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The Intertwining History of the ‘Avatar’ Papyrus Font and the ‘SNL’ Sketch That Spoofed It

It surely is odd that James Cameron chose to use such a ridiculed typeface for his 2009 mega-blockbuster, but he wasn’t exactly acting like a thoughtless child wandering by a garden, yanking leaves along the way

NBC/Ringer illustration

At a Monday morning pitch meeting in September 2017, Saturday Night Live writer Julio Torres broke the ice with one of his signature off-kilter jokes. Inside a room that included that week’s host, Ryan Gosling, he brought up a tweet he’d written several months earlier about a very specific annoyance: “Every day I wake up and remember that Avatar, a huge international blockbuster, used the Papyrus font for their logo and no one stopped them.”

Torres had previously worked that observation into his personal stand-up material, but he had never quite considered its narrative potential. Until later that day, when Gosling approached him with the vision of a tortured and obsessed soul plagued by this hackneyed, rudimentary graphic design decision—nearly eight years after James Cameron’s epic had hit theaters. “The movie just felt so immersive and so technologically meticulous, which makes the choice of font even funnier,” Torres says. In an era of Reddit sleuthing and YouTube rabbit holes, “Ryan really latched on to that idea because he saw a character in it.”

Over the previous year, Torres had grown used to expanding on whimsically ludicrous ideas, highlighting the sensitive and melancholic inner lives of outrageous characters—like in “Melania Moments” and its semi-sequel “Customer Service,” which cast the former first lady as a lonely housewife looking for connection. Though initially skeptical of fleshing out the Papyrus observation past its sentence-length substance, he began crafting a monologue for Gosling by leaning into his own tunnel vision. “I’m naturally attracted to people who are very obsessive because I’m obsessive,” he says. “In many ways [the character] was like a surrogate for myself.”

Still, after various rounds of approval, video editor Sean McIlraith looked at the script ahead of production and struggled to grasp its comedic potential. “At SNL, the scripts have certain formats and they’re bare bones,” McIlraith says. “Normally, you can get a good read, but that’s why it’s so special working with Julio—it’s so hard to picture these things until you’re actually working with the footage.” Two days later, once Ryan McIlraith, Sean’s brother and coeditor, uploaded the material and saw Gosling “was giving this true cinematic performance,” Ryan says, both of them agreed: “This is going to be incredible.”

Shot in one night, the three-minute digital short “Papyrus” begins like a paranoid psychodrama and spirals into a third-act conspiracy thriller. It centers on a man named Steven (Gosling), who’s haunted by recurring dreams about the “professional” graphic designer who chose the generic font for Avatar’s logo. “He just highlighted Avatar. He clicked the drop-down menu, and then he just randomly selected Papyrus,” Steven tells his therapist, played by Kate McKinnon. “Like a thoughtless child, just wandering by a garden, yanking leaves along the way.” Despite a friend (Chris Redd) explaining the logo’s distinct modifications, Steven can’t accept its minimal differences. “Whatever they did,” Gosling screams before smashing a bottle, “it wasn’t enough!”

The sketch, which eventually ends with Steven stalking the graphic designer outside his home, quickly became an SNL modern classic and has racked up more than 18 million views on YouTube—a testament to its utter randomness, Ryan Gosling’s commitment to a niche bit, and the general absurdity of a billion-dollar movie attaching itself to an overused and often-mocked font. Despite Avatar’s long-gestating sequel—and new logo—debuting this week, “Papyrus,” more than five years later, continues to leave a distinct, “tribal yet futuristic” mark on the movie franchise’s legacy. “There’s something kind of charming about a director that’s not obsessed about a poster, or trailer, or marketing,” Torres says. “The fact that this subject matter is so trivial makes it so funny.”

There actually is one single person responsible for Avatar’s Papyrus-esque logo: Peter Stougaard. The former senior vice president of creative advertising for 20th Century Fox willingly takes credit for selecting and tweaking the movie’s much-maligned font, but he doesn’t mince words. “I didn’t aimlessly pick Papyrus,” he insists. “I chose it very strategically.”

In the summer of 2009, Stougaard was approaching his deadline to distribute the first official Avatar poster to theaters and entertainment news outlets. The studio had chosen BLT Communications to develop its look and feel, and eventually the design company settled on highlighting the big blue face of the character Neytiri. Cameron liked the idea, especially when Stougaard suggested they turn the image into a lenticular poster that would give it a three-dimensional topography to reflect the movie’s 3D technology. “We had everything but the logo,” Stougaard says. “I’m getting to the point where I’ve got to get this son-of-a-bitch into theaters. I’ve got to deliver this.”

While the movie takes place in the 22nd century, Stougaard knew Cameron wanted to emphasize the language and customs of the indigenous Na’vi people, especially since one of them would be the face of the movie. But BLT had sent him “75 to 90” logos that “were all chrome and futuristic and it just was not right,” he recalls. In the midst of scrambling to determine a better font, Stougaard and Fox marketing chief Tony Sella roamed the studio’s halls and bumped into Cameron, who Stougaard noticed was carrying his script that he’d clung to over the past five years, and a solution to the problem: “On that cover page was a title treatment for Avatar in Papyrus!” he says.

A former graphic designer and illustrator, Stougaard easily identified the font, went back to his office, opened up Photoshop and began crafting a logo based on the vaguely Middle Eastern, calligraphic typeface. Because its scratchy marks were too thin for a poster, and there was no “Papyrus Bold” option, Stougaard tweaked and thickened the letters. And that did the trick: “The moment I put that on the poster, Jim approved it,” he says. “It told the indigenous story and looked great on that big blue face.” In Stougaard’s mind, Cameron had become “pregnant” with the font, staring at it each day over the previous several years, though it’s unclear whether it was Cameron or someone else who originally put the Papyrus logo on the script cover. Cameron wasn’t available for comment. “I had to do my job, which was to deliver a poster to theaters for the most expensive movie we’ve ever worked on,” he says. “I couldn’t see it as a cheap font. I had to see it as James Cameron’s font.”

“They picked a typeface, and it affected people and was sitting in people’s minds while they were working on it,” says Emrah Yucel, founder of Dreamogram, which also developed posters for Avatar. “It’s a very interesting psychological effect.”

Throughout the next several months, Cameron expanded the font’s use, putting it at the end of the first teaser trailer and then requesting it again for the end title sequence. The latter task fell to Sean Wehrli, who worked for Pic Collective and had created a custom-made design in the vein of Papyrus. “There was definitely back-and-forth with us where we didn’t want it to be Papyrus and they kept pushing us to make it Papyrus,” Wehrli says. As Pamela Green, Pic’s cofounder, attests: “What kind of design studio would we be if we did Papyrus? But if a director likes something, what are you going to do?”

In an attempt to make the logo look cooler for the screen, “we presented other things as well, trying to veer him off from that,” she says. But with just a month before the movie’s release date, Wehrli was asked to send his files, which he’d spent weeks building for 3D purposes, back to Industrial Light and Magic so the company could incorporate them into the movie’s final renderings. When Wehrli saw Avatar for the first time, the end title sequence looked different from what he’d built. “I don’t know if they used my files or based it on my files, but they definitely changed my font back to Papyrus [and] stretched it vertically,” he says. “Maybe they were getting frustrated that we weren’t just making it Papyrus.”

When Chris Costello, the person who created Papyrus in 1982, went to see Avatar, he immediately spotted his font—and the variations to it. “The ‘A’ was a little different and they made a couple small changes,” he says, referencing its thickness. “I know what I did because I labored over each character.” Most importantly, though, he noticed that the movie’s subtitles—used to translate the Na’vi language—were pure Papyrus, a fact that certain moviegoers couldn’t believe. “I thought it seemed like it worked, but others went really deep into the evils of not going the custom route,” Costello says. “It was at a time when Papyrus was overused. It got to the saturation point.”

Indeed, by the mid-2000s, Papyrus had become pervasive: It showed up on all kinds of cheap advertisements, billboards, outlet signs, and restaurant menus. (The SNL short would double down, mocking its use on “Shakira merch, hookah bars, and off-brand teas.”) In 2008, the blog Papyrus Watch launched with the mission of documenting and exposing “the overuse of the Papyrus font.”

Only Dan Gilbert’s use of Comic Sans in his embittered sendoff to LeBron James in 2010 outpaces Cameron in terms of font-choice ridicule. Enthusiasts flocked to the blogosphere to gripe about Cameron’s careless decision to use “the one font that is at the end of most typography jokes”; Gizmodo also mocked the choice in an article titled, “I Spent $300 Million on This Movie and All I Got Were These Lousy Papyrus Subtitles.” Costello even remembers seeing death threats directed toward him on message boards. “I was like, ‘Man, why are you getting so passionate about this?’” he says.

“Just think of how much we could have grossed if it wasn’t for that damn font,” Cameron joked earlier this month to Empire Magazine. “I was not aware that our font was an off-the-shelf thing; I assumed the art department or the title company came up with it. Of course, it was trolled mercilessly as a lazy choice, but frankly, I like the font.” Yet, to Cameron’s dismay, before the proliferation of meme culture and the surge of social media, Papyrus “was the only thing that stuck in the culture’s consciousness outside of the actual movie,” Stougaard says. “This was the part that went viral.”

When Torres initially pitched the Papyrus sketch eight years later, he recognized that “we were in an Avatar dead zone.” Though there had long been rumors and stories about Cameron working on sequels and building out an entire franchise on Pandora, the movie’s lack of relevance, he thought, would make Gosling’s hangup and restlessness that much funnier. And because of the movie’s self-seriousness, Torres says, Avatar “sort of exists in this narrow limbo between Oscar movie and blockbuster. It’s that dissonance that people find funny.”

He banked on a similar dissonance with director Dave McCary, who treated the script as though it were a serious drama and never strayed from Gosling’s bulletin-board madness. When they began editing the opening kitchen scene, for example, the McIlraith brothers were careful to let Gosling’s morose obsession build in one shot, letting his haunted stare linger without any quick cuts to “just fit what that piece was going for,” Sean says. “At SNL, it’s really easy to be like, ‘I want to get this thing on the air, so it has to be a certain length, or you have to go for the cheap joke,’ and [Dave] never did that. He was always uncompromising.”

With such an economical script, neither of them had to cut out much footage—they joke that Gosling had a lot of takes driving around and huffing and puffing after his outbursts—and both could revel in the host’s unexpected commitment. “For a lot of hosts, you have to cut around them because you’re watching their eye lines shift off camera reading cue cards,” Ryan says, but “his performance felt like he’d been researching it for six months.” Still, the sketch wasn’t a surefire bet to make air. After the show’s “Weekend Update” segment, Sean worried the short would get chopped and the live audience would miss out on Gosling’s “Oscar-worthy performance.”

Instead, with 10 minutes left in the show, “Papyrus” made the cut, premiering to a raucous studio crowd and quickly making the rounds over the internet and social media. Later that morning, Costello’s phone blew up with texts and emails from friends asking if he’d seen the sketch. “I finally found it and I thought it was hilarious. I couldn’t stop laughing,” he says. “Ryan Gosling’s mood was so despondent about it. I just loved the way he internalized the whole thing.” Soon, he was getting other kinds of calls—interview requests from major media outlets, like CBS News, which conducted a live interview with him 35 years after making the font.

Costello could have never predicted the moment. At 23, he’d started work at an ad agency where he often fiddled with side projects during slow periods. One day, he started playing around with typographic exercises, “creating alphabets, pulling quotes from authors, cities and regions, and advising the appropriate typography to describe a geographic region,” he says. “Somehow, Papyrus came out of that.” Specifically, Costello used pen and ink to create some exaggerated swatches and serifs and noticed the letters he was drawing had an ancient Middle Eastern or Egyptian aesthetic akin to hieroglyphics. The “hand-made paper” look inspired the font name, which he submitted to about 10 different font distributors. “They all came back saying it was too fine, too feathery, and that it wouldn’t work in their computer systems,” he says. Finally one company, Letraset, told him to thicken the letter forms, create a lowercase alphabet, and resubmit. “I refined it and that’s what they took and purchased.”

Costello earned £750 for his work, and he was happy to have made inroads in his industry at such a young age. When it eventually emerged into the public domain in 1984, friends and family members often notified him when they’d see it pop up—on shopping catalogs, National Geographic magazines, frozen Chinese dinners, and travel brochures. Though he’d originally envisioned it being used for specific documentaries or magazines highlighting Middle Eastern or Roman history, “it was still narrow in its scope and used by designers that knew how to use it,” he says. “That all changed when Apple and Microsoft bought it.”

By 2000, Letraset had sold the font to Microsoft and Apple, making it a default font on computers. “To finally see it in the drop-down menu was so cool,” says Costello, who received royalties for the purchases. “But because now it was available to whomever, I started seeing it everywhere.” Over the next decade, he watched what was originally a doodle become a widespread font and polarizing topic online. “Some designers understand that it’s ubiquitous, but the letter forms are correct and unique,” he says. “The main issue is that it’s been so overused.”

“That’s one of the main sins of it. Anything that looks like it was just used off the shelf without any customization is considered unskilled or cheap somehow,” says Zach Fannin, a graphic designer who worked on Avatar and its sequel. “Some can stand the test of time, but the ones that stick out are Comic Sans and Papyrus.” Hence the joke at the end of the “Papyrus,” pitched by McCary, when the screen cuts to black and the sketch’s title … written out in Comic Sans. “We’re not graphic designers,” Ryan says, “but it really seemed to trigger a lot of people.”

David Kadavy gets it. The self-described “type snob and design commentator” wrote a short book (and blog post) called In Defense of Papyrus, but understands why so many graphic designers gripe about it. “Before being a designer became a powerful profession with the rise of the internet, there was an inferiority complex,” he says. “You want to get together and bitch about clients and how no one appreciates the hard work we’re doing. What better target than [Papyrus]?” But as he examined the font on a closer level, he realized it captured the movie’s overarching theme. Because Papyrus is what he describes as “materially dishonest,” created to look like it’s written on parchment even though it appears on a screen, it mimicked the movie’s human protagonists who “look like the Na’vi so that they can infiltrate their culture and take over their land for resources,” he says. “I thought, What a connection there!

There are other overlaps, too, like Papyrus’s use as a catchall font for any kind of tribal community—from Native American to Indian populations, which Costello has seen in gift shops—that suggests a general cultural assimilation. As Cameron told Empire in the same interview, “if Papyrus resonates with the issues of indigenous cultures in the public consciousness, then that fits well with Avatar.”

Though the “Papyrus” sketch seemed like the trigger to change the font for the sequel, the Avatar team had already started to pivot away from Papyrus. “When we realized that the movie was going to expand into a franchise and we’d have other IPs, we went out and created our own font that we’re now using,” producer Jon Landau told Entertainment Weekly. “We call it Toruk, and it’s available for people to use.” Still, for Fannin, the timing of the switch was scarily coincidental, and suggested SNL had bullied Cameron into submission.

The graphic designer remembers being tasked, along with other members of the art department, to kick-start the new typeface in 2017, using a premade “A” logo as a guide. “It was apparent there would be a need for sharing things on social media and marketing and a little bit of cast and crew merch was starting to get made,” he says. Soon, Fannin began putting together letters based on the “chiseled rock” aesthetic of the A, finalizing and sending some basic files to Landau on the Friday before the sketch premiered. “The timing couldn’t have been more insane,” Fannin says. “We were all laughing at it when we came into work. We just thought it was a great sketch.”

To clean up the kerning and create a full upper- and lower-case alphabet, the studio hired John Roshell in 2019. He’d received a vague email for his services from Lightstorm, Cameron’s company, and having watched the “Papyrus” sketch, he couldn’t believe what they were asking. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, no, it can’t be that,’” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t even want to ask about the SNL sketch [in case] they were going to hang up on me.” Over the next couple of months, Roshell cleaned up the outlines of each letter and provided a handful of different font weights, staying loyal to Fannin’s mockups. “Working on it and feeling the pressure of it in the back of my head,” Roshell says, “not only is it going to be associated with the movie, but every font designer is going to give it the side eye and think about how they could have done it better.”

The irony is, 13 years removed, there’s now a fondness for Papyrus—and a general displeasure for the switch. “When we decided to change it and make a new alphabet, everyone internally was like, ‘Let’s just leave it,’” Fannin says. “It’s had its bumps and bruises and it’s been around. At the end of the day, getting to revisit it, I don’t look at it and hate it like some people do.” Maybe understandably, Stougaard doesn’t have much affection for the decision to swap it out. “The fact that they changed it for the new movie is kind of weak,” he says, “and quite frankly I hate the new logo. It feels childish in my mind.”

As those polarizing takes attest, Avatar has become a great case study in understanding how font plays a crucial role in establishing the tone and feel of a movie or television show—how it’s prone to marketplace trends (like the Trajan epidemic that began in the late 1990s) and subconscious tendencies. “I can’t tell you how much time we waste making titles just going through font after font and then playing with the kerning and spacing and sizing. It really is important, especially on a poster,” Sean McIlraith says.

“The font that you choose could very much ruin the tone of your piece,” his brother affirms. “You’re at risk of completely throwing the audience.”

This is one of the enduring values imparted by the “Papyrus” sketch, reigniting a long-forgotten controversial decision and giving voice to countless graphic designers, tortured by everyday signage and lettering. “Designers live in a world of pain because we see things that hurt that everybody else passes over,” says Costello, who now designs coins for the U.S. Mint. To this day Stougaard privately gets a kick out of having the designation as the infamous artist of the Avatar font—and the satisfaction of forever being the character who drove Ryan Gosling to mania. “I can walk into any design agency in Los Angeles,” he says, “and make an entire room giggle when they find out that I am Mr. Papyrus.”

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.

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