How Designers Recreated Alan Turing’s Top-Secret, Code-Cracking World In “The Imitation Game”

In an exclusive interview, studio MinaLima reveal how they recreated the printed artifacts from 1940s code-breaking.

You’ve probably never heard of MinaLima, but you know the design firm’s work. This two-person studio specializes in the graphic design lurking inside your favorite Hollywood films–including all of the whimsical ads for Diagon Alley goods, issues of the Daily Prophet, and magical spellbooks you remember from the Harry Potter movies.


More recently, the pair spent four months researching and creating the printed props for the Oscar-nominated film The Imitation Game about mathematician Alan Turing trying to crack a Nazi code during World War II. They recreated everything from period newspapers, to Alan Turing’s sketches, to pages layered with code-cracking, to a 20-foot wide maritime map–all of which had to embrace historical context rather than imaginative wizardry.

“On a fantasy film like Harry Potter, you might be looking for a suggestion to give you an aesthetic direction. On The Imitation Game, it was much more about being accurate to history,” explains studio cofounder Miraphora Mina. “A lot of that stuff wasn’t even documented, so we had to piece together a visual statement from what we had.”


Scanning And Rearranging

For MinaLima, that process starts with scanning countless documents and newspapers from the same era. They find any paperwork they can from the time, digitize it, and then take it into Photoshop. This gives them a source of vintage typography to work with, as well as subtle marks they can layer in, like lines dividing grid boxes or paragraph breaks.

Then, MinaLima arranges unique images using these found puzzle pieces as their palette. They print the document, and then, on top of that, they fold it, distress it, and layer all sorts of their own analog handwork–like several unique styles of handwriting and ink, and stamps. “We just put in loads of kind of trivial, ephemeral detail,” Mina says. “The sum of those parts create the authenticity.”

But it’s not rendered ignorantly. The team took research trips to places like Bletchley Park, the headquarters of Alan Turing’s counterintelligence bunker, and spoke to historians to understand the complex process of code-making and -breaking in the 1940s. “An operator wrote down a message. And there were several people at each stage of encryption,” Mina explains. “So you’ve got this tiny bit of code that’s being physically passed through several people, being stamped, with marks, and all of these papers piling up and piling up.”


MinaLima duplicated the process in the most literal way possible when recreating the encryption and decryption documents. Various styles of paper and handwriting were layered to create the visual equivalent of wartime bureaucracy.


Mass Producing Originality

The detail in some of these pieces is pretty astounding. A British Services Identity Card mixes typefaces, writing, and even stamps to recreate what, up close, looks like a passable government document from 70 years ago.

MinaLima must produce these seemingly bespoke documents by the dozen, as many of the same document may be needed so one director can get his closeups while a second unit director films other shots with a replica of the same prop.

“I’m going to confess that our best tool is the photocopier. It’s brilliant! We make sure we have a really good photocopier on us at any job we do,” Mina says. “What goes in is a piece of paper, what comes out is a piece of history.” For background objects, a photocopy is good enough. For what are called hero objects–like those aforementioned encryption documents that play an integral role to the film’s plot–MinaLima needs to add the same arduous layers of analog detail on top of all of the photocopies.

In The Imitation Game, copies were especially important. MINOR SPOILER ALERT: At one point, all the documents are burned, a scene that happened relatively early in the shooting process. “We had to burn a lot of material before we shot it!” laughs Mina. “Films are quite a management job. Graphic designers need to look at their shooting plan to organize what’s needed when.”



Fudging It

Despite being as accurate as possible, Mina admits that certain liberties are taken for the screen. The production designer, and often the director, have to approve each piece to make sure it fits inside the overall vision of the filmic world. And there’s something inherently contradictory about the “authenticity” of any historic printed artifact in film: They’re printed on yellowed, tattered paper to look old.

“It’s a good point!” Mina laughs when I bring it up. “We always have this issue with newspapers as well, trying to find a balance where the audience believes that it’s historic. And for some reason, people have this wiring in their psyche that wants to see something old. So often we create prints and the director asks, ‘Can we age it bit?’ And it’s like, it came out today!”

But ultimately, that’s a conscious design tradeoff in the interest, not of historic accuracy, but of the audience’s experience of history itself.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach