CREW CORNER: Water for Elephants graphic artist, Karen TenEyck, shares her art and experience

During the filming in Tennessee, we posted some crew pictures of the art department that caught my eye. What caught my eye wasn’t the actual picture but the comments the pictures were getting:

  • Is that super art director, David Crank, at the table? Why yes it is! Oooo, la la. Now where’s Jack? xoxo
  • OMG, it’s Jack Fisk and David Crank! I am in heaven!!!!! They are SOOOOOOOOOO awesome. The art department rocks!!!
  • It’s just soooooooooo awesome to see Jack Fisk and David Crank in a few of these photos. I am in heaven!!!!!!! They are soooooooooo amazing! xoxo to Jack and Dave!
  • PS. The art department really rocks!!!!!

Hm. Now I knew this couldn’t be just some regular fan. I mean…Jack Fisk and David Crank do in fact rock but I didn’t think most fans knew what they looked like. I asked this art department fangirl how she knew these art department legends and she shared that she was the graphic artist for Water for Elephants! She thought it was cute and funny how we fangirl over Robert Pattinson and wanted to share the love with the art guys. ;)

Karen TenEyck was responsible for the gorgeous signage (among other things) you see in Water for Elephants. She was not able to share her work with us at the time but promised to send some goodies our way when the film was released. Being a regular reader and supporter of our blog, she once told me something that I never thought of. She said for the crew, it’s nice to have a place to follow the post-production to release information on the film when so many of them have already left to sign on to other jobs. It’s rare to see the progression of the film making once their job is done. Water for Elephants was special to so many people and she enjoyed being kept up-to-date on a film that was exciting to be a part of.

Karen emailed us today and shared the images and article she wrote for publication in her union, Art Director’s Guild. Enjoy :) She’s been so appreciative of our work and I KNOW you’ll be appreciative of hers.

Click image to view LARGER

Designing Graphics for “Water for Elephants”

The Most Spectacular Show on Earth

By Karen TenEyck

“Oh, I almost forgot! You’ve got to call David Crank tomorrow.  He’s art directing a film of Water for Elephants. Jack Fisk is designing.  Great Depression.  Circus.  Call him…call him!”  “Okay, okay, okay!” I responded.  And it was with that almost missed information given by my good friend, production designer Tony Fanning, I went in to meet with Dave and Jack, got the job and started one of the most fabulous jobs of my life.

Water for Elephants, based on the book by Sara Gruen, tells the story of a young veterinary student who after a family tragedy hops aboard a moving train which happens to carry the Benzini Circus.  The story focuses on his relationship with the owner of the circus and his wife.

Although I’ve done quite a few period films, I still had to do a lot of research on the history of circus ephemera.  This was such a fun subject matter that soon everyone in the office was bringing in more and more books everyday.  Circus trains, wagons, tents, performers, posters, lions and tigers and bears.  It seemed we couldn’t get enough.  We were also helped by the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin which could not have been more helpful.  When they visited us at the office during prep, they gave us huge notebooks of information from their archives.  Clearly they were just as excited about the movie as we were.

Jack Fisk, who claims never to have used a graphic designer before, gave me free reign to explore the circus world and come up with what I thought would be appropriate.  We edited and adapted ideas for various needs from there.

Even though the film takes place in 1931, I researched as far back as the Victorian era because in any given period, not everything is new.  Working with Jack and set decorator Jim Erickson, I put together a palette from Coloraid paper of about 30 colors and hung it up. If that color was not on the wall, it didn’t go into the graphics.  This helped us maintain continuity across departments. Even though our circus was to be a colorful, romantic environment, it IS the great depression and we didn’t want to go too far with too many colors.  Decidedly not “Paper Moon” but not “The Wizard of Oz” either.

Always important when doing a period film is the knowledge of printing and graphic design techniques before the age of the computer.  For 1931, not everything was printed with 4-color offset lithography.  Thinking about silkscreen, advertising donuts (4 color posters with space for ‘1 color’ information that could be printed later), the ‘2 color’ job helped define the period.  For cruder printing techniques, like woodcuts, I found that a slight misalignment of the printing inks helped sell it, too.

Another challenge for period films, is that fonts made for the computer do not do justice to the hand-crafted look of the time even if they are based on old styles.  They are simply too perfect.  Yet with the current trend for less and less prep time, I needed to find ways to short-cut the process and get the same effects.  One of the ways I have been able to do this is by creating my own fonts based on the 50+ period lettering and advertising books I own.  I am able to give them the imperfect look of hand drawn  letters done with a lettering brush.  Because they are turned into fonts that I can type with, it speeds up the process considerably down the line as decisions are being made closer to actual filming.

In Water for Elephants, there are two ‘hero’ circuses. Benzini Bros., plus the defunct Fox Bros. Circus, where Rosie the elephant is purchased.  Each required distinct branding and its own advertising.  Jack and I decided Benzini would be basically red and Fox would be blue.  I then designed several Benzini logos and we used most of them.  Since the circus was cobbled together, at different times and from different circuses that went out of business, I didn’t feel that everything Benzini owned would have the exact same logo stamped on it. Different pieces also had different amounts of aging.  I took the same approach with Fox Bros., although all their equipment was considerably more distressed.

In terms of circus advertising, one of the most important questions I had to address was, if this is the great depression, where money is tight and they are about to go out of business at any moment, how could Benzini commission new artwork?  I found out that many of the circuses of the time used “stock art” illustrations from as far back as the Victorian era, much as we use stock photos today.  These were often elaborate, full color and very lush.  To make similar original illustrations would have been a full time job in itself, so I just focused on a few main characters and tried to do them in that style.  Because I felt so extremely fortunate to be working on this film, I decided to ‘up my game’ and do the illustrations for the circus posters myself.  After not drawing with a pencil in 20 years, it was a bit nerve-wrecking but somehow I managed to pull it off.

One of the biggest challenges of the film was the sideshow bannerline, which is a series of large banners advertising all the ‘human oddities’,  ‘strange people’ and ‘novel entertainers’ that await in the tent beyond.  Since most of the photos of the period are not in color or reproducible, we needed to create the banners from scratch.  Although I designed the entrance and the format borders for the 10 different acts, it was clear to me that I would not have enough time to do all the illustrations.  Luckily, we found fine artist, Linda Newman Boughton, who in short order was able to look at the research we provided and create completely new period-looking illustrations.  These illustrations were painted on board in gauche.  We then high-res scanned them into the computer where they could be manipulated,  aged and placed in the borders.  We also changed the colors and duplicated them on the other side of the sideshow entrance so we had 20 in all.

To put them into production, I cut up the files vertically adding a slight overlap so the finished banner sections could be sewn together as they would have been done in 1931.  Paramount Sign Shop printed them on a 10 oz artist canvas material which is adhered to a paper backing.  They were printed on a  Hewlett Packard 60 inch large format UV Inkjet printer.  Once the ink hits the material and dries, it is set in the fabric and doesn’t bleed objectionably.  After assembly, the film paint department aged the backs to match.  All the aging of the fronts was done on the computer to save time and preserve the inkjet print.

Another printing challenge was all the advertising posters which Jack wanted to print on newsprint.  Since newsprint bleeds terribly and fades out, it took quite a long time to find the proper paper stock.  Letti Moreno of Studio Graphics came up with the solution.  For some reason her newsprint didn’t bleed and the colors, while muted, didn’t die.  I asked her what the secret was and she said, “Funny you should ask about that newsprint.  We simply buy that newsprint from a real newspaper company.  They sell us their scrap rolls.  They print by the thousands. So the little bit that is left over, which is a lot for us, they get rid of.”  So it was, in fact, REAL newsprint.

A fun group of design projects were the food packages for the circus concessions across from the bannerline.  Both human and animal!  Working with property manager, Hope Parrish, I got to design “Fairy Floss” (now known as cotton candy), peanuts,  popcorn  and the souvenir Benzini pennants.  Using old ‘clip art’ from royalty free Dover resources I was able to cobble together the various designs based on research that came mostly from eBay auction listings.  These items were produced in a variety of ways.  For the peanut bags, we used a large 1-color rubber stamp.  For the popcorn boxes, we did a 2-color job in yellow and red inks.  The Benzini pennants were silkscreened on felt.  The fairy floss was faked as a 2-color job with an inkjet printer.  Even though we were using modern technology to produce these period containers, it was extremely important to think about how they would have been done in 1931.

A large part of my time was spent adapting period trains and circus wagons for the movie.  I designed the graphics for our train consist which included roustabout, ring stock, performer, owner and flat cars using some wonderful period train books that Jack had. These were all hand painted by sign writing team Fred Seibly and his crew.  This was also the case with all the circus wagons that we rented from Circus World in Milwaukee.  Since we didn’t want to destroy the paint on these original wagons and time was extremely tight, we mostly used the colors that were already on them, covering up undesirable modern type and adding our Benzini logos.

In addition to designing the world of the Benzini Circus, we had to do the 20th Century Fox backlot as Weehawken, NJ for the circus parade where elephant Rosie walks down the street with Reese Witherspoon atop to advertise the coming of the show to town.  Working with set decorator, Jim Erickson, we assigned shops and restaurants to all the storefronts and I designed the signage and showcards.  Using many of my original 20s and 30s advertising books, I found appropriate designs and adapted them in color.  I always find that if you start making them completely up, they never quite look period, so these books provide a wealth of visual inspiration and accuracy.

When seeing the movie, I’m always surprised at what shows up larger than life on the big screen.  Something that got a lot of screen time was a small props project, a bottle of maple syrup in the circus canteen.  You can never take for granted that something won’t be seen up close, putting in fake copy or no copy at all.  In this case, I’m especially glad that I spend the time to make it completely believable.

Working with the team, the animal actors and circus performers was a joy.  How many people can say, “Hey what’s that racket going on outside?”, get up from your desk, go outside and see fire breathers, jugglers and clowns lined up on the parking lot to audition.  It was truly a dream come true.

We had a very small team on this film for the large task of doing a period movie.

  • Jack Fisk, Production Designer
  • David Crank, Art Director
  • Ruth deJong, Assistant Art Director
  • Kristen Davis, Set Designer
  • Karen TenEyck, Graphic Designer
  • Nancy A. King, Art Dept. Coordinator
  • Production Assistants: Michelle Collier, Andrea Babineau, Lauren Abiouness, Joshua Sankar

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Here is the bio of Karen’s impressive work:

Karen is originally from the East Coast where she studied graphic design at a small Pennsylvania college. After graduation, she worked as a graphic designer and art director at several Philadelphia firms before going to study set design at the Yale School of Drama. After moving to New York in 1992, she designed over 65 sets for many of the nation’s top regional theatres and opera companies including Manhattan Theatre Club, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Denver Center Theatre, Austin Lyric Opera, Alabama Shakespeare Festival and South Coast Rep. However, it was her work with Los Angeles Opera that convinced her to move to LA in 2000. Since then she has designed graphics for over 25 movies including “Water for Elephants”, “The Aviator”, “The Black Dahlia”, “Ocean’s 13″, “Zodiac”, “Contagion” and the upcoming “J Edgar” directed by Clint Eastwood. She currently lives in the Pasadena area where she loves to work on her house and garden. Her work can be seen at

Karen, we can’t thank you enough for sharing this with the kinkers and the fans of Water for Elephants. We wish you all the best in life and career and we’ll be looking out for your name in the credits. :)

About tinkrbe1l3

Fan and supporter of all things Robert Pattinson. Co-chauffeur on, co-blogger on, co-kinker on, as well as upcoming films:,,,, Co-blogger on
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14 Responses to CREW CORNER: Water for Elephants graphic artist, Karen TenEyck, shares her art and experience

  1. OH EMM GEE look at Karen!! WOOHOO girlfriend!!! Rock star! :)

    Thanks for sharing with us, for real!!

  2. Bettybmusing says:

    It seems WFE turn out to be a priceless theatrical gem for all involved. Everyone speaks with such excitement and awe at being apart of the making of the movie. A very enjoyable read :)

  3. Marina H. says:

    Oh my goodness. This is simply amazing. AMAZING!

    Thank you SO much for sharing this with us. This is truly a treat.

    I can’t stop looking, lol

  4. deb24601 says:

    Karen! I was so excited to see your email, these images and the story are incredible. I’m always so grateful for glimpses behind the scenes and this is a particularly beautiful one. THANK YOU! :)

  5. Wow, thanks everyone! Team Rosie is truly awesome!

  6. Melinda says:

    Great!! I am so excited for you!

  7. girlpower says:

    Ms. Karen, your work is beautiful! Thank you for sharing the complexities.

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  10. I’ll be watching it this weekend and I absolutely cannot wait! I’ve been waiting for Francis to come out with another movie since Constantine and reading your blog— well I’m just gushing at this point. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  11. Bruce Nutting says:

    Wow – very nice work. Now that you are (hopefully) rich and famous, you probably have forgotten your roots. I was the LD for the production of “Cabaret” that you designed at The Players Club of Swarthmore. Good times!

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