Summer 2001

Moving letters are not enough

Moving Type

Matt Woolman and Jeff Bellantoni

I always thought the joke seemed like an excellent metaphor for design. Most of the time the content isn’t yours (you don’t make up the joke) but the delivery and the details are up to the comedian (the designer), and ultimately that’s what makes the joke funny.

Matt Woolman and Jeff Bellantoni’s Moving Type is a good joke poorly told. The book is divided into three sections, dealing respectively with fundamentals, student work and professional work, and spans the spectrum of motion graphics from the sublime to the ridiculous. The first section, an overview of the terminology and principles of motion typography, is a rare and useful collection of the fundamental design issues and lexicon of motion graphics. It makes an excellent teaching aid and is the most successful part of the book. The other two sections show screen grabs of motion work and also give space for students, educators and designers to talk about their work. The authors create a space for a dialogue to occur, but unfortunately that dialogue rarely emerges. Mostly we are given bland descriptions of the projects that do little more than stress the lack of conceptual fibre in many of the pieces – exceptions being Geoff Kaplan’s students, whose writings consider the nature of type in the digital environment, and the editors’ writing in the front of the book.

Taking stills from a motion piece and putting them on to the printed page is not as simple as it seems. The motion pieces are taken out of context and the only way they can be comfortable in this alien context is if that space is sympathetically designed. Here’s where the joke falls flat: Moving Type creates an unsympathetic environment The design feels unrefined and clichéd (a circle, triangle and square die-cut from the cover!), a mild annoyance at the surface of the book that prevents one from fully engaging with the content (thankfully the work can be viewed as QuickTime movies on an accompanying CD-ROM). In the printed format there is little to differentiate the student work from the professional work but on watching the QuickTimes, the slickness, tightness and production values of the professional work is clearly beyond the reach of most students (some of those at California College of Arts & Crafts excepted). The student work is no more intellectually challenging than the professional, and in both chapters conceptual strength seems to have been abandoned in favour of formal gloss.

Most of the work shares an aesthetic directly descended from the “Imaginary Forces” school of motion graphics. There is an abundance of visual excess: blurring, morphing, layering and lens flare, often with little conceptual connection to the subject matter. Because of this, much of the work feels as if it is concerned with a superficial collective style rather than content-specific visual solutions – or even the stamp of an individual voice.

Interestingly, the work that stands out most when you flip through the pages or watch the quicktimes in rapid succession, is the most image based and that with the least type – Pablo Ferro’s sequences for Woman of Straw and To Die For (see Eye no. 32 vol. 8) and student Brian Mah’s Countdown. These pieces take a simpler approach to the typography, have a sense of motion to the camera rather than just action unfolding in front of the camera and possess a filmic use of imagery. They imply that the best motion graphics involve much more than just animated text elements. A funny conclusion to reach from a book that focuses on moving typography.

First published in Eye no. 40 vol. 10, 2001