Breaking Barriers with Motion Design
Kathleen Maher
Issue: Summer 2019

Breaking Barriers with Motion Design

Motion graphics can be an invisible art. The animated graphic elements that are used to tell a story can do such a good job that the audience accepts them, and the art disappears into the content, so no one thinks about the signs in the sky, or the interface in their game, or the hero's computer screen. On the other hand, motion design graphics jump up, shake your hand, and look you in the eye.

This year, motion design - which applies graphic design principles to filmmaking and video production through the use of animation and visual effects - is getting a lot of well-deserved attention. A few months ago, a Scientific and Technology Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was given to the developers of software for motion graphics, including Per-Anders Edwards for his contribution to the development of Cinema 4D's MoGraph (Maxon) tool set. Adobe's critical role in the movie industry was also recognized, and developers David Simons, Daniel Wilk, James Acquavella, Michael Natkin, and David Cotter were recognized for the design and development of After Effects. The Knoll brothers, John and Thomas, also received awards for the development of Photoshop, as did Mark Hamburg for his continued engineering work on the software.

On the same weekend that the Academy Awards were broadcast, Motion Plus Design held a conference for motion designers in Los Angeles. The organization Motion Plus Design was founded in 2011 in France by Kook Ewo, joined in 2015 by Ronan Guitton, to promote the art of motion design around the world. Their events have drawn attention to people working in the motion design field worldwide.

Design Is Everything

Not surprising, early innovation in motion design came during the mid-century golden age of design in art and architecture. Along with Charles and Ray Eames in architecture and furniture, Eero Saarinen in furniture, and Paul Rand in graphic design, Saul Bass was exploring the power of a space-age aesthetic as a graphic designer. Bass' logo designs helped define many major brands, including Bell Telephone, Continental Airlines, United, AT&T, and Warner Communications. His work designing movie posters naturally led to creating the title credits for movies. The designer's first work was with Otto Preminger, who so liked his work on the Carmen Jones poster that he suggested Bass do credits. Among his best-known images are the jutting lines and jagged, ragged shapes in the titles of The Man with the Golden Arm, which become an arm splitting the frame. "Why not make it move?" Bass famously asked Preminger.

Bass redefined credits by making them part of the movie, and as in North By Northwest, the credits introduce the story as the titles line up on a grid that is revealed to be the side of the United Nations building. The titles continue as the movie begins. As a result of Bass' influence, credits became longer and told their own story. Bass and his wife, Elaine, worked long into their careers, creating movie posters for several directors including Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) and credits for directors like Martin Scorsese (Casino, Cape Fear).

In the 1960 article "Film Titles - a New Field for the Graphic Designer," published in Graphis magazine, Bass argued that film titles provide a new canvas for designers and directors. Noting that at the time of publication audiences really didn't care about the credits and used the time to talk, go to the snack bar, and fidget, he wrote, "I have approached titles with the objective of making them sufficiently provocative and entertaining to induce the theatre inhabitants to sit down and watch, because something is really happening on the screen. It then may become possible to project a symbolic foretaste of what is to come, and to create a receptive atmosphere that will enable the film to begin on a higher level of audience support."

Motion Design
MAGINARY FORCES CREATED THE INNOVATIVE TITLE WORK FOR TV’S MAD MEN SERIES. Ghost in the Shell: © 2017 Paramount Pictures | Avengers: Endgame: © 2019 Marvel

He did that. And more. The rise of long-form television shows has made way for long-form titles that can prepare the groundwork for an entire season, alluding to events that happen across episodes so that the titles even touch on the story. Video services such as YouTube and Vimeo have also opened up a medium for directors to show their short works.

Today, title sequences pull together all aspects of visual design: typography, sound, music, animation, illustration, live action, and VFX. Nothing is out of place or off-limits - just tell the story.

The wonderful title sequence for Mad Men by Imaginary Forces is just one example of the resurgence of innovative title work that's happening for television and movies. Ironically, even though the series is about the end of the space age and the dawn of Aquarius, Steve Fuller and Mark Gardner, the creative directors of the title sequence, said in an interview with Art of the Title that they didn't want to reference Bass' work too directly because the show's director, Matthew Weiner, didn't want the piece to look too much like the '60s. Yet, it certainly conjures up the feel of the era. The falling man peacefully drifting past the grid of skyscrapers is a direct reference to Bass' North by Northwest grid overlaying the United Nations building. Fuller says he saw what they were doing as an updating of Bass' work.

Art and design have moved on from an infatuation with modernism and past the aridity of postmodernism into something else again. According to Maxon's Edwards, "the brakes are off in fashion and all the arts." He notes that people are not tied to genres or styles. What he finds so exciting about the current period of motion design is that people are putting together image, sound, typography, and photography in novel ways. "As long as you have a vision - it may be from any era - it's totally acceptable to use. Everything is on the table," he says.

The Evolution of Motion Graphics

Edwards sees the increased use of motion graphics for effects and for storytelling as resulting from the accessibility of tools. "Motion graphics," says Edwards, "used to be a quite spendy approach." As the techniques become easier, there's more room to experiment, and motion graphics become a tool to enhance the narrative. That's why we're seeing more motion graphics visualizations that give life to "heroes sitting around a table discussing how to get unobtanium from blue cat people," says Edwards, referencing Avatar. "Places like Territory Studio, Perception Studio, and Sarofsky use a mix of applications to get there, and all these companies are frankly amazing in how freshly they are approaching their work."

Motion Design

Territory Studio, with offices in London, San Francisco and New York, has made something of a specialty out of creating fantasy interfaces for robots and rocket ships, among other things. Their work has appeared in the Prometheus, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avengers series, as well as Pacific Rim: Uprising, Men in Black: International, Ready Player One, Blade Runner 2049, Spider-Man: Far from Home, Ghost in the Shell, The Martian, Mile 22, Hunter Killer, and American Assassin, to name probably a very few. Marti Romances, partner and creative director of Territory's San Francisco studio, and Territory Studio's founder and ECD David Sheldon Hicks, lead teams that design screens for, as he says, "fictional technology interfaces" as seen on computers, in spaceships, and holograms. An artist and motion designer, he got his start creating menus for DVDs and navigation systems for console games.

At the Motion Plus Design festival in Los Angeles held earlier this year, Romances recalled that in the early days of DVD, he was cranking out menus using Autodesk's Flame and other tools at a rate of about one a day. He said he learned more at that one job than he did at school. Now, he uses Cinema 4D and After Effects as major tools for his work, and in fact he was on stage to accept the Sci-Tech Award with colleagues and collaborators.

Motion Design

Working at Territory's San Francisco office with a small team gave Romances an opportunity to learn about technology as it was being developed. He encountered "crazier shit than we're doing in movies." He addresses the design of fictional interfaces as if he were building the real thing. In fact, in his work on The Martian, he says they worked from the real-life controls of machines built by NASA; sometimes they reskinned NASA controls. And even though he is creating digital controls and screens, Romances tries to work within physical constraints, to be sure they are plausible and understandable, as are the actions and reactions of the characters with their tools. "An interface is like a joke," he says. "If you have to explain it, it doesn't work."

New Age of Motion Design

As motion graphics has become more powerful and accessible in software tools from Maxon, Adobe, Blackmagic, Foundry, and Autodesk, the art of motion design has taken off and has become attractive to the thoughtful appreciation of audiences. Elastic, for example, has broken new ground with its titles by Patrick Clair for True Detective, while Territory Studio made the bleak credits for Bruno Centofanti's How to be Human.

Motion Design

Karin Fong, founding member of creative company Imaginary Forces, also spoke at the Motion Plus Design festival in LA about her work as creative director (with Michelle Dougherty) on the titles for Boardwalk Empire. Fong's work covers a range of styles. Her titles for the dual universe TV show Counterpart have a Bassian quality to them, but for the swashbuckling pirate show Black Sails, she used the style of religious sculpture to describe her beautiful terrible pirates and pull together the sacred and the profane into a dance of warring powers. For the video game God of War II, she went full-on red-fire hell god, and clearly enjoyed herself. And on A Monster Calls, a quirky story about animation coming to life for a child, she was able to indulge her love for typography and create beautiful animations using drawings and paint.

When Fong came to the Boardwalk Empire project, she had plenty of resources to work with, maybe too many. They were working on the titles as director Martin Scorsese was finishing up the first episode, so they had plenty of preliminary work to go on, including the set, a beautiful re-creation of the Atlantic City boardwalk, and a wealth of historical artifacts from the era and the painstaking work of the art department.

According to Fong, Scorsese had thought they would use the boardwalk set for the show's titles, and, she was in love with the set and all the detail that had gone into creating it. Her idea was to contrast the old-fashioned good-time fun of carny America of the '20s in the daytime, with the sleazy glamor of the boardwalk at night. As they worked on ideas for the titles, though, they began to realize they didn't want to be tied too much to the tropes of the '20s. As the work for Boardwalk Empire unfolded, the team went through multiple ideas, creating several sets of storyboards but gradually coming around to center in on the lead character, Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi. And, instead of creating a period piece in sync with the series, they decided to combine a modern soundtrack by Brian Jonestown Massacre, with straight up sans serif type, and dark, ominous visuals to set off the show and emphasize the psychological elements.

Motion Design

Fong's work on Boardwalk Empire is very centered on a place - at edge of the beach - and a man looking into the future of his soul. Trading the detailed boardwalk set for Buscemi's face and the sadness in his eyes turned out to be a good bargain.

Fong and Dougherty work heavily from the image. "If it doesn't look good still," she stated, "it won't look better if it moves." As a director, she's interested in passages, gateways, and links. Nucky is a stationary figure on the beach as the waves swirl at his feet and the clouds darken and race around him. His future as a bootlegger comes for him as a few bottles appear in the sea and more and more wash up on the shore and crash against the pier. It's a marvelously communicative piece that tells the audience who Nucky is and that the major conflict is going to be within the man. As the vision recedes, the waves wash back away from Nucky's perfect shoes and he turns and walks into the show, the boardwalk at sunset, and into the 1920s.

Letting go of your best-laid plans can sometimes make for something much better, and that was part of Fong's message for the audience at the conference. Another very strong message was to keep working because there is opportunity. Fong told the audience that it's a very good time to be working in short-form content. "It's only going to proliferate," she said.

Motion Design

In Los Angeles, among the audience for Motion Plus Design were young, ambitious content creators. They came early for the daylong show and stayed all the way through. The speakers, too, were relatively young and all remarkably generous too, offering practical advice and tips; two of them offered online training.

Mike Winklemann, who creates content on Beeple, disciplines himself to create a piece every day, which of course he calls "Everydays," and has been doing so for 12 years. He also publishes them (on his site and on Behance) because it forces him to actually see a project through, to try and do the best he can with a project and to own it. Winklemann's "Everydays" also serve as a tool for him to learn his craft and learn new tools. He has made much of his work available as open-source resources, to be freely used and shared.

Andrew Kramer is a content creator and trainer. He makes training videos for After Effects that are funny and fun, and sells effects and presets. He also provides detailed and targeted lessons for tools, including After Effects and Cinema 4D. If ever you wondered why people do stuff for free, Winklemann and Kramer came to the conference as gods. Gods get hired.

As Fong says, there is plenty of opportunity now, and more to come. There's a good ratio of women working in creating title sequences, animatics, effects, and other short-form work. Of course, as one woman pointed out to me, that's because the work doesn't pay as well, and until recently, has not been very high profile. She has a point, but so do the people working in motion design who find that the field gives them a voice.

It's also unique in the way it draws on every component of art: 2D, 3D, typography, music, sound - in fact, in so many cases, choosing the right music makes all the difference in putting a short form over the top, as did Fong's controversial use of Brian Jonestown Massacre. Think of the contrasting effect of Alabama 3's "Woke Up This Morning" playing over the visual tour of Jersey as Tony Soprano drives from the airport. Or, the Handsome Family's "Far From Any Road," which sets up the visuals on the True Detective titles for the first season.

Motion design is giving young directors the opportunity to play with all the toys and put elements together to create a distinct piece of art.

Kathleen Maher ( is a contributing editor to CGW as well as a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, CA-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR's "TechWatch."

Writer's Note: Until I started writing this piece, I didn't know about the wonderful website The Art of the Title. For anyone interested in learning more, the site is an invaluable resource, and I used it heavily to check names, credits, and history. I'm also grateful to the people at Motion Plus Design for highlighting the work of so many artists who don't get enough of the spotlight.