Michelle Dougherty on Imaginary Forces’ Agitated, Blood-Red Vision
By Bryant Frazer
The opening titles for director Joel Schumacher’s new film, a paranoid-numerologythriller called The Number 23, required an approach that mixed elements from the film’s narrative (all about a man’s obsession with recurring instances of the number 23 in human history) with visual continuity with the movie itself (red blood on the screen references the deep red color of a book that figures prominently in the story). Michelle Dougherty, an accomplished designer who worked for years with the legendary Kyle Cooper (the man who forever put his stamp on the spelling of the title Se7en) and teaches a class on film-title design at the Art Center College of Design, art-directed the spot for Imaginary Forces. Watch the scene, below, then read the interview with Dougherty where she talks about coordinating the project, working with Joel Schumacher, and her favorite titles by other people.
How much input did you have in defining the concept?
Actually, Joel Schumacher was very open to us coming to the table with anything we thought would be appropriate for the film. He wanted to make the viewer understand this phenomenon. The designer, Juan Monasterio, was really considering the story, so he wanted that reveal of the cover of the red book. You probably don’t realize it as you see the main title, but as you watch the movie, the main title is actually linked to the red cover of the book.
Did that original design include the typography, and the idea of changing typography?
The changing typography was something we came up with later, when I was working with Danielle White, the editor. We had to find a way to make this feel alive — we didn’t want it to feel digital. So we had to find very simple ways of communicating the story. And we thought of using the vernacular of a typewriter and the movement of a typewriter.
Were multiple concepts presented originally?
I think we came up with five different boards.
Were they radically different from each other?
Yeah, they were. For one, we took scenes from the movie and did a very graphic style, kind of winking our eye a little bit to a Paul Rand style, or Saul Bass. We took silhouettes and re-told the story in a different way. We foreshadowed some pieces of the story. And we had ideas playing with numbers. They were all pretty different.
You said these filmmakers were very open to ideas from your team. Would that be unusual or do you typically have room to brainstorm and be creative?
There’s definitely a collaboration. Of course, we want to understand the director’s vision. But most directors, at least in my case, have been pretty open because they want you to bring something to the table as well, whether it’s through simple typography or through the storytelling of the title. But Joel Schumacher – I don’t want to say he was an exception, but he was very open, which was nice. He definitely had a strong vision of where he wanted to take it, but he gave us the freedom to play with different techniques, typography and storytelling devices.
Take us step-by-step through the process of creating the piece.
After Joel Schumacher picked that storyboard, we took the still frames from the storyboard and put them in an Avid timeline with music. Because the composer hadn’t already composed a piece specifically for this, we cut to a piece he had written for a previous film, hoping it would feel similar to what he might do for this. From those stills, we added more and more stills [created using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator] to try and understand the movement that would happen. That was one of our biggest challenges — figuring out how to make it feel dynamic if it all takes place on a page. From there, after we set up a basic structure, like an animatic, we shot some blood.
You shot some blood?
We tried different mediums. We tried very porous paper, we tried silk, we tried all different fabrics just to see what would look the best as it bled through. We really wanted to convey the idea that blood was seeping from behind it to create that cover. We found that this certain silk was the best.
So you’re trying to figure out what material you should be using for the blood seepage, because part of this will be live-action footage.
Yes. First we did it very low-res, just to see how it would feel. And later on we shot it again using an HD camera for the final elements. We put those in the Avid as well, and then we created a really rough template. From that editorial piece, we broke up each credit into shots, and some of them were groupings with some overlap — a piece of blood could fall from one credit to the next so it wouldn’t feel like they were really sectioned off, but very fluid. We broke off, maybe, sets of three credits to eachanimator. And from there we filled it in. I gave them the rough animatic, and they used that for their timings.
What about the actual letters?
The animators created that movement, but a lot of that had been figured out in editorial. Sometimes they were adding things. The letters turning into “23” we had only done in a couple instances in editorial, so they peppered a couple more throughout. The layouts were created by myself and another designer, Rob Bollick. They just had to worry about interaction with the typography and the blood and the movement that was happening in that frame. We would give them the layouts, and they would work from there.
When was the typeface created?
That was done in the first board. When you look at a typeface that is supposed to feel very organic like that, when it’s repeated so many times it starts to look digital. We actually went in manually and cleaned each frame up so that each “23” didn’t look the same. We really had to fight against the typeface, in a way, to create that organic feel, by putting in smudges or erasing some of the typeface or creating new ligatures.
And then the letters had to be placed against the paper.
That was all done in After Effects. The ink, or the paint or the blood, shot against the silk was just an element. It’s blood seeping into the fabric.
So the silk was just used to get the motion and texture of the blood moving in, and the paper is another element, and the letters are yet another element, all put together in After Effects by the original animators. Were there any hiccups in the editorial process?
There was definitely a lot of back-and-forth between editorial and the animation department, just so we would get some fluid motion through the whole piece.
Obviously editing has a lot to do with the rhythm of the piece, and the rhythm of this thing is determined largely by the motion of the paper on the screen, and also by what the letters are doing. Was all of that set in the original animatic process?
In some cases it was. Sometimes the animator would add something to it. They had a rough animatic, so they had the hits to the music they could play it to, but sometimes it didn’t work out and we would make them tone down things or if it felt too digital when we brought it into the Avid we would bring it back to the animator and they would redo it for us.
When and how does actual approval by the filmmakers take place? And is that a process of multiple passes?
First, they saw our really, really rough animatic where we just used stills, and maybe some low-res blood but very little. After we finished the project we saw that initial animatic, and we thought, “Wow, I can’t believe he approved it based on that.” We had gone so far from there and developed it so much further. But just from that rough animatic [Schumacher] loved it, which is great. We had maybe three more meetings as we showed him our progress.
How much time did you have to turn it around?
It wasn’t crazy. It was a pretty healthy schedule — a couple months, maybe.
Was there anything unusual about this project for you?
The interesting this for me was shooting those [blood-drip] elements in HD. In the past we wouldn’t have had that opportunity. We would have to have shot on film, so that, to us, was a big deal technically speaking. Just being able to actually shoot it here in our own studio and not have to rent out a big stage – or even a small stage! We actually did it in our conference room here, which is nice.
What are some of your favorite title sequences by other people?
I actually teach a class in film title design, so I’m very passionate about it. I think it’s a great avenue to express yourself in design, and to problem-solve. I think my favorite main titles are by Saul Bass [Psycho, Vertigo]. And Kyle Cooper [The New World, Superman Returns], whom I worked with for many years. I think there are a lot of great new designers making great titles. The Catch Me If You Can title [designed by Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas] I think is very nice. Karin Fong [Charlotte’s Web, We Are Marshall] is another art director here who has done some very clever titles that I admire very much. I admire the old titles of Pablo Ferro — Dr. Strangelove. And I love [Ferro’s] Bullitt. And my all-time favorite is from Stephen Frankfurt: To Kill a Mockingbird.