Winter 2007

Every frame counts

Whatever the genre – or budget – each element of Kyle Cooper’s film titles is a painstakingly executed piece of design

Kyle Cooper was the wunderkind of contemporary film title designers, often described as the new Saul Bass and acclaimed for a body of work that included The Island of Dr Moreau, Donnie Brasco, and the legendarily caustic psycho-opener for Seven, made while he was at R/Greenberg Associates (R/GA) in LA. Then in 2003 he left the much-celebrated Imaginary Forces. Now Cooper has a new company, Prologue Films, and once again his work is appearing on screens around the world. This transition completes an arc begun with his arrival in Los Angeles in late 1993. Sent by Bob and Richard Greenberg with the mission of establishing a beachhead for their NY-based design studio, Cooper directed some 40 title projects at R/GA, and another 46 titles during his six years as partner at Imaginary Forces.

In so doing, Cooper has shown that film-making is not a dead end for graphic design, quite the opposite: the power of graphic design remains a force largely untapped by film-makers. It is a paradox that despite the explosion of digital-enabled film-making, the proliferation of motion design curricula, the ramping up of animation and post-production houses worldwide, and the greasing of production pipelines, so many films remain design impoverished. Still, few individuals have shown with such conviction that type, composition, editing, and sound can change everything about the start and end of a film and, when permitted, what happens in-between.

Starting over was an act of faith, ‘Out on my own, I wasn’t sure if anyone in Hollywood wanted to work with me,’ he says, but it was also a personal resolution to ‘get back to putting the work first, always, creatively and holistically.’ In a subtle act of upstaging his former company, Cooper revisited the first scene of Henry V, from which he took the name Imaginary Forces, before christening his new venture Prologue Films. This word choice, prologue, makes clear his directorial sensibility: more than a film title, this work is about the first scene of a film. And as such, there is always a degree of risk getting a story started – especially when the story is not your own, belonging as it can to a director such as Mike Newell, or Terrence Malick, or David Fincher.

Despite intending to keep Prologue small, with more projects inevitably came more people. ‘It’s wild – what it’s becoming now,’ he comments about relocating, twice, for larger quarters in Venice, California. Undeterred by the complications of running a business, Cooper returns again and again to the concerns of gathering the best people together and tempering creative freedom with meaningfulness.

Evoking Psalm 27 as self-evident truth, he quotes, ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another’ to explain Prologue’s growth to a 30-strong cadre of creatives, including Danny Yount, Heebok Lee, and Kimberly Cooper, his wife. ‘Were it not for her Prologue would still be in my garage!’ he says. The company’s worklist in both ads and movies has expanded to include everything from indie romantic comedies such as Wimbledon to monster mayhem like Godzilla: Final Wars, to comic book blockbusters such as Superman Returns and the Spider-Man sequels.

Cooper makes a point of calling himself a graphic designer, and as a devoted student of Paul Rand at Yale he can launch into character, rasping out an imitation of Rand’s intimidating Brooklynese-inflected critiques, ‘This stinks! What the hell am I looking at? That’s not contrast!’ It was Rand who pointed him to Sergei Eisenstein’s films and books, Film Form and The Film Sense, leading Cooper to do his thesis on the Russian proponent of montage, and to examine closely how cinematic principles of composition, juxtaposition, and especially contrast, relate to Modernist graphic design. From Eisenstein, Cooper learned to live and die by the look of each and every frame.

To talk with Cooper is to plunge into a river of design ideas swirling with eddies of feeling and intuition. In illustrating a point about simultaneity and emotional impressionism – by recalling a recent short but raucous trip to India – he paints a (self-)portrait of a hyper-modern traveller enveloped in visual sensations and details that are synthesised without logic or progression. One realises that years of assiduously making film sequences have altered him, changed his nervous system in some way, making him intensely aware of how his body reacts to sound or processes images from his memory and surroundings.

Gone from his work, for now, are the macro confrontations with the eye. In place Cooper offers less of the adrenaline assault, though we know he is well capable of that, in favour of producing a kind of wonderment. At minimum, a title designer supplies mass entertainment with a few minutes of artful introduction during which the main title and credits are dispensed with. At his best, Cooper sets us up for instances of surprising tenderness and kinaesthetic pleasure. Skilfully playing upon the semiotics of mass culture he lays out a landscape of context, but does not stop there, as is typical of many one-trick titles today. Having established a cadence, he advances particular moments that in themselves are pure cinematic experiments in perception and play. ‘Achieving the poetic intimacy and melancholy of Stephen Frankfurt’s title for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), that’s very difficult,’ Cooper says admiringly.

Many of Cooper’s recent works are poignant metaphorical assemblages that are unparalleled, if not unprecedented, in contemporary cinema. Like his predecessors, Saul Bass, Stephen Frankfurt, and Pablo Ferro, he has delighted in the potential for dramatic efficiencies offered by montage, image layering, and multi-image screen effects. Adventurous director Julie Taymor returned this year, commissioning Cooper to create a number of live-action / stop-motion sequences and the main-on-end title for Across the Universe, the original (and controversial) fictional love story set in the turbulent 1960s that employs more than 30 songs written by the Beatles. The resulting segments – quasi-music videos for several of the greatest pop songs ever written – signal his readiness to use film in ways few designers have attempted.

Cooper is uncomfortable with any suggestion that he stay inside the stylistics that distinguished his work of the 1990s. ‘It’s not at all easy to live up to the promise of the work I did in the past. Or even try to repeat it. The conditions are not the same, nor are the participants, to engender those pieces.’ Renowned for scourging audiences with bleak and dark obsessions, he is unimpressed by the pop-culture enthusiasm for pain and torture, disparaging it as the ‘punk stupidity of people who know almost nothing about actual suffering.’ Referring to the state of motion design today, Cooper says: ‘What are we making, cartoons? Is it graphic design any more? Does it matter if it isn’t?’

During the barrage of mobile phone calls that informed this article, Cooper took pains to respond to the question of whether media design is simply selling out culture. ‘It’s a difficult conversation. You exercise your gifts the best you can, but in the absence of any moral absolutes, people can justify anything.’ Circling back later he comments, ‘Every once in a while, a film genuinely inspires me and effects what I do from that moment on. We have a tremendous platform, yet what are we doing with it? There’s something redeeming about always doing the best you can. Doing something positive that advances other kinds of messages and doesn’t just entertain the culture – it does matter.’

In Cooper’s mind, Prologue Films is a necessary means to a most desirable end: becoming more like a film studio. The lesson that with ownership comes power, is not lost on Cooper, whose year-long effort of directing a feature, New Port South, was confounded by problems with the script, casting, and his exclusion from its final edit. With Prologue in place – and this is by no means finished yet – Cooper can shift his attention to what he has yet to achieve: becoming producer of his own content. Conceivably this could simply be a short uploaded to YouTube (and he admits to having ideas for several social / political items he’s keen to create) but for Cooper total commitment would take the form of another feature film, or perhaps more promisingly, a documentary.

In a moment of typical candour, Cooper admits ‘I am not afraid any more.’ Although, he confides, at some level there is still this young person inside, controlling his pencil, processing emotions through his design work. Any deep anger or anxiety about what others may think has been displaced. Where once he rummaged through footage abandoned on the cutting room floor, hoping to salvage a shot, today he can shoot and ‘know I got that shot, exactly as I set it up it in my head.’ Twenty years in, Cooper has aplomb, and the history of film design may never be the same.

David Peters, founder, Designfilms, and design director, Exbrook San Francisco

First published in Eye no. 66 vol. 17 2007

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.