Inside ‘Avatar 2’ and the weird world of film font geekery

Inside ‘Avatar 2’ and the weird world of film font geekery | Soho House

The sequel hits screens this Christmas, but it’s less Cameron’s directorial style that Hanna Flint is interested in, and more the font he’s used for the poster

Saturday 27 August 2022    By Hanna Flint

It’s been 84 years since the release of Avatar… OK, maybe it’s only been 13, but director James Cameron has decided to give the original film a touch-up ahead of the sequel, Avatar: The Way Of Water, which hits screens this Christmas. The 2009 film has now been remastered in ‘4K High Dynamic Range’ to coincide with a re-release in theatres on 23 September, and with that a new poster has been designed. A design that has dispensed with the so-called Papyrus title font – a logo that has earnt cult appreciation over the years thanks to the hilarity of a Ryan Gosling sketch.

While hosting Saturday Night Live in 2017, Gosling played a guy obsessed with the belief that the professional graphic designer behind the film font had lazily used the typeface created by Chris Costello in 1982. ‘I forgot about it for years, but then I remembered that Avatar, the giant international blockbuster, used the Papyrus font as its logo,’ Gosling’s Stephen laments. ‘He just highlighted ‘AVATAR’, clicked the drop-down menu and randomly selected Papyrus like a thoughtless child wandering by a garden, just yanking leaves along the way.’

Later in the digital short, he speaks to Chris Reid’s graphic designer who argues that Papyrus could have been ‘the starting point, but they clearly modified this’. Not enough for Stephen who cannot get over the graphic designer’s Machiavellian use of the font, which one bystander describes as ‘tribal yet futuristic’. It sends Stephen spiraling out of control and the performance has cemented Gosling, and the sketch, as one of the most stupidly specific and iconic in SNL’s history. 

Like Comic Sans, there is significant derision reserved for the font because of just how often it has been used over the years. A running list of its frequent application was recorded on the website, Papyrus Watch, set up a year before the SNL sketch. It’s also been used for the opening credits of TV series such as Medium and Eureka. But the idea that this major studio film, which has been credited for pushing the boundaries of visual technology, from performance capture and simul-cam to digital animation, used an off-brand version for its own logo is just bizarre. 

And yet, the juxtaposition of this off-the-rack typeface with Cameron’s couture cinematic spectacle is somewhat endearing. I certainly have an affection for the original logo; it represents an off-kilter moment in pop culture history that shouldn’t be erased just because of some gentle online ribbing. Cameron’s decision to retroactively replace it with the font of the upcoming sequels reminds me of when George Lucas inserted Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker into Return Of The Jedi. The 1983 film originally saw actor Sebastian Shaw’s iteration appear as a Force Ghost alongside Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi at the end but, while making the prequels, the Star Wars creator subbed in Christensen for the film’s 2004 DVD re-release. It earnt the ire of many fans, despite Lucas giving his narrative reasons for the change. Reasons that seem pretty thin to just delete an actor’s performance and the vintage integrity of the film.

I wish Cameron had just owned the Papyrus font and told the haters to ‘go f**k’. What a baller move it would have been if he had stood by the original logo, said ‘AVATAR’ with its faux historic text, and ensured every subsequent film would recreate its rough edges and irregular curves. Alas, he caved to the criticism and now the OG logo has been restricted to the annals of cinematic history. 

Pour one out for Papyrus, y’all.

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Should people in film contact critics about their negative reviews? That’s been the question on critics’ minds this week because of a silly public conflict between Amandla Stenberg and a New York Times critic. Said person posted a private DM from the actor a week after she had reached out over her negative Bodies Bodies Bodies review. Cue Film Twitter getting involved and it devolving into a toxic waste pile of hot takes and bad faith.

I can’t be bothered to get into the minutiae of intention and impact over the original message and the public calling out, but I know it’s not unusual for critics to receive correspondence from filmmakers or actors over their reviews.

I had an actor contact me about my review of Dream Horse, because I bristled at the mawkish Welsh stereotyping. I said what I said, lad. My film criticism is certainly not written for the artists, but for audiences who might value my opinion on what films to spend their time watching. Or not. 

But if someone was to contact me privately, I wouldn’t post about it online unless transparency was necessary. Not every private grievance requires the court of public opinion – save it for your WhatsApp group chat.
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