Wood Type in Motion

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Judith Poirier lives and works in Montreal, where she teaches at the École de design, Université du Québec à Montréal. She is a filmmaker with a special focus on experimental typography, as well as book design and printmaking. She uses letterpress, exploring connections between the printed page and the cinema screen. Her most recent work-in-progress was screened a few weeks ago at the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum. I had many questions about the work and process of making type move. Here are some of the answers. (The following images are from Setting West, the current film, and a typographic keepsake). See films here.

What kindled your interest in vintage type?I come from the photo composition era, and always thought it was a bit unfair since digital and letterpress were much more interesting processes to experiment with typography. When I moved to London in 1999 to do a Masters Degree at the Royal College of Art, I was, of course, working digitally, with the goal to animate type as my main project. It was an opportunity to combine my interests in the medium of print and film production, and to simultaneously begin to explore a more artistic approach to design.

During my experimental film seminars with Al Rees, I had a letterpress workshop with Alan Kitching and I just loved it; I fell for its physicality and the smell of the ink. Then, mixing my interest in experimental cinema and typography, I started to print with lead type on 16mm film stock in the letterpress studio, and that was the start of my animation work.


Making your films in such a complex way produces some remarkable results. How did you come by your method?My first film explorations were with a Bolex camera. Then I started to print with letterpress directly onto clear film stock, experimenting with different colors of ink, lead type and other things found in the type cases available at the RCA. I immediately liked this way of working because it didn’t require the use of a camera or developing film, and the process generates an element of chance and surprise.

After several tests to adjust the technique, I completed my first film, an installation piece called Unjustified Type (1 minute, 44 seconds, 2001). For this project, I printed and edited a long loop of 16mm film that ran through a projector and then up to the very high ceiling of the Hockney gallery. We could see the 16mm film itself and the animation projected on the wall at the same time.

It was part of the “Letterpress Show” in 2001, which, apart from my film that was quite loud, was all print on paper. The editing of the film was made by physically cutting the original film and taping it together. On the Steenbeck table, I was discovering the rhythm of the animation but also the sound produced by the ink printed on the optical soundtrack. The sound came as a bit of a surprise first, then it became an integral component to my work. I now print on 35mm film instead of 16mm, and I transfer the printed celluloid into a digital file so I can edit in Final Cut Pro, instead of manually cutting the film, but my process of printing on film using letterpress is still the same. It is a long but exciting process, physical work (type, ink and film) creating intuitive compositions with image and sound.


These are rather abstract, but do you have a narrative in mind? Or is it all impressions?My films are not built around a narrative story, but rather explore the medium itself. I experiment with the image, sound and editing, leaving the interpretation up to the viewer. My background as a graphic designer and professor of typography led me to experiment with letterforms. I like using the cinema screen to show the beauty of the letterforms, the texture of the ink and to hear the sound generated by the typographic elements. The alphabet itself being a series of abstract symbols, a visual representation of sounds, sound was the starting point for my film Dialogue (4 minutes, 12 seconds, 2008). The idea was to explore the visual and acoustic rhythm of the typographic signs.

Two Weeks–Two Minutes (2 minutes, 35 seconds, 2013), was a process-based project, making simultaneously a book and a film during a two-week residency at the Center for Book and Paper Arts in Chicago. Exploring the notion of time in both media, I systematically wrote down what I was seeing, hearing or doing, trying to capture a snapshot of time. One might read these fragments of sentences in the film, but it is pretty abstract. In that case, the system dictated the structure of the editing, following the order of the way we would read the book.

The experience of the residency in Chicago consolidated the idea of traveling to print in other letterpress studios. My new direction became to use a specific type collection mix with a film genre. Setting West (5 minutes, 25 seconds, 2015), my latest film, is an abstraction of the Western genre. The project was a pretext to learn more about wood type and the printing industry. I printed with original printing material from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as wood type, borders and stereotypes of “Cowboys and Indians,” trains and bison. These letters and images come from the collection of eminent letterpress studios in North America such as the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum, The Hatch Show Print, the Musée de l’imprimerie du Québec and from my own small studio.


What was the notion that evolved into Setting West?The idea behind the film was an abstract typographic animation inspired by Western movies—basically, an Abstract Western using type and stereotypes, playing with the double meaning of stereotypes. But the result seems more narrative, probably because of the figurative elements and the well-known Western genre. The viewer can imagine a story with these references. So it is still an abstraction of a Western movie; there is no dialogue, no characters, no script, bu
t there are suggested scenes in it. Being inspired by the old classic Western films, I had some scenes in mind while setting type and editing. For example, I was imagining cowboys gambling and drinking whiskey while I was printing with a set of cards. I also set big slab serifs on the press as horseshoes, or trying to recreate the feeling of train tracks with pieces of metal and wood. So yes, I think I moved slightly from abstract to more narrative for Setting West.

For my current project, Fraktur, a typographic horror movie, I will use, for the most part, black letters, and it visually draws inspiration from German silent-era expressionist filmmaking. So it might become a series of impressions, like you suggest in your question.

SettingWest_POW POW!_CloseUp

How does your soundtrack fit into the typographic scheme of your films?The sound is actually very important, it is half of the film. The soundtracks of my films are produced by the ink printed onto the optical soundtrack on the edge of the 16mm or 35mm film. When there is something printed on this area, the projector reads the variations of light passing through and generates sound.

I have been quite a purist about my process, meaning what you hear is exactly the sound of what you see. I was closing my eyes while editing Dialogue, to be sure it sounds as good as it looks, to create a more musical sound track. For my film Two Weeks–Two Minutes, I had two vertical screens placed side by side, and I used the left speaker for the left page, and the right speaker for the right page, mixing the two to create a book in stereo. For Setting West, I allowed myself to edit the sound. From my rushes, I selected the animation parts and the sound bits separately before mixing them. In this film we can interpret, for example, gunshots with an image of a bank, horses galloping with the word “saloon” set in wood type or the sound of a train with cattle. I think we have the impression of real sounds because of the images, I am not sure, but it definitively sounds like gunshots, horses or trains. I also left more room for silence, to build up some tension in the editing.


What is your favorite part(s) of Setting West?Good question. I am still very close to the project, I don’t have a lot of distance; I like the first minute, and the poker game scene.

Where can people see the films?My films have been screened at numerous international film and animation festivals. In 2013, Two Weeks–Two Minutes won the Canadian Film Institute Award for Best Canadian Animation, so it probably helped. I also present my work in galleries; for example, Dialogue is in Paris at the moment (20 Nov. 2015–5 Feb. 2016), as part of a traveling exhibition called “Type in Motion,” set by the Gestaltung Museum in Zurich. I also give talks for symposiums (like the HWT Wayzgoose, where we met recently) or universities, which give me the chance to discuss the process and exchange with the audience. [You] can also see my first three films on my Vimeo page. Setting West will have to wait until it finishes its festival tour, so it should be online in 2017.


Images below from Dialogue (2009). It received a “Certificate of Typographic Excellence”, Type Directors Club (TDC56), New York, 2010; an “Honorable Mention”, The Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design in Canada, 2010; Short listed, Best Book Design in the World, Leipzig Book Fair, 2011.

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →