Classic films and contemporary design converge in TCM’s in-house team

If you’re already a TCM fan, get ready for some insider secrets. If not, the network’s VP and creative director Pola Changnon is ready to bring you into the fold. When talking with her, we keep returning to the passion for film she’s had since she was a graduate student at Northwestern University. “Classic movies were really my original interest,” she says. “I did all the things you do in terms of immersive, critical study in film history.” After graduation she found herself in the animation world, and spent nine years at the Cartoon Network before changing channels to her current position.

In many ways, it felt like a return to form—a way for Changnon to share her enthusiasm. She’s made it a mission to reach new audiences since she came to the Atlanta-based company in 2007, creating an on-air aesthetic that looks to the future while still highlighting the best cinema of the past century.

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“The transition to TCM was certainly about me wanting to get back to that interest that I’d had all along,” Changnon says, and she was met with a team of writers, producers, and designers who shared the same fire. “They’re not generalists who’ve worked at a bunch of different networks, you know what I mean? They’re people that have come to that particular mission, and it felt very familiar to me.”

Harnessing that enthusiasm became Changnon’s biggest focus after joining the network. She admits it’s a reflection of her own personality (“I get really excited talking about these movies!”), but also a savvy way to connect with potential viewers: creating design and production elements that tap into the joy and excitement of larger-than-life film moments— think Bergman’s epic goodbye to Bogart, or a Busby Berkeley fantasia.

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Most recently, Changnon’s team have realized this goal with “Let’s Movie,” a branding campaign promoted on the TCM channel, website, and social media outlets, as well as Turner network affiliates, movie theaters, and billboards across the East Coast. “We wanted to show not only the spectrum of film, but the spectrum of a diverse audience that you might not anticipate,” she says. “Again and again, young people stop us and not only express their affection for the network, but maybe flash a tattoo of the logo on their arm.” The accompanying minute-long TV spot drives this home, showing people of all ages and backgrounds watching Ben-Hur projected on the Colosseum, or Breakfast at Tiffany’s on the brick wall of a Manhattan rooftop, takes celluloid set-pieces into 2015. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the voice-over artist sounds a bit as breathless as Changnon herself.

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Beyond that campaign, the design team has a unique task among major networks, in that their programming runs entirely on movies. Instead of commercial breaks that help bring a show to its desired length, there can be up to 15 minutes of downtime to fill between films. As a result, Changnon’s team is tasked with creating treatments for archival footage, promoting upcoming programming, developing interstitials, and creating what Changnon calls the “nuts-and-bolts continuity elements that any network has to do... to stay branded and relevant for this environment.” Not that the team handles all this alone. "We love to start with our internal team, because they really understand the vernacular," Changnon says, while noting the network keeps a shorthand of “like-minded freelancers to add new perspectives to larger projects.”

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Relevant, in this case, doesn’t mean worshipful of the past. When asked about the company’s aesthetic, she said, “It’s not necessarily about nostalgia. We want to communicate how much impact these movies continue to have, and nostalgia can be limiting that way, as a design device. It doesn’t deliver on the resonance that these movies still deliver.” She likens the challenge of contextualizing these films to a trip to MoMA, where groundbreaking works from various eras are displayed in a setting that gives them relevance. “That’s why we’re here,” she says, “to support these films and give them the best environments so that they stand out.”

When asked what other projects she’s most proud of, Changnon mentions the continuing work they do on the TCM Film Festival, now in its seventh year. They’re just now resolving the key art they’ll use across platforms for the 2016 festival, and she cites the ongoing challenge of making it feel new and exciting every time. “But really, it’s also just the day-in, day-out work that the team does to communicate their own specific enthusiasms,” she says. “That’s often how we assign projects. It’s ‘Oh, well I know he’s really into Buster Keaton so let’s give him that,’ or, ‘Dana’s a Hitchcock fan, so she’s gotta have that,’ which is a neat opportunity for us. That’s not always the case at a network, but we have people with the expertise and passion for it.”

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TCM’s special sauce all boils down to this: a deep, abiding love of the movies they share, from their film-major creative director all the way down. It informs their type choices and graphics, the transitional elements between films, and the culture of the company, and it’s something they seek out in new hires as well. “Finding designers that have this kind of appreciation for these films and a lens for how you create impact in our contemporary environment is so critical for us,” Changnon says. “Discovering folks that we can have that handshake with is always exciting. And once we do, believe me, they’re on our speed-dial.”

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