Creativity limited only by designer's imagination

When filmgoers see the opening title sequence of the upcoming “Tomb Raider,” what they may not realize is all the behind-the-scenes artistry that goes into making one of the most overlooked yet most important aspects of filmmaking. Titles create the mood and set the tone for the audience with their fusion of text, music, sound and visuals.

In the early days, titles were simply cards that politely rejoined audience members to remove their hats. Now, thanks to computer and digital magic, creativity is limited only by a designer’s imagination.

The production company that created the “Tomb Raider” titles is the Picture Mill, one of the hottest houses in Hollywood. In business for six years, with about 40 employees, the design shop was responsible for “Angel Eyes,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Shanghai Noon,” “Romeo Must Die” and “Hollow Man,” among many others. The titles for “Hollow Man” created a stir with their swirling amoeba-like letters floating in a primordial sea, a process that took six weeks to complete.

The company works on about 30 to 50 films a year, along with designing titles for trailers, TV shows, and creating corporate graphics and animated logos.

“The culture here is a democratically run business,” says Picture Mill founder and president Eric Ladd, who’s been in the business for about 20 years. “We go through a design stage with the director, brainstorm, throw forth a bunch of ideas which are most appropriate, then storyboard or give it to the director in animatic form.”

But first there is the work of actually winning the bid. Ladd says most budgets for major motion pictures range from a low of $40,000-$50,000 up to a high of about $800,000 reportedly paid for some of the “James Bond” film opening title sequences.

“There are so many variables, depending on whether we shoot new footage of our own or work with the film’s production team during principal photography,” says noted designer Karin Wong, a partner in Hollywood-based Imaginary Forces.

With 90 people on staff, recent credits for Imaginary Forces include “The Mummy Returns,” “Along Came a Spider,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Save the Last Dance” and “Bedazzled.” Like the Picture Mill, Imaginary Forces does titles for teasers and trailers, along with commercials, network IDs and animated titles for sporting events.

Imaginary Forces was founded by Kyle Cooper in 1996 after he left RGA/LA with two partners shortly after he designed the acclaimed opening title sequence for “Seven.”

“David Fincher wanted to set up the killer,” Cooper remembers. “It gives you a context and prepares you for the movie. I feel like it’s the first scene in the film, and what animates me is the challenge of coming up with the story.

“I enjoy living vicariously with all these directors that I respect, listening to what their problem is and helping them solve it.”

Computer animation has made the art of title design easier and more efficient from the not too distant days of “downshooting,” when a camera would simply shoot a cell.

“Traditional opticals have passed their prime as well,” notes Ladd. “Computer scanning and recording costs as well as the price of the equipment have plummeted.

“But there are still a lot of movies that just pick a font and burn titles on a low budget,” he adds.

“Computers enable very rapid visualization that is more complex. They allow you to explore ideas quickly and to see what something looks like before it’s done, along with uses of typography that were nonexistent,” says David Peters, the founder of DesignFilms.org in San Francisco and curator of a traveling exhibit called “For Openers: The Art of Film Titles.”

He sees titles as an opportunity to compress a story and to evoke a mood in a short period of time, as well as integrating the arts of design and filmmaking.

“In the future, filmmakers will be no more able to ignore titles than to ignore casting, costumes, set design or cinematography.”

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