Marathon Man

Richard Morrison of Plume is a very successful film title designer, but he realises that you can’t afford to take things for granted. Yolanda Zappaterra talks to Morrison about his determination to stay the course and overleaf describes the process used t

The practice of incorporating a logo into a film’s title sequence and making that logo part of the sequence, was arguably done to greatest effect back in 1989 on Tim Burton’s Batman. The camera zooms down grainy corridors, turning corners and, helped along by Danny Elfman’s haunting music, a sense of menace and malevolence is suggested. The camera pans out to reveal a huge canyon-like concrete structure, and continues to pan out to the point where you realise you are zooming through the crevasses of a huge 3D Batman logo.

Richard Morrison of London design group Plume is the man behind this work. He’d already designed sequences for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in 1985, and David Lean’s Passage to India in 1984, before working with Burton – and currently has his work for sci-fi horror picture Event Horizon playing the world’s multiplexes. His next film, Seven Years in Tibet by Jean-Jacques Annaud, opens in the UK next month.

Based a short walk from the facilities and post-production houses it constantly works with in Soho, Plume’s offices and its ten staff are housed in a surprisingly small, but pleasant and workable, space in London’s Warren Mews. This is the way Morrison likes it. He employs only three full-time designers at Plume, and works closely with what he calls a virtual team.

“This team consists of people like lighting cameramen, post-production houses, storyboard artists, freelance designers… people I’ve worked with for years. In the case of one particular freelance, 15 years. If you work with someone that long, communication becomes instinctive, and using this virtual team gives young designers a sense that design is about support, connections and teams. And, for a company, using a team in that way is vitally important, because design is such a volatile thing that you can be in one minute and out the next,” says Morrison emphatically.

The sense of volatility is, you suspect, what drives Morrison so hard, the thought that you can hit the big time but there’s no guarantee that it’s permanent. He insists that designers must be as open as possible, ready to re-invent themselves and understand as many facets of the business as they can. “That’s particularly true of film title design,” he says, “because its importance is tidal. There’s no particular reason why it will suddenly be regarded as an important part of the film, and it can easily stop. If I’d thought the rest of my life was sorted after doing the Batman titles, I’d have gotten in serious trouble.”

Luckily there seems to be something of a renaissance in the art of title sequences, a drive towards the kind of work admired in Morrison’s early days, when peers such as Maurice Binder and Saul Bass were lauded for their skills in using type and graphics to create memorable moving images. Their work played a part in Morrison’s decision to leave Amersham College and take a position with a film company called General Screen Enterprise which specialised in making film trailers.

While working at GSE, Morrison finished his course in Graphic Design and Photography on a part-time, day-release basis. His next move was to an advertising agency/ design consultancy in Covent Garden, putting his “schizophrenic graphics and moving image background” together.

“Over the next few years I realised I knew everything I needed in order to do this properly, so in 1979 I decided to start Plume,” Morrison explains. “Work was never a problem because I was offering something that nobody else was. For example on a 2D project with John Cleese for Video Arts, he realised I could art direct and make props. So I started going out on shoots with him. It was all inter-related, and you’d probably never get those chances now because it’s so much more structured. Then, while I was doing 2D work, I was also working with movie directors. TV work was starting to come in too, and that’s different again, because the way you present to and work with them is different to film. The more designers have in their armoury – psychologically and visually – the more they’ll succeed.”

It’s hard to draw Morrison out on his TV work, possibly because, as he explains: “It’s marketing-driven, so doesn’t fulfil creative aspects as much as film. TV people are very much what I call ‘in a box’ – you can give them a big idea but if it doesn’t fit with their slot programming and marketing they won’t go for it.

“And ultimately film is a bigger picture, allowing you to go that extra mile creatively – it’s just a lot more fun,” he adds, before enthusing about the collaborative and creative processes undergone working on a film.

“There’s so much trust involved in film-making, because I’m off-set with a second unit, the director has to completely trust me to get on with it. Tim Burton took me on after my presentation and basically told me to get on with it and call him in when I wanted him to look at it. With someone like Jean-Jacques [Annaud] it’s like he’s leaving you part of his soul to look after, and you have to respect the seriousness of that. On Brazil, I had to scale Terry Gilliam’s huge creative ideas down, but David Lean was the opposite, a very precise film-maker, so I had to listen carefully to that precision,” he says.

Morrison likes to read the script before seeing any rough cuts, enabling him to start visualising ideas for the movie. Then comes the bit he loves: “Seeing the film at the rough cut stage, where you get to see the mis-scenes, the missed dialogue, the mess. And you have to imagine where all the special effects are going to be as all you’re seeing are the blue screens.”

By now he’ll be starting to look for signals – images he thinks might work, before getting into serious discussions with the film’s director. “The main thing I’ve learned is to listen closely to them, because I’ve worked with a lot who’ve taught me so much,” he acknowledges.

Working with US directors, for example, has taught Morrison that while we speak the same language, we don’t necessarily understand something to mean the same thing. But on the up side, US projects offer far more money, a less conservative approach and the willingness to take a chance, something that’s more difficult to find on UK projects.

“But I don’t think these differences result in a different kind of expression,” he says. “Someone like Kyle Cooper in the US probably gets the same kind of projects offered to him as I do and, while the subject matter will be the same, the outcome will be very different because he’d have a different expressive way of working.

You could transpose our locations and that wouldn’t alter our work.”

Morrison rejects the notion that being based in London has any disadvantages – technologically, physically or culturally. “We are becoming a one-world union, and you just have to have an open mind and not take preconceived ideas with you. It’s important to feel things that people are saying, not just take their words on an intellectual level,” he advises.

Technology has obviously also broken down physical barriers, but it’s now beginning to stretch the creative mind in ways that weren’t previously possible. Morrison believes that while he is not a technical person, the fact that he’s a designer – “observing things constantly and taking them in at a level that can be recalled when necessary” – allows him to experiment with the technology and filter it so he can “make things move that further inch”.

He is understandably excited by the possibilities, though he believes it’s important that users realise it doesn’t offer an answer – “the idea has to work as it always has,” he insists, “but what’s exciting about it is that it enables me to realise so many more ideas.”

The ideas Morrison tries to bring to his work necessarily come from the film itself in order to create one integral package, but he believes that his graphic design background strongly informs the process, allowing him to incorporate different elements and influences. “Those influences are found in life, conversations, food, painting, everything,” he says.

“To let ideas come naturally you have to feel a strong sense of yourself, an inward quietness and steadiness,” he adds thoughtfully. “Designers are marathon runners, not sprinters, and I feel like I’m growing and learning all the time – and always will be.” Part of that process is a desire to make movies himself, something he’s made a start on with two sequences filmed for Seven Years in Tibet.

But it’s very hard to imagine him giving up his title sequences work. The pleasure he obviously gets from that work is so great that even after 18 years with Plume he is still almost childlike in his enthusiasm: “We’ve been offered the Spice Girls movie. I figure it could be fun so

I’ve said yes,” he laughs.

Creating Event Horizon titles

Event Horizon is an over-the-top roller coaster collection of sci-fi and horror clich̩s from Alien to Hellraiser sampled and remixed for the MTV generation. Like all good remixes it takes us beyond the original material and genuinely succeeds in scaring, but genre aficionados can have fun spotting the varied sources Рcheck out Sam Neill as Freddy Kruger.

Richard Morrison’s title sequence, by contrast, is almost a Zen experience. With a slow pan and zoom, Morrison takes us on a journey from a safe familiar landscape through the heavens into the unknown dark menacing heart of a black hole that grows and swallows the whole screen. Underscored by the pulsing rhythms of Orbital’s soundtrack, the titles act as a metaphor for the journey of unfolding terror we are about to undertake.

After the Paramount mountain logo appears, a subtle mix dissolves out the sky and replaces it with stars, before a slow pan up and left across the sky towards a blue swirling maelstrom. The front credits, in a suitably futuristic typeface, fade in and out until we zoom closer into the darkness, then they begin to disappear into the hole. When the blackness finally fills the screen, a single blinking light appears, fading to a small VDU screen with words appearing on it, and our journey begins again for real. The whole sequence blends seamlessly from the front contractual logos through the titles and into the main story.

The sequence was constructed using traditional film techniques and then composited and rendered digitally. The traditional techniques, ie live action shooting, were used because Morrison felt that: “Organic and irregular natural elements like water, fire and gas are very difficult and expensive to reproduce in computer graphic imaging, and using film also allows the subtleties of natural lighting to be captured.”

The black hole effect was shot over two days on 35mm film and created with a large-scale perspex bowl with a hole in the middle, cracked oil and dry ice (for mist) to get the feel and effect of a large swirling volume. The camera was cranked up to 125 frames a second, achieving the feeling of large mass when slowed down to normal speed. Once all the footage was gathered the material was digitised: “From this point on until completion, Inferno is the main manipulator and generator of the sequence,” explains Morrison. “It has an almost infinite array of configurations but still relies on the big idea, which is thankfully still man or woman driven – for now,” he adds.

Latest articles