Sunday, 11 November 2012

Painting Signs for the Film Industry

                                                                                                                  Working on the set of "Open Range"

  I thought I might revisit a post I did back when I first started my blog. It was about painting signs for film. I started in the industry back in 1987, with a show called " Return to Gunsmoke". It wasn't until the movie "Dead Bang" staring  Don Johnson, that I moved into the role of a Film Sign Painter. From that point on, I worked as both a sign painter, and scenic artist, on a number of different television productions and feature films. I then made the transition to Paint Coordinator ( Head Painter) overseeing all aspects of the Paint Department. Although I enjoyed the position, and the challenges it brought, my heart was really in painting the signs. The thing I really like is not so much the actual lettering, but the breakdown of the sign, making it look like its been there for a while. Don't get me wrong, I do love lettering, but find the aging and breakdown to be the big challenge.

Painting signs for a film production can be quite a challenge. First part is the high volume of signs that you are given, then the time frame that they have to be done in. Some of the shows I've worked on,  the crew is myself, and maybe other person, on a bigger show, I will have a larger crew. The process starts with the Art Dept. designing and supplying the artwork for us to follow, then the Construction Dept builds the sign blanks and buildings for us to letter. Depending on the show setup, either the painters paint the blanks, or we take it from the raw wood up. Personally, I like working from the raw wood stage, that way I can start the aging process from ground up. I recently watched a western from the early 90s , although the signs were well done (not sure if they were actually hand painted) the colors were not muted, and some of the white lettering was so bright, it competed with the actors and the action. Great for anyone watching for signs, not so great if your the actor in front of it. I personally like to paint them by muting the colors, so as to pull the contrast down. You'll still see the signs, but they fall nicely into the background. If you've ever done any landscape painting, you know to diminish the color value to create the illusion of distance and depth, the same rule applies to film sign work. Another thing to keep in mind is, it would be very unlikely that the same sign painter did all the signs in the town. Having a varity of styles, and trying to simulate different skill levels, helps to create a sense of reality. I will try to establish this with the Production Designer, or Art Director, by asking if they want a "Left hand" or "Right Hand" sign. By this, I mean a good quality, or bad quality sign. It's just the same as doing signs in the real world. Drive down any road that has stores and shops and you'll notice a what I'm talking about.

When painting signs for film, you have to be prepared for anything. One day you'll be doing sign blanks, the next day, building facades and windows, then wagons, vehicles and awnings, show cards, and so on. Depending on the time period, it could be anything. I work mostly with water based paints, but use what ever is needed to get the job done. This type of work helps to round out you lettering skills, not to mention your stress level., it's one thing to paint a few signs, try painting a few hundred in a given time frame. The show I'll be starting should be in the area of 200 to 400 signs.For this, I'll need a crew of no less that 5 sign painters, and more as needed. When I first hire someone who has never done film work, they're quite excited, then they see the task at hand, then you can smell the fear. But by the end of the show (if they make it) they fell a real sense of accomplishment, plus they get bragging rights. They can tell their family and friend  "If you look really hard, way in the background, That's a sign I painted." Over the years, the need for someone to actually hand paint signs has dropped, especially with the new technology in printing, but fortunately there are still designers that appreciate the look of a sign done by hand, that has style, and a soul.  Thanks for taking the time to drop by, hope you enjoyed the post. I'm sure a lot of you know this already, if you click on a picture, it will show as a larger version, you can also scroll through them in order by clicking on the photos.

This was a set from the TV series Lonesome Dove. It was an episode about Buffalo Bill, played by Dennis Weaver. We got to paint the canvas banners and a number of signs for his traveling show. I thought I had died and had gone to Sign Painter Heaven. It was also a bit of a challenge, due to the fact we had a week to pull it off.

 Here's a few on-set pictures from a show called "Magic of Ordinary Days. It wasn't designed to be a showcase for our sign painting skills, just a piece of background to help establish the time period of the show

A typical day of painting for two sign painters. This type of work is done mostly in the studio workshop,  then sent to the location to be installed. It's a great way to stay out of the weather, unfortunately it's not always the case. You have to be ready to work in all types of weather when you do this type of work. The show I'm about to start, will have a combination of studio, and location work, in the middle of a Canadian Winter, thank god I love what I do.

Here's a few pictures of wagons and tents. No western is complete without them. You also paint a lot of canvas banners. Hard on brushes.

This "Before and "After" is of a set from the movie "Brokeback Mountain." The Mexican set was the most fun to do, although we did get to travel around the country side, lettering towns as we went. Can't think of a better way to spend your day.

This is an example of covering up signs on a location. This was a show that used a historic park here in Calgary. We make blanks to cover existing signs and then add more signs to create the look. This is a very common practice when working on a location. The one issue I run into when doing location work is, them wanting me to paint a sign directly on to a wall or building. I use a different approach for this type of sign, as it has to be removed when we finish filming.

These are a few photos from "The Assassination of Jesse James" It was a big sign show, with over 300 signs hand painted. I had a crew of up to 7 sign painters at any given time to get the job done. These pictures are from the city of Winnipeg. They changed 3 city blocks over to look like Chicago in the late 1800s, complete with dirt roads and board walks. Although we painted a pile of signs, you would be hard press to see them. That's just the way this business works.

This is a picture of a facade that was built to cover a modern building. The wall sign in the background wasn't part of the shoot. Because the camera wouldn't be facing this direction, it was of no issue. But things can change in a hurry, so you have to be ready to paint it out with a minutes notice. on the edge. You won't get that kind of rush flipping burgers.

  Here's an example of  one of the window signs that had a little more detail than other signs on the street. There was a total of 4 of these. This was a painful job to do. The floor was 6" under the "Gents Clothing" copy , and the only way to do the lettering, was to lay on the floor. Not the most comfortable way to letter, but it had to be done. As I mentioned earlier, location work can have its challenges. Hope you enjoyed a little insight into the world of painting signs for the film industry. Take care.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Painting Building Signs..."Old School"

I recently was hired to re-paint a 3 story vertical sign for one of Calgary's historic buildings in the downtown core. It was a straight forward lettering job,except for its location. The sign was located next to a underground parkade entrance, with plenty of traffic. I had roughly 8' to fit a 45' lift into, so it was tight. Myself and my helper managed to complete the job in 3 days. Thankfully, the weather cooperated. It's always a little risky doing a job like in the fall, as Old Man Winter can show up at any time. Another issue was, my permits that only allowed us to work between 9am to 3pm. The first thing that had to be done was to block out the old sign. To do this, I used a grey primer, then re-coated with white. I like to cut in the letters, as I feel it gives a better finish. Also, you don't have to paint the white letters over a black background, re-coating them a number of times to get the same results as cutting in. Time is money, plus I hate heights. My next step was to use pounce patterns to transfer the letters. I just made a pattern of each individual letter, that way, your not fighting with a large pattern, 3 stories in the air. I could have done the layout directly on the building, but that takes time. All in all, it was an enjoyable job to do, and it let people see how it was done back in the day. A lot of people were surprised to see us doing the lettering with a brush. They thought we would use a stencil or something. I enjoy jobs like this once in a while, just not the heights. It's funny the things you'll do for money, not to mention the challenge that comes with it. Feel free to comment, or send me an email if you have any questions.

Here's a picture of the sign I was asked to re-paint. I guess not everyone was interested in artist from around the world, the business when under. One of the problem I faced was not knowing if it was painted with oil, or latex. I tried some test, but could prove it 100%. When in doubt, prime it with a bonding primer. That way you know your paint will stick. I used latex for the job, so this was an important step. Rule of thumb is, you can paint oil over latex, but not the other way round.

   The first step is to neutralize the lettering against the background. To do this, I had the paint company tint the primer to a grey color. It doesn't have to be that dark to knock out the lettering. Doing this helps when you roll out the white. It only took one heavy coat of white to get my working surface. After I finished cutting in, it only took a  light coat to finish the letters. If I had lettered over a black background, it would have taken 3 or 4 coats to get the same results. Far easier to roll out a large area apposed to re-coat individual letters.

With the background finished, it was time for the layout.  First, we used a chalk line to snap a vertical guild line. This would be used to center the patterns. I drew a center line, and also a horizontal line across the bottom of the letter. Using a scale drawing, it was just a matter of measuring and pouncing. I used a level to make sure they were true. By the time I reached the bottom, I was only a 1/2" out. Not bad for a 30' sign.

Now comes the fun part, doing the actual lettering. We just start at the top, and work our way down. With everything established, it's just a matter of cutting in the letters and the boarder. I always feel better as we get closer to the ground, as the top letters make me feel a little un-easy, due to the height. The things you'll do for money.

With all the lettering and boarder done, it's just a matter of one more pass to do the 2nd coat. I used a low luster high quality latex house paint to do the job. It covers well, and will still look good for  years to come.

                                                                                                   Photos courtesy of  Olivier Ballou
 The finished sign. My customer was extremely pleased, and also enjoyed watching the process from beginning to end. It also entertained the people that work in the area, and also the next building. It gave them something to watch while they were having a smoke. My client has hired another company to remove the sign to the right, not sure how that's going to work. But at least my part is done. Thanks for taking the time to drop by. Make sure to check in again as I have a very interesting project coming up.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Another one behind me.

   I'm finally finished the Gas Traction Engine Co. Traction Engine (early Big 4) project I started earlier this year. It was another one of those projects that required a lot of upfront preparation before actually doing the work. With being one of the only 3 known to exist, there's not a lot of information available. Another problem was the fact that it was Canadian made, manufactured in Winnipeg, Man. in 1909. The overall restoration took the staff at the Reynold-Alberta Museum10 years to complete. It was restored back to a  fully functional, running piece of  history. It was also interesting to see all the engineering up close that made a piece of machinery like this work With little information, it was quite a challenge to re-create all the graphics. One thing about doing Museum type of work is, you always restore back to how it was, not how you think it should be.

Re-creating the graphics was going to be a big challenge. It started with a trip to the Reynolds-Alberta Museum and meeting with Randy Kvill, the museum curator, and also the person heading up the project. I spent the day looking at photos and some manuals that they had in the museum collection. I then took some photos of  the original rusted out fender, for any traces of the company stencils. I also had some help from other sources that are very good in finding information on these types of things. One source of information is museum libraries, most have an archive that is open to the public. A friend suggested I contact Lindsay Moir, of the Glenbow Musuem in regard to some manuals he had donated years back, he though they might contain some information that would be helpful. In the end, they didn't provide much, but it opened the doors to a new avenue of doing research. Lindsay Moir and her staff from the museum were extremely helpful in pulling the information, and also on how to do searches. The pinstriping on the wheels was pretty straight forward, but the lettering on the fuel tank, radiator and fenders, was a different story. Looking through a number of photos and old manuals, I could make out some of the fonts used, and also that the graphics had been applied by stencil. One thing that helps is to use fonts that would have been used back in that time period. The fender graphics proved to be the biggest challenge, as this early tractor had been made at the factory in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The layout was probably done by their design department, and was hand drawn before being turned into stencils. With the little information that I had, it was time to create layouts that would then be used for patterns.

One of the challenges of the project was to make the lettering look stenciled. This would mean putting breaks in the lettering that would have been used in the actual stencil making process. The second problem was to transfer the layout to the actual surface being lettered. To do this I prepared pounce patterns ( paper patterns, perforated with tiny holes), and then using white chalk to transfer the image to the surface. If your not sure what I mean, you can read my post from last year  explaining the process ( look under Older Post). Once I had the layout transferred, I taped off the tops and bottoms of certain letters, also the stencil break lines. Although I could do the lettering without taping, I find using tape produces a far better quality job, and saves time. One of the problems when using tape to re-produce a stencil break is it slows down the painting. When painting a letter without the stencil break, it's a fluid motion. With a break, you have to stop and clean up the line where ever the tape is. Also the color being used was a yellow, which is well know for being transparent. This meant everything had to be second coated. Back when I first started painting signs, the paint used for signs had lead in it. This allowed for far better coverage, and also made the paint last. But  around 10 years ago, they  removed the Lead and changed the formula. This has created issues with both coverage and longevity. Most of the work would have to be done from a ladder, or sitting in an uncomfortable position for a period of time. I'm now in my fifty's, so doing this for any period of time takes its tole on my body and feet, ah...the pleasures of getting old. The lettering and striping took around six days to complete, the research took more time than I would like to think about. Overall, it was a very challenging project to work on. But in the end, the results were well worth effort. Here's some photos of the job in progress. Thanks for taking the time to check it out. Feel free to comment or contact me if you have any questions.

This is how most of my projects start. A few photos, and a lot of research. I find this part of the project to be one of the more interesting parts of the project. You basically become a history detective. This is the part where it helps to have a good group of  people that can help point you in the right direction. I've had the good fortune to know some very knowledgeable people that share information freely. Without them, I couldn't do this type of work.

Usually the reference material is vague, but at least enough to get a start. I spend a lot of time looking through books and cruising the internet. The internet has been such a valuable tool when it comes to this type of work. If you want to get into this line of work, I highly recommend developing you internet search skills.

The engine used two different types of radiators,
but the lettering was the same on both. The problem with working from old  black and white photos, is you can only guess at the colors. Also, a lot of old photos have been retouched, making them not overly accurate when it comes to details

The graphics on the rear fender proved to be the most challenging part of the job. Because this tractor had been produced in Canada, there was no pictures available,  that we knew of. The only information we had was an original fender that had long since given up it's information. It would take a little coaxing, and a lot of luck, to try and salvage any imaging that may have been there. Here's a few photos of the steps we took to try and see the image. First, we sprayed some water over the fender, this helped a little.

Here we're starting to getting a little more by applying wax over the lettering ( this was Randy's idea). It brought it out a bit, but was still quite vague. Just not enough to work with. You could only see a couple of the letters. The one thing you have to careful with is, you don't destroy what little you have. You could always just make it up due to lack of information. But that would be taking the easy way out. "No Pain...No Gain"

 I decided to try a few more things. At times, I thought I had lost it. But then I got lucky, I managed to get the ghosted lettering to a point I could finally get some good information. Sometimes you just luck out. I was now setup to create a layout from which I could then make a pattern. After sketching a rough layout, I scanned it into computer, and then created a vector file. Once I had a vector file, I created my pattern.

This is a copy of the finished vector file. It didn't have to be perfect because I was only making my pounce pattern. I could easily clean up any discrepancies when I do the lettering. One of the things we noticed, was the use of 2 different "N" styles. Not sure why they would do this. But I'm sure they had a reason.

The finished lettering

 The next step was to apply the patterns to the radiator for the lettering. From what I could see in the reference photos, they moved the stencils to the sides of the straps, so the lettering would be visible and not under the tank straps. I guess it made it easy for the people working on the assemble line, and kept it legible at the same time.

 With the patterns in place, it was time to do the transfer.. To do this, I create a pouch from a rag filled with white chalk, then pat and rub it over the pattern. This  pushes the chalk through the perforated holes, you then end up with the layout transferred to the surface. Once you have the layout transferred, you have to be careful not to accidentaly wipe it of. otherwise you have to pounce it again. If you've already started the lettering, you'll have to wait until the paint has dried to re-pounce the layout. Not to mention wasting time.

 With the layout done, it's time to tape the edges, and get on with the lettering. When applying the tape, take some time to plan it out. It will help when you have to remove the tape as you paint. I usually do all the taped letters fist, then come back and do the rounded letters such as O /C /S/ U, that go above and below the horizontal guild lines. Everyone does things a little different, this is the way that works best for me.

 Now, the fun begins, I actually get to paint. I tell people this is the easiest part of the job. You can see how sharp the edges are. This is the advantage of using tape. Although the original would have been stenciled, hand lettering the graphics produces a very clean, finished product. I'm sure the lettering never looked this good coming off the factory floor. Because this machine will be on display, it pays to spent  time to making  the best it can be.

The finished lettering

The finished machine

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The 1909 Gas Traction Engine project

Just returned from working on a 1909 Gas Traction Company tractor at the Reynolds -Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. Myself and a good friend Bruce Ander spent 3 days re-creating the lettering, striping and high-lighting the cast letters, back to the way it rolled out of the factory in 1909. This was another one of those jobs that required a lot of research and a little guessing as to how they would of been done. The problems with working from photos from that period, is most have been retouched in one form or another. The other problem is they usually show the equipment from a distance, or from the wrong angle. I've also included a picture of the fender that has traces of the original lettering, but is almost non-existent. We managed to get a lot done, and will finish up the lettering on the radiator and fenders next week. Although we'll be hand painting the lettering, they'll have a stenciled look that was used from the factory.  I've also included a few photos of other tractors that are part of their collection. If you ever get a chance, make sure to drop by the museum. They have a wonderful collection.