Graphic Design alumna Hilary Ament talks her recent work on “Oppenheimer,” “Nope”

Hilary Ament ’15 (Graphic Design BFA) continues to make a splash in the world of film graphic design, less than a decade after graduating from MICA. In the last few years alone, she's worked on Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer as a lead graphic designer and Jordan Peele's Nope as a graphic designer. 

We caught up with Hilary to talk about her time at MICA, how she got into the film industry, and more.

Q: Why did you want to come to MICA? What was your favorite part of attending? Were there any faculty who made a big impact on you during your time at MICA?

I loved my time at MICA, and miss it. When I first visited, I saw such a buzz of students energetically creating and experimenting. It also appealed that I could take classes outside of my chosen major and that the campus was so ingrained in the city. 

My favorite part was living in a community of talented, passionate peers, and the school giving us room to explore. It can be rare to be in a space with constant collaboration and resources to make your ideas real. As a student, I helped run a haunted house in MICA’s BBOX theater. We had painters doing set walls, fiber majors making costumes, people making puppets, tech devices, lighting, etc. My closest friends today are people I met at MICA, and I’m sure creating in this environment is why I’m working in film today.

Nolen Strals and Bruce Willen‘s lettering class was a game changer. I hadn’t done much hand drawn design before then. We learned technical skills, but something expressive or weird was also encouraged. Isaac Gertman was awesome too. He was supportive and gave great historical font advice when I started my thesis.

Q: Why did you want to go into graphic design? Did you always want to do graphic design for film? Can you talk about what that work entails?

I started making graphics in middle or high school as a hobby, then I found out about graphic design for film my senior year at MICA and became obsessed. I did my thesis on graphic props, so it’s been a goal for awhile.

As a graphic designer in film, you work in the art department under the production designer, who is responsible for the entire look of a film. I also work with props, set decoration, paint, costumes, picture cars, visual effects, etc. I start by reading the script and breaking down any graphics that are written. This could be store signs for a street scene, a magazine a character is reading, or an ancient pirate map. Oftentimes, we have to make something look intentionally naive or bad to fit the story or character, which I find freeing.

Q: How did you get into the film business?

I got into film by researching and emailing many people in the industry for advice. Eventually, someone hired me as an art production assistant, and it has mostly been word of mouth ever since. It’s a surprisingly small world! A lovely group on First Man promoted and helped me join the union.

Q: Talk about some of your recent work. What's been your favorite project lately?

I appreciate any project where I can learn, so I gravitate to period pieces. Jordan Peele’s Nope has been my favorite job recently. I’m a huge fan of his first two movies, so it was a great opportunity to see the process. I began with this gold rush theme park called Jupiter’s Claim. Production Designer Ruth De Jong was responsible for the set, and had reference images and notes from Jordan and his producer Ian. They really care about the backstory and concept, so I had a lot to start with. I began by printing out a ton of alphabets from funky 1800’s signwriting books. I was able to do a lot of hand lettering, illustration, and write corny cowboy sayings. Film work is fast paced, and there’s not always time to draw and hire sign painters, so I appreciate that Ruth and team saw the importance. The Jupiter’s Claim set is now permanently at Universal Studios for their studio tour, which is a rare honor. Amazing seeing people interact with it!

Q: How does it feel to work on big projects like Nope and Oppenheimer?

It still feels wild to be in the same room and working with people I have admired for so long. It can be very difficult and taxing work for the crew, but there’s really nothing like being in a theater of people seeing your work on the big screen. Sometimes, they take on a new life in editing and visual effects which happened with maps I made for Disney's Jungle Cruise. So fun!

Q: Do you have any advice for current MICA students who want to enter a career in graphic design and specifically film?

I advise reaching out to many people for advice, instead of just asking for a job. The film world hires fast without notice, but they will remember friendly passionate people. For film, it will require being an Art PA at first.

Be curious. Take walks alone and take picture of street tiles or fliers for inspo. Don’t just follow design trends. It’s ok to not have a personal “style” yet. Study typography and practice pairing fonts. Learn a good foundation of typography, and then don’t be afraid to break all the rules. Sometimes I may use 10 plus fonts in one piece! If you are an illustrator, take a type class too!