“Don’t start lining up fallbacks.
Go for what it is that you want to do.
There are people that are going to criticize the work usually because they want to elevate their own self-esteem.”
Kyle Cooper is a designer specialized in crafting film title sequences. The talented designer and director has worked on over 130 title sequence productions. His stunning work on “Se7en” first gained his work international attention. Cooper’s creations with Prologue are continuing to gain respect for the main-title sequence as an art form.
- Kyle Cooper gave me the interview in August 2007 . It was first published for Europe’s largest Association of independet designers AGD. It was printed in the AGD magazine Drei|Viertel (aka Three | Quarter) , Issue “Design and Film”, September 2007. Click here for the printed version (German)
- The 2nd publication was released in the bi-lingual Online Art & Film Magazine “Encore” on January 18th .2008 in issue 39 with friendly permission. Read the whole Encore magazine online (Flash required)
- The German translated Version is just one-click-away.
1. Kyle, can you please give us a summary of your career so far?
I was always an artist. I grew up in the Boston area and used to draw a lot when I was a child. After I graduated from the University of Massachusetts I was accepted into the Yale graduate school for graphic design to continue to study typography. I was 23 and very interested in main titles. I was realizing that someone had to design those things. And I always wanted to be a director. It seemed like these titles were an interesting way to do both things. I needed to learn how to be a graphic designer. I needed to learn how to see. I wanted to learn how to think visually and to gain more formal training, because I felt that would inform my future film making process. At Yale I learned from a great group of master designers, especially Paul Rand. After I graduated from Yale I got a job at R/Greenberg and Associates, R/GA. At that point I had only print design experience and they weren’t sure if I could work in terms of motion.
There was a design presentation in development for creating a film’s title sequence and Bob Greenberg agreed, “If you just do our print work, our advertising, we will let you pitch on the titles”. The first title I pitched on I won and then I just started doing numerous titles in New York for about 8 years. Then Bob sent me to Los Angeles to start RGA/LA’s design department and lead the studio creatively. During that time I did a lot of tabletop shoots, and when I asked David Fincher if I could film the live action for “Se7en”, he agreed. I went to the premiere for “Se7en” and when the audience saw the main title they cheered. David Fincher and I didn’t say much, but we just looked at each other and we knew we had done something good.
I was still working for RGA/LA when I did “Se7en” and “Mission Impossible”. Soon after I partnered with two of my associates. For about 6 years I was doing many things in a larger situation, like “The Mummy”, “Identity” or ”Spiderman” and we were very successful. But I wanted to get back into the details of the design process with my clients again, because one of the things that is really interesting to me is the kind of relationships that you cultivate with the directors. So I started ‘Prologue’ and once again I get to have this sort of close collaboration with the filmmakers. I’ve worked with Sam Raimi on all three of the Spiderman films, with Terrence Malick on “The New World” and I recently re-teamed with Julie Taymor for “Across the Universe”.
2. Where does the name ‘Prologue’ come from?
‘Prologue’ comes from the William Shakespeare play “Henry the 5th”. It’s a very inspirational play for me. A prologue is like engaging and involving the viewer in the creative process and that is why I have always liked filmmaking and graphic design instead of other things where you aren’t directly communicating with an audience or viewer. I hire graphic designers that I admire and I also hire other directors whose work is inspiring to me in order to develop a community of artists and a kind of international aesthetic culture at Prologue. We are all working to create motion graphics that are excellent. I have a freedom with this company and It’s exciting again, with Prologue, to see the good stuff happening.
3. How do you start working on a title sequence project?
It’s very much like a research project. I completely immerse myself in the story that the filmmaker is trying to tell. I study the script, I read it over and over again. I start to write, I start to begin to narrow down what I think the possible direction is. There always has to be one person who is completely familiar with and intimate with, and sort of takes ownership of what the problem is that you are trying to solve. The director is the person who is most intimate and knows every frame of the film, so I talk to him. It’s like a graphic designer trying to get to know the business of their client. I like film because we are not at the mercy of any particular style. Every film has its own look, its own language. The design of film title sequences is a part of storytelling itself and a part of the movie that is going to be shown.
4. How long does it take to produce a film title sequence?
It depends on the project. For example, “Superman Returns” was all computer generated. We only had 6 weeks. That was a short schedule and it was really hard to do something of that complexity in that time frame. People were sleeping on couches; we were very ambitiously working on that project. Sometimes you get involved early on so the project stays in the studio for a longer time but you aren’t working on it every single day; you’re leaving it and coming back to it. In general it takes about a month if it’s the only thing I’m working on, which is also very rare.
5. Is it the Key Art Department or You who creates the design?
Again, it depends. In a perfect world we work completely on our own. It’s working that way on “Across the Universe” with Julie Taymor. It worked that way on “Gattaca”. On “Gattaca” we did the trailer, we worked on the titles and we worked on the marketing.
6. Who owns the rights?
The studio owns the image rights on everything. We get paid for services of designing and producing the title sequence. It’s funny when I go to Universal Studios in Los Angeles with my daughters and we go on “The Mummy Ride”- they still use the logo we created for the film on the theme park ride and on the toy packaging. It’s great when you make a logo, or have a main title idea, or a language or a sort of brand that can spill over into the movie’s marketing.
7. Which of your projects you’ve done so far do you like most and why?
I tend to confuse the process with the project. On the one hand, my favorite ones are the ones where I can watch it 1000 times and there’s not one frame or one color correction or one positioning of one element that I would change. The movie is perfect and there’s nothing that’s really gnawing at me that I want to change. You can see the passion. On the other hand, it’s the process to me, who I worked with, how it went, what’s the experience I had, what was the time in my life when that was happening, what else was going on. I put a lot of myself into the work. I tend to be obsessive.
I love the end credit sequence for “Quiz Show” that I did for Robert Redford. I had just come to L.A. I was this young guy that had to come in and fix all of the problems and I killed myself to do this. You look at it now and you might not think it is very complicated. There’s this one shot of these people clapping but I had to edit this whole thing and plan it all out, how we are going to be pushing in on this piece of film and slowing down this piece of film and it’s a traditional film optical, but I presented this to Redford and he was very happy.
8. Which tools do you use for your work?
We make storyboards, and sometimes I write things first. Usually I figure things out when I edit. I make sketches and we interpret those sketches in Photoshop and sometimes we go take pictures and make a Photoshop frame and some of the Photoshop storyboards we move to animation and or shooting live action. I like to shoot live action, because I like to do practical things. So I’m taking pictures and animating films or shooting film. I use Final Cut Pro to pre-visualize things, Maya runs on a PC. After Effetcs is used for animation. It depends on the project.
9. Are film title sequences a hint to the audience of what could be important in the movie?
Sometimes it’s a metaphor for the movie or a short synopsis or just for excitement. But “Se7en” was more than that: the title sequence of “Se7en” works so well because it becomes the first scene of the movie. David Fincher and I talked about the fact that you didn’t see the killer, you didn’t see John Doe’s character until the back third of the movie in the third act. So we realized we needed a prologue, we needed a new scene, we needed to get these credits across, we needed to integrate them, but we needed to design the first scene of the movie. The title sequence with its 2.5 min becomes the first scene of the film.
10. “Se7en” was dark movie. Many of your projects are based on dark themes…
I do enjoy exploring dark subjects. I tend to like either really funny things or really dark things. The analogy about growing up outside of Boston is that things are either really funny or really bleak. When I was a little kid I loved monsters and my favorite movie was “The Dead Zone” with Christopher Walken.
I think that my work on “Identity”, “Mimic” and “Dawn of the Dead” was dark in a melancholy sort of way. I prefer haunting kind of things, but also there is also playfulness. There’s playfulness about the edit of “Dawn of the Dead” and there’s playfulness about the selection of the Johnnie Cash music when zombies walk around. For the opening for “The Curse of Darkness Falls” we shot some interesting things blowing up and things burning. Not many people have seen that movie but I am really pleased with that piece. I don’t think that an excitement about dark things is much the case now, but I guess historically yes, it may have been. Prologue has become much more than that. It has grown into a group of 35 people now exchanging ideas and international design perspectives that all come into play within the titles, commercials, television and video game titles we are creating.
11. What inspires you?
Coming up with an idea about solving the problem; the challenge of trying to solve something that is a difficult thing to solve. Getting validation from the director you are working with. The convergence of all the different mediums – the Internet is a brilliant forum for people to publish their work. Stories inspire me and memories inspire me. Once and a while I’ll see a piece of graphic design that will blow me away. I want to direct a movie that has a good story and I won’t necessarily feel like I have to rely on any stylistic graphic tricks. There’s no problem doing hugely complicated 2D and 3D animations and character animation, but to get at something that’s emotionally engaging or disturbing – that seems to be the new challenge.
12. What makes a designer a good designer? It’s not the technical skills, is it?
There are people that make things that are extremely good technically, and because of the computer and the availability of software, most people can do a professional looking job. The computer can help you have all the edges be straight and have everything be tight and professional and again complicated and very refined. I know a lot of designers that do very refined professional work, but there isn’t anything human about it. There isn’t any imperfection or any kind of hand made thing. I prefer designers where you can get a sense of the designer’s personality, even if its from the mistakes in the work; even if its messy.
I come from a print design background where the thinking is if you can make one good looking still image, then for film you are just trying to make a series of good looking still images. I have always felt that, and people have disagreed with me. But if you freeze on a film in a sequence and it’s an ugly composition, then you should fix that frame. You shouldn’t be able to stop on it and have anything that looks ugly, that’s my opinion. Some people think that it’s the overall combination of all these frames, but I think each one should be well designed. I think if something is beautiful, most people will agree.
Most strong designers have a good visual sense and each has some type of personal way of measuring their work. The way designers actually execute it can be conceptual and clever. The best designers’ works allows you to come up with a new way of seeing it, your own personal point of view. A good designer ultimately has the ability to solve problems.
13. Coming up with the last question, what is your advice for young designers who want to start their own business?
Never discourage any artist or designer from doing anything. You can get in a bad situation where you work for someone who is not encouraging and sharpening you but they are kind of feeding off of you. You can get a good education and good opportunities, working for an established person or firm that has been doing it for a long time. But if you don’t feel like you need to have other people to get you work or if you don’t feel like you can learn anything from someone who has been doing it for 20 years longer then you have to go for it and start your own company and make something yourself. It’s not just starting a company or just getting a job, you have to get something to show for yourself, even if its self initiated – a self initiated project. You need to make something to put out there. Something that inspires people to come and want you to make something for them. Don’t start lining up fallbacks. Go for what it is that you want to do. There are people that are going to criticize the work usually because they want to elevate their own self-esteem. Don’t be so arrogant that you have to do everything yourself. Collaborate with someone and let them do some part of it that they are good at. If you are only good at one small aspect of the process, be with someone else that sharpens you and sharpens other people, because “iron sharpens iron”.
© 2007 Juliane Zielonka – all rights reserved.
More main titles designed and directed by Kyle Cooper
Dawn of the Dead
Kyle Cooper Documentary