It can be hard at a major film festival to look beyond awards frontrunners or indie darlings. However, if you’re looking in the right places, a film festival can feel like a celebration of all aspects of the industry. While we spoke to the directors and casts of some of SXSW’s most buzzworthy films, one of the longest and most enjoyable conversations we had at the festival was with Karin Fong, an award-winning graphic designer and director known for creating opening title sequences for some of Hollywood’s biggest projects.
Fong, who was a founding member of the visual storytelling studio Imaginary Forces, won an Emmy in 2018 for her work on the opening title sequence for the Starz series Counterpart. Her other recent projects include Lost in Space, which screened in a competition at SXSW 2019, Black Sails, Boardwalk Empire, South Park, and Marvel’s Runaways.
Fong stopped by the Den of Geek interview studio at SXSW 2019 to discuss how she broke into the field, the stylistic and technical changes in title design in recent years, and creating memorable opening titles for iconic properties. The interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
How did you get into title design? Can you tell us a little about your background?
I think I was always a graphic designer and a film worker before I even knew what to call them. I was always that kid when I was little, making super 8 films, frame by frame, with little cut pieces of paper and making my own magazines and books. When I went to school to study design, it was the age of the CD-ROM. We were going to experience everything on CD-ROMs, we were going to play all our games, and our textbooks would be on them. It was just such excitement for multimedia, and I ended up making for my senior project in school an animated alphabet book. You could click on the clock and the cuckoo would come out and you’d go inside it. It’d be a circus and a clown from a canyon, that would be the letter C.
I think it was just actually a big excuse for me to animate and keep just making things that are moving because that then led to my job at WGBH, public television, to animate for a show called Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? that teaches kids geography but also had very primitive animation skills. We actually animated in MacroMind Director as it was called then, which anybody who does this knows, is not a broadcast animation program at all. But it got me used to using the computer as a collage box. I put in my photos, I would combine it with typography, and that led ultimately to interview at what was R/Greenberg Associates Los Angeles.
At that time, R/Greenberg Associates was a leader in film titles. In the ‘70s they had done Alien and Superman in the ‘80s. All these really classic ones and I had become hooked on television when I was at WGHB and then went to go work for RGLA as a designer where I started actually working on film titles and designing for commercials and also other short format films.
That office of RGLA actually split off and we became Imaginary Forces in 1996 and I am still a director and a designer at Imaginary Forces today.
Having worked on the original Carmen Sandiego, how does it feel 20 years later seeing it referenced on SNL and return as an animated show on Netflix? There’s still people who really adore that work from back then.
I love it. I love it when I go and speak to a design festival or a film festival or students at schools and I mention that, and there’s always a yelp because I realize these were the people who were watching. They were kids watching Carmen Sandiego when I was having my first job at WGBH doing that. I think it’s great.
That particular character has had so many lives already as the Broderbund game, PBS show, and then animated show. I worked at the PBS one which is like a game show and I was doing those animated segments. Just this year at our office at LA at Imaginary Forces, somebody a couple decades younger than me dressed up as Carmen Sandiego as their Halloween costumes.
One thing that the Carmen Sandiego project taught me was though mixing media. We would, back in the day, we’d get a bunch of slides and I think they might have been from stock places or even National Geographic, so we’d have all these transparencies of all these different locations. Anybody watching the show knows, one of the bad guys steals one of the monuments in these little animations that set up the show. You’ve got Rat Man capturing the Eiffel Tower with a big mouse trap or something like that, and it’d be my job to figure out, I’d have Rat Man, I’d have the Eiffel Tower, I’d be given all these transparencies of the Eiffel Tower and to figure out a way Rat Man and his Rat self would steal the Eiffel Tower.
I would be like would it be a giant trap, would he have a big piece of Swiss cheese and use it the holes as a net, that was the fun part. I’d storyboard that idea out and work with the illustrator who would actually fax back illustrations that we would then cut apart and then color in the Mac and put together with these transparencies. There was illustration. There was photography. It was an extension of what I did in school where you could use the computer as a collage machine for all these different kinds of things.
You didn’t have to make it just because you were using technology, it didn’t mean that you had to make all your things in CG from the start. I think that’s really something that I feel is really important in our work even in today, even when there’s even more sophisticated ways of making things.
How has your creative toolbox changed over the years, especially in the last decade? How much easier is your life now?
I’ve always been interested in doing things that are kind of a hybrid technique of getting visuals. What I mean by that is that combination of the analog and the digital and figuring out where that meets. I think one of the biggest compliments anybody could give me or our work is if they were like ‘is that part digital or did you guys do that in CG?’ I did that recently the titles for Counterpart where I was invited to go on the set. Beautiful set done by one of the designers who had previously done Mad Men and Counterpart has a very Cold War feel so there were great period details, German typewriters with antique keys and umlauts and this primitive fax machine because it had to do with earlier technology, but also it takes place now or in the future modern day. There was the merging of those two things and that was a perfect place to merge surreal CG that also merged with things that we shot from the set. Where does that line happen is where the fun is.
How important is the use of typography to invoke certain emotions in viewers?
Typography is huge tool that’s often underrepresented in film and cinema work or television, but it has such an emotional response when you do it right. I think one of the best examples of that is Michelle Dougherty’s titles that she did with us for Stranger Things. I think that has such a visceral reaction for us who grew up in that era watching ‘80s movies, and there is something you can’t even explain. There’s little analog flickers that she put into the type to replicate what is the optical process when you used to shoot things on an animation stand or a down shooter.
The actual font being used is very much in the story of Stephen King books and that genre. Even if people can’t explain it right away, they feel it, and that’s really the best compliment to any title sequence or identity for television or films. People feel it and coming from R/Greenberg and working there, who had such a legacy in the titles of the ‘70s and ‘80s, to see that funneled into Stranger Things was really powerful.
One of my favorite TV show title sequences that you worked on was Boardwalk Empire. It’s such an evocative image of literally the alcohol washing the Jersey shore. How do you find one image or a series of images that can define an entire show?
I think one of the best parts of doing title design is finding the metaphor that encapsulates the show or at least asks you to be curious in the right way about a show. I love it when you talk to a showrunner or creator and they don’t want something literal. I think it’s sort of a bit of a wasted opportunity to show something that’s just already in the show. You’re about to see a show and then you’re going to see all of its wonderful story, and cinematography, and characters. What I like is to create something that might be less literal and more abstract that invites you into a show that makes you want to ask more questions rather than answering your questions in a sequence.
I think by going abstract and being metaphorical with the idea, you actually make the show and its world bigger and rather than explain, so when thinking of a metaphor for a show, the most important thing I’ll always ask a showrunner is ‘what tone?’ ‘What is the central idea of the show or what tone do you want people to feel after they watch the titles?’
For the case of Boardwalk Empire, it was an idea. Another thing I also ask myself is what is unique about this show? I think it’s a successful title if it can’t run in front of any other show. If you do a title about the mob or organized crime as Boardwalk Empire, but it can also run in front of The Untouchables, to me that’s not so distinct and unique, and you’re always trying to find what’s unique.
In the case of Boardwalk Empire, this was a story about a man who kind of controlled, either behind the scenes overtly or covertly controls Atlantic City. Everything he’s the center of the storm and he’s the constant. Everything revolves around him. That is something we knew for the Steve Buscemi character.
What’s really important for Boardwalk Empire too is Atlantic City. It’s position on the sea is what made its fortunes and the show kind of chronicles that because it was during prohibition and there were rum runners and that made it very a good position for smugglers to come by sea. We were thinking, how could this character Nucky see his future, see the prophecy of what was coming over the horizon? The literal horizon of the sea and that would be his future in alcohol. That was a big breaking point in our conceptualization because the show is so rich on so many themes but this was the idea that was really essential to the show and we were able to work with and build and create something that was incredible.
In season 3, people would come up to me and be like ‘Now I know why I saw, now I understand the title,’ and that’s kind of nice. You hope for a show to last several seasons and if people can feel they understand more or they get a deeper insight even after the first season by watching the titles, that’s often an incredible feeling.
You helped redesign South Park’s opening titles. Unlike The Simpsons, South Park has updated its titles a few times over the years. What was the starting point for creating something special for a long-running show? It straddles the line between homage to the show’s history and a new, 3-D look.
South Park is a really fun example. I remember starting my career and it might have been my first year at RGLA and I remember a VHS tape came in and it was their original short of the Jesus/Santa spoof they did. Everybody crowded around a monitor and loudly laughing hysterically. We didn’t know who these guys were. We didn’t have South Park yet but it literally was just the funniest thing we’d ever seen. To cut to, I don’t know, 15 years later or 17 years later, and be able to work with these guys now on the iconic show we all know it is, is an incredible honor.
I was working in New York at the time and the only meeting time they had was a half hour around Broadway somewhere because they were putting on Book of Mormon at the time. The only time we could meet in person about it was for me to go to the theater and just really quickly meet with them. It was just an honor to connect with them and just be around their energy. They were clear it was a big anniversary of the show.
When I first saw their Jesus/Santa thing it was the cut paper, the tactileness, and that’s always what they’ve retained. To their credit, it’s such a strong aesthetic and that was what we really wanted to honor even though we were now going into 3-D. It was almost like paper sculptures, but it was very much like ‘how do we translate?’ The way they do the trees in their town are so distinctive. We wanted to just keep that, but how would you do the paper sculpture and how do you not overdo it?
Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are notoriously hands on with the production of South Park. I believe Trey Parker has directed or co-writed every single episode of the series. What was it like working with those guys, but also collaborating with the South Park team through this process?
It was a huge collaboration with their animation team. The character animation is all them, all those moments of sending things, getting layers from them, incorporating that, so you know it was a quiet traditional process at first with story boarding. What was this bus journey going to be like? What iconic little things are you pulling from the opening? Storyboarding with them and then actually turning over that and doing an animatic, turning it over there, them doing the animation of the characters and the cell animation of that, bringing it back so we could comp it into our 3-D environment.
I wouldn’t take on the animation of their characters. That is the actor, that is the lifeblood of the character. It’s something we knew we’re definitely getting from them and so it was literally a merging of files and layers and incorporating their physical work of that into our environment.
To wrap it up, it’s harder to capture people’s attention spans now. Are people coming to you guys and saying we want these title sequences shorter than they used to be? How is the Netflix generation impacting title design?
There’s always that debate. For instance, for the Lost in Space titles, we did a couple versions. Some playing with just the title card reveal, others had the full title sequence. There’s different ones for Castle Rock too right? We did different versions for different ends and I think it’s something that’s being toyed with. There’s an idea that maybe if you look at the arc of watching instead of one show, it’s like a binge of several. Do you alter that? I like one that’s honestly full and robust that can be almost a short film. But can we be flexible and maybe we can do a cut down one, or maybe there’s even Easter eggs that change every time? There’s been more conversations actually about is there a way we can vary it not only from season to season but from show to show?
Schedules and budgets have to catch up, but that’s an interesting way. I think people are realizing it’s an interesting way of storytelling. We’ve all seen the Game of Thrones titles and people always point out that they’ve watched them, they’re different, they tell me something, Even if you don’t change it show to show, is there Easter eggs per season you can do? As shows arc changes over the years in a successful show, those are all conversations we’re having that actually are really interesting because it points to more of the storytelling aspect of the title sequence.