Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, looks at mid-70s Britain through the prism of an ultra-modern tower block. Adapted from JG Ballard’s 1975 novel by Amy Jump, the film follows Dr Robert Laing (played by Tom Hiddleston) as he adjusts to his new life as a tenant on the 25th floor and explores the relationships between the building’s various social groups and the tribal mentalities that emerge as the tower gradually descends into chaos. While working families live on its lower levels and aspirant professionals reside halfway up, a wealthy elite is confined to the uppermost floors – a structure that does not last long.
To help realise this unique world, envisioned by production designer Mark Tildesley, graphic artists Michael Eaton and Felicity Hickson created a legion of objects and products and several type treatments for the film’s locations: one for the high-rise itself, with its supermarket, gym, spa and swimming pool; a house font for the building’s architect, Anthony Royal; and signage for Laing’s place of work, the School of Physiology.
Eaton has previously worked on four seasons of Game of Thrones and the Hercules film, while Hickson has been a graphic artist on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Counselor, before working as motion graphics art director on The Martian. Here, they explain the process behind their latest work for High-Rise, which is out in UK cinemas on March 18.
Creative Review: How did you get involved with High-Rise?
Michael Eaton: I’d heard from a friend that High-Rise was happening in Bangor; I live in Belfast. I’d seen Ben Wheatley’s other films and just really wanted to work on it. I’d worked with the supervising art director before, so I had got in touch with him and asked if I could put my portfolio forward for an interview. I had a back catalogue to show them, but this is the most ‘futuristic’ thing I’ve done. I’d made medieval work on Game of Thrones and Hercules, it was all ‘old world’. But I love the 1970s, the style of it, and so I was keen to get on [the film], not just because of the subject but also as it was a new time period for me.
Felicity Hickson: Through previous experience your name gets out there. I went to Belfast and met the director and the designer and they said that they needed someone specifically looking at the supermarket. It was a massive undertaking. They didn’t have anything, just an empty supermarket to dress. We went to see the location and they said that we’d have to dress all the shelves with new products; every one has to be different. Then the scale of what was expected suddenly dawned on me.
CR: What research do you do for a film like this, set in the recent past?
ME: It was a really fun one – from a design point of view, everything just looked so cool from that time. One of the first things I did was the Learn French book [which Laing picks up in the supermarket, shown above]. I looked at old 70s school textbooks. And quite early on with Felicity, we worked out what the main fonts of the film would be.
We had fonts on the office wall that Ben and Mark Tildesley, the production designer, liked – certain things would have their own font; the high rise itself, the supermarket and everything had a sort of ‘brand’ within the building. So from the start, you were aware of how you could stick to a certain aesthetic. Then you’d be given your task by the set decorator [Paki Smith] from the script.
FH: We had a few references, but [for the supermarket] Paki had the wonderful idea of using colour as the main graphic; so you’d have these blocks of colour. We did blocks of products, so as you went down the aisle, rather than seeing individual products you saw bold, graphic shapes. It wasn’t a line of ten different brands on the shelf, you had all these own-label ‘Market’ brands. It was a ‘stylised’ view of dressing.
ME: We realised when we saw the shelves just how much it would take to fill the space. We looked at references for that – Andreas Gursky’s shots of supermarkets with loads of repeats of the same packaging, that was the starting point. We also looked at old images of phone books, any kind of instructional manual, toy kits.
We looked at covers of things, such as Penguin books and magazines. Also, the buyers on the film would be out buying props and every so often they’d come in with, say, a box of comics, or TV guides from the 70s. So we had all this great stuff lying around the office we could look through.
CR: Typography was a starting point for your design work, but were you given a specific brief in terms of the look and feel of the film?
FH: So each location had a particular font – [Ben] was very particular about the font. He had a few fonts in mind that he showed us, I think from a few of Stanley Kubrick’s films that he liked. And then we showed him five fonts and we picked a few for the different locations.
I showed him a few for the supermarket and he picked one straight away, which was brilliant. So I knew my font for the supermarket was already chosen. [Then] I produced maybe four or five layouts of various products and also the signage – we set a few colours that we showed him. He pretty much liked what we were doing and he said just go for it. It was pretty easy. I wasn’t designing each product and then asking ‘Is this approved?’. I was designing ten in a row and then showing them. Ben kept on saying ‘Keep going’ so I was making products every day.
ME: Eurostile is the font of the building. I think it’s actually in the leisure centre [where the the film’s offices were based]. There was a sign Ben put on Twitter [in November 2015] – saying ‘Spectators’ – a sign from the building we were in. I think it was the DoP, Laurie Rose, who’s into fonts as well, he showed us a website where you can take a picture of a font and it works out what it is.
FH: I also went to a supermarket and looked at all the products and wrote them all down – ‘I’ll do one for that, one for that’ etc. Basically, what was needed in a real supermarket, the standard products that would have existed back then, rather than the luxurious ones.
There’s a really good product museum – the Museum of Brands in Notting Hill [in London]. I’d been there before and went again, used that as a reference. We were also looking online. The nature of our work means that we often have to produce things quite quickly, we don’t have weeks and weeks of prep time. And so once I’d set the design in motion – as you can see, they’re all quite simple – I can just do a quick few drawings and layouts to get the right size and shape.
CR: They have the feel of Sainsbury’s own-brand packaging from the 1960s and 70s.
FH: They’re brilliant, I love the simplicity of the designs, they say a lot about the period and the quality of available printing methods at the time.
ME: Yes, the key for the supermarket was super simple. It would be a line with the name of the thing and a picture of the thing on it. Our set decorator liked the idea of this repeated image of the packaging, that’s why there are rows of the repeated image. It just looks awesome when you see it lined up.
CR: And the supermarket features throughout the film, particularly when things start to go wrong….
ME: Yes, you can see the degradation of everything there … from those pristine shots, it just becomes quite darker, grimmer and grubbier.
CR: How did you physically make the products? Does someone else come in and work on that part?
FH: Yes, they’d buy 200 of something and we’d wrap them in labels. What was brilliant about the supermarket was that most of it was background, apart from the ‘hero’ [objects] – cat food, dog food and paint pots. Anything that was scripted was well-printed and well-designed. All the paint pots were really carefully put together. But the sage and onion packets, it’s background dressing and there’ll be rows and rows of it – you stick it on quickly and move on.
A number of dressing props were brought in just to do the supermarket as well. Hundreds and hundreds of cans of beans and cheap soup were bought – then we’d make 500 labels. It was making things en masse: taking the labels off, cutting the new ones out and sticking them on. All day.
ME: With most of the books, you print the cover and wrap an existing book. You’d do repeats in case someone gets fake blood on it or whatever. Then you hand them over to the standby guys. They’ll know when to use it on the day.
CR: What was it like where you were based? Did you have your own office or studio space?
ME: There was always stuff up on the walls. You can go round and study the work that had been done so far, the research and the storyboards – and we were in the same room as Ben as well, which is really rare. It was in an old leisure centre; the room was a disused dance studio with a big mirror on one wall. We were all in that same room, at our own desks – you were always party to what was going on. So everyone was on the same page. You could ask ‘What about this?’ and show people things.
CR: How does your job sit within the wider team? And how do you work from the script – do you take notes and work out what’s needed?
ME: It’s very collaborative. You’ll talk through an idea with the set decorator. You would get the script and go through and highlight anything that you would think was your remit. Then it’s a case of talking to the set decorator and the designer – they’re on the same page as well having read the script. So you flag things up and pick out the things from the script that you would be taking care of. We sat together; we’d made notes ourselves. We’d [divide it up]. I’d never worked with Felicity before but it was great and we’ve now worked together again since.
CR: Michael, can you tell me about some of the objects you were responsible for? You worked on the record sleeves, book covers and posters?
ME: Yes, the record sleeves were great to do. I do artwork for some musicians – I love anything like that. We got to sift through 70s albums. In some cases you’ll get stuff handed down, but we would usually come up with fake band names.
Then you need to get everything like that cleared; so even with those books you have to get the title and the author’s name cleared, even the publisher’s symbol if you have one on there. Someone from production – you email your list to them, they deal with a clearance person – checks that there isn’t an album or book with the same name. You have to be aware of that.
With the film posters – there are lots in [the character] Richard Wilder’s flat. It’s the same again, Mark and Ben gave us a list of desired posters – clearance would then say what we could and couldn’t use.
CR: Were you asked to reflect some of the more ‘atmospheric’ aspects of the film – its oppressive air etc – or was it more about reflecting a time?
FH: Both really. The ‘oppressiveness’ was in the fact that the products were pretty standard and generic designs that were quite quickly produced. I guess if everyone [in the block] has got the same thing, then that helps the feel of that era – and particularly what Ben was trying to create in that building.
But we do that on all films – every one that Michael and I have worked on, we create things that help fit into the environment rather than stand out. We’re both on [the film] Assassin’s Creed at the moment, we just finished that together.
CR: Do you work on the set as well? How does your role change once the filming starts?
FH: That’s often the hardest part of the job, to keep the standbys happy. Also, when you’ve got specific graphics and props you have to have some ‘repeats’ – maybe you need 12 repeats for props to do different takes. Anything could happen.
ME: It would be a mix of being at the desk, then occasionally going out to put a sign up, then there’s loads of people who helped with the supermarket, putting labels on bean tins. They’d do that all day. But the supermarket was a big thing, a lot of people involved.
CR: One of the first ‘graphic’ elements the audience notices is the ‘Welcome’ pack for the building. Can you tell me about that?
ME: Yes, Ben had said he wanted a booklet that would go into almost crazy detail on all the appliances in the building. It was about schematics – you could take it really far; stuff on how to attach your shower nozzle, that kind of thing. It was a fun one to do.
We knew what the shape of the building would be, so we put that in, then it was just a layout of the room and what each area would be. The idea was you got this pack, ‘Welcome to your new home’, and it describes what your life will be like in there. Lots of cool references for that. It was a nice one from a design point of view, like an Ikea furniture manual.
CR: And cigarettes also seem to play an important role?!
ME: Yes! There was to be a certain style of pack for each person. You had your obvious references – old Marlboro and Camel – but when you get into the lesser known ones, there’s just some amazing designs knocking around. Also the adverts from the time – we’d spend hours [watching], there’s so much online. You find some stuff you like and adapt it, take an aspect of it.
CR: There are so many little elements – the ‘Vikair’ name badges for the air stewards, who appear in one sequence, for example.
ME: Yes, there are always little things like that which are just as important as you don’t know what will be picked up on screen. Again, you do a few versions and then get one approved. But it’s nice to know you noticed that, even though it’s such a flyaway thing.
I was watching the trailer with my girlfriend and I’m going ‘I did that wallpaper!’ It’s something that wouldn’t necessarily catch your eye at first glance. I love it when someone’s coming out of the lift or whatever and they’re holding a book or something that you weren’t sure would make an appearance.
CR: In terms of a design role, being a graphic artist on a film sounds like a dream job. Do you ever think of it in that way?
ME: I love it. It was great on that film. I love things from that time period and it was great to look at your list and think, ‘OK, today I have to do a book, a record and a comic’. It’s a nice thing to look into if you’re into design like that. Looking through all these old things and finding the weirdest thing and seeing if you can take some inspiration from it. If you’re into fonts, in this film – everything has its own code. It makes it seem more real. It looks as if, in this fictional world, people have had a meeting about what font to use in their building.
CR: Is the variety of what you create on a film part of the attraction?
FH: Yes, definitely. On Assassin’s Creed, we’ve been in 15th-century Spain and modern day Madrid. One minute Michael would be doing something for modern day and I’d be working on a 15th-century painting. Due to tight shooting schedules it’s quite normal to have to work to strict deadlines; the greatest challenge is to eloquently create what is asked of you in as quick a time as you can manage it.
I think most graphic designers – who don’t know about ‘film’ graphic design – if they were to come into the office and see the speed we work at, they would think it was really fast.
High-Rise is in UK cinemas on March 18 (StudioCanal, studiocanal.co.uk). This feature appears in the March issue of CR, out now. More details on the film at anthonyroyalarchitecture.co.uk and the film’s Twitter, @highrise_movie. Directed by Ben Wheatley; Produced by Jeremy Thomas; Production design by Mark Tildesley; Art direction by Nigel Pollock and Frank Walsh; Set decoration by Paki Smith; Graphic artists: Michael Eaton and Felicity Hickson