Review of, and Commentary on, Film Typography


First up: Guy Maddin’s

An acclaimed short film by the self-deprecating Winnipeg director famed for his reuse of ancient film tropes, Heart of the World pays homage to Soviet-style silent films, with heavy use of intertitles.

(What do you think of these sharpened claws? “Guy Maddin’s Heart of the World, as empty a piece of work as his entire œuvre... was a totally enjoyable, well-received, and utterly hollow short, whose appeal and popularity was based in the fact that it seemed to look like something by the early Eisenstein, or no, wait, Fritz Lang! or no... it reminded us most of the old Fleischer cartoon where Koko the Klown finds the controls of the world.”)

In any event, Heart of the World is one of those rare typographic films (nearly all of which are actually music videos). Herewith we examine the acumen, appropriateness, and historical accuracy of its titles.

See also: Mark Simonson’s “Typecasting: The Use (and Misuse) of Period Typography in Movies” (the inspiration for this page).

‘The Heart of the World’

Opening credit. Possibly an ill-advised all-centred format given that nearly all the subsequent intertitles look like that. This title card is an opening credit unto itself rather than an intertitle because it is not between (“inter”) anything. Typography here recalls early-20th-century newspaper advertising gothics like Spartan or Adsans.

I distinctly remember watching old silent movies with the added letterspacing seen in the content words HEART and WORLD, but I cannot give you any actual movie titles. Which is more ephemeral, the identities of the films or of the type they used?

Note the feature seen throughout the intertitles (sometimes in exaggeration): Halation or glowing fuzzy edges, as though the black-and-white film were illuminated by a too-bright bulb, or with a substandard lens.


An antiquated film device favoured by Maddin, the cameo (he also loves the related iris), counterpoints a single word that establishes what I call the typographic anthropology of the film. Here we’ve got a seemingly hand-lettered font vaguely reminiscent of W.A. Dwiggins’ Metro (note the a), with varying letter sizes and an uneven baseline reminiscent of my fumbles with Letraset circa 1980. (Mark Simonson pegged the font correctly: It’s Gadget, a Macintosh system font that, oddly, I do not have.)

The N is meant to suggest Russian I (tenth letter of the alphabet, Unicode 0418); the curved ball on the top right of the k is a feature of many old Cyrillic fonts. (Seemingly identical letters in Latin and Cyrillic script often have an anthropology of their own. E in Cyrillic often has a very high crossbar, for example.)

‘Two Brothers’

Another iris, this one presaging the film’s conclusion. See the heavily halated type, whose character shapes are consistent with the previous frame (Cf. t, which curves into a squared-off bottom). Obviously this is an actual typeface. But which one? And how’d they dig it up in Winnipeg?

‘Brothers Who Love the Same...’

Our first good closeup of the house font, its consistent bottom-level t/l/a terminals apparent. A bit of a whimsical Tigger-like feel to the haunches of the h and m, which seem to be leaning back and shrugging with a grin.

Note foreshortened bottom curve of e, whose counters are well and truly clobbered by the halation effect. Psychologically, the larger size of Brothers and same and the regularized baseline emphasize the actual storytelling carried out by the intertitles.

‘the same’

In a shockingly effective use of dissimilarity (one of these intertitles is not like the others), these letters appear one after the other, like paint-on captions or a pixelboard outside a pizza joint. But since the letters spray in an angle and get bigger, the magic is preserved. And the grandeur of the gesture is amplified by the fact that the words “the same” here are actually a grandiose repetition. A perfect second and a half.


Is the en at the end a capital Russian I or a very large lowercase n? Admittedly, vernacular typography of this sort can verge on ethnic stereotyping (love those “Chinese” letters outside chop-suey joints!), Maddin’s œuvre revolves entirely around outdated film styles and devices. The Heart of the World is in its entirety an homage to Soviet film, or at least to romanticized Soviet stereotypes. (They’re not all bad: In this particularly Russian, state scientists are women. But we’ll meet her soon enough.)

‘Anna, State Scientist’

Back with the cameos, here mirroring Nikolai’s. More with the Ns. And see the high waistlines of E and S (plus, for that matter, the low crossbar of the A), all of them Russian references. I wish they’d stuck with a three-dot ellipsis to remain strictly correct, but my pedantry is well-known.

Halation more extensive here – more like a fog, as though indicating an old production process whereby one cut around the letters and could not normalize the hue inside the cutout. Or maybe it’s done with another iris. Anyone know?

“Oh, and Senator, just one more thing – love your hat.”

‘Anna Studies’

The primitivism of the film typesetting process is again at the forefront here. Yes, the frame really is broken up and a tad askew. The S, C, and E appear to bleed or have fangs, as if in a vampire film. (Aha! That might be the antecedent here.) And couldn’t you just give that apostrophe a big sloppy kiss – using a dental dam, of course?

And I must say I’m liking what amounts to a Branding with Type–esque logotype for Anna’s name.

‘The Very HEART of the World’

And actually, we can see a method to the madness of the first title: Maddin (and Deco Dawson and whoever else) knew they’d engage in self-reference later on. Baseline skew again, but it works.


And unfortunately now we come to the crashing disappointment. Yes, those are Times Roman numerals banged out on a computer. π-quality numeric psychological exteriorization this ain’t. For those joining us late: Times Roman is as contemporaneous with 19th-century Russia as, say, titanium hip joints, Hyundais, or penile implants.

‘Tragic Calculations!’

Yes. But only we know the true nature of the tragedy. The space (should be an en space, not a wordspace, but we’re still recovering from getting torpedoed by Stanley Morison here) before the bang is a nice antiquarian touch, or a source of annoyance, depending on one’s mood.

‘The World Is Dying’

Now it gets interesting again. Note the exaggerated disparity between cap and x-heights. And exaggerated cap heights, period. Overwrought, vaguely melodramatic, but I like it. i and l barely distinguishable. Thank heavens for that vestigial tail.

‘Warn the World’

Well, now we’re starting a new motif, I guess. One of many variants of this ancient Germanic face is Lo-Type (allegedly by L[o]uis Oppenheim, 1913 or 1930). From the correct era, though maybe it’s too much to expect provenance from the correct country (it would be Cyrillic in that case). We’ll come back to Lo-Type later.

Also: Blurry enough for you? It’s like white letters on a black wall on which too strong a spotlight shines. And what happened to the space before the bang?

‘One Day Left’

Superb quasi-operatic panorama, with ONE DAY LEFT as a kind of antagonist, like Nikolai’s and Anna’s name cards. Are the letters made of divinity fudge?

‘Osip or Nikolai?’

Anna’s dilemma: Her two suitors, Osip and Nikolai. Another case of dissimilarity here (it’s a new type motif with echoes of previous examples), save for the familiar big N. Don’t you love the imposed irregularities, like hand calligraphy? In fact, that’s probably what it is. Note the scrunched question mark, as though written with chalk on a blackboard, Bembo R-like tail on the K, which seems to be a miniature typographic playground here.

‘Akmatov the Industrialist’

With two consecutive examples of irregular, quasi-calligraphed type, I think a case could be made that previous titles with actual fonts should not have been used. That would seem to add verisimilitude – weren’t 19th-century Russian filmmakers more likely to hand-draw their intertitles rather than have them typeset? (Remember, metal or wood type was all they had back then.) And actually, Industrialist uses the same actual font as State Scientist before and should also probably have been drawn by hand.

The letter K continues to be a playground (bulb on the upper angled stroke this time). Serifs and stress in Akmatov remind me of Angie Black and Vendôme for some reason.

‘The New and Better Heart’

Ah, yes. Typography as protagonist now. The heart is so new and better it flashes back to the future (1957, actually) and morphs into Univers 67. But bathos rears its ugly head: The baseline shifts should not be used (if it’s new and better, it can at least typeset on a straight line), letters like E, D, and R wouldn’t be plumped up a bit, and we’d lose the space before the bang. Indeed, wouldn’t we rethink the whole intertitle and use upper- and lowercase, possibly even with Tschicholdian flush justification?


SPOILER ALERT: Anna gives the world a brand-new heart, a heart of... KINO, a word I always hear pronounced à la Cabaret Voltaire (“Kino”). Just as Heart of the World draws to a close, suddenly Lo-Type is ready for its closeup.

Posted 2002.03.09 ¶ Updated 2002.03.13, 2007.03.19