Creative Frameworks in Music Video & Film Titles

This is a lecture I have given to graphic design students at Virginia Commonwealth University. Note I have embedded video where appropriate, hence some of the styling changes to the slides.

Today we are going to look at creative frameworks, specifically in music video and film title sequences.

And really, this lecture is mostly about graphic design, I promise.

So how is this about graphic design, anyway? It is important to think about graphic design beyond just printed books and posters—graphic design encompasses or directly relates to almost all visual media. In fact, I think of film and motion work as nearly the same discipline as graphic design, except that film tends to move around a little more. All the same principals of narrative, form, metaphor, meaning, etc... are all there. By looking at film, video and motion you can extend your vocabulary about graphic design. This can help you get more ideas, think about design in a more sophisticated way, and make better work.

So, what do I mean when I say "creative frameworks?"

Put simply, frameworks are ways to provide you the designer with something to start binding together the big three components of most design: type, image and meaning.

I look at these frameworks as places to start from. They are a big-picture way to think about what you are working on.

This is worth consideration because of this: the blank page...

...which is something that scares the shit out of me as a designer. Frameworks provide a conceptual way to move past this vast emptiness and start making.

In other words, these frameworks are ways to approach making good stuff, hopefully great stuff, sometimes fantastically awesome stuff.

Why look at music video and film titles? First, we should consider what they have in common with each other.

They are usually short: 5 mins or less—a perfect short-attention-span nugget. They are singular—they can exist within themselves, and do not necessarily have to reference the outside world directly. They are stylized—highly expressive and very visually engaging. They generally live outside conventional expectations, and can be borderline in terms of readability, linearity, etc... Last, they are often highly conceptual—can be based solely in concept instead of a traditional linear narrative.

In terms of “graphic design” lets look at posters; depending on what you are doing this can apply to a lot of design.

Again we see the same ideas. Posters especially are very similar to music video and film titles—almost identical in many ways.

So lets look at some specific frameworks.

These are just 6 of infinite possibilities, but I do think you see these six pretty frequently as guidelines to help the creators of the work get moving. Obviously there will be a lot of gray area here, and a lot of overlap. But the thing to really remember, and in my opinion one of the most important things about being a designer...

...is that these are all poetic ways of making design. To me the word poetic best describes what i strive to be when I am working. I think of working poetically as an amazing blend of meaning and form and metaphor and message—to me it is the pinnacle of what design can (and maybe should) be.

Lets look at the first one—exaggeration. This is taking something that is essentialy “real” and pushing it farther to make it something new and interesting.

Wax—"California"
This is a great video by Spike Jonze—you know him from films like Being John Malkovitch and Where The Wild Things Are. So what happens here? A guy was trying to catch a bus. This video takes a very simple, banal event and then exaggerates it into something interesting. The idea is boring—but light him on fire and film it in slow motion and you get something delightful and poetic.

Bat For Lashes—"What's A Girl To Do?"
Another video of a somewhat unusual but banal scene that becomes extraordinary through exaggeration—just a girl riding a bike. At night. Kind of.

Physical integration is where the elements of design become real things inside of the construct of the video or title sequence. The design elements are actual things that are reacted to by the piece.

Panic Room—David Fincher, director
The film is all about isolation and a kind of impending doom—the titles help to amplify this by physically hanging over New York City at a giant scale.

Barbarella—Arcady and Maurice Binder, directors
This is one of my favorite title sequences ever. I suspect most of you have not seen this (except those of you over 50). This movie is really wonderful in a very silly way. Jane Fonda plays something of a space exploring sex addict in the 40th century. I don't really know how else to describe this, but note that it is from 1968 and that should help. As you watch this remember that there is no Photoshop, no AfterEffects, this is all done in camera and with an optical printer. I love the way the type plays with her and she romps around her fur covered spaceship, kinda sorta covering up her naughty bits. The titles help to reinforce the idea that Fonda's character is the center of the film and exists in a playful romp of sexuality.

Sampling and recontextualization is taking something that exists and reusing it in a different way or place. You can borrow an existing language—sound, music, graphics, whatever, and reuse it to a different end.

Thank You For Smoking—Shadowplay Studios, directors
This is a great movie about lobbyists for the tobacco industry. A really nice use of taking an existing graphic language and repurposeing it for the titles—those of you who smoke should recognize some of these.

Kutiman—"The Mother of All Funk Chords"
This one is kind of unusual. Kutiman has taken a bunch of videos uploaded to YouTube and resampled them into a piece of music. Note that what you are hearing is all legit—this actually is the music from all of these videos mixed together.


Juxtaposition takes different things, sometimes completely unrelated, and puts them together to create new meaning. This is something we do a lot as designers.

Se7en—Kyle Cooper, director
This is another one from David Fincher—a very dark, very moody film about a serial killer and the cops who are after him. This is a brilliant film and the title sequence sets it all up perfectly. This is from Kyle Cooper, who was from the firm Imaginary Forces, who are among the most sought after designers for film titles. He has since moved on to his own firm.

The Dog Problem—Howard Nourmand, director
This movie has a wonderful title sequence that far outweighs the rest of the movie in terms of quality. The story is about a writer who is in therapy, so the director uses Rorschach inkblots as the basis for the titles.

This one is kind of a catch all, as I think we can argue that all of these examples are hyper-real. What I am specifically talking about is looking at reality from a very narrow viewpoint that can make the real into something more than real, a kind of highly attenuated reality.

The Fall—Tarsem, director
This is from Tarsem who did the movie The Cell and the REM Losing My Religion music video. This is highly symbolic, very beautiful film, and the titles show what happens before the beginning of the movie to set up the plot. It is filmed and edited in such an extreme way it becomes hyper-real.

Dexter—Digital Kitchen, directors
One of my favorite title sequences ever, the opening to Dexter. For those who do not know the show, he is a serial killer who only murders people who are bad. He also has a family and a child, and is a very likable character who is both normal and nuts at the same time. This sequence really manipulates reality in a way that makes you wonder what you are looking at.

Last is the systemic construct—my favorite of all. You may have heard this called “relational design” which simply put is the idea of taking a bunch of data or source material, and letting the material itself dictate the design. The designer or director is setting up a system and parameters that the visual material is run through and allowed to just do its thing. In a way this is similar to programming a design.

The Chemical Brothers—"Star Guitar"
This video is a perfect example. You know director Michel Gondry from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and a few other films, but I think his best work is in music video. He is basically programming an idea of how the source (the music) will inform the visuals for the video.

SOUR—"Hibi No Neiro"
This video is brilliant, from a Japanese band called SOUR. This is done entirely using amateur video of their fans from YouTube. This was planned and choreographed but the director uses the grid as a system the video works inside of.

To conclude, think about how all of these videos and titles work on a conceptual level that dramatically elevates them—and think about how these ideas can translate into graphic design. And remember one word:

Poetry. everything i have shown you today is poetic in different ways.

Thanks!