Still from Dead Man Walking title sequence, 1998. Imaginary Forces.

The art of movie title design is a delicate one, often combining imaginative typographic play with thrilling cinematic movement. The best sequences subtly evoke a narrative’s action, while also existing in a closed-off world of their own. This year an AIGA medal is awarded to Karin Fong in recognition of her important work in the field of visual storytelling and motion design, and a career marked by imaginative, enticing, and intense title sequences for film and television. Fong’s typographic worlds envelop viewers from the get-go, be it Boardwalk Empire, South Park, Black Sails, or Charlotte’s Web.

Fong studied art at Yale, where she first became interested in graphic design and motion. After leaving college, she worked as an animator on Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and later moved to the west coast to join RGA/LA, a studio known for its title designs for the likes of Alien, Superman, and Seven. She worked as a designer under Kyle Cooper, and in 1996, when RGA/LA became Imaginary Forces, Fong took her place at the helm as a founding member and partner.

We asked Fong to tell the story behind one of the first title designs that she ever led—a darkly humorous sequence for MTV’s Dead Man on Campus (1998). Fong had to navigate the challenge of designing for comedy during a moment of tremendous change: not only was she heading the project in the early days of her company, but it was also the dawn of new digital software. Here, she tells us about discovering digital’s untapped potential for cinema motion graphics.

“The mid-1990s was an exciting time for our studio—a lot of work was coming in due to our role in re-igniting film title design. By 1997, analogue and traditional film methods were transitioning into digital production, which greatly influenced how we could create and edit our work. There was an abundance of film and video projects, and we were constantly figuring out who had the time and interest to take them on. The commission for the title sequence of an MTV feature film, Dead Man on Campus, came in right at the moment I’d been groomed to lead projects on my own and was able to stretch my wings. As one of the first projects that I directed, it became important to me in developing my voice as a designer. I found it very satisfying when a colleague later told me that he could see my sense of humor within the finished piecethat I’d created something both true to the film but also true to how I see things.

“At the time, we had a reputation for dark and moody title designs. While Dead Man on Campus was dark, it was also a comedy, which made it a little bit different. The film is to do with an urban myth—I don’t know if you had it at your school, but I had it at mine—where if one of your roommates committed suicide, apparently you would pass the term automatically with straight A’s because of the emotional distress. It was very evident that the sequence would have to nod to that dark humor. It’s a challenging Venn diagram, right? College, death, humor. Where does that all intersect?

“My favorite moment of any project is brainstorming different conceptual approaches. I was working on a team with two good friends and collaborators, designer Adam Bluming, and illustrator Wayne Coe. We eventually landed on the idea of using the same language as a standardized SAT test for the sequence, but the questions of the test had to do with different ways of committing suicide. We came up with all these dark jokes. We did little things to tie the gags into the credits, like, ‘Oh, the costume designer should be putting a bag over her head.’

“We worked with Wayne to figure out the driest, funniest ways to draw the diagrams, and then finished them off in the computer. Adam and I printed them out on giant paper and went over to a studio to shoot them—at the time, we were still doing most things analogue—that is, shot on film. We shot all these oversized, physical posters using a series of moves: panning the camera slowly over them, or pushing gently into them, thinking that we’d just edit it all together. 

“In the end though, editing with all this footage was a disaster. We hadn’t worked with any timing sheets before hand, and we suddenly realized really how much of comedy is about timing. The moves we shot didn’t focus on the correct words or illustrations, or move at the right moments. We had to ditch all of what we had.

“Our solution was to give the digital files to our editors Larry Plastrik and Kurt Mattila. They then used a digital editing systeman Avid–to plan out how the images and words were read and revealed. There’s a cadence and rhythm to how you read jokes and how they pay off. In the computer we were able to push as far as we wanted into an image, or precisely pan across a drawing to reveal the punch line exactly at the right time, in a way that still felt like it was shot on a camera.

Still from Dead Man on Campus title sequence, 1998. Imaginary Forces.

“This project was important to me in so many ways. I realized that we were reaching a period in time where we had to consider what would be done practically and what would be computer generated. I still ask myself a similar question today with every new project. I take a step back and think: Is this something we’ll do using shots, or is it better that we shoot one element and then manipulate it digitally?

“Independent of technology, I also learned the importance of timing, especially for comedy. Most projects, whether the design is for an ad or a teaser, need to have a pay-off. That’s this craft: honoring the rhythm.”