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Yolanda Zappaterra watches out for the work of animators Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas.

In just over two weeks’ time Hollywood’s great and good will glam up for the biggest film event of the year, the Oscars. But even if the Americans are friends with the French by then, French animation directors and designers Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas won’t be among them, because film title design isn’t honoured by Oscar.

If it were, the duo’s title sequence for Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can would win hands down, for it’s generally regarded – by filmgoers and makers alike – as the year’s best, generating the kind of excitement not seen since Kyle Cooper’s extraordinary and revelatory titles for Se7en in 1995. Cooper had done a lengthy apprenticeship in title design with the best in the business to achieve such a great piece of work, but just where had this French pair come from?

Kuntzel met Deygas at a post-production facility in Paris in the late 1980s. She had graduated from Les Gobelins, famed for its animation, he from the highly respected school of Applied Arts in Paris, where he’d been integrating design with video to experiment with screen graphics.

‘I’d been trying to animate some drawings and Florence [Deygas] wanted to use video for animation so we decided to work together; it was a way of utilising each other’s skills and knowledge,’ says Kuntzel. It was a timely point at which to be forging such links, not just because, as Kuntzel puts it, ‘French screen graphics was combining old styles and new technology to create some very exciting directions and an environment in which anything was possible and allowable,’ but also because it was a point at which the crossover between animation and design and live action was exploding across all forms of media.

The pair went from strength to strength, starting with video installations for the Beaubourg museum and animated graphic design jingles for Arte Channel and quickly gaining ‘celebrity status’ on the French video music scene. From there they graduated to animated videos with Sparks (Now That I Own The BBC), Dimitri From Paris (Sacre Français) and Bertrand Burgalat (The Sssound Of Mmmusic) before tackling worldwide campaigns with Yves St Laurent, character branding for Bourjois, art directing exhibitions at famed Paris design store Colette, ads for HSBC and of course inducing a feeding frenzy in marketing and media terms for an animated bull called Winney.

‘Winney is a conceptual comment on the way you can create something and then play with the media,’ says Kuntzel. ‘The design of Winney is not important, but the comments we’re making by creating and manipulating him are,’ he adds. Something of an international superstar, Winney has worked with Colette and Evian, is big in Japan, appears on the covers of trendy magazines and has his own line of merchandise: some real, some invented. ‘He’s a homage to characters like Betty Boop and Felix the Cat, surreal 1920s animation that had lots of character,’ says Kuntzel. ‘So many graphic designers are producing work that’s about shape, form and movement, but there’s no character, and we’re keen to put that back,’ he adds.

The duo’s fondness for character is evident in the three-minute cat-and-mouse chase sequence that makes up the Catch Me If You Can titles. As Charlotte Bavasso (founding producer with Chris O’Reilly of London-based animation production house Nexus, where the titles were created in collaboration with Steven Spielberg and producer Walter Parkes), says: ‘the real success of the sequence is that it’s a great short film on its own, but it also sets the mood and look of the real film, so there’s a great resonance between the two.’

There are other components to its success, including the pacing and the John Williams score, which Kuntzel believes ‘transformed the titles from a video clip into a short story.’ But above all it’s the graphic simplicity of the piece, a deception achieved through the use of flat colours, consistent typographical motifs and animation techniques from the 1960s era in which the film is set, that makes it so original and inventive.

Kuntzel is keen to point out that comparisons to the work of Saul Bass and Maurice Binder are unjustified – ‘we didn’t look at any 1960s titles, we just tried to work as though we were in that period,’ he explains – saying instead that the sequence references those great designers as part of a lost paradise that both the titles and the film Catch Me If You Can evoke, but in a very modern, original way.

‘There’s a fantasy element to it that people connect with, which I think is an emotional response to its simplicity, a reaction against the special effects-heavy films that audiences can’t connect with emotionally. The response has been amazing,’ says Kuntzel. And deservedly so; no, it won’t win an Oscar, but if I were Kuntzel and Deygas I’d be kitting out Winney with his own gold outfit and holding my own Oscar night come 23 March.

Catch Me If You Can is at cinemas nationwide

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