movie and needs to be rationally crafted to communicate exactly that. Arguably the Titanic poster does that, but it's not the most coherent in its message and this could easily be improved with better typography. The typography doesn't necessarily need to be contextually correct in regard to the movie, but it does need to be contextually correct in regard to the mood of the poster, which in turn has a strong relation with the movie. Because, if only aesthetics matter, why not use a magenta background for the poster? Because if magenta is not a prominent color in the movie, the poster doesn't have a clear relationship with the movie. Why would you expect such consistency in color, composition and theme, but not in typography?

John, I think in a roundabout way I said just about the same thing as you. I agree with your distinction, but in practice it will always bother me if it doesn't adhere to my logic. This is why I'm not convinced it's an entirely objective matter.

Martin Silvertant's picture

This is the same practice as book designers, who will use old-styles for 19th century subject matter, not the more appropriate Scotch.

Is that such a mistake though? Aren't typefaces like Caslon used because they read well, rather than being contextually correct to the subject matter? I don't think your analogy necessarily applies.

I don't think that I have such a problem with using typefaces for their aesthetic appeal over historical perfection. It looks really lovely when it's done well.

Definitely. I don't think there is anything necessarily wrong with it as long as it's a conscious choice and it's well done. In most cases things go wrong due to ignorance though. I think every movie should have a knowledgeable typographer in their team to make sure the typographic details make sense.

But costumes, hairstyles, language, and many other things often aren't historically accurate in movies.
It seems you're using this argument to justify the contextual deviations. I know that costume designers and historians will get just as annoyed and passionate about that as we do about typography. The reason we usually don't notice other inaccuracies is because we're either ignorant on the subject or we're just not passionate about it. Only Neil deGrasse Tyson would have complained about the sky in Titanic being incorrect because he has the knowledge and the passion. Only we would point out all the typographic inaccuracies because we have the knowledge and the passion.

The director is just trying to evoke a time in history, not necessarily be accurate in every detail.

That's a generalization. I think it's often the director's objective to do make it as accurate as possible. When someone in Lord of the Rings is wearing a watch, that's an overlooked mistake and it can't be justified by saying the director was just setting a mood so not all details need to be accurate. They do need to be.

Nick Shinn's picture

I was impressed with the authenticity of Twelve Years a Slave in many respects, but found everybody’s perfect white teeth really jarring.

JamesM's picture

> I think it's often the director's objective to
> do make it as accurate as possible

Getting costumes historically absolutely correct or using correct fonts is pretty low on most directors list of priorities. But I agree there are occasional exceptions.

> When someone in Lord of the Rings is wearing a watch

Yes but that's a huge error that any audience member might notice. Very different from subtle mistakes that only experts would notice.

Pick a movie you think is very accurate and Google "bloopers" for it.

I once heard Stanley Kubrick's producer say that directors try to avoid obvious errors, but errors that few will notice generally aren't a concern. Movies aren't reality, he said, but just a rough simulation of reality mixed with fiction.

Bert Vanderveen's picture

but found everybody’s perfect white teeth really jarring.

The curse of actors getting facings.

Well, just consider every shot in a movie or tv-show where a newspaper is shown… None of these are printed offset or letterpress, but clearly inkjet or laser-printed. And mostly with the wrong typefaces.

Addendum: But would you like to watch the personae in films like Twelve years with rotten teeth and/or prosthetics like the ones George Washington wore?

JamesM's picture

> …but found everybody’s perfect white teeth really jarring.

I remember watching Roots years ago and a female slave had perfectly manicured nails.

I suspect that if we went back in a time machine we'd be shocked at how bad many people looked through much of history — missing teeth, pock marks, etc.

quadibloc's picture

@Martin Silvertant:
You seem to be insinuating this is objectively true.

Yes. I was.

When one is watching a movie, the ideal is that it should be as if one were viewing the actual events depicted, somehow recorded as they were happening in real life.

So an anachronistic typeface is a continuity failure. And, unlike expecting Hollywood actors to even have their heads shaved, let alone their teeth damaged (hey, but maybe someday we'll be able to do this with CGI), it seems an easily remedied one. I mean, they still will print fake newspapers on laser printers or whatever - setting up stereotype plates with resuscitated Linotype machines and Ludlow machines (doing Bodoni much of the time) is a little too much to expect.

Titles, credits, and even subtitles are the packaging on the box the movie proper came in. When you see a title, you know you're watching a movie - documentaries have titles too, but the title, credits, and subtitles of a documentary aren't part of what's being documented.

So while I'm entirely OK with saying that those typefaces ought to "belong", if they're anachronistic, we're not seeing something that's in any sense logically impossible. A bad choice of typeface is simply an aesthetic failure, not a failure of the movie to present to the eyes what it pretends to present to the eyes.

However, there is another half to your argument that is valid that I simply skipped over for reasons of space and simplicity in my original post.

People watch stage plays for enjoyment. Even when they're performed by high school students. Thus, while it is an ideal to present to the eyes the actual events a film depicts, it is not a logical requirement of a well-made film that production values be infinite so as to achieve absolute perfection.

Thus, while some fanatical Star Trek fans may disagree with me, one couldn't really expect them to have cloned William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig, Majel Barrett, Grace Lee Whitney, and any other actors who would have been required, some 20 years or so before making the current series of Star Trek prequels.

So I will agree that historically correct typefaces are not an absolute logical necessity for a successful film, if that was your point.

Nick Shinn's picture

But would you like to watch the personae in films like Twelve years with rotten teeth and/or prosthetics like the ones George Washington wore?<?em>

Of course. I might even prefer it to blood and gore.

quadibloc's picture

And they do use makeup to give movie monsters fangs and the like, so it shouldn't be necessary to do anything permanent.

JamesM's picture


Low-tech dentistry.

Maybe that photo is a joke, I don't know, but I remember my grandfather (born 1895) saying that when he was a boy that almost no one when to the dentist since techniques were crude and painful.

quadibloc's picture

Of course, a film about, say, a werewolf wouldn't work if the werewolf didn't have scary fangs. A film like 12 Years a Slave, though... hardly anyone looks at or notices the teeth of the characters. The buildings have to look old, people have to use horses to get places - attention to detail is prioritized.

Amaris's picture

I read somewhere that several big name movie companies were bidding on making a movie about hardcore Santa Claus. The winner paid...wait for it... $1 Million. And they haven't even began filming.

If you can pay that much just for the rights to a story like that (resisting the urge saying anything negative), you can spend some money getting details right. Like for someone to print you out a nice newspaper. Or to not put what appears to be Gotham on the side of a Renaissance building. I mean really.

Although I don't mind the perfect pearly whites. I mean, the Protagonist is at least justified in his perfect teeth as he wasn't supposed to be there in the first place. And if anyone needs a flashlight, the characters need only but smile. Heh.

seaphorm's picture

Ironically... It seems that people's teeth back past about 300 years were a lot better than we instinctively think... The prevalence of cheap sugar in the colonial period started the rot... so to speak...

In my opinion the topic of type in films is similar to the role of music and real history in 'historic' in films. It should be correct enough that it doesn't jar the average non-specialist movie goer. But film makers are telling stories so a level of suspended belief should be expected and probably encouraged.

The opening battle scene in Gladiator was heavily criticised by historians because the Romans never threw their pilla as they advanced, and lost cohesion in the melee... but 98.5% of viewers neither knew or cared and probably weren't interested in being educated. In the same way, it probably wouldn't matter if they used Times New Roman for the title rather than Trajan or a custom imitation of some Roman text off a ruin. On the other hand it would probably jar an audience to see 'Gladiator' written in the Star Wars font.

I'm new/don't know the necro rules here & found this interesting.. so sorry if I'm raising the dead...

quadibloc's picture

I remember that Kelsey used to make powder that you could mix with your ink, so that you could then heat what you printed, and it would rise like dough, thus simulating the effect of intaglio printing.

Hollywood needs something like that for inkjet printers which will allow them to simulate letterpress!

Come to think of it, at least one private press still using lead type is in the Los Angeles area...

John Savard

JamesM's picture

That technique is often called thermography. Some print shops still do it, mostly on business cards and wedding invitations. Unfortunately it produces a rough, uneven surface.

If I was directing a movie and wanted to show a closeup of engraving, I'd pay for the real thing.

Theunis de Jong's picture

If I was directing a movie and wanted to show a closeup of engraving ...

An example: The map in Master and Commander: Far side of the world. After a disastrous encounter, the Cap'n is inspecting an engraved map for a safe haven. As is usual in those times, some details are so fine he needs a magnifiying glass to read the small print. Fonts and style look okay, until the camera leans over his shoulder and shows the enlarged fragment, with its typical ink-jet splattering around what should have been super sharp lines.

JamesM's picture

> typical ink-jet splattering

That's a shame. The art department supplied an ink-jet map and the director didn't know the difference.

Unfortunately a lot of designers these days (especially younger ones) have little knowledge about older printing methods because there's little call for them these days. In fact younger designers seem to know less and less about printing in general since everything is moving to the web and digital media.

donshottype's picture

I'm waiting for the remake: With the vintage creaks and groans of the ship in the background and the camera rocking to simulate the roll of the waves, our sturdy English Cap'n in his beautifully tailored uniform of HM Royal Navy circa 1800, reaches down to the desk, picks up his vintage iPad, and waves his fingers over it to pull up details on a map lettered in Hevetica...
Don

Té Rowan's picture

Sounds like an ad for an electronic sea chart app.

quadibloc's picture

LOL. Yes, the intentional anachronism could be used to good effect in a TV commercial, and there are even precedents for that sort of thing.

donshottype's picture

I'm waiting for my cheque from the ad agency :)
Don

JamesM's picture

> picks up his vintage iPad

Stranger things have happened in movies...

In "Braveheart" men wore kilts which weren't worn until 4 centuries later.

In the WWII movie "Saving Private Ryan" there's a motorcycle not manufactured until 1963.

Westerns often show men's pants with belt loops, which didn't become common until years later (men wore suspenders).

Historical movies typically portray leading men & women who look attractive by today's standards, not what was considered attractive back then (women were often considered attractive with no tan and overweight by today's standards, and men often had shaggy beards).

And then there's movies showing dinosaurs and cavemen together!

quadibloc's picture

Well, we all know that the dinosaurs became extinct because a stowaway on Noah's ark ate them! (Noah, Darren Aronovsky) Or were they "laughing and playing silly games" instead of heeding God's call to send two pairs of each of their species to the Ark (not being kosher mammals, who would send seven)? (The Unicorn, Shel Silverstein)

Or perhaps because the dinosaurs were so dangerous, Noah just dropped them off at a remote island before proceeding to Mount Ararat... one that the Daily Planet helicopter would eventually visit? (The Secret of Monster Island; Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen; v. 1, no. 72, October 1963)

donshottype's picture

>And then there's movies showing dinosaurs and cavemen together!
>
For example the sterling performance of Ringo Starr [yes, the Beatle] in the unforgettable Caveman http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Caveman_Movie_Poster.jpg
At least the title lettering suggests some sort of stone age.
Don

JamesM's picture

I'm a Christian but not a Creationist. Statistics I've seen say the majority of mainline protestants and Catholics accept evolution, but the Creationists tend to get the headlines.

I haven't seen the latest Noah movie with Russell Crowe that's getting a lot of attention, but my pastor said he enjoyed it, although it took considerable liberties with the story. But that's true of many Hollywood movies. Those old Cecil B. DeMille movies of Bible stores took great liberties, but were crowd pleasers.

hrant's picture

Does the movie mention anything about Armenia[ns]?

hhp

Rob O. Font's picture

They had two of them on board, obviously.

hrant's picture

Very funny.

hhp

JamesM's picture

Armenia is very close to the Black Sea, and one theory about the great flood (published in academic journals) is that the Black Sea was created in a catastrophic event around 5600 BC when waters from the Mediterranean Sea breached a barrier and rushed in to create the sea.

Since thousands of square miles were flooded, and communication methods were primitive, someone living in that area might indeed feel that whole world (from their perspective) was flooded.

So maybe Noah was sort-of Armenian! ;)

(I don't believe the Bible story is literally true, but it might have been loosely based on some actual events.)

hrant's picture

But Armenians are "only" 3–4K years old.

hhp

JamesM's picture

Yes, that's why I said "sort-of", meaning from the same general area of the world.

quadibloc's picture

I would have supposed that Ham's wife would have to have been African, while Japeth's wife would have to have been Asian. As for Armenians, wouldn't that have to wait until the Tower of Babel?

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