Inspiration comes from strange places. Filmmaker Briar Levit found hers in a Goodwill.
Until she started collecting decades-old graphic design production manuals while thrifting, making movies didn't even enter her head. "I consider myself a graphic designer first," says the assistant professor at Portland State. But the methods in those manuals were so outdated—and completely unknown to a younger generation—that she began to consider becoming a filmmaker as well.
Before the days of Adobe, graphic design was completely hands-on. Linotype machines had to be loaded with characters on metal blocks, and entire articles had to be glued on to oceans of blank paper. The manuals acted as a sort of historical journal for those techniques. "When I would show them to my peers…they had no idea about these tools and processes," she says. "And it seemed like people my age wanted to know about it, too."
That was four years ago. This Wednesday, NW Film Center will screen Levit's documentary Graphic Means, a film that charts the history of typography and graphic design from its early stages to the age of InDesign. Means, which premiered last April at a Seattle film festival, is the result of Adobe's help—which supplied about a quarter of the film's budget after Levit reached out to them during post-production—along with a Kickstarter campaign and Levit's own extensive research.
On paper, 85 minutes about typeface and paste-up sounds like a dry bore. But Means isn't even the first doc to cover the subject. Doug Wilson's 2012 Linotype, has been screened around the country, and traced the creation of the titular machine and its influence on the world. Wilson himself—also a graphic designer-turned-filmmaker—mentored Levit during her production process, supplying historical footage along with filmmaking advice.
But even with his help, Levit's own talent is obvious right from Means' opening credits, an animated title sequence with photographs of giant 1960s computers. Wilson's archival footage plays an active role. Between interviews with industry experts, there are clips of happy-go-lucky educators and advertisers from the '50s and '60s demonstrating the design and production process behind newspapers and advertisements. Listening to ad men spew superlatives about a typewriter—"Automatic! High-speed! Powerful! Accurate!"—is hilarious, and amounts to a puzzle-like watching experience that begs for attention.
Levit turned to Seattle's Norm Chambers (called Panabrite online and onstage) for scoring, a product of her electronic music fandom. As the film progresses from printing press to PDF, the music morphs from Moog to digital.
Outside of Chambers, Means was made with a crew of all women. It was "a conscious choice" for Levit, who's the former art director for the Portland-based Bitch magazine. The film itself includes wholeheartedly feminist themes. Women played a massive role in the design industry as designers, a fact which Means iterates from the onset. "Typesetting did more to bring women into the workplace than any other technology," says one early interviewee, a typeface designer named Dan Rhatigan. Even so, women received half of what men made.
"I've been a feminist for as long as I can remember," Levit says. "I thought, 'Why wouldn't I use this opportunity?'" That decision drives the film, and gives political meaning to pencils and X-ACTO knives.
Less exciting are the previously mentioned segments about typography's inner workings. Despite some animation and editing that rapidly displays different fonts with artistic flair, it feels less like a commercial film and more like an insider's class presentation. Making Times New Roman a riveting protagonist is a monumental task, and Levit can't quite get over the hump.
But for a feature-length debut, Graphic Means is remarkably solid. Levit's Goodwill-fueled passion bleeds from every frame. And even though taking on the patriarchy through typeface sounds unusual, Means pulls it off one keystroke at a time.
SEE IT: Graphic Means plays at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., nwfilmcenter.org. 7 pm Wednesday, July 12. $9.