Designing a Brand To Capture a City Alive With Film

Designing a brand identity system for Sydney Film Festival

I loved working on the Sydney Film Festival — an organisation which celebrates the communal experience of watching films together in the dark. In the last two years alone, Sydney Film Festival has introduced me to beautiful, moving, dramatic films like Mountain, Foxtrot, 1% — all films that challenged me in different ways. I think creative work is best when it comes from a place of belief, and what I believe about film is that it is something special that gives us the power to escape, ponder, walk in someone else’s shoes, laugh, cry, travel, and return home again — all from the comfort of an air-conditioned theatre. I’m really proud of the work the team did on this project. I hope you enjoy it — and the festival — too.

What is the Sydney Film Festival?

The Sydney Film Festival began as a humble affair in 1954 over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in 1954. Today, festival attendees have access to an incredible plethora of media — publicly funded programming, Netflix, DVDs, Stan, Amazon Prime. Sydney Film Festival — like film festivals globally — is not only surviving but growing, becoming more diverse, representative of the breadth of its audience.

So what is SFF’s agenda? Film festivals have different agendas. Breaking out at Sundance can launch an a low budget independent film into the international spotlight, while snagging the Palme d’Or at Cannes pretty much guarantees global distribution. Sydney Film Festival is a festival founded and driven by the community — which was also its challenge. The role for the brand needed to speak to die-hard festival goers who book 10 passes and chuck sickies to catch matinees but also to the first-time festival goer.

The Brief

Our challenge was: How do we communicate what the Sydney Film Festival stands for — the shared experience of film — to a wide and varied audiences it serves, without relying on simply marketing the film titles that come and go each year? We needed an identity that could stand on its own, capture ‘festival fever’ from the enthusiasm of it’s biggest fans, address the decreasing release window for films (which means films are often not finalised / trailers available until 6 weeks out from the festival), and communicate the unique offering of the festival when people can just as easily stay home and — well, Netflix and chill instead.

What is the Sydney Film Festival experience?

We started by asking: what makes the Sydney Film Festival experience? The Sydney Film Festival audience is hectically broad: it’s kids and indie-film fanatics, aspiring filmmakers, and blockbuster lovers. And that’s kinda what makes it great.

One interviewee described ‘the audience effect’ — the physiological and psychological effect on people watching things together — it’s a weird kind of group mind phenomenon. We laugh more when other people are laughing. The festival is like a flavour enhancer. It’s the MSG of films.

The strategy: flipping the perspective from audience to silver screen

Past iterations of Sydney Film festival have shown the audience themselves, but we felt strongly that we needed to capture the energy that the film festival generates! Sitting and looking at the screen together is a core part of the experience, so we wanted to flip the perspective from looking at the audience to looking at the screen, together. Over the years, the program has changed, the venues have changed, the audience has shifted — but the thing that hasn’t changed is that Sydney Film Festival at its heart is a gathering of humans in front of a screen. Simple, beautiful, magic.

Previous years of the festival program.

So, we focused on the screen. And we found GOLD. Or, more specifically, we found the golden age of the silver screen. We loved the quirks of old movie houses advertising, of opening credits, and intermission directives. The logos of production studios. We wanted to give people that dark cinema, titles rolling, popcorn-smell anticipation feel!

Our reference was old-school — starting from the Golden Age of film.

Expression: A City Alive with Film

Our creative idea was a city alive with film — where we celebrated the fanaticism of Sydney Film Festival’s biggest fans, gave Sydney the cinematic treatment, and invites the whole city to be a part of and embrace the film festival experience.

Once we had established the role for the brand — to give Sydney the cinematic treatment — everything else fell into place easily. Sydney Film Festival’s communications became the opening titles for the festival itself. We treated the city as the backdrop for the latest, greatest show around — the Sydney Film Festival. Where ‘Coming soon’ posters transformed bus shelters into mini screening rooms, ‘intermission’ ads turned a moment in the toilets into a moment of anticipating the Sydney Film Festival, and clever placements helped a viewer imagine a train station adverts as a preview to a feature…or a double feature.

Our language and tone became the voice of a movie trailer narrator: pithy, descriptive, guiding viewers towards the things they’ll find interesting at the festivals. Our colour palette reflected film teasers and credits — colour on a dark backdrop.

There are universal film cues that we all know — that take us back to cool, air-conditioned theatres on hot summer days, or matinees shared with mates on drizzly winter afternoons. We referenced things that you’d see right before a film — the opening titles — which gave our comms the feeling of anticipation — what you see on screen, the sounds, and colours that signal: film is coming.

Referencing that just-before-the-movies magic with a set of made up Sydney Film Festival production companies.

An essay by Durga Chew-Bose articulates this better than I can.

“The moment the lights dim and the studio logos run, I encounter a mix of my past swimming up inside of me as well as the true pleasure I derive from anticipation. Disney’s “Wish Upon a Star”; MGM’s roar; Universal’s un-apology, it’s trumpet and sun-eclipsing planet Earth; Warner Bros’ nostalgic piano and it’s gilded back lot and superhero lettering; Paramount’s snow-peaked mountain; Columbia’s Torch Lady, and so on and so on. These logos move me.”

With bringing the city alive with film as our north star, we knew this identity couldn’t be static: it had to live in motion. Working with our friends at Never Sit Still was SUPER fun on this — we wanted to reference that feeling you get when the lights are low, the film’s about to start, and you’re watching the opening titles, and we leaned heavily on the animation and sounds of yesteryear to re-imagine this effect for Sydney Film Festival.

The motion element of this brand was one of my favourite executions. How fun!

Creating a feeling

Overall — we’re really pleased with the outcome of this project because it captures the feeling we talked about in one of our early brainstorms — the universal feeling before the lights go down and as the titles come on — and the feeling that lingers with you following a film.

What’s next?

Our work here is done — and now it’s over to the crew over at Sydney Film Festival to do what they do best! Tickets are on sale now — get amongst it. Regardless of whether you’re into indie flicks, Bollywood epics or niche documentaries — I hope you enjoy the Sydney Film Festival.

sydney via seattle. believer. growth @futuresuper. ex strategy @forthepeopleau. experimenting with writing.