Movie lovers seem to take peculiar pleasure in finding mistakes in their favorite films. Which is why the blogosphere is buzzing about a scene at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises in which a headline in the Gotham Times newspaper announces that a ‘cat’ burglar is a suspect in a jewel “hiest.”
Oops. Of course, it should have been “heist.”
Yes, misspellings happen in movies. And cinephiles are quite adept at finding them. They were atwitter over a glaring blooper in a trailer for the upcoming film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, in which a 1920s-era Times Square billboard reads “Zeigfeld Follies” (the famed Broadway production was actually spelled “Ziegfeld Follies”).
But there’s a far more common word blooper in films that even the most ardent movie fans rarely detect. It seems the most prevalent—but least-discussed—error made by filmmakers is the misuse of typefaces, also known as fonts, says Mark Simonson, a typeface designer and expert on the craft who watches movies closely to see if directors get it right.
They often don’t.
“It’s especially common to see this in period pieces,” says Simonson, who explains that these gaffes, or as he likes to call them, “typographical anachronisms,” can be found most commonly on signs and flyers and in newspapers and magazines shown in films set in the past.
A surprising number of high-profile movies over the past decade or so, including numerous Academy Award–winners, have used fonts onscreen that didn’t even exist in the year in which the movies were set, he says. These include The Artist, Titanic, The King’s Speech, L.A. Confidential, Chocolat, Ed Wood, The Hudsucker Proxy, Almost Famous and True Grit (the recent remake), among many others.
Simonson, who lives in Minnesota, says he was partly inspired to start searching for movie mistakes after reading Roman Soldiers Don’t Wear Watches: 333 Film Flubs: Memorable Movie Mistakes. The self-explanatory book, which points out bloopers in such classics as Casablanca, Star Wars, and Dances With Wolves, got him thinking about the absurdity of movie characters wearing glasses in scenes set in the middle ages, and, more specifically, about typographical anachronisms in these movies.
Simonson subsequently started a blog on the subject. He was even hired as an adviser for the forthcoming film A Lonely Place for Dying, set in 1972, to make sure the filmmakers got the typographic details correct.
Too often, Simonson says, directors—including many on Hollywood’s A-list—just don’t pay much attention to this detail. For example, in Gangs of New York, set in the 19th century, Simonson says director Martin Scorsese “used all kinds of modern fonts that were obviously not around in the 1800’s. It surprised me. It wasn’t just one typo, they are all over the movie.”
In The Artist, last year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, Simonson says filmmakers used type for signs, posters, and magazine covers that wouldn’t have been used in the 1920s, when the movie was set.
“These things were all drawn by hand back then,” he says. “Metal type was not versatile or flexible. But most people who see the movie think they look fine; most people don’t notice, just typographical geeks like me.”
Simonson, a passionate movie fan who admits he sometimes hesitates to be too critical of filmmakers for making these errors, understands that it would have cost the makers of The Artist a ton of money to do everything by hand.
“It’s a judgment call, and they did spend a lot of time to make other things look correct, from the clothing to the way they did their hair and makeup,” he says. “They could have had everything hand-drawn and lettered, but do you spend money and time to do it by hand, to be authentic, or just use fonts that look like hand lettering, which there are a lot of nowadays?”
In The King’s Speech, which was set just before World War II and starred Colin Firth in his Oscar-winning role, Simonson says the signs in the BBC control room shots that showed the names of broadcast stations across the globe were all written in Helvetica, a font that wasn’t created until 1957. Helvetica was also mistakenly used in Titanic, where the numbers on the dials of the ship’s pressure gauges are in that type.
“It was very hard to find any mistakes in Titanic, [writer-director] James Cameron got all the other details right,” says Simonson. “That was the only one I could find.”
Simonson says he sometimes doesn’t notice these mistakes until the second or third viewing of a film. In the three-part Back to the Future series, for example, he says the filmmakers did a “great job overall. I didn’t initially notice that they used a font on the character Doc Brown’s tombstone called Eurostile that is from 1960. In the scene, Doc was supposed to have been buried in the 1880s.”
The oldest example of a font gaffe that Simonson has been able to detect is in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the 1962 John Ford Western starring Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne. Simonson says that while the film is presumably set in the 1880s, the nameplate of the town’s newspaper, The Shinbone Star, is set in Cooper Oldstyle, a typeface that Simonson says wasn’t introduced until 1918.
It’s much easier to find mistakes in newer movies than old ones, Simonson says, because of the advent of the personal computer. Now everyone has access to all these fonts: “It’s so easy now, and of course it’s much cheaper, to just pick one of these fonts rather than to hand-draw something.”
Simonson says he’s even found typographical anachronisms in AMC’s Mad Men, which has been widely praised for its meticulously accurate portrayal of 1960’s life. Simonson blogged in 2008 that the show used fonts that didn’t exist in the ‘60s, including Lucida Handwriting, created in 1992, and Gill Sans, which though it had been around since 1930 was not available or popular in America until the 1970s. Also, Simonson wrote, the print advertisements created by the ad agency in Mad Men employed fonts like ITC Kabel, which wasn’t created until 1975, as well as such relatively new fonts as Fenice (1980), Bookman Old Style (1989), Zapfino (1998), and Gotham (2002).
Simonson acknowledges that it isn’t easy getting every detail right in a film or TV show, and says that discovering these blunders doesn’t keep him from enjoying what he’s watching. But he says that while the typical fan rarely notices typeface errors, they still matter, because they tarnish the film’s authenticity and subtly suggest careless production values—even when everything else in the movie is well crafted.
But he also understands that his hobby is a bit on the nerdy side. Simonson says it’s just a case of “different strokes,” and suggests that people with different interests notice different things in movies.
“I have a good friend who’s really into telephones, and he noticed that someone in the film American Graffiti used a phone booth that was too new,” he says. “He told me that this particular phone booth wouldn’t have existed when the film was set, in 1962. I never would have noticed that. Everybody has their own thing.”