Todd Oldham Talks Designing the 2013 Sundance Film Festival Merchandise

James Inverne, Editor, Inside Sundance Institute

One of America’s most talented designers has recruited leading actors, filmmakers and illustrators alike to help him create a themed merchandise line. Like Oldham, they all have the Sundance Film Festival on the brain.

Not every film festival has its own high-profile designer. But Todd Oldham has a history with Sundance. “My mother and I have been going to the Sundance Film Festival for many years,” says Oldham, “It’s an art holiday that we take and we love it. That was a long time before I ever worked with them.” That has since changed, of which more later.

About the Festival, Oldham says, “I love that every walk of life is represented at Sundance and the uniting factor is that everyone loves the arts. When you can get a world like that, sign me up! It was at Sundance that I saw the first movie that made me realize that film could move me to the degree that it does: Robert Altman’s 3 Women. It changed me forever. It was a before-and-after experience. I didn’t realize that you could tell stories on a level that could actually rearrange someone’s DNA.”

There was an aspect of 3 Women that Oldham was to see repeated at Sundance again and again – indeed, it runs through the Institute’s credo: “You felt you had seen something entirely new. You could feel an artistic brain behind it,” he says excitedly. “When you engage with a singular vision, you can feel a physical shift within yourself. It can make your legs quake. This is especially so in the case of films at Sundance where many of the artists you know have almost killed themselves getting their visions on the screen.”

A Sundance fan, but beyond that, an ardent believer in its importance, and that of independent film, had been formed. “Films like this give us hope. They add depth to our lives and anytime we find mirrors in which we can see ourselves reflected, when we can feel that connection between humans – you become brighter and better for it.”

Oldham has worked with Sundance before, not least on designing the environment for the Film Festival’s Awards Ceremony: “The legacy is the hero, so I created a moving collage of pieces of film, which is much more interesting than a cute motif.”

The 2013 Festival sees Oldham even more involved with Sundance, as a collaborator on the Festival’s merchandise. Out of a discussion with Sundance programmer Caroline Libresco about the ways the merchandise is always matched to the spirit of the Festival, came Sundance Film Festival Editions. The idea, which will roll from year to year, was to ask notable Sundance alumni to design a product – a button, a t-shirt, a tote bag. In addition to which, Oldham has edited a book, Sundance Film Festival A to Z, and asked 26 leading illustrators each to design a letter – with each letter standing for a word or name associated with the festival (no prizes for guessing what R stands for!). A 27th artist, Wayne White, illustrated the cover for the book.

The artists, he reports, took their task very seriously. Interestingly, they were invited to pick their own letters on a first-come, first-served basis, yet in a clear instance of matching artist to project, everybody got their first choice. “The films,” says Oldham, “have resonated in beautiful, emotive ways and every artist had been touched in some way. So we got very sophisticated, learned efforts; some don’t tell the story at first glance. It’s super fun to try and decipher what the artist saw. Illustrators have vivid imaginations and are usually forced into linear systems with tasked briefs. But we just let people do whatever they wanted and they were delighted to be unedited!” So the variety of approaches is dazzling: “anything that makes a mark, from crayons to silkscreen, pencils to oil paintings.”

The result, says Oldham, “is exquisite. I was stunned at its quality. This is my 19th book but I have never seen anything come in so well.”

For the merchandise, he and the Sundance team he worked with could not have gathered a more impressive line-up. Among the designers are Susan Sarandon, Morgan Spurlock, John Waters, Amy Sedaris, Stacy Peralta, Mike White and Parker Posey.

“It wasn’t hard to get them on board,” says Oldham. “They had all experienced the support Sundance offers and know how important it is to support independent thought. I did curate, but the art was really in asking the right person for the right task. And they are so talented – Mike White is a great graphic designer as well as filmmaker, Stacey Peralta is an artist, so I knew I had good, wildly creative people.” As an example of ‘wildly creative’ he cites a t-shirt by John Waters that appears to display Cyrillic letters but on closer inspection reads ‘Eat me’.

The limited editions are collectible but modestly priced. The art works themselves will be on show at the Festival and, insists Oldham, it is important that they are shown together. This may be merchandise but it is also, after all, art. “Anything less,” he says, “would be completely wrong for this beautiful explosion of creativity that happens every January.

“I see myself as a Sundance volunteer! And we’re all in service to those directors. Besides, when you have the pleasure of being with Robert Redford and hearing about his passion and understanding exactly why he created Sundance, it’s impossible not to sign up on that level. And the entire organization is staffed by the most caring individuals, who look lovingly at each picture despite a death-defying pile of work. An amazing group.”

Click here to check out the complete 2013 Sundance Film Festival  merchandise line.

*A version of this article will appear in the 2013 edition of Inside Sundance Institute.

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