Karin Fong helped found - and is a director and designer at - Imaginary Forces, one of the most cutting-edge and typographically sophisticated design and production companies in the industry, known for their fantastic title and effects sequences for film, television and even video games. Fast Company magazine recently named her one of their “100 most creative people in business.”
Three Questions: The titles for Rubicon are unusually sophisticated – both in that they are technically very well-constructed, and also that they are especially visually interesting and very closely tied in with the program itself (the series, about government security analysts who specialize in pattern recognition, began its first season focused on a code embedded in newspaper crossword puzzles, a visual theme that runs through these titles). Did you start out trying to “explain” the entire premise of the show symbolically, or did that evolve during the creative process?
Karin Fong: I can’t say that we started out trying to “explain” anything—rather we were going after the feel of the show, a more visceral response. “Nothing is what it seems,” was given as an over-araching theme. The challenge was to engage the audience into looking closer and sensing something is not quite right.
The design process involved a lot of looking at secret codes, thinking of ways to suggest conspiracy and connections. Certainly the pilot episode was a good jumping-off point, for both ideas used in the scripts, and for the aesthetic. I’d describe it very “manila envelope” - it has a little bit of a low-tech, government office look - but one that is definitely designed.
Stylistically, I wanted to keep a somewhat analog feel that brings to mind microfiche, overhead projectors - the show takes place in the present but the characters at the agency are constantly moving around scraps of paper in their quest for patterns, so we didn’t want a purely electronic feel. Other crime shows have a more forensic and techno approach, and Rubicon isn’t really about that. We were going for the frantic scrawl of a mind making connections. This is much more about taking a double-take, like, “am I mad or is there a message in that want ad?”
3Q: How much freedom did you, as AD, have in picking the visual elements and themes used in the collage that frames the titles (and can you talk about who contributed the hand-drawn elements that move the narrative/direction of this title sequence forward)? Did the producers and director give you a lot of latitude, or were they pretty structured in their initial brief to you - and how does this measure up to the level of control you usually have in similar projects?
KF: Henry Bromell, the shows EP and showrunner, pushed for a really graphic approach. Right from the beginning he wanted the Rubicon’s title to have a distinct visual language. He and I agreed we wanted a cinematic solution that would speak to the show’s roots in classic psycho thrillers. We talked a lot about the main titles and sequences for films like the Parallax View - fantastic references! One of the first things I did after our initial conversation was watch the brainwashing sequence in that film. There’s something interesting about leading the audience perceive links that may or may not be there - messages could be found in what looked like mundane information, like the want ads. The idea of pattern recognition also drove a lot of our image selection.
The show’s producers and network allowed us the freedom to use abstraction to get the desired effect of paranoia. That is, we were free to take a strong conceptual approach with the visuals and thankfully not be tied to showing footage of actors and scenes from the show. That television convention has its place I suppose, but as usual, I find it more fun to play with metaphors to try and make something that speaks to the overall feeling of the show, rather than duplicate or re-edit material that the audience is about to see anyway! Luckily we didn’t have explain anything literally either - and in the end, the sense of anxiety benefits from this. No photos of assassinations, bombs, or crashes - the threat is merely implied. A title is a tease! After all, what you don’t show is as important as what you do.
I worked with frequent collaborators Theo Daley and Jeremy Cox on the final storyboards. Before that, the initial boards had the slide show device to motivate the edit but the result was a bit cold—the information was there, but it didn’t convey emotion. It was all a bit too cerebral. Add that to the fact that I wanted a black and white palette! This was on the way to being the opening of a Mensa convention. Networks want to see some drama. The yellow line was added bring the human element in—now there was some nervous energy and a story to follow. And a pop of color as a bonus! The personality of the line came through the its hand-drawn nature and its animated scrawl … a combination of handiwork by myself, Theo and our animators, J.J. Johnston and Andy Chung. We had another board based solely on the idea of shifting redactions, which Jeremy ultimately modified to be a major element in the final piece. Nothing says top state secrets like black bars.
3Q: How do you feel about so much effects work - including title sequences - being sent to offshore contractors? How will American firms be able to compete?
KF: It’s exciting to see inspiring work, no matter what country it comes from. It’s good to see other film industries grow - I have to believe that it will open up more doors, for all of us. I’ve been on calls with VFX companies halfway around the world when called to collaborate with them, and it really is amazing to have a pipeline that allows us to work together.
I hadn’t thought of the situation as a threat, perhaps because I see a need for more and more modelers and animators in both my own work and overall , as visual communication just keeps getting more sophisticated. I think the US can remain competitive by investing in the arts and arts education, and valuing both innovation and craftsmanship. We have to continue to build on the business of culture-making, an asset that other countries see in our economy.
3Q: A bonus question, contributed by a colleague of yours: What do you feel the role of a title sequence is in relation to a movie?
KF: Extra credit points! Well, it’s nearing dinner time, so that’s going to influence my answer. A title sequence is like a good hors d’oeuvre - it whets your appetite for what is to follow. Perhaps it is a taste of the story to come. Or maybe the strong flavor plays off the next course. After you’ve finished, you may think back and say “ah, that was the perfect opening note!” or “that flavor complemented the meal perfectly.” Like a great meal a good film opens with a sense of anticipation. Like a great meal, viewing a film is an event. Why not treat it as such with a great title sequence? It can be very satisfying for all involved.