The Den Of Geek interview: Richard Morrison

He's the man who designed titles for Sweeney Todd, the original Tim Burton Batman film, for Terry Gilliam, David Lean and many others. And now Richard Morrison is talking to us...

Richard Morrison is perhaps Britain’s premier titles designer, with a career that’s seen him work on films as diverse as Batman, Brazil, Quadrophenia, Memphis Belle, The Golden Compass, A Passage To India and Nuns On The Run. He’s worked with directors such as Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Kenneth Branagh, Neil Jordan, Ridley Scott and David Lean, and he joined us in the middle of London for a chat about his work.

It’s a horribly predictable question to start with, but the interest in title design: where did that come from?

Well it wasn’t actually really invented when I started, and basically I got a lucky break. I went straight from art school straight into a job which was then a kind of very old fashioned trailer film company, and there was people like Maurice Binder used to come in and use the equipment.

I had a quick chat with him and he said to me, “Richard you’ve got loads of film experience already” – because my father’s a film editor – so he said “you’re a really good artist, illustrator, why don’t you think about this thing called film titles”, which meant nothing to me really. So I helped him out on one of the Bond sequences, one of the early ones.

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So then, having a kind of design background anyway I went into the room of ideas, and what other great works had been done and then I came across Saul Bass and when I saw his stuff I thought yeah blimey that’s the way to go. So that was my inspiration, that and Maurice Binder, and I just went off from there?

Was it anything in particular from Saul Bass?

All of it really, North by Northwest, all of the classic ones he did for Hitchcock. An amazing body of work, so I thought that is the way to go. So I went through that side door really, which didn’t really exist in this country.

Was that a blessing or a curse?

Well in creativity you’re always looking for a lucky break and I just saw that as a lucky break. Here I am talking to someone that is pretty good at it, which is Maurice Binder, and I thought let’s follow that door.

You’re open about the fact that you don’t play by a set of rules. Presumably you see things more as an open canvas?

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Yes, I mean you don’t really know. And that is the excitement, and still is today. I mean along the way I’ve taken side roads, you know I’ve gone off into brand design, I’ve gone into commercials, a lot of graphic design, but the film thing is the one kind of upright that has always been there.

And has that been by personal choice or by the demand of people after your work?

I think it’s a combination of two things. Apparently people tell me I’ve got a very good personality, I’m a good listener, and what it is with film directors, especially film directors, is you’ve got to be a good listener. It’s not about your ego, it’s not about you trying to enforce something. And I think listening is a key part of this.

A glimpse down your filmography shows a staggering list of directors that you’. I suppose each director is playing by a fairly different set of rules themselves?

Yes they are. I mean some directors don’t work for four years, other directors like Tim Burton, they do work from film to film to film. Ridley Scott is the same, every other year they are on a film, once one has finished they’re in pre-production on the next one.

I think what has carried me along is the fact that when you do a job for an up and coming director who then becomes successful, is they are very good team players; they actually think “oh Richard was very good at that, let’s get him in again”, or “this DP [Director of Photography] was very good”. They tend to work in a little family unit and it’s only if you mess up do they forget and try somebody else.

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Can you take me through the first couple of title sequences and how you approached them, and how that differs as to how you’d approach them now?

I think you have to approach it in a very naive childlike way, every job is different, you can’t…I mean I never look back and think “oh I wish I’d done that differently”, because there are so many ifs and buts in things. For instance, when they are making a film , they don’t know whether it is even going to be successful, there’s an aspiration that oh this is going to be good, but you never really know.

But presumably it changes over a period of time, in that in the first few jobs you are reasonably nervous about presenting the work?

Oh definitely, I think all creative people have that, it never really leaves you, it’s almost like your anxiety is your security in a funny sort of way.

You say you were lucky to work with up and coming directors. Are there any that you are particularly fond of your collaborations with? Because I’ve noticed that lots of them seem to ask you back.

Well Quadrophenia was a great experience, that was a very early one and that was just on a complete hunch – I was in the right place at the right time.

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I think a lot of it is to do with that, you know it’s right place, right time. And if you always put yourself forward , you are going to get more breaks at it, if you know what I mean.

Do you find that being British means you have to push and sell yourself that bit more? Certainly, again, in the early years?

Yes, I kind of operate as the Americans do. You know, don’t just sit back and wait for something or someone to give you a job, just go to try to find it. Knock on doors.

Looking at your filmography again, particularly some of the early films you worked on were clearly very British productions and then you spread your wings and covered facets of European cinema and then broke into the American market. I don’t know too many British title artists who have had that kind of success?

No, I think I’m actually the only one that has done it in a kind of big way, you know film after film after film. Obviously if I was in LA, which I’ve been offered to go to several times, I’d be in a much bigger pond and probably get bigger jobs, but I’m quite happy in Soho.

I suppose now you’ve got this back-catalogue, you know when someone approaches you with a job, it’s long past the time of hunches and lucky breaks, it is someone asking you specifically to do a job?

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Oh yes, that is good. But even on this recent job of Sweeney Todd with Tim [Burton], I consider that a lucky break. I hadn’t worked with him since the first Batman film, and he just so happens to have come to live here in the UK, and they just sort of phoned me up. It’s a lucky break, he could have found anyone.

The Tim Burton stuff is interesting, because to be attached to a film such as Batman back then, and be responsible for the first couple of minutes that anyone would see of the film, was quite a responsibility. How did that come about?

The producers found me, phoned me up and said “oh Richard, do you want to come and have a look at this?”

I went up to Pinewood studios, it was a pitch I was told, I had about half an hour with Tim, obviously I understood what the film was about. I realised that the Art Director was somebody that I had known called Anton Furst. Now it could have been Anton that told Tim “oh get Richard to come up , don’t rely on just American creators, Richard’s only down the road”. That could have been how it came up.

So what’s the background with Anton Furst?

I just knew him, because he’s an Art Director. So I said to Tim “Oh you’re still shooting, is it okay if I go up to Anton’s studio and have a look at the drawings”. And, obviously Gotham City set was still up, I just wandered round the set.

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On the set of the film that virtually everyone was waiting to see at that moment?

Yes, so I went on the set. And I teach a lot about how ideas come about, basically I go into a room in my head which is no ideas, I go into that room and just see what comes up. The room in that was the drive back from the Pinewood Studios, I remember it so clearly, the one idea that came into my head was the classic bat logo and I thought what if we think of that in a 360 degree move, how about if it’s in landscape, how about I make it something you can move around so you don’t quite know what it is. That was the idea..

I think when we all first saw it coming down, we expected it to descend on a Gotham skyline. And even then it takes quite a long time before you realise that that isn’t going to happen.

Yes. So that was the idea, I sketched it out in about six frames. And what I find is, as a creative, it’s the idea that is important and when the idea works it is normally quite simple. I took that back to Tim and he saw it straight away and he just loved it, because I think he saw the idea pure and he realised it was really simple and it fitted, which I subsequently learned later also fitted with his psychology, you know the darkness, the unexplained which is suddenly then explained. And that was it really.

You say for Batman that you went in to that for a pitch meeting. And really you’re pitching an ethos, a style of working, a creative style rather than anything close to a finished product? Is that usually the case?

Yes, I never take any finished product. It’s the idea; you have to get the idea across.

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But presumably, you say it was a pitch meeting, you didn’t really have the idea per se.

No. What you tend to do is that if it is a director you don’t know. You sit with them and talk about stuff, don’t go in there with several ideas, it’s still too early, you need to know what they’re about. I might have read the script but it’s still not telling me what the director is like. Then I need to analyse and research the film, which is usually a rough cut, then I’ll go back and start to go into that room in my head with nothing in it.

And how does that work with a director – we’re using Tim Burton as an example here – when you’re coming to work with them for a second time? Presumably you cut out the first third of getting to know them and get straight down to the idea?

I then bring the idea. I normally find one idea is the right one, and I just go with that idea.

So when it came to Sweeney Todd, and it’s a stunning opening sequence, but it seems to be a compressed version of the film itself?

But that’s what I tried to do, I tried to make a seamless join between the two things.

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It almost felt as you were watching it like you were going through a speeded up version of the two and a half hours that would follow.

Yes, well the thought process behind that was Sweeney Todd was going back into London after being extricated for 15 years, and I thought how about if it was a surreal idea in his head of what he was going to do. Again, I sketched out the blood trail idea as a journey, because it’s like a journey in his head.

You came up with the idea, do you then have trouble marrying that up to the tools you need to realise the idea?

Well, not really, it’s become so much easier now because of the digital age, the mechanics of production in a lot of ways is now a lot easier. Where we used to have to experiment with smoke and mirrors in order to create stuff and wait for it to come back into the labs the next day, now we don’t have to do that. Usually with the [computer] program you are using its easier to see the early stages of the idea you have with some flesh on it.

And are you a great fan of the digital age?

I think it’s marvellous. I rely on younger people in order to work on that part of the project.

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I’ve got ask you about working with David Lean…That was Passage to India wasn’t it? Again that was Pinewood Studios, so I think probably what happened was my name stayed around Pinewood Studios and it must have been a producer that said “oh Richard’s a really good typographer, he’s got good ideas”. So then I met Sir David Lean, because you had to call him Sir David Lean, he was very proper. He was a very tall man, I didn’t realise how tall he was.

So I went up there we had a very quick meeting. I had a very clear idea of what he wanted, he wanted these drawings from a cave, it was actually a quite a simple job it wasn’t very complicated; but it was great to meet him.

Do you get awestruck?

I was with him. He was quite a big presence.

Does it change the working dynamics at all, when someone of his stature hands you some drawing and says this is what I want?

No, you’ve just got to listen, it’s that listening thing again. It’s like going in front of a headmaster. That’s David Lean.

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So when you’ve got a director like David Lean, who’s incredibly respected, who’s got that stature, does it get more difficult to challenge them, to push them with your own ideas?

No. I was obviously quite young then so listening was the key thing, all I had to do was listen and make sure I did it.

Going back then, Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam are both very visually striking directors and it sounds like, certainly with Tim Burton, when you work with someone who is visually more inspiring, they tend to give you more rope.

I think what I’ve found over the years is once they get to a certain level, call it the A List or The Premiership, whatever you want to call it, they have a complete self-confidence about themselves. Again I think it’s kind of a trust thing, and somewhere in their soul they know you can do whatever that function is they are asking you to do, and they do allow you to breathe a bit. If you come up with it, it’s fair game.

Presumably you meet that with an air of self confidence yourself?

Well now I’ve got a lot of experience, so I go to these things with a lot of confidence. But when I was younger I was terrified.

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Moving on to Terry Gilliam, how did the mechanics work with him. Was it particularly different from Tim Burton?

It’s just a different character, that’s the only you can describe it really. They’re just completely different characters. Both Tim and Terry are very, very approachable, I could bump into them in the street and have a chat with them, they’re very down to earth and creative people.

Do you have to take on board their past work, or do you just rid yourself of it?

No. I just go with what is in front of me.

And like Tim, Terry Gilliam asked you to work with him again recently…

Well Tideland? Was really funny, because Terry said to me “Richard I’ve got this idea that Tideland is like a load of driftwood which goes with the tide then comes back, goes with the tide then comes back, and as it comes back it forms letters on the beach”.

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I thought alright Terry, I’ll see if I could work that out, so I worked out a rough animation, in a very surreal, stylised kind of way, so all these bits just go in and out like a tide but you can’t actually see that it’s water. Then they do actually start to form on the beach and Terry and I played around with this for two or three goes and I’d almost got it there, it was looking really good. And I think it was one of the producers there, or…they do these screenings now where the public a look, but that all went, they wanted the rock band there straight at the front.

We ended up with very colourful typography, but it’s a process, you know, sometimes your things happen, sometimes they don’t. But Terry is always quite magical, he’s always going to throw something out of his mind and see if I can do it. It’s just fun.

You’ve also messed around ever so slightly with a studio logo, at start of Event Horizon, when you zoomed over the top of the Paramount logo. Did that idea come from you or Paul (Anderson)?

It was both of us.

And how did you get permission from the studio?

We leave that to the producers. They spoke to them and they said it’s fine, based on the drawings and the ideas they went with it. And I think subsequently you see lots of films now, where the distributor’s logo is actually tied in, so probably that was the first. Well that and the first Batman, because that’s exactly what Tim and I did; came off the Warner Bros’ straight down.

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Enemy of the Gates seemed to be a different mechanic again. It seemed a very different European film aimed at a Hollywood market, but I’m curious how that affects working on a project like that. Also, you were very distinctly mixing in footage from the film itself, re-creating it in a way?

Jean-Jacques Annaud I’ve collaborated with on five or six films. The way I work with Jean-Jacques is that he’ll allow me to come up with some ideas, we do lots of tests on lots of different things. At one point we even built in 3D Reich Star Eagle, because Jean-Jacques thought it would be really nice if this eagle actually flew across the map to Stalingrad. I told him it would be quite complicated, but we tried it and it didn’t work. But again Jean Jacques is a director that wants to push ideas and try to find a way.

And again it never seems you that you say no to any ideas.

No, because again it is listening. You don’t enforce your own ego, it’s best to go with it and then instilling part of myself in it. Sometimes it’s half an idea.

But even when people are coming up with ideas and you are sat there thinking to yourself, there is no possible way that this will work?

Yes, but things don’t work for lots of different reasons. The main reason, again it’s back to this thing where people come to look at a film and they have to get it instantly; so it comes out of the research that they do. Someone like Jean-Jacques, when we look at a film together, he may have some little tiny pieces within a film where he says “Oh this isn’t quite right Richard, can you help me with that? Can we do that together?”. So with him I’m very privileged to be able to do little ten or fifteen second inserts within a film, so it’s almost like a second unit director. That is fun as well, it’s great. Again it’s all part of the listening, and him having confidence.

You’ve made the point a couple of times about how the test audience has come in …

Yes. The Golden Compass was another one, I think that was quite a lot of tests, where I came up with a lot of things that were never used.

Does it depress you in any way? That something like the title sequence is dissected by the audience?

No, that’s the way it is. You never know where it is coming from; it could be the studio, it could be anybody. I think, when your working with somebody like Tim, you don’t really have those constraints, he is totally in charge creatively, and I don’t think Sweeney Todd had any test screenings. Well if they did, I didn’t hear anything about them – they might have done. They may have, someone in LA or New York said that Spielberg saw it and liked it.

That must be great to hear!

Yes that was great. He did actually say that he liked the title sequence, so that was really good. Tim obviously showed him it in its rough stages or whatever.

He’ll be on the phone offering you Indiana Jones next!

Yes, that’d be quite good. Maybe I should write in for that!

Have you given up pitching for jobs?

No, there are still things I pitch for but it’s in a different part of the business. It’s more commercial type stuff, agencies always want you to pitch.

One the reasons Sweeney Todd stood out for us as a title sequence is the way the title sequence’s role has changed a little bit. Because in the last ten or fifteen years we’ve had people that just cut the whole thing out and get straight to the film, whereas I was brought up on TV and films where the title sequence becomes part of the narrative process. The best example I can come up with is some of the Gerry Anderson TV shows; it was setting the tone of the whole of what would follow. So what do you do: do you fight it or just roll with it? Because with Sweeney Todd you stood out for it. Ironically, if Spielberg had done it, he would have just cut the whole thing out.

I think these things go in fashionable waves, I think that’s what happens. It’s just down to the director, it’s down to the script, it’s down to all those things, and what will be will be. I think it’s fashion, style probably, but when the lights go down the dream begins. When people are rustling around with popcorn, it’s quite good as an interlude to get them to have two minutes to realise the film is about to begin. If you just start with the title, you’ve got the danger of them not getting the first two minutes which could be an important piece of dialogue.

Is that a particular ethos with which you approach your work?

Yes, I think you should have that little gap that takes you in.

Of your own work, you’ve got such a vast array, are there any in particular with which you’re particularly pleased about how they turned out?

Well, definitely Sweeney Todd, definitely Batman, Quadrophenia for lots of different reasons. Definitely working with people like Jean-Jacques has been an amazing experience. I just tend to take experiences; I love the experience of it, the camaraderie of it, and the hard work of it. It’s just great. I don’t have many major favourites really.

Richard Morrison, thank you very much!

Richard Morrison exclusively directs out of London-based mixed media and animation studio th1ng.