‘The Font Men’ dir. Andre Andreev & Dan Covert

You may not have heard of Jonathan Hoefler or Tobias Frere-Jones but you’ve seen their work. Before their recent split, they collectively ran the most successful and well respected type design studio in the world, creating fonts used by everyone from the Wall Street Journal to the President of the United States.

Directors: Andre Andreev & Dan Covert
Producer: Tara Stromberg
Music & Sound: YouTooCanWoo

C8: How did you come across Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones? What made you want to tell their story?

DC: Every year we create documentary portraits about recipients of the AIGA medal, one of the top honors in the field of design. A few years back, Jonathan and Tobias won the medal, so we made a profile about them. People at the awards gala were stoked about a section of the video where we used animation to explain Hoefler and Frere-Jones’ process of creating typefaces. Based on this response we thought a longer cut of the video with more animation would do well on the web and in festivals.

C8: How did you go about conducting the interviews? Did you carefully set the mood or grab time whenever their schedules allowed?

DC: Over the years we’ve done about 50 of these profiles on designers for AIGA, so we’ve got a pretty solid process in place. It all starts with the research—we read, watch and listen to everything out in the world related to our subject. We get a sense of their background, their career trajectory, their philosophies. We try and figure out what inherently it is about their work, personality, or approach that separates people from the pack and makes them special. Then we craft a list of questions based on all this research.

We start thinking about things we’d want to ask the subject if we were having a beer, then try to pepper in questions that we already know the answers to or sound bites we know we’ll need to tell the story or track each subjects path. It’s key to ask the right questions, but just as important is to order the questions so the overall interview has an arch to it. When we are interviewing our subjects we loosely stick to the questions we’ve prepared but are also totally happy throwing them out the door to follow the trajectory of the conversation. As long as we for sure have hit on the key points we laid out ahead of time, we feel confident that we’ve got it.

Our producer Tara tightly schedules our shoot days ahead of time so that our subjects know when we’ll be talking and how long we’ll need them. But we are more than happy to rearrange things on the fly as the day unfolds, or roll with the moment if something spontaneous happens.

C8: What was the biggest obstacle you faced during the shoot and how did you overcome it?

DC: These AIGA design films are a labor of love for us and sometimes we can’t focus as much attention on them as we’d like because larger commercial jobs come along that pull us away. For this shoot in particular we were super busy the week prior and didn’t get to take the time we’d normally need to prep. Dan had to stay up the entire night before we shot doing research and crafting questions. He was even writing them in the cab on the way over to H+FJ and on his laptop prior to the interview while Andre was building out the camera. Needless to say, we were a little worried how the interviews would go, since what they do is so technical, but Jonathan and Tobias were very easy going and things flowed well.

The other challenge we ran into was their office is on Houston street, the most major east/west street in New York City, so the traffic noise was pretty prevalent no matter where we were in H+FJ’s office. Luckily we work with the audio wizards at You Too Can Woo who were able to extract most of the traffic noise in post.

C8: At what point in the process did you decide to incorporate animation into the documentary?

DC: Right before we were going to deliver the film to AIGA for their awards show, one of our team members, Emil Bang Lyngbo, pitched an idea. He had extra time in the day and wanted to animate the sequence that I mentioned above to explain Hoefler Frere-Jones’ process. Then later we developed the rest of the animated type sequences to flush out the story with more animation.

The idea for the parrallaxed images of H+FJ’s work came about through a conversation with SXSW’s shorts programmer Claudette Godfrey. When she let us know the rough cut of the film was accepted into SXSW, she mentioned that she’d love to see more of the duo’s work in the final cut. The design community is very familiar with H+FJ’s typefaces, but Claudette pointed out that not a lot of people would understand their reach unless we showcased some high profile examples.

C8: If you could go back and change anything what would you do differently?

DC: Shortly after we shot the film, we bought a Red Scarlet. In hindsight we would have loved to shoot on the Scarlet rather than 7D’s. We also would have brought our go to on-set sound recordist, but there wasn’t the budget for it since sadly, this shoot was so run and gun.

C8: Your production company, Dress Code, shot the film. What had the company done up to this point and what has it done since?

DC: We learn, grow and keep the lights on from doing commercial work for ad agencies and brands—short animations, highly art directed studio shoots and documentaries. We always have five to ten commercial projects we’re working on in different phases of production. On the film front we fund and develop a few documentary shorts per year. Prior to ‘Font Men’ we did one on Ohio State University Football Fanatics. Then later on, we did shorts on a number of different subjects: an escort named Farrah; Ethan King, a kid who gives soccer balls to children in the third world; a Bulgarian man Plamen who set himself on fire in protest of their government; and Emory Douglas, the man who created most of the art for The Black Panther Party.

C8: Do you feel that it is easier to develop a brand for a company name rather than as individual directors?

DC: This has been one of our biggest dilemmas as a company. We started Dress Code eight years ago as a full service design company and slowly evolved into a production company as the animation, studio shoots and documentaries we were creating became more exciting and lucrative than the design, identity and website work.

When we made the clear decision to rebrand/position ourselves as a production company we weren’t sure if it was better to call out Dan and Andre as a directing duo or to put Dress Code in the forefront. Saying that everything we do is directed by Dress Code seemed like the most natural thing to do, because no matter if Dan or Andre are co-directing or handling a job on their own they’ll ask the other for advice or to lend an eye somewhere along the process. On set, Dan typically deals with the research and directing the talent/actors and Andre works with the DP and his crew or shoots himself.

C8: What do you think makes for a good collaboration?

DC: Two scenarios work great for collaboration in our experience. One is if everyone comes to the table super open, with no ego, and there’s no sense of hierarchy or cynicism against bad ideas. Then everyone is contributing freely without an agenda and usually good things come about—this tends to work for brainstorms or pitches. The second is when everyone is a operating at a pretty high level within their specific discipline or craft and we’ve all worked together before, so we have a shorthand. This is how our film sets usually operate and its pretty fun because everyone knows their specific role and what they need to accomplish, yet is free to offer up suggestions or speak up if something isn’t working. There’s a mastery and a trust of each other and our work flow that yields great results.