Motion graphics designer Karin Fong uses type in her iconic title sequences, including Black Sails, Boardwalk Empire, and more, slices of which appear in this image.

Type and Title Sequences: An Interview with Karin Fong

By Ana Gómez Bernaus

Even if you don't recognize Karin Fong's name, you know her work. For more than 20 years, the Emmy Award winner has told stories as a motion graphics designer and director at Imaginary Forces. As part of a collaboration between Create magazine and the Type Director's Club, I recently spoke to Karin about the role type plays in her title sequences.

EARLY INFLUENCES

Ana Gómez Bernaus: When you went to school, did you know you wanted to focus on film? And was typography something you were interested in then, or did it come later?

Karin Fong: I’ve always been interested in typography. When I was in high school, I used to make films with a Super 8 camera. I’d cut out paper letters and have them pop on one by one to do the titling. It was sort of magical to see something animate.

In college, I majored in graphic design and at the very beginning, I really wanted to do children’s books because of the way words and images were so intertwined. At the time, graphic design was mostly print-based, but I was also really interested in this new media, so I did an interactive alphabet book for my senior project at Yale.

That was the first time I animated something on the computer. Instead of sending it away to a lab, waiting a week, and having it come back, it was like, wow, in a few minutes or half hour I could make the letter B bounce. I was hooked. I’d scan in my drawings and all these little bits and pieces of magazine type so it had a collage feel. You were making something in the computer and it didn't have to be 100 percent computer-generated. I think that idea has always influenced how I work and how I work with typography.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC BREAKTHROUGH

Ana: Documentaries usually have a traditional, conservative approach to type. In your title for National Geographic Breakthrough, the type, which is very thin, flashes almost like connecting neurons. How did you get that approved?

Karin: Trying to push the conventions is fun. National Geographic Breakthrough is nine stories shot by nine filmmakers, so it’s an eclectic group. They wanted an opening that could cover all these different topics. It’s supposed to convey a lively nervous system or an electrical circuit where things are lighting up at different points and they’re all connected. The idea for the typography was to design that word and then animate it and crop into it at different points. It’s like your mind is cycling through these interesting ideas. 

Trusting your audience is the key to doing anything memorable. Audiences will understand a sequence with a song or a piece of type that’s not matching exactly the period. We want people to take away a feeling. It's about a feeling and a tone, in the end.

PROJECT RESEARCH

Ana: When you work on a project, how do you start? Do the visuals come first and then you put the typography after or are there some projects where you have a typographical idea depending on the era on which the show is based?

Karin: My first step is to dive into the material. I want to understand the story; for instance, if it takes place in a particular time period, I want to know all about that time period. I want to know what the art was like at that time, I want to know what the popular culture was like at that time, the music.

Of course, the best source if you're working on something like a television show or a movie or even a brand, is to know that it's a story. You have to understand the script and the characters, really dive into it.

I love that research part. Inevitably with the research, you get into the visuals and the typography. You can play to something expected in the era or you can do something that is a contrast; sometimes that can heighten the design or emotion of a sequence. For instance, just because you're working on a period-piece movie doesn't mean you have to use type from that period. The expressiveness of type is not necessarily a matchy-matchy thing.

I think of type almost like a character: Sometimes it's a supporting character, and it does its job well by complementing a visual and the cinematography, and other times it is the main star actor.

BLACK SAILS

Ana: In your sequence for Black Sails, there’s contrast and tension because the images show beautiful and delicate sculpture, but the scenes represented are very cruel. On the type side, you used a very nice serif paired with a very strict sans serif, so the type pairing mirrors the contrast in the visuals.

Karin: Black Sails content is so ornate—all these baroque sculptures and everything. We were playing with the type being very elegant, the serif type of course being very classic in a way because we were referencing the sequence and the way the establishment was being disrupted by these pirates. We wanted to harken to the classicism of the serif and the artwork but also give it that drama.

It’s not a “Yo ho, yo ho” pirate, parrot-on-your-shoulder, Disney interpretation of pirates. The show should feel epic, a big tale but not cartoony, and that’s the idea behind that typography.

I'M DYING UP HERE

Ana: In the sequence for I'm Dying Up Here, all the type is different. That's a bold move—usually everything has to be consistent. Why did you choose to break the rules?

Karin: I’ve always thought it would be a fun thing to do. But changing the type for each credit is harder than one would think. There are legal requirements of how people are billed. You can never make it feel like somebody is that much bigger than another person.

The showrunner, Michael Aguilar, showed us an underground newspaper of the time. It had this wonderful eclectic handset type: posters, club dates, want ads, ads for dubious hotels, all in one paper. Of course, there are very modernist graphics and typography of that era (NASA comes to mind), but if you flip through 1970s magazines or newspapers, you see that things were much less corporately uniform. We played on that by making the type slightly worn. It’s just little touches—the way of pairing different typefaces and the way it’s a little off.

The showrunner also showed us comedy clubs on L.A.'s Sunset Strip in the 1970s. That was an amazing era for comedy in L.A. because The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson had moved from New York to L.A., and all these break-out comics, like Richard Pryor, came of age in the '70s comedy scene. We thought it would be great to get the spirit of the comedy club flyers into the sequence by having each of the names set in a different '70s type style.

We used a lot of high-speed footage, and it’s almost like you’re in an inebriated state. You're inside of a club and people are laughing in slow-mo. We were literally placing you inside the club, and the type pushes it to this specific era.

RUBICON

Ana: The main title for Rubicon uses several types of typography and lettering: printed typography, hand-lettered type, even illustration with type.

Karin: Yes, you're harkening back to what I loved when I first started doing this—the idea that you can bring everything into the computer as a collage, with texture and found type and found design. 

Rubicon is a bit of a spy show and it’s a bit of the idea of paranoia and tracking information and the bureaucracy of a government agency. It’s kind of like conspiracy theories, and you’re close up on money and flight paths. All these are taken from different sources, and a lot of times, we have to make them up and then texture them. There’s nothing like scanning money for texture, engraving, and type.

Sometimes we take bits and pieces and make them look like different places but it’s all tied together with a connect-the-dots, hand-drawn line. It was incredibly fun to piece together this whole story through all these kind of typographic remnants of code and letters and numbers and everything. There's a metaphorical narrative of the title coming together from these, like piecing together something.

BOARDWALK EMPIRE

Ana: In the Boardwalk Empire title sequence, there's this very energetic nature in the visuals and the typography is a very rigid sans serif. Was that a choice to contrast type with the images, or did that look come together through other references, such as time period?

Karin: The contrast was a choice. Thinking about the type for a project is a lot like thinking about the music for that project and again the experiment in contrast. Even though it was set in the 1920s, it was important that it felt like a contemporary drama; you’re in the moment with these characters and it shouldn’t feel like it’s a historical PBS-type documentary or period film.

The contemporary nature is also reflected in the music. We tried all kinds of tracks to that sequence; for instance, a phonograph record of By the Sea, which was very of the period and immediately took you back there. But it made it feel too historical. In the end, we used a modern song by the Brian Jonestown Massacre. In the images Steve Buscemi, is in a vintage suit and it’s very clearly a different era, so the final music choice creates tension.

The type helps that, too. It takes it out of being precious and period—there’s a lot of tension in the story; race relations, crime—and without us knowing, it takes us to a place that’s a more modern action/drama genre.

ROLLING STONE: STORIES FROM THE EDGE

Ana: Tell us about your titles for HBO's "Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge."

Karin: Rolling Stone magazine turns 50 this year, and it's always been a leader in graphic design and typography and layout. This documentary tells the stories behind some of the magazine's top stories.

We designed the title sequence, but we also developed the visual language for a lot of the documentary. A lot of it is about showing the magazine coming together—literally being made before our eyes.

The first thing I asked for is, "Please, somebody call Gail Anderson or Fred Woodward, the legendary art directors there, to see if we can get their layouts, their mechanicals." They were placing down their types by hand.

The idea of hand-placing the display copy was really interesting. One thing I wanted to do, along with Alex Gibney and Blair Foster, the directors, was show the process of making a print magazine come to life abstractly in our animations. It was wonderful to have access to the Rolling Stone archive. A lot of the images are direct scans—really high resolutions because we show the words quite big a lot of the time.

The title sequence is actually the first letter from the editor. There’s a voice-over element, and we thought about how the word should appear onscreen with the voice, and how to emphasize that.

This wonderful collage-maker that is computer lets us maintain the texture of print; for instance, the way the edges of something bleeds into the newsprint.  There were a few times we had to retype some things, but for the most part we used the actual source material for the title sequence typography typography, cut up, of course.

Ana: We started this interview with you putting letters on your Super 8 films and have come back to the same idea at the end. Everything is all tied up in a nice bow.

Karin: Yes, it is!

To learn more about the Type Director's Club, visit its website.