Movies · TV

Why Location Typography Matters On Screen

What’s in a location title font? A lot, actually.
By  · Published on March 30th, 2018

What’s in a location title font? A lot, actually.

Font choice can make or break a work of art. Take, for example, the universal memetic infamy of Comic Sans MS, a typeface that seems to lend inherent comedy to any given text, or the fact that Saturday Night Live devoted an entire sketch last year to the premise of Ryan Gosling as a man driven to madness by Avatar’s artless usage of Papyrus. While audiences usually recognize the significance of a film’s typographic choices regarding its marketing campaign or main titles, the decidedly less showy presence of location typography has been largely overlooked.

A video from Affrica Handley of We Need to Talk About Film makes a case for treating location typography as a crucial element of visual narrative. In globe-spanning blockbusters like the films of James Bond or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, location titles provide a necessary anchor for the audience as the story leaps across space and occasionally time. Their clear utilitarian purpose doesn’t mean that they have to be drab or static. Quantum of Solace renders all of its locations in aesthetically specific fonts, from a sharp, elegant italic serif denoting “Siena, Italy” to blocky, almost militaristic lettering for “Kazan, Russia.” And while the Avengers films might treat location typography as a strictly neutral, no-frills affair, Captain America: Civil War dares to be slightly bolder — its all-caps location titles are blown up to fill the entire frame, as if subtly underscoring how events that took place in a seemingly distant historical past (e.g., the murder of Tony Stark’s parents in 1991, the aftermath of Sokovia’s devastation during Avengers: Age of Ultron) will carry a lot more weight within the story’s conflict.

Also, location typography is often more than a mere transitional device — it also plays a powerful role in establishing a film’s tone and mood. The clean, familiar yellow sans-serifs of Wes Anderson communicate his films’ narratives with a trademark matter-of-factness that never sways, no matter how seemingly ridiculous they are. The header of one frame from Fantastic Mr. Fox that introduces the dam-office of “Badger, Beaver & Beaver / (Attorneys At Law)” does so in neat, professional caps that almost dare the audience to laugh at the scene’s surreality.

These methods of visual storytelling aren’t just limited to the silver screen. Handley observes how the location cards of the crime drama Mindhunter seem almost aggressive in the way they dominate the screen, obscuring nearly all of the actual geographic settings they describe from the audience’s view — an aesthetic choice that, as Handley says, “emphasizes the importance of place in the unraveling of each case.” The relatively unglamorous, repetitive character of the typeface arguably puts the audience in the shoes of the show’s FBI agent leads, whose pursuit of cases often places them in a state of constantly unsettled movement.

Handley also cites the supernatural action-drama Preacher as an example of genuinely dynamic title design. On one level, its distinctive location typography can be read as a simple tool that helps situate the audience as the show hops across time and space, featuring a cast of multiple immortal creatures. But the titles’ actual phrasing and expression, always conveyed in clean white sans-serif type, also take on the voice of a seemingly omniscient, dryly funny narrator — as evidenced by titles that describe not simply geographic locations but more cryptic, sometimes poetic descriptions like “The Last Jazz Club in New Orleans, “Until God,” or the vague yet upfront labels of “Outer Space” or “Hell.” When Preacher signals a flashback, it’s not with any chronological number but rather the phrase “Not That Long Ago,” a choice that urges the viewer to think about the show’s timeline and temporality in a deeply unconventional way. It’s a purely visual element that ultimately becomes an extension of the narrative’s tongue-in-cheek tone.

Watch the video below for a closer look at how the visual impact of words affects the way we watch media.

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Aline is a writer and student. She is very passionate about campy period dramas, female-driven horror films, and obscure Star Wars lore.