Creative Lives — Creating movie magic with MinaLima graphic designer, Propella Woodward Gentle

Posted 28 June 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Working from a studio in central London, designer Propella Woodward Gentle uses a tablet, bookbinding materials and her grandmother’s leather-working tools to recreate objects from the past. As part of the team at MinaLima – the studio behind the graphics for the Harry Potter franchise – Propella works on everything from books and print materials to products for the studio’s gallery and shop, House of MinaLima in Soho. Before joining the studio earlier this year, she created graphics and props for a fascinating list of projects, including a Nazi version of the tube map for a BBC One drama and a Sherlock Holmes-themed murder mystery at Madame Tussauds. She describes her journey to working for the Wizarding World franchise, recounts some early industry experiences and tells us why it’s good to be “a little bit scared of the work you are doing”.

Propella Woodward Gentle


Job Title

Senior Graphic Designer, MinaLima (2017–present) 

Based

London 

Previous Employment

Freelance Graphic Designer (including commissions for television dramas The Durrells and SS-GB)

Education

BA Graphic Design, Kingston University (2011–2014)

Website
Social Media

Propella, working in the art department of The Durrells

Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job? 
I work as a senior graphic designer for MinaLima. The company directors Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima created all of the graphic props for the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films. After finishing their work on the Harry Potter films, Mira and Eduardo opened up a design studio in Fitzrovia, and a very popular gallery and shop in Soho (House of MinaLima). 

As a designer in the studio, I work mainly on print and editorial projects. We work widely within the Wizarding World franchise. We are also currently designing books for Harper Collins and we create all the prints and products that we sell at House of Minalima. There are a few more big projects in the pipeline, but I am sworn to secrecy!

What does a typical working day look like? 
The MinaLima studio is just off Goodge Street. I try to walk to work from Leicester Square tube if the weather is nice. Walking through Soho in the morning when it is so quiet is a lovely way to start the day. In the studio we start work at 9am and finish at 6pm. I start my mornings with coffee and answering emails, before getting on with any projects. Depending on how busy the work load is, I could be splitting my time between up to three projects in one day. 

“Mira and Eduardo are the best of the best when it comes to graphic design for film.”

What do you like about working in London?
Working in central London, I am constantly inspired by what people are wearing and what shops have popped up over night. The only drawback for me is how highly strung we are as the London population. I have noticed this a lot more since working in Fitzrovia over the past nine months. 

How did you land your current job?
Mira and Eduardo are the best of the best when it comes to graphic design for film. I knew of their work for years, and when I started making graphic props, working at MinaLima was the place to aim for. After working on SS-GB [British drama series produced by Sid Gentle Films] in 2016, I got in touch with Mira just for some advice. She called me one night whilst driving home from Leavesdon Studios and offered some much needed insight into the industry.

We stayed in touch, and a while later I went to their studio to show them my portfolio. Again, I was just there for some advice, but afterwards Mira offered me some freelance work for when I was next available. Six months later, I got back in touch and they offered me a full-time position. I think what landed me the job was a combination of staying in their peripheral vision as a potential employee, and good timing (their longest-standing designer was about to go off and work on her own projects). 

The studio's popular gallery and shop in Soho, House of MinaLima. Image credit: https://store.minalima.com/

Where does the majority of your work take place?
All of my work currently takes place in the studio (we are split over two floors with the design team on the ground floor), and as a studio we are in front of the computer 99% of the time, which isn’t ideal, as I like to make physical things. But for the projects we are working on at the moment, being in front of the computer is essential. We have a very fun and open studio atmosphere and my colleague makes excellent disco playlists, which we spend a lot of time listening too. 

How collaborative is your role?
We work very collaboratively. The design team all work around one big table and we are constantly jumping in and out of each other’s Photoshop files. We know where each other’s strengths lie and are diverse in our skills, so everyone lends a hand on most projects. 

Working with a franchise like Harry Potter helps to create the community feel as we are all so familiar with it – having grown up reading the books and watching the films. It was comforting to have that common ground from the very start of the job. 

The Archive of Magic: The Film Wizardry of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Image courtesy of Mugglenet.com

The studio recently designed the cover for the Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald screenplay. Image courtesy of Pottermore. Image courtesy of Pottermore.com

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What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job? 
Most enjoyable has got to be the team; they are so talented it’s quite scary, but that keeps me on my toes. I have one colleague in particular that I have learnt so much from, and he’s only just turned 22!

Sometimes I have to pinch myself. I’m so lucky to be working on projects for a franchise that has the most immense fan base. The studio recently designed the cover for the Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald screenplay. The day it was released, there were fans analysing the illustrations, even Youtube bloggers trying to figure out the Easter eggs. There aren’t many projects out there that get such instant fan recognition. 

Learning to work with an enormous franchise has been a big learning curve for me. Having worked in production for television and film and then seeing the other side of it: what happens after a film has been produced, the marketing, merchandising and so on. There are a lot of technicalities to navigate.  

“The design team all work on one big table and we are constantly jumping in and out of each other’s Photoshop files.”

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months? 
I’ve only been at MinaLima for nine months, and for six months of that I have been leading the design of a book for Warner Bros and Harper Design (HarperCollins publishing). It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. It’s a massive project and very exciting to see through from beginning to end.

I developed the overarching theme for the book last December, and have been working with two other designers in the studio to pull it all together. It’s an incredibly graphic and photo-heavy book with wonderful pull-out inserts and gold foil everywhere!
 
What skills are essential to your job?
MinaLima is a very illustrative studio, but we build most things in Photoshop, so it’s essential to know this and Illustrator to a high level. That goes for creating graphic props too. A knowledge of print processes and setting up files for mass production is also key. I have been working with a large American publishing company, so have had to learn all the lingo very quickly!

The Durrells Season 2

A selection of prop graphics produced for Sid Gentle Films Ltd's drama adaptation of Gerald Durrells 'My Family and Other Animals' for ITV 1

Graphics for the launch of character Lawrence Durrell's first published novel. (Book cover mocked up from original design of Pied Piper of Lovers)

What tools do you use most for your work? 
I do all my work on a Wacom Intous (a tiny travel Wacom tablet). My colleague works on a Cintiq 22HD Touch, which looks very impressive and makes me feel like a total amateur in the Wacom world. But mine gets the job done and fits into my laptop case, so I can carry it around. 

When making prop graphics I find myself using a lot of bookbinding materials and leather-working tools. About half of the graphic props I have made have been books or folders, and I never had the budget to have them made professionally, so I hand-made them. Shepherds in Victoria is my go-to shop. But my grandmother’s collection of leather working tools has been invaluable for working with binding cloth and thick cards. 

Large billboard designed for The Durrells Corfu town

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How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
At primary school there was a competition to design the flyer for our end of year production of Alice in Wonderland. I think I was the only student to enter, but they still put my illustration on the front cover. That was probably the first piece of graphic design I ever made. I’ve always known that I was going to do something creative; there was never any other option for me. 

What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
I come from a family of designers and artists, and am constantly in awe of the work my family produces. I’m incredibly fortunate to have grown up surrounded by clever and powerful women, believing that I could do anything. Seeing how hard my parents worked made me want to constantly better myself.

I also spent my youth going to exhibitions and making clothes with my grandmother. She was an amazing designer and pattern cutter, and taught fashion at Epsom Collage. Her obsessive enthusiasm for good style was infectious. She taught me a great deal about how to understand design. If I can be even half as good a designer as my Grandmother I will be a happy woman. 

“I’ve always just known that I was going to do something creative; there was never any other option for me.”

Graphics for The Durrells on screen

Graphics for The Durrells on screen

Graphics for The Durrells on screen

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How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied graphic design at Kingston University. I think the main thing I learnt was how to approach a project and work through it methodically. A knowledge of typesetting has been invaluable and looking back, I wish I had focused on it a lot more. I learnt most of the practical skills (Adobe creative suite) after studying. 

Creating graphic props for television dramas is almost the opposite of what I was taught whilst studying, as I am mainly recreating things from the past. A lot of the graphic designers for television that I have met haven’t studied graphic design, so I think it has helped give me an edge in the industry. 

What were your first jobs?
My first few jobs were with my godfather (Boston Studio). I used to help him out on fashion and homeware photoshoots and behind-the-scenes at Margaret Howell fashion shows from when I was doing my A-levels. Over the years he has given me a lot of freelance work and really trusted me. He gave me confidence in my design abilities, which I am very grateful for. 

Graphics for SS-GB, a BBCOne drama adapted from Len Deighton’s novel of the same name. All artwork is copyright of Sid Gentle Films Ltd 2017

Graphics for SS-GB, a BBCOne drama adapted from Len Deighton’s novel of the same name. All artwork is copyright of Sid Gentle Films Ltd 2017

Graphics for SS-GB, a BBCOne drama adapted from Len Deighton’s novel of the same name. All artwork is copyright of Sid Gentle Films Ltd 2017

Graphics for SS-GB, a BBCOne drama adapted from Len Deighton’s novel of the same name. All artwork is copyright of Sid Gentle Films Ltd 2017

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What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Taking the job as graphic design assistant on SS-GB (Sid Gentle Films production for BBC One). It was the first whole television production job that I did. Unusually we were a team of four in the graphic design department, which is large for a television production. Working in a team that size meant that I got to learn a lot from my three colleagues.

The show was about what would have happened if the Nazis had won the Battle of Britain, and occupied England. So we were creating all these fantastic WW2 graphics but with German twists. For instance, a Nazi version of the Underground tube map. It showed me how much fun television work is and how creative you could be.

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
In 2016 I produced the graphic props for an immersive theatre show called The Game’s Afoot at Madame Tussauds. It was a Sherlock Holmes-themed murder mystery. I was brought onto the job fairly late into the project, meaning I had just over four weeks to produce more than 100 props for two different murder mystery stories. Basically, I had taken on a lot more than I could manage. 

“Creating graphic props for television dramas is practically the opposite of what I was taught whilst studying, as I am mainly recreating things from the past.”

Trailer for ‘The Game’s Afoot’ at Madame Tussauds

Graphic props made for the 'The Game's Afoot

Graphic props made for the 'The Game's Afoot

I was working 17 and 18 hour days, seven days a week for the whole job, on a teeny budget and printing most of the props on my home printer. I was a mess by the end of it. A few weeks after I finished that job, I was approached to be the graphic designer on the second series of The Durrells (ITV). Before this I had previously only done one whole TV production as a graphics assistant. If I hadn’t taken the Sherlock Holmes job I would never have even imagined that I could manage to take on a TV show on my own. As gruelling as it was, that job showed me what I was capable of doing.  

What skills have you learnt along the way?
During my degree we worked in teams all the time. This really set me up in knowing how to work collaboratively and has been one of the most transferable skills as a freelancer going into jobs with large art departments. Some of the most useful things I’ve learnt for my own work are copyright laws, what goes into the clearance of artwork and how to do really good research. 

What’s been your biggest challenge?
Knowing when you’ve been asked to do too much and learning when to compromise.

Dressing graphics for naturalist character Theo Stephanides in The Durrells

Labels, letters and postcards for The Durrells

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next? 
A bonus to working at MinaLima is that there is the potential of working on the Fantastic Beasts films with Mira and Eduardo. Over the next year I hope to have the chance to produce graphics for the third film in the series. 

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Whilst working as a freelancer, I felt my technical skills were slightly stagnating. At MinaLima I want to learn as much as I can. I hope after working with this team that I can go on to be lead graphic designer on other feature films. I got to work in Corfu for six weeks last summer with The Durrells, which was the most fun I had ever had! I would love to work abroad with a production again. 

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to do the same kind of work?
Take as much experience as you can get. But never spread yourself too thinly across projects, otherwise no one will be happy with the outcome, least of all you. But take on projects that are going to challenge you. I think it’s quite good to be a little bit scared of the work you are doing. It stops you from being bored and you are always going to have learnt more by the end of it. 

Posted 28 June 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Film, Product Design
Mentions: Propella Woodward Gentle, MinaLima, ITV, Sid Gentle Films
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