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Shown at the prestigious 2016 Venice Film Festival, followed by a U.S. theatrical release and Netflix acquisition in 2017, American Anarchist is a documentary feature film by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Charlie Siskel (Finding Vivian Maier). I was asked to design and animate the many shots in the film of documents, websites, and pages from The Anarchist Cookbook, the infamous book the film revolves around. In the end, I also ended up designing the logo for the title of the film. It draws heavily on the book cover, but the letters are given a little more finesse and equal weight, without losing the DIY feel. 

Highlighted word from documentary film graphics

We went for a very straight-forward, natural look, maintaining paper textures and inherent flaws in the materials. I deliberately varied the scale of book pages, and while I mostly kept the highlighted words vertically centered, I allowed awkward crops and misalignments to echo the ramshackle feel of the book. In a way, it was anti-design, and rather uncomfortable for me as someone who loves constructing order. I don't really like this work, but I think it is what it needed to be.

"To be successful, man must change himself" highlighted on a book page
Photocopied gun image in The Anarchist's Cookbook
Military field manuals from the documentary film "American Anarchist"
Closeup of a military envelope

I created subtle treatments to mimic lens blur toward the corners of the screen for the closeups on book pages. Some materials are simply shown against a stark black background, with only minimal cleanup for readability. Creases and other document imperfections were generally left untouched. If anything, we gravitated toward them, as we wanted the paper to feel tactile.

One of the tougher challenges was that the original book is printed on very low quality paper, to such a degree that there is a ton of bleed-through (seepage of ink from one side of a page to the other). In theory, this was good, in that it conveyed the truth of the object, but the severity of it hindered readability — and, it was honestly a little too ugly for me to live with. So, I did an enormous amount of manual retouching to fade back the bleed-through just enough, without losing it altogether.

It was interesting to work on a feature film, seeing it come together over time as a result of the efforts of many people. I'd be happy to do more film work, and maybe for the next one, I can do something more beautiful!

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