The portfolio of Los Angeles-based yU+co includes a staggering array of work for TV and film. Their founder and creative director, Garson Yu, chatted with us about his company’s growth and the current state of film title design, offering unique insight into an area of motion graphics that many of us only glimspe from the comfort of a theater seat.
For readers who aren’t familiar with yU+co, give us a little run-down of the company.
I started the company in 1998, so it’s our tenth year anniversary this year. It’s such an incredible feeling to be able to say that, to know that this company has continued to grow and been able to survive all the ups and downs of this business. We set up our first office in a bungalow building over at Hollywood Center Studios. A lot of companies started up at Hollywood Center Studios, including Ridley Scott’s company RSA. Three years later, we designed and built a new space over the old Propaganda Films building on Mansfield Avenue, Hollywood. We moved in the day before 9/11.
When we first opened our doors, our primary focus was feature film title design. Carol Wong joined the company as an Executive Producer and launched our commercials division. Later, we started branching out to do motion graphics design for network branding, show opens, promos, that sort of thing. The first big re-branding project we did was for CNN. We had a hot streak at that time and got all kinds of projects for the commercial division as well. We did AMEX Blue campaign and Motorola campaign.
As yU+co. continued to grow, I realized the company’s need for a business person, so I convinced my brother Roland Yu to come down from Vancouver and help me on the business side. Then in 2003, we expanded to do visual effects work and our first job was Kevin Costner’s “Open Range”, followed by Roland Emmerich’s “The Day After Tomorrow.”
Three years ago, we got involved in projects for the Beijing Olympics, so Roland left and started up yU+co(hk) and yU+co(lab) in Hong Kong and China. Now we have about 25 people in China and yU+co(lab) focuses more on technology-based experiential interactive projects for corporate trade shows and exhibitions.
yU+co has produced a number of movie title sequences. How did you get into that area? Was it a deliberate creative and/or business decision?
I graduated from the Yale graphic design program in ’87. I love typography. I started my career in New York and worked for R/Greenberg Associates where I learned about motion graphics and title design. With audio/visual design, you have the added dimension of sound that constantly interacts with the image. You’ve also got the benefit of being able to communicate more than a single image, it’s constantly evolving in time. I began to experiment with how you can manipulate the pacing and time element to present information to the audience, and by doing that, the kind the effect that you can create.
For example, there are many ways of saying a sentence. We can say it slow or fast, we can put the emphasis on a certain word over another. We can also vary the tone of our voice and be soft or harsh. So I became intrigued with how to communicate “toneâ€? in a motion graphics sequence. After R/Greenberg Associates in N.Y., I moved to L.A. and helped set up RGA/LA, which later became Imaginary Forces. During my tenure, I met and developed very good working relationships with many filmmakers working on title sequences. The creation of yU+co later was a natural progression for me.
Many people regard movie titles as the purest expression of motion graphics. What do you think of that idea?
I am not sure whether movie titles are the purest expression of motion graphics, it sounds a bit lofty to me. But one thing I do know is a good title sequence can boil down a complex story into a metaphor, or condense a viewpoint and simplify it into one message. I always keep in mind that a good title sequence needs to have an underlying intelligence so the audience can be engaged. You can pay it off for the audience at the end of a sequence with a surprise as all the elements come together and reinforce that main idea. However, in some cases it may not be applicable because there are lots of title sequences that serve as a prologue to the film as well. If the title sequence has no graphics but only live action photography, is it still considered motion graphics? That’s debatable.
What are the fundamental design challenges you face when working on movie titles? With broadcast work, for example, the challenge might be to create a compelling narrative within :15 or :30 while working on a tight deadline. What are the constraints you face with movie title design in general?
Well, besides the usual budgetary challenges, you have the creative challenges. The opening titles need to set up the tone of the story for the audience. We don’t impose our ideas on the film, but try to find the best solution that addresses the concerns and issues of the studio and the filmmakers. You also need to get the audience into the story quickly, so it limits how much we can put in the opening sequence.
I’ve noticed an increasing number of main-on-end title sequences. yU+co, for example, has recently created title sequences for Enchanted, Bee Movie and 300, all of which appeared at the end of the movie. Do you see this as a developing trend? If so, why might it be happening?
In Hollywood, studio executives believe that certain formulas need to be put in place. For example, the film needs to be a certain length. On top of that, they do test screenings with audiences to get feedback on how the film should end, should it be shorter or longer, etc. It’s totally different with independent films because the filmmaker has more control over decisions. Directors often care about the character development. They will invest more time in building the character but studios really want to get into the movie quickly. They want a short entry.
For main-on-end titles, we’re designing for an audience to stay in their seats. Unlike opening titles, we’re not setting up the tone for the audience. It is definitely a trend, especially for all the commercial, popcorn movies. I think that comes in part from how technology has influenced our culture. We have become so used to instant gratification from the internet and mobile devices. We want what we want when we want it. So, I think we will only see this trend continue in Hollywood films.
Traditional roles of movie titles have been to “set the mood” or to introduce the audience to certain narrative elements before the actual film begins. What role(s) do main-on-end sequences play?
For main-on-end sequences, it’s really all about the titles because you need to engage the audience to sit there and watch. It becomes just straight entertainment. For that reason, the transitions and pacing play a very important role. Compared to the front title, main-on-end titles are less about the narrative. The movie is over. We don’t need any prologue or back story. All we need is to present each title card. We don’t want the audience to think the movie is going to start again.
Do you ever worry that audiences will simply leave and never see your hard work?
That’s always a possibility, but our job is to keep them in their seats and extend the experience. For that to happen, main-on-end titles need to immediately connect to the last scene and serve as an extension to the ending of the film. We need to hold the attention of the audience immediately after the ending.
Does doing main-on-end titles give you a little more creative freedom? Are there are as many constraints as creating titles shown at the beginning of a film?
Sure, there’s more creative freedom in doing main-on-end titles, because they need to be more entertaining. Your goal is to keep the audience in their seats but you have to be careful not to over design the title sequence. You don’t want to give the audience the wrong interpretation of the story they’ve just seen. On the other hand, designing titles for the beginning of the film is a really interesting challenge. You need to set up the tone of the film with opening titles, so you need a much clearer approach to come up with a clever and appropriate solution. I enjoy designing for both opening and main-on-end titlesâ€¦ they each have their own appeal and both try to accomplish different things.