Warner Brothers Pictures, 2007.
Followers of the Harry Potter films have long been groomed to anticipate a certain amount of change, particularly where the director is concerned. (After Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell, the newest Potter film is directed by David Yates, who brings a crisply modern editorial sensibility to the J.K. Rowling epic.) And that's not all: since its inception, there have been deaths on screen as well as off, new characters, odd creatures, mysterious plot permutations and a host of new-and-improved villains. Reinvigorating the genre in the latest Potter film is Ministry of Magic hatchet-woman Dolores Umbridge who the American horror expert Stephen King recently proclaimed to be "the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter."
But it's not just the villains who pull focus, for this most recent theatrical release includes an even more pronounced paradigm shift: it may just be the first film in which letterforms, once the purview of the production designer, break free and actually join the cast.
There have, of course, been cameo appearances by letterforms before Harry, primarily related to title sequences. Who can forget the illuminated skyline in My Man Godfrey, or more recently, the opening titles for Thank You for Smoking? Emily King devoted considerable attention to this very area in her expert (and exhaustive) dissertation on the subject, and there are several other notable efforts regarding the evolution of title sequences, which constitute an important piece of design history a history in which expressive typography crafts a visual overture, creating, in essence, a prologue for the ensuing film. (Film title designer Kyle Cooper once told me he named his company Prologue Films for precisely this reason.) But beyond titles and end credits, there's been perhaps a kind of additional change afoot, in the introduction of type on screen during the actual film. Examples include last year's brilliant Stranger than Fiction which flirted with the idea of screen-based typography as a kind of fairy presence whimsical and translucent, with numbers and letters cavorting onscreen in a kind of dreamlike dance.
But the animated visual sequences in the latest Harry Potter are something else entirely: here in the surreal environment of Hogwarts, change is the norm, and nothing ever stops moving. This includes typically stationary things like portraits (characters move about in paintings) and correspondence (self-propelling paper airplances take the place of inter-office mail) and even posters (paper proclamations take on an absurdly choreographic twist, framed and hung by the hundreds on the wall of a high-ceilinged room). Yet of all of these visual antics, the most mesmerizing is the reincarnation of The Daily Prophet a black-and-white tabloid which has the miraculous capacity to write and rewrite itself while it is being read.
It is The Daily Prophet which emerges in this film as a secondary character, performing interstitial cameos made all the more exhilarating because the camera sweeps in and out, ricocheting off the page, magnifying and dramatizing a typographic vocabulary that combines a slightly mottled, letterpress-like display face with great portions of illegible calligraphy. The result is a stunning visual texture that merges the efficiency of greeking with the elegance of Farsi. Photographs become miniture film reels, drained of color and slightly slower-paced, injecting a kind of film-noir palette a visual tactic that further distances the action from anything even remotely contemporary. What's more, all that careening camera work makes reading in general (and reading the newspaper in particular) look hugely entertaining. Will more kids start reading newspapers as a result of this film? (Will they want to grow up and become graphic or editorial designers, or journalists?) True, It's not like all that moving typography is likely to supplant the supremacy of the superhero anytime soon, but it's still enchanting. Or rather enchanted.