06/10/2014 06:07 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2014

All the Doors to Hollywood and How to Open Them -- Graphic Design

What is the Graphic Designer's job?

"We do all the signs and graphics on a movie," says Lillian Heyward. "We paint, we draw, we design. On Force of Nature, for instance, with Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock, we did the airplane logo, the plane's seat numbers, the signs on the bus, on the taxis and trains and the bagel shop."

Graphic Designers are responsible for any print or facsimile of print that is needed. And often, as in the Civil War period film The Conspirator, research is necessary to determine and accurately reproduce the era's print and cursive styles. "A sign can help set the mood of the scene -- is it slightly crooked and weather beaten, with clearly hand-done fonts, for a run-down junkyard? Is it slick and ultra-modern for corporate headquarters? Is it slightly bent and ominous with outdated fonts for a deserted shipyard where a murder will take place?"

What background prepared you for this work?

Lillian began studying illustration, and then switched to graphic design, first at Maine College of Art in Portland, and then at the Philadelphia College of Art. "Then I had a patchwork of jobs. I fell in love with a Swede and spent some time in Sweden as an assistant art teacher in a middle school and after that working for a sign company. Next came Gibraltar and a sign company again, this time designing fonts, and after that back to the States and a sign company in Hilton Head, South Carolina."

For a time Lillian worked as a shrimper on a shrimp boat - and with the money saved from that, she opened her own sign and graphic design shop in Beaufort, South Carolina. "We did signage and brochures for a real estate company development, 'way-finding' signs for a hospital - you know, directional help. And we even did signs for the county jail - so help me, it was actually a color coordinated jail! My first experience with film was subcontracting for Prince of Tides, with Barbara Streisand. Then in 1991 my sign shop burned and I was devastated, but then I realized I had a skill I could use on movies."

Heyward's first full film job was the Coen Brothers' Hudsucker Proxy with Paul Newman and Tim Robbins. "A friend on the film, Sandy Dawes, got me an interview in Wilmington North Carolina. That's the one", she says, "where I had to build the Brooklyn Bridge -- a model, anyway. It was a strange request. With the Art Director and lead painter, we created the bridge, which appears in the opening scene. We made it in 10 minutes, literally -- it was only a model. But I had stars in my eyes! I loved the challenge, the creativity, and the pressure to solve problems -- quickly! I fell in love with movies.

After I returned home to Beaufort, I got a call from the art director. The people I'd worked with on Hudsucker were coming to Beaufort. So my second movie as sign writer was Forrest Gump."

What movies have been among your favorites to have worked on?

"Lasse Hallstrom's Dear John and Robert Redford's The Conspirator, of course. And Big Mama Like Father Like Son. The movies you love are always about the people you work with and not necessarily how big the box office will be. It's like any job in life, when you get to work with the people you like and respect, nothing is better."

What have been some memorable moments?

"On Dear John, I was told 'You've twenty minutes to find the logo of the Romanian TV station that broadcast the attack on the World Trade Center!' I got lucky. I not only found it, but the footage of the attack as well -- with about two seconds to go! Although being faced with seeing that scene again was chilling."

And then, Lillian says, research for The Conspirator was fascinating. The movie covers the treason trial of Mary Surrat, who owned the boarding house where Abraham Lincoln's killer, John Wilkes Booth, stayed. "I had to comb the Library of Congress to find written material of the period, carte de visites and specific documents -- the trial transcript, the writ of habeas corpus -- the plea for clemency for Surrat. The plea, written in the florid cursive of the period, was practically indecipherable. If the judges at the time had as much trouble reading it as I did -- no wonder Mary Surrat was the first woman to be hanged in this country!"

What do you enjoy about your work?

"It's never monotonous! You design, you paint, you get to use all your skills, and think on your feet -- sometimes I use my own paintings -- you draw and you research. You learn stuff. When you contract to a job, you never really know what you're going to get. I love what I do!"

Purchase All the Doors to Hollywood and How to Open Them on Amazon.

Learn more about Anne M. Strick