Modern Master in Film Graphic Design
“My driving force…the joy of my life…is the excitement of making things work.”
Every great film has someone working tirelessly behind the scenes, focusing on the finer details that serve to make the big picture seem so real. Nowadays, that responsibility often falls on graphic designers. He or she must have the eye, as well as the experience, to make you truly believe in the world you’re seeing on screen. As Martin Charles put it: “If it's bad design, it's going to pop out as out of place. For example, if you walked onto the set of Charlie Wilson’s War…you might say to yourself, ‘My gosh, it looks and feels real. The props are literally real.’ But, the graphic design you aren’t supposed to see. You have to look beyond. Look into the walls. Look at the paintings, the inscriptions, the floor…there you’ll find the graphic design.”
Martin’s story begins in Grenada, where he revealed a talent for music at a young age. He was also passionate about art. The turning point came the day he had a chance encounter with his soon-to-be mentor, Leo Carty, a graduate of Pratt Institute in New York. Leo’s influence was exactly the impetus Martin needed to make the decision to choose art over music. So he left the warm winds of the Caribbean behind for the cold, mean streets of New York City where he entered a state of complete culture shock. But, as time passed, he says he felt a rush from all that was going on around him. “I loved the music, the art, the culture of NYC, the whole world truly changed for me.”
During Martin’s senior year, he took a job in the publishing field and there he remained following his graduation from Pratt for about 18 months, before deciding to become a freelance graphic designer. Consequently, this decision spawned a dilemma of its own – which city was best suited to help further his career: New York, Los Angeles, London, or Paris? “It was now all about growth,” he recalls.
Recognizing the world of film beckoned him like a siren song; the decision to move westward was an easy one. But before that move, he took a couple of courses at New York’s School of Visual Arts, which was a springboard for his first student film, Devil Take the Hindmost. He recalls: On Devil Take the Hindmost, “I was the art department; I was costumes; I was the prop master of the set…whatever was needed, I was there. And right there I got hooked on that process of making movies.”
During the early years, he worked on several B-movies with Roger Corman, helping him gain more practical experience and strengthen his craft. In fact, Martin admits that his regular use of a computer (for professional purposes) was rare until Devil in a Blue Dress, one of his favorite movies. “One of the things about more experienced designers…[is] a knowledge in how things used to be and how things are now. And in the past 10 years things have changed; in the past 20 years things have changed; in the past 30 years things have changed tremendously.” He adds, “I learned a long time ago, growing up in old school graphic design, that the idea…has to communicate. If the idea doesn't communicate, it doesn't work. I mean, you read a script now and every other line is about something that has to be designed graphically.”
It also didn’t take long to recognize the importance of research. In fact, for every project, Martin feels the need to “go back to the source” of whatever it is he’s trying to create on screen. Leatherheads, the George Clooney film that introduces us to the early days of American football after the first World War, is one such example. “During this time period, graphic design wasn’t needed to sell products,“ he explained, “because graphic design didn’t exist in the same way.” Doing things from scratch every time can certainly be challenging, but Martin doesn’t believe in repeating his tricks. Luckily, he’s able to use his knowledge of different periods, through research and personal experience, to create a unique world that’ll live on the big screen.
Martin is a staunch believer in minimizing the use of cliché imagery to sell the intended concept or idea, and for good reason. “The 1960's that you know now, that you see, it's very easy to replicate that as the '60's all the time. But…within two or three years difference, there's a sensitivity there based on when it was.” Watch That Thing You Do! and Catch Me if You Can—both featuring the design talent of Martin—and you’ll notice subtle but real differences throughout.
Unlike a CGI artist or title designer on a film, the role of graphic designer is unique in that it should never stand out or steal the show in the filmmaking process, particularly in the creation of physical sets. You might say one of Martin’s goals is for his craft to not be seen at all. That’s because Martin fundamentally believes graphic design shouldn’t be seen, but it should be felt. He believes every film has its own agenda and he remains sensitive to that. He adds, “good design plays a huge role in getting a world to be seen without being seen.” In fact, it’s not unusual for Martin to have hundreds of pieces to design for any given film project, not including iterations and variations. To say we’re impressed with his ability to seamlessly integrate his art into vastly different scenarios is definitely an understatement.
From collecting vintage BMWs to becoming the first Graphic Designer in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Martin Charles’ story is as unique as many of the films he’s helped to create. We’re honored to have him as a member for over 20 years. Likewise, Martin tells us his experience here has been picture perfect: “Knowing the names of the people I deal with at First Entertainment makes all the difference. I can call them at any time. They return my calls; they return my emails. They really know how it works in the entertainment industry. There’s a special consideration for members. And that makes all the difference.” He tells us that that also includes his wife’s experience with First Entertainment and that of his three kids, who each have accounts of their own.
So here’s to you Martin, your phenomenal story, and your continued success. We can’t wait to see where you’ll take us next.