In 2015, I went to see Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland. If you haven’t seen it, I think it is a great film with beautiful production design, especially for the shots replicating the 1964 World’s Fair and within Tomorrowland itself.
A central element to both the plot and the marketing material was a circular orange and blue pin, with a bold serif T in exaggerated perspective, blasting off.
It’s a remarkable piece of graphic design for a prop that is so focal to the film. There are a few versions, varying in form, color, and composition.
I waited as the credits rolled. Clint Schultz.
I followed him on Twitter instantly. After looking at Clint’s IMDb page, I noticed he also worked on the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek. When I asked what he made for it, he said, “I did the redesign for the 2009 Trek badges and the fabric design.”
This surprised me, because at the Iconfactory, we made the official Star Trek icons for Paramount. The icons I drew were …the Starfleet badges. In addition, I made desktop wallpapers of …the fabric design. So as it turns out, I’ve been familiar with Clint’s work for quite a while.
I told him that while I make icons and tinker with fonts, I’d really like to work on films someday. Doing—well, anything.
Clint and I met in the summer of 2017, in Burbank. He showed me around the Disney studio lot and introduced me to Vanessa Hunt, who managed the archives for WDI. (She’s an author of the Disney Parks poster book that Greg had signed for me.) She was kind enough to show me around the archive’s vault, home to an incredible amount of artwork I love.
Clint and Vanessa would later rope me into making some graphics for an art show at the Imagineering Research Library. The deal I proposed was that I’ll do it in exchange for an invitation to come back for that art show, where I’d meet some more Imagineers (current and former).
Then, at the start of 2022, Clint tells me that he’s working on a new film where he’s making alien alphabets.
I replied, “God I would kill to do something like that.”
“I wanted to see if this might be something you were up for,” he sends back to me.
I think I lost my mind. I will never be able to express enough gratitude to Clint for recommending me for this job.
I got started on Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon by sitting in on some meetings with Clint, Adam Forman, and Dr. Christine Schreyer.
Christine was the language consultant; she advised on what the languages sounded like and how many characters the alphabet needed. Adam was working on the Imperium’s aesthetic, including their alphabet and calligraphy style.
I was here to turn that alphabet into some fonts for the designers to use when making graphics. After I looked it over, I provided some notes and sketches to show how I could make it more plausible for the denizens of this universe to handwrite (should they need to).
After my updated version of Adam’s alphabet was approved, I created several styles for New Imperium. I fired up RoboFont and got started spacing, kerning, and creating additional styles.
New Imperium is not a 26-letter alphabet that has a 1:1 relationship with the English alphabet (though it could be used that way as a backup). Instead, it’s a different writing system that needs English words transliterated for it. Christine would do that translation for the graphic designers on the film. For example, the name of this alphabet might be written as Nu Impiriyum.
Small stickers and stencils made with New Imperium were used for crates when the Imperium lands on Veldt.
As I was working on these fonts, there were more alphabets that needed my attention, so I enlisted the help of my friend Ender (also my collaborator on Womprat). After I finished drawing each New Imperium font, he’d kern and write the OpenType feature code to make them work. That way, I could always be working on the next one.
On Daggus, there are dozens of pieces containing New Imperium writing, including posters, digital displays, signs, and even graffiti.
Similar to fonts in the real world that emulate other scripts, Ender created a faux-old-style of New Imperium that mimics the writing system that Adam developed for old relics like Noble’s club and Jimmy’s head.
In total, we developed twelve fonts for New Imperium: Standard, Standard Stencil, Ultra, Ultra Marine, Alphabetti, Nightlife, Tasty, Tasty Bytes, Butter, Butter Knife, Pilot .5mm, and Pilot 1.0mm.
In addition to the final stage of development of this alphabet, I also created various punctuation, a currency symbol, and two sets of numerals. (You can think of them like Arabic and Roman.)
Adam had also done some concepts for a runic-style alphabet with Christine. There were fewer letters (12 in total), and most of them had diacritics above or below to change the sounds of those letters.
I loved the idea of a rune-based alphabet, but wanted each rune to be derived from an earlier version in Veldt’s history. For example, Cuneiform evolved from Sumerian pictographs. Egyptian hieratic script is simplified hieroglyphs. Modern Chinese originates from older pictorial scripts.
What if Veldt’s alphabet had that kind of history too?
With this in mind, I designed a runic alphabet similar to Adam’s, but now each character symbolized an important part of Veldt’s history in farming, giving both literal and figurative meanings to each character. Fun Fact™: the two diacritics are called Harvest (caron above) and Seed (dot below).
I turned my sketches of final forms into old chiseled carvings, then back into new simplified runes. Ender ran with Veldt even further, making a script style of it, which was extremely cool.
For numerals, I figured the entire universe may benefit from some standardization, similar to how Arabic numerals are used in our world, so I created the same figures as the New Imperium alphabet, with a local twist to their style, matching the alphabetic runes, but in half-width style.
Zack Snyder at CCXP in Saõ Paulo getting a “Kora” temporary tattoo in our Veldt script. (Video from FANLAB.)
The Port City of Providence is on Veldt, but has a different aesthetic from the farming village. The visuals of the city were described to me as “Wild West meets Japan.” On a tighter deadline than New Imperium or Veldt, I was asked to develop a writing system for Providence myself.
The request was half creative direction, half expediency: create a vaguely-Asian alphabet that’s 1:1 with the English alphabet. In other words, just A–Z.
While it certainly would have been simpler to do only A–Z, the way I saw it, I had an entire weekend to make something really fun on my own. And what’s more Louie Mantia™ than doing way more than necessary?
So I started by drawing 40 characters, not knowing how the alphabet would be structured. I was happy to draw more, but we needed a plan.
Ender and I discussed using the OpenType ligature feature to substitute two glyphs for one, which led to me working around the clock to create a writing system with every consonant-vowel combination in English, resulting in over 100 different characters. While not a true syllabic system like Hangul, it mimics one.
All the designers had to do was type any word in English, and—through the power of OpenType—the resulting Providence-language word would appear to have a different amount of characters as the English word.
In the Port City of Providence, there are several hand-painted signs like this one on the top-right, which reads “Bathing House.”
Ender needed to engineer a lot of ligatures in order to make this work, but it saved the designers time from translating words in the middle of their design process, while still having some perceived complexity to the visual language. We also saved time on kerning, as all the characters in this style were designed to be monospace.
Outside the bar in Providence where Kora first meets Kai, a blue noren across the street features three digits.
In addition to the consonant-vowel combos, there are also several common digraphs found in English.
Finally, the numerals once again follow the pattern of the previous two writing systems, adapting for the aesthetic of this alphabet. The zero, however, employs a fun (to me) solution. Instead of rendering the zero similar to the other two writing systems, this uses the “null” consonant and “null” vowel components in combination to create a character that represents “nothing.”
As the crew embarks from Providence to their first destination, the platform number is indicated with these illuminated signs.
There are 7 fonts total for this language, in four styles with different weights: Gothic S, Gothic M, Gothic X, Brush S, Brush X, Maru M (rounded), and Mincho M (serif).
With perhaps the most leeway given for this alphabet, I think we were able to make something really special in a very short amount of time, which helped keep the production on schedule.
My final contribution to Rebel Moon was for Kora’s homeworld. The town she resides in is lit ablaze by the Imperium. The direction given to me from Josh McKevitt (another graphic designer alongside Clint) was something Arabic-inspired. It was referred to only as the “burnt-out village.” With that, I set out to create something I called Ahriq, a romanization of the Arabic word for “burnt.”
Real Arabic script has some notable visual characteristics, like a cursive script appearance, dots and diacritic marks, and right-to-left writing direction.
The way right-to-left works inside a font is actually based on the characters’ encoding. Arabic and Hebrew characters are known to be right-to-left script so they work this way automatically. But there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to make a conlang (constructed language) use the right-to-left functionality without some cumbersome solutions. I wanted to do this, but if the font was intentionally backwards, we would have to be sure the designers would remember to horizontally flip the result before making any props. That didn’t sound bulletproof.
Ender and I brainstormed a few ideas about how to do diacritic marks in an automatic way, based on what we knew could be done with OpenType font features. That would allow the designers to type anything easily. The solution we arrived at was to eliminate vowel characters, representing them all identically as merely a dot above the preceding consonant character.
For example, “ciao” would be a C with three dots above. In addition, words that contain repeated consonants would be indicated by a “shoe” diacritic below the consonant. Those choices seriously condense the visual appearance of words written in English and the size of the character set a little bit, but it did take some engineering time for Ender.
As you guessed, numerals took the same approach as the other scripts above.
Inventing alien alphabets is about as cool as it gets for me.
This project was an absolute delight to work on, and I’m really proud of my work on this. I wish I could do this kind of thing all day, every day. I find it extremely fun.
And while I know the writing systems I developed here with Clint, Josh, Adam, Christine, and Ender are only a small part of the production, they serve to help the setting appear plausible and lived-in to the audience, and I hope people can enjoy them as individual components inside the film, too.
Creating alien typefaces for a movie was not a job I thought I’d ever have, but I can see how I ended up here. From icon designer, to theme park illustrator, and then novelty typeface designer? In that context, it doesn’t seem that unexpected after all.