SPOTLIGHT August 2020: Karin Fong, Master Title Sequence Designer
You may not know Karin Fong’s name, but you know her work. In fact, you’ve probably seen it multiple times. That’s because Fong is an Emmy-award winning director and designer, and she and her team create the main titles you see at the beginning of some of your favorite tv shows and feature films. She also works in gaming and advertising, but if you’ve seen the main titles for the shows Black Sails, Boardwalk Empire, or Chuck, or the feature films Charlie’s Angels, you’ve seen her work. Most recently, you can find her creative mark on the main title sequences for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Little Fires Everywhere, See, and Counterpart, for which she won a Main Title Design Emmy in 2017. Her first Emmy win was back in 2001, for Masterpiece Theatre, with nominations for Chuck (2007), Human Target (2010), Rubicon (2010), Boardwalk Empire (2011), and Black Sails (2014).
Fong has had a lifelong fascination with art and movement. Some of her most influential memories from childhood are from watching Sesame Street. She says the way the show taught kids with words and pictures, live action and animation, and music and sound, made a huge impact on her. She always loved creating something with words and pictures, and the balance of each. Fong explains, “I was always a kid who could draw, and someone who was making things. When I was in elementary and high school, I would make stop-motion films with a super-8 camera, and cut out little pieces of paper and move them one at a time, making animated film. I’d send it off to the lab, and it would come back. The idea of making these inanimate objects move. Even then I think I was creating titles. At one point I used marker drawings a spider in a web, creating words, like in Charlotte’s Web. I always knew I’d study art, but I’ve also always loved the narrative aspect of art.”
She went to Yale to study art. “When I went to college, I discovered all these things I was playing with was called graphic design, which was a marriage of text, and images, and symbols. There, my senior project was an animated alphabet book.” It was that senior project, she believes, that got her a job at WGBH Public Television, where she worked on Where in the World is Carmen San Diego. She had the good fortune, starting at WGBH and throughout her career, to work with supportive, respectful men and many powerful women. “I always had strong female designers and creatives around me. I co-directed with other women and that has been part of my experience since I started in the industry.”
FOUNDING MEMBER OF IMAGINARY FORCES
After her stint at WGBH, Fong joined industry giant R/Greenberg Associates, the agency that created the titles for iconic films like Superman, Alien, Ghostbusters, Die Hard, and Seven. In 1996, the West Coast division of was then called R/GA branched off to become Imaginary Forces (IF). A founding member, Fong has been at IF, save one departure she spent doing fascinating work as creative director for McG, ever since.
At IF, her job as creative lead can be different, depending on the project, in both the number of members on her team, and the content they create. “It can range from being just me, a storyboard artist, and a cinematographer, to a whole crew of animators and CG artists and typographers. If I’m shooting something, of course I have a full crew. It really depends on the scope of the job, and what the ideas are. I love to work collaboratively. It’s always a puzzle to figure out, in a title sequence, what the most emotionally resonant or memorable way is to introduce people to the show, and have them ask for more, give something that gets an emotional response from them.”
“It’s a rich world, in a feature film or television show, that we can draw from. People ask us where our ideas come from, and it’s usually from the story, the show itself. It’s all about taking a complex world, and distilling it down to something that is intriguing. You can’t fit everything into a title sequence. You’re typically working with 60 or 90 seconds, so it’s about finding something that is the essence of the story. That is the puzzle for me.”
Fong continues to explain how she, as the creative lead working on titles, begins in finding her way to the finished product viewers finally see onscreen.
“Just as every show is different, a show has its own beats, but in the beginning, often you’re just getting a concept, I usually sit down with the show runner and ask what they want the audience to feel, or what is the one idea you want them to come away with? What is the tone? Tone is the most important thing we’re getting after. It’s a lot of conversations about whether it’s a portrait of a person or an ensemble or the world or a mood? Then you go through the process of ‘concepting’. Some shows have a concept for titles already figured, and there are shows that are almost done, and they haven’t thought of it at all. So much of what we do is about not just being creative, but also flexible. Filmmaking is wet clay, and a title sequence is no different.”
MOVING FORWARD WITH McG
Though she has loved the diversity of projects and the creative challenges of working at Imaginary Forces, when longtime client McG came to her and offered her a job as creative officer at Wonderland, his new production company, she was too curious to say no, and found it to be a blast. “It was really fun. We had always worked with McG and he’d been a client of mine that I’d done numerous projects with, including the first and second Charlie’s Angels movies, and lots of his television shows. We always had a really fun working relationship and we were always trying do dream up ways of working together more. When he got funding (in 2001) for Wonderland to bring on people to develop content it seemed like a great adventure to leap off into that world from a different end. I’d always met people who are show runners and film directors and working with studios, but to see it from the production end, to see also how pitches came through or you were in on the content at a much earlier stage, was really interesting and eye-opening. I think it really helped inform how I work today.”
LESSONS IN SUCCESS
You’d think her many Emmy nominations and wins would be what she would list, but ask Karin what she sees as the milestones of her career, and instead, she recalls projects that expanded her understanding, taught her lessons, and made her a better artist.
The first she mentions is an early title she did for a movie called Dead Man on Campus, which centers on a protagonist who seeks out the most damaged, suicidal kid to have as a roommate at his new school, with the hopes he will get the mythical straight A’s given to roommates of kids who kill themselves. “The fun of it was incorporating the credits into a mock SAT test on suicide. My partner on the job and I decided that we would do a suicide aptitude test. It was really great because we were working with MTV, and we were able influence the soundtrack, which was a Marilyn Manson David Bowie cover of Golden Years. The whole thing was a lesson of what music could be used, and working with that, and just the idea that in comedy, you have to let the audiences know up front that people can laugh, and it was good for me to flex not only my design skills but my writing, and bringing it all together. It was a complicated idea. How do you make college suicide funny and put it into a sequence?”
Shooting and designing the main titles for the award winning show Boardwalk Empire is also a highlight, for the important lesson it taught her. “The important thing for me that I learned is, we had a totally different idea for the sequence in the beginning. They had built this amazing boardwalk for that show, and it was this gorgeous set, and we thought we’d be shooting all these vignettes. I had this whole board with hundreds of extras, and this teeming boardwalk. In the process, it totally turned 180 degrees, and the only person we shot was Steve Buscemi. His point of view is the one constant in that show. It taught me a lot about adjusting ideas. I worked with the show runner, who had a really surreal image of hundreds of bottles coming towards Steve in the ocean. It really taught me, and what I say all the time now is, when you’re designing a title sequence, you want to design one that can only work for that one show. It’s the lesson of learning how to make an idea own-able. Many shows can have a montage sequence of a set, but we really worked on this to make sure that it could only describe that main character’s situation, seeing his future in liquor, basically.”
Lastly, she mentioned the constant lesson she learns about the power of unpredictability. “Whenever I’m shooting live action, whether it’s for a Target commercial, or a video game trailer, it shows me the kind of magic that you can only sometimes find when you can’t plan things. I recently did the titles for Little Fires Everywhere, and that’s been a completely different experience. I was shooting fire with high speed photography, and there’s a certain amount of that that you can’t control. That’s something to realize when you’re shooting and having ideas that can’t be art directed frame by frame like I did when I was shooting stop motion as a kid. It’s an advantage, when you can’t always predict what will happen. I get that revelation every time I shoot. There are always variables happening that make magic. Things don’t happen the way you imagine, but often, if you’re lucky, they’re even better.”
All in all, Karin Fong is happy to be working creating what is essentially the moment that viewers get hooked on a show or film. Movie poster artist John Alvin called it, “the promise of a great experience”, and Fong can relate to that quote. “For moviegoing, and now television and on so many platforms, it’s really part of the experience, part of the ritual. It’s entering a different space, a different world. It’s a portal in a way. I liken it to the anticipation you feel when the curtain rises. There’s something about the cadence of it that tells you you’re about to go somewhere new. I think that is very much emotionally what titles do. I do feel like it’s a proper way to get your audience out of the every day, and into something where they leave that, and enter something new, something often more fantastical.”
She continues, “I think one of the things I love most about animation is anything can happen, and a lot of the magic is in the transitions. The jagged face of a mountain can rotate and become a face. You can do these surreal and playful things, that can also take on more meaning. It doesn’t have to be literal. One thing that’s really fun for me as a title designer is you’re freed from being literal and you can play in this abstract sandbox, where you can hint at things or show things that have greater meaning once somebody has watched or experienced the show.”
Fong has always played with transitions, which are integral to the success of and meaning behind most title sequences. “Transitions are at the heart of what makes something cinematic. When I did this alphabet book, one of my professors told me, ‘The way you think, Karin, is so cinematic!’, which was so surprising to me. When you think of the language of filmmaking, a lot of it is how things are cut together, and how they play upon the real world, because our real world doesn’t match cut or dissolve into something else. Those kind of transitions, and the more innovative you can make them, the more cinematic the piece becomes.”
CHANGE IS GOOD
One thing folks new to titles perhaps don’t realize, is how much they have changed over time. Streaming television has led to titles on the small screen having the same or sometimes even greater weight or prestige as feature films. With less channel flipping and no commercials, the focus is no longer on catching a potential viewer’s attention. The pressure for the title to be like an ad for the show has waned. This means Fong and her team can create titles that unfold or reveal things in ways that weren’t possible with network shows. They also have a much wider reach, often becoming part of pop culture, as with IF’s titles for Stranger Things and, most recently, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan
“What’s wonderful that’s happening now, with the advent of streaming television, and less pressure to have that time for ad space, and the way people binge watch and our television habits have changed, we have opportunities to hide Easter eggs in the titles or we get more and more requests to alter the titles each episode, or do something special for each season. With shows, hopefully they can run for years, so you have to make the the titles open enough to encompass the whole series, but rich enough that somebody would want to experience it each time. I give a lot of kudos to all the composers I’ve worked with, the music cannot be underestimated in terms of a title being successful. The best is when we are totally in sync with the music and it all works so perfectly that as a viewer, you want to sit through it.”
WHY WE CHOSE HER:
Karin Fong not only loves her job, she is the creative director on some of the most recognizable title sequences you know. She has carved out a career in a aspect of the industry that is basically a microcosm of filmmaking that spotlights and celebrates great stories, promises great experiences. She is truly a leader in her field, and proves it by saying one of the most important roles as leader is to surround yourself with people who are the best at what they do and trust them to do it. Her advice to aspiring artists, whatever their field, is to work with people who inspire them to be better and who scare them a little, so they can always aim higher. She also says being persistent is perhaps the most important way to success. That is advice everyone should take to heart.
EDITOR”S NOTE: To see many of Karin’s titles, she recommends going to one of her favorite sites, The Art of the Title, which specializes in her craft.