The words “Title sequence by Kyle Cooper/Imaginary Forces” appear on the credits for the latest Mafia movie, Donnie Brasco, just before the soundtrack information and the “no animals were harmed in the making of this film” disclaimer. As anyone who sticks around that long after a movie will know, this is way down there at the bottom of the credits. And yet title sequences should set the entire tone of a movie, or as title sequence expert Kyle Cooper puts it: “A great title sequence should get an emotional response. If it’s successful it will break down the movie to get the central concept across.”
Cooper should know. He picked up Saul Bass’s mantle effortlessly with his award-winning work for David Fincher’s Seven in 1995, and in eight years has created more than 70 title sequences. Last year he and two colleagues bought out the West Coast arm of Robert Greenberg’s digital effects company R/GA. A measure of R/GA’s belief in the new company, Imaginary Forces, is its financial assistance and investment. Imaginary Forces now employs 40 staff who work on commercial graphics projects, broadcast projects and, increasingly, interactive design. Its commissions include graphics work for IBM, American Express and Bank of America; interactive projects for McDonald’s and Netscape; broadcast work for Kodak and Homicide: Life on the Streets and feature film work for just about every producer and director you could think of, from Oliver Stone to Disney.
Cooper’s break came in 1988, when hounding Robert Greenberg’s office paid off with the offer of freelance print work. Although Cooper desperately wanted to get into title design, Greenberg could be forgiven for having little faith in the 25-year-old’s abilities in this area. He was a graduate of an art course at the University of Massachusetts which covered everything from sculpture to interior architecture – none of which he really enjoyed. “I particularly disliked interior architecture because I felt unable to communicate directly with its users,” he says. He was then offered an internship at Wang Laboratories.
Here he was encouraged to study under Paul Rand at Yale, which gave him a good portfolio of graphic design and typography, but his life-long interest in film had never been encouraged or allowed to develop. “From an early age I enjoyed movies, particularly monster movies, with make-up by artists like Dick Smith and effects by Rick Baker. I used to go home and draw monsters and fantastic situations, but as I grew older, everyone except my mother tried to dissuade me from drawing and design. At Wang we used to have ‘show and tell’ sessions at lunchtime and once someone brought in film titles, and I was fascinated. But Paul Rand at Yale steered me away from writing my thesis on film titles, telling me instead to read Eisenstein. I stayed on at Yale for a year as a resident graduate affiliate after getting my MFA, getting more and more into typography. But my interest in film titles was always at the back of my mind,” says Cooper. So it’s no surprise that his first motion work came quickly at R/GA, where he pitched ideas until the studio decided to use his concept for Martin Scorsese’s section of New York Stories, Life Lessons.
Bearing in mind Rand’s advice that execution is just as important as concept, Cooper labours intensely on each movie, concentrating on detail as much as content. His recent work on John Frankenheimer’s The Island of Dr Moreau, a disturbing science fiction thriller about experiments in genetics, lasts two minutes and 40 seconds, yet it contains 400 shots in 20 000 frames.
Cooper took the concept of transformation and mutation as his approach for Dr Moreau and collected hundreds of visuals from sources such as old photographs and computer-generated images. He edited on an Avid before unifying the colour and film grain through the use of the editing system Inferno with visual effects artist Alex Frisch. “We needed the rendering power of Inferno because we wanted to control the look of the individual shots and the overall colour,” explains Cooper. “Inferno enabled us to get effects that we might not have arrived at using traditional opticals.”
The overall effect is one that combines strong typography and graphic language with bizarre morphing, microscopic processes and lots of extreme close-ups.
Close-ups feature just as strongly in the opening sequence for Donnie Brasco, for which director Mike Newell commissioned Cooper on the strength of his work for Seven. “He likened the obsessive nature of the characters in Seven to that of Donnie, the undercover FBI agent who pursues ageing Mafia hitman Lefty
Ruggiero for three years, predator-like, before becoming accepted by Al Pacino and the mob,” explains Cooper.
Close-ups become marked-up contact sheets and the typography is reminiscent of telegram type, implying surveillance and recording information. It gets to the core of the movie, which is about tracking and monitoring, knowing when to pounce and whether you’re the predator or the victim. It’s a dark movie, which suits Cooper just fine. “I was influenced by CS Lewis, who thought it was good to believe that evil exists, but not to focus on it. So I’m not afraid to work on dark content,” he says. “But I’m not interested in things like Interview with a Vampire, which I wouldn’t work on because it’s about meaninglessness.
“A friend jokingly suggested that my sequence for Seven was autobiographical, exorcising my own personal demons. And it may have been. But it was more about my belief that we should communicate, and Fincher’s desire to get across to the audience that if they’d come to see Brad Pitt the hunk, or Morgan Freeman the nice man from Driving Miss Daisy, then they were in the wrong theatre. I have to say it’s one of my favourite pieces of work, partly because there was such a big reaction to it, but mostly because there’s nothing I’d change on it,” he continues.
A perennial favourite, and one that he thinks has all the elements of a great title sequence, is Saul Bass’s Anatomy of a Murder. But he also cites more recent examples such as The Fugitive, “which uses music, the actors and the type’s movement really well”, Altered States, Delicatessen and Dead Zone. He’s also pleased with his titles for the forthcoming Volcano and Night Watch, which “should be pretty good”, he says modestly.
Lately, Cooper has been moving into directing – commercials and live-action movie segments – and it obviously won’t be long before he finds the time to direct one of his own stories. But it’s also obvious that he and his team at Imaginary Forces are having a great time. “We want to build a library of dynamic content in different media,” he says, pointing out that while he’s not very hands-on with the interactive stuff, preferring to art direct and offer input, he sees it all as one thing.
“It’s about working on a problem and solving it. The parameters are the same, the methodology is the same, the concept is the same.”