Ten Typographically Alluring Films

I hesitated on how to title this list. As I thought about films I liked and that inspired me, I realised that I didn’t want to title this ‘typographic films’ because it suggests that the emphasis in all my choices is all about the typography. Sometimes in poetry film it is. The lettering, whether fonts, or by hand, can take centre stage for an entire piece. Or it can take centre stage for significant parts of a film, whether that is significant in total time or significant in moment. But for me, I am excited by the use of typography not the dominance of typography in a genre which is diverse and engaging through the variations of all the elements at a filmmaker’s disposal: sound, image, lettering, music, etc.

Screenshot New Arctic by Allain Daigle
Screenshot – New Arctic by Allain Daigle

I was originally trained as a typographic designer, predominantly for print and books. A classic essay by Beatrice Warde (The Crystal Goblet, or printing should be invisible, 1932) describes the role of typography as a crystal-clear transparent goblet — a means to let the content (the red wine) shine through. A useful thought for the design of many books. Warde is arguing for a typography that supports and facilitates the text in a beautiful way. Though of course typography isn’t invisible and the visual choices are there on the page. Matthew Butterick has debunked the crystal goblet as a metaphor.

Butterick argues that the goblet is:

An appealing metaphor, but totally inapt. … [T]ypography is the visual component of the written word. But the converse is also true: without typography, a text has no visual characteristics. A goblet can be invisible because the wine is not. But text is already invisible, so typography cannot be. Rather than wine in a goblet, a more apt parallel might be helium in a balloon: the balloon gives shape and visibility to something that otherwise cannot be seen.

Typography can be the visual component of the written word in poetry film, but in a time-based media, the word can be manifest in many more ways, alongside, blended with, or instead of visually. The poetry can have many characteristics that are ‘visual’ because they are part of a film, though they may not be typographic. Poetry can be represented through image alone, moving footage, through audible language, sound effects, music and so on. Come back to typography and the lettering itself is affected by the timing and/or animation of text in addition to the 2-d factors such as layout, size, colour and font selection.

The typographic ‘balloon’ can be functional and practical — adding subtitles in the same or another language, and somewhat separate or external to the film. Or the ‘balloon’ can be part of the aesthetic choices and integral to the whole impact of the film. In this selection of ten films, my choices have come out of thinking about the aesthetic impact of the typography and the allure that it adds to the film as a whole.

In no particular order … ten typographically alluring films.


I could have picked any one of a number of Janet Lees’ films. Her photography is very strong, and her typography is chosen with finesse to go with her images. Quiet, fine-weight fonts give quiet impact without being problematic with legibility, while the positioning and animation is beautifully done. Classic and understated.


Typewriter fonts can be horribly overused in unhelpful ways. Typewriter has an obvious aesthetic appeal, a bit grungy, and with lots of retro-vibes. Like the beleaguered Comic Sans, their use can leave you thinking: ‘Yes, but why?’ or worse: ‘Oh no! Really? Out of everything you chose this?’ However, in this film by Kristy Bowen I think it is a great choice. Simple, great layout and timing, and as Dave Bonta said in his review: creepy.

Film-maker: Susan McCann
Poet: Emily Dickinson

I watched this at Ó Bhéal’s Winter Warmer event (November 2022). This is a virtuoso play with cut-out lettering. I think the craft of making this lettering, and the skill in filming it, is just gorgeous. I’ll leave you to discover what it looks like…


A complete change of pace and style for this ‘oldie but a goodie’ (as Joe Wicks has said about a classic workout exercise). And like a high energy Joe Wicks starting some squats, I am still as excited and delighted by the energy of this film as when I first watched it some years ago.

I just love the interplay between the voice and the text on screen, and the text on screen that is not part of the voiced poem.

Screenshot from Profile by R.W. Perkins
Screenshot from Profile by R.W. Perkins

It is so good that I want to be very picky about the typographic detail. For example, the ‘rivers of white’ (or in this case black) that are left in the setting of the Jack Kerouac quote. Going back to the crystal goblet metaphor – this is very much a clunky and chipped cheap tumbler here. It is not wrong as such, more than likely it is just what came out when the setting is clicked on ‘justify’. But it highlights the pitfalls of using that particular feature of computer text-setting all too clearly. Fine-tuning the typography with subtle and ‘invisible’ tweaks to this would make me even more happy to watch it.

Film-maker: Anja Hiddinga

In Imaginings six young, deaf signed-word artists present raps in sign language. At first glance the type in this film is functional – it is subtitling for those who don’t know sign language to enjoy the film and understand what the people are saying. But I include this film here because the functional has been done so well that it becomes part of the aesthetic energy and appeal of the film. The film was screened at Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin in 2022 where I was very happy to have the opportunity to watch it twice. I wanted to talk about it here because the subtitling is so brilliantly done. The positioning of the subtitles mean that you can focus on the hands and expression of the sign language. It would have been so easy to leave the subtitles down at the bottom of the page and the face and hands of the performers would have become secondary. But it is the subtlety of movement of the type that is genius. It makes me wonder if the movement was hard to animate, and it certainly makes the text slightly less legible at times, but it keeps the text so tightly tied to the energy and passion of the performers that, without a doubt, it adds to the allure of this film.

Imaginings trailer screenshot – Anja Hiddinga

I can only find the trailer viewable online, but I think there is enough to see what I’m trying to describe.

The effort and style with which the subtitles have been provided for me (as a non-signer) makes me more determined that we should be making more effort with subtitles in return for the deaf community. And that is the very least that the performers are hoping for in their imaginings for the future.


I’m generally not a fan of landscape footage in which there is blowing wind, the waving of a blade of grass, the tremble of a spider’s web, or a shaft of light. It is an almost immediate turn-off because it is often the bearer of a slow, ponderous film that just isn’t my cup of tea. But in this film by Ian Gibbins, the treatment of the typography turns this around for me. It has some pace and doom about the lettering that is compelling, and juxtaposes well with the footage. The coding text and the text of the poem work well together and add to the interest and feel of the film. More about the subject of the film in Dave Bonta’s review.


This animation has a great handling of modernist typography, very much in the mode of Jan Tschichold and his manifesto Die Neue Typografie (The New Typography), first published in 1928. A fantastic example of how inspiration can be taken from printed graphic design and manipulated in a film. It is tricky to read in English because one wants to follow the delicious animation and design of the primary Italian text, but not a bad typographic solution to a duo-lingual film.

Poem: Fiona Tinwei Lam

Spirals always have allure for me in whatever medium … ancient stone carving, graphic design, clothes or furniture. So I was always going to be drawn to this film. The spiral animation of swirling plastic makes a very effective concrete poem. The film is described as two concrete poems, and there is a distinct shift from the spiral to a floating sea of broken apart plastic. The typography of the spiral is great. The font choice feels like a ubiquitous, dull text font – as such, it is perfect to depict the plastic problem. But it also feels just a bit different to a default, so perhaps it is very carefully chosen. What makes the typography great is the tacky choice of colours and font outlining. It feels like horrible plastic that is swirling in water. And those fine serifs? … They are going to break off and be micro-plastics all too soon.

However, I wanted the second poem to be the breaking apart of the first one and follow on the story. It is that conceptually. But typographically I’m confused and disappointed. The colour is lost but maybe that is fading and degradation over the inordinate time it takes the plastic to break-up? Perhaps the colour should have been tints? The main problem for me though, is that the case changes. What was all capitals has become lower case. The one thing hard plastic isn’t likely to do is to morph into a whole other shape. If the second poem is a whole other thing, then why put them as a pair?


This is a very powerful film, in the strength of the film footage and in the subject matter. But the typography supports it all the way. I think the font choice is excellent, and the positioning of the text relates to the images is superb. The poem is in the text only, not the audio, and this film is exemplary for this approach.

Poet: Asim Khan

This film is extremely simple typographically – four letters in the four corners of the screen. But the simplicity has been beautifully done and as the letters change and the words they spell change, the film becomes a frenetic but alluring race for the brain to keep up. I’m not sure what the message of this film might be but I’m compelled to keep watching to try to decide.

One Comment

  1. Reply
    Janet Lees 12 February, 2023

    Great to see a piece on typography in poetry film. I’m passionate about typography too, and delighted to be included – thanks Jane!

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