Ben Barnhart

Ben Barnhart

July 15, 2021
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July 15, 2021
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No matter which type of movie or documentary you prefer watching in your free time, there’s always room for art movies and documentaries, especially if you are a full-time graphic designer, illustrator, art director, or production designer. Freelance designers and anyone interested in everything related to art will enjoy these design documentaries and movie options.

From films about animation to period pieces on the Bauhaus movement, there is something for everyone on this list. There are 14 art movies and documentaries mentioned in this list in no particular order. 

To help you decide even faster which ones to watch first, we have included IMDb ratings for each of them. Before the short intro to each art movie and documentary, you will also see one or two critical reviews, so you get a better feel of each documentary mentioned on this list. 

You can take notes on the ones you want to watch, but we have a feeling that you will start binge-watching them the first opportunity you get. We just hope you won’t blame us if you fall behind on your tasks. 

1. Design Canada (2018)

IMDb rating: 8.6/10

"Retracing Canada's design lineage is a reminder that to know a country’s graphic design is to know its history." – Wired Magazine

"The best graphic design can look so natural that we forget they even had to be invented." – National Post

This documentary film chronicles the Canadian graphic design history and sheds light on the untold story of Canada’s identity. Design Canada showcases how a group of influential designers from Canada used graphic design to unify the nation. 

If you are wondering how the design elements were used to shape Canadian identity and the identity of its people, then this documentary film is the way to go. It is directed by Greg Durrell and stars Burton Kramer, Fritz Gottschalk, and Douglas Coupland.

2. Marina Abramovic – The Artist is Present (2012)

IMDb rating: 7.1/10

“This is illuminating and inspiring.” – Time Out

“The documentary Marina Abramovic - The Artist is Present is a portrait more celebratory than analytical of the Yugoslav-born performance artist.” – The New York Times

This film features the works of Yugoslav performance artist Marina Abramovic. Besides showcasing her works, Marina Abramovic – The Artist is Present also digs deeper into the personal story of Abramovic as she prepares for her New York solo show at MoMA. Among her fascinating works are also included collaboration works with her former lover Uwe Laysiepen. 

Her solo show included 50 works that were created across 40 years. The documentary also explores the minute details of the complex relationship between society and culture. Directed by Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre, it stars Marina Abramovic, Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen.), and Klaus Biesenbach.

3. Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

IMDb rating: 7.7/10

Finding Vivian Maier focuses on a mysterious nanny who photographed Chicago scenes in the 1950s and ’60s.” – The New York Times

“An intriguing look at a lost voice.” – Empire

This powerful film unravels the life of Vivian Maier, an American street photographer whose photographs were unknown and unpublished during her lifetime. Some of her prints and negatives were found by John Maloof, one of the directors of this documentary. 

Maloof bid the photographs in a blind auction and later embarked on a mission to discover more about Vivian Mayer and her secret life. 

Maier worked as a nanny for 40 years, and during her lifetime, she took over 150,000 photographs, mainly street photography in New York and Chicago. Some say she was the original Humans of New York (HONY) of her time. What is interesting about this particular film is that it takes the viewers themselves on a journey to unveil the mysterious life of Vivian Mayer. 

Through her photographs, we can witness some fascinating stories about how America was rapidly changing in the 50s and experience bits of her personal life through her photos. Finding Vivian Maier premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). 

It was also nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 87th Academy Awards, so if you decide to watch it, we would recommend seeing it on a cinema screen.

4. Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film (2006)

IMDb rating: 7.9/10

“Ric Burns’s solemn four-hour hagiography Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film may set a record for the number of times the label “genius” is applied to its subject.” – The New York Times

“Burns’ project is a model of restraint that ties in with Warhol’s own timidity.” – Variety

This four-hour-long documentary by Ric Burns is a must-watch film for all fans of Andy Warhol. It explores Warhol’s central role in breaking down the boundaries between commercial and fine art and how it changed how we view the world. Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film also assures the viewers how Warhol became the greatest artist in the second half of the 20th century. 

The documentary film also includes interviews and rare archival footage that help the viewer understand how Andy Warhol’s brain worked and why he became one of the most influential creators and a leading figure in the visual art movement, known as pop art

5. Europe After the Rain (1978)

IMDb rating: 8.4/10

“A chock-full collage of texts, reproduced artworks, actual footage and dramatised reconstructions, it constantly unearths delights, both visual and aural.” – TimeOut

This documentary is all about the avant-garde movements of Dada and Surrealism. Launched in 1978, Europe After the Rain dives even deeper to explore the roots of the Dada movement and the birth of Surrealism after World War One chaos. 

If you are looking to find out how artists and pioneers at that time tried to make sense in the middle of a nonsense world, this documentary is for you. Europe After the Rain is also available on YouTube. Written and Directed by Mick Gold, the documentary film stars Joan Bakewell, Simon Cadell (voice), and Dennis Clinton.

6. Objectified (2009)

IMDb rating: 7.1/10

“That's a lot of concepts to explain, but Hustwit and his subjects have the gift of making things clear… He's chosen a mix of interesting personalities, from acknowledged masters to flamboyant youngsters, and most of the lessons, in theory, are followed up by an easily-grasped physical demonstration.”– eFilmCritic

This documentary is also directed by Gary Hustwit and explores consumers’ relationships with manufactured objects and their designers. If you are in the mood to see a documentary about the design process, Objectified is the way to go. 

This full-length film also focuses on how manufactured products and people who design these objects indirectly impact our lives. It stars Paola Antonelli, Chris Bangle, and Andrew Blauvelt. Objectified is available on Netflix and Vimeo. 

7. Helvetica (2007)

IMDb rating: 7.2/10

“First-time director Gary Hustwit, a producer of music-themed docs and the founder of the indie-flick DVD label Plexifilm, has a generous enthusiasm for engaging modern design and its makers, and clearly delights in taking his non-typehead viewers along.” – The New York Sun

Yes, this entire documentary film is about a typeface. Helvetica. The feature-length documentary not only looks at the proliferation of Helvetica as one of the world’s most inescapable typefaces but also explores how typography has an immense impact on our culture. 

Directed by American director Gary Hustwit, the film was released in 2007 as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Helvetica typeface, its universal appeal, and its fascinating history. So far, Helvetica has been shown in over 200 film festivals, cinemas, and museums worldwide.  It is available on Netflix and the film’s official website.

8. Logorama (2009)

IMDb rating: 7.5/10

“It’s very fun and comical to observe all of the different uses of logos that pop up frequently while the vivid animated colors provide lots of eye candy.” – NYC Movie Guru

Logorama ... perfectly blends virtually every corporate logo imaginable into virtually every aspect of life and a film that intertwines cop dramas, family dramas, a 2012 style end of the world scenario and just about everything else in between.” – The Independent Critic

After talking about a full-length film about a typeface, it is time to talk about a documentary about logos. Although it is only 15 minutes long, this animated short is about a dystopian Los Angeles comprised entirely of corporate logos. 

In 2009, it won the Prix Kodak at the Cannes Film Festival. It is one of the must-see logo documentaries in the film industry, especially if you work with product packaging and title design. 

In 2010, Logorama also won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Directed by François Alaux, Hervé de Crécy, and Ludovic Houplain, the short film stars Bob Stephenson (voice), Sherman Augustus (voice), and Aja Evans (voice). It is produced by the French company H5. 

9. Bauhaus: The Face of the 20th Century (1994)

IMDb rating: 7.3/10

Bauhaus—The Face of the 20th Century, written and narrated by Frank Whitford, is an art documentary depicting the visual science generated from the outpouring of avant-garde ideas of this innovative educational undertaking.” – Letterboxd

No list of art documentaries is complete without mentioning Bauhaus: The Face of the 20th Century. This 1994 documentary is something that every design student has seen at least once in their lifetime. 

If you are into the Bauhaus movement and want to learn more about how it influenced modern design, art, architecture, and academia, then Bauhaus: The Face of the 20th Century is the perfect documentary to watch. Written by Frank Whitford, the documentary stars Frank Whitford (voice), Charles Jencks, and Christopher Frayling.

10. Britain’s Hidden Art History (2018)

Rotten Tomatoes: 97%

“This fascinating, moving film…is a powerful reminder of how easily history can be erased.” – The Guardian

“It highlights the challenges of staying true to our identity and artistic ingenuity and the need to guard against dilution of challenging expression.” – Shades of Noir

The BBC4 documentary Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History is a thought-provoking documentary that unveils the whitewashing of British art history. One of the documentary protagonists, British artist Sonia Boyce, says there is “a mass systemic amnesia” in the art establishment. 

Presented by Brenda Emmanus, Britain’s Hidden Art History follows Sonia Boyce as she organizes an exhibition of black and Asian modernist art at Manchester Art Gallery. The documentary also shows how Boyce spent three years searching the public archives to unveil over 2,000 works by significant British artists who were “turned” invisible by an inherently racist system. 

Directed by Alex Harding, it stars Brenda Emmanus, Sonia Boyce, and Rasheed Araeen. 

11. The Pixar Story (2007)

IMDb rating: 7.8/10

“Leslie Iwerks’ documentary charts not only the genesis, founding, and rise to industry-changing prominence of the beloved computer animation company, but also the birth of computer animation itself.” – 100filmsinayear

“It is a cheery, aw-shucks documentary that is better swallowed as a time capsule than a historical piece.” – eFilmCritic.com

Are you a fan of CGI? Do you love most of the blockbuster hits by Pixar? Then this documentary is made for you! Directed by Leslie Iwerks, this 2007 documentary takes the viewers behind the scenes and showcases the work and dedication that fueled Pixar Animation Studios. 

The American computer animation studio is a subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios and is well known for its successful computer-animated feature films. The documentary includes interviews with Tom Hanks, Michael Eisner, one of the founders of the company Steve Jobs, and more. Written by Leslie Iwerks, the 88-minute long documentary stars Stacy Keach(voice), John Lasseter, and Brad Bird. 

12. Graphic Means: A History of Graphic Design Production (2017)

IMDb rating: 8.1/10

Graphic Means is long overdue, both as a historical document and a design reference. The production standard was visibly high and the stills, vintage education reels, and interviews harmoniously interwoven.” – Alphabettes.org

Before the desktop computer was introduced to the world, the design production process was mainly done by hand and sometimes with the help of analog machines. From creating a particular design to the printing stage, several steps had to be accomplished. 

That is why the launch of the desktop computer over 30 years ago revolutionized the way the graphic design industry works. Graphic Means: A History of Graphic Design Production explores graphic design production from the 1950s to the 1990s. It is directed by Briar Levit and stars Paul Brainerd, Colin Brignall, and Lou Brooks. 

13. Why Man Creates (1968)

IMDb rating: 7.3/10

“While the technical side of design may have evolved, the urges that inspire us and the principles that guide us are as timeless now as they were in 1968.” – BatesMeron

Why Man Creates fits alongside Bass’ best work as a designer, because, like his finest designs, the film is at once child-like and playful, while serving higher themes of idea and speculation.” – notcoming.com

The 25-minute short film by Saul Bass is an early classic animated documentary. It explores the nature of creativity and the creative process and how people approach the two sides of creativity. It also focuses on humans’ necessity to create and answers why creativity is crucial in our lives. 

It is written by Saul Bass and Mayo Simon and stars Peter Hansen and Paul Saltman. Even though the documentary was made over 50 years ago, you can be sure that Why Man Creates is as inspiring as it was back then. 

14. Art and Copy (2009)

IMDb rating: 6.9/10

“Those looking for an examination of the rightness and wrongness of pervasive advertising as a phenomenon should look elsewhere; this is an overview of how the medium works combined with a look at some of its more noteworthy practitioners.” – eFilmCritic.com

This powerful documentary by Doug Pray focuses on the US ad industry and the entire process that goes into designing iconic campaigns such as “Just do it” and “Got Milk.” The documentary includes interviews with the people behind these popular campaigns and explores the impact of these campaigns on our culture. 

If you are curious to find out where the inspiration for these campaigns was found and how the people behind these successful campaigns managed to move millions of people worldwide with their simple but powerful messages, we highly recommend you to watch this film. 

Art and Copy also explores the dynamic relationship between art,  commerce, and human psychology. Written by Gregory Beauchamp, Kirk Souder, and Timothy J. Sexton, Art and Copy stars Mary Wells, Dan Wieden, and Hal Riney.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it. All the films and documentaries mentioned in this list have been a source of inspiration for many. Some of them have been used as school material, some of them have been part of TV programming, and some have “traveled” the world, winning several awards. 

No matter which one you decide to watch first, you can be sure that any of these fascinating shorts or feature films will provide you with new information and show you different sides of the art and design industry. 

We hope that you enjoyed this list and take some time to binge-watch them or fit them into your busy schedule. 

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