The reductionist 8-bit rendering of the Universal logo is the amuse-bouche to Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, based on the graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O'Malley.
The manga/mumblecore modulation of the film first seethes on pseudo strips of scratched celluloid scored to Beck's/Sex Bob-omb's artful cheetah-like strains of something akin to Black Flag’s "Wasted" locking horns with Iggy Pop’s "Search and Destroy". The visual napalm, conjured by Shynola, is traced and painted rather than a result of exposure to light.
Director EDGAR WRIGHT, main title designer RICHARD KENWORTHY from Shynola, and concept designer and head storyboard artist OSCAR WRIGHT discuss the creation of the opening sequence with us.
At what stage in the process did you decide to use a title sequence?
EW: In this case, the bulk of the title sequence came late in the game. The film always opened with the studio credits and the title always occurred over the long tracking shot in the living room with the band playing. That was one of the first scenes boarded and pre-vised. But originally all the credits were at the end over black. We originally ended on a completely different song too, "In The Long Run" by The Carrie Nations.
We test screened it once in this version. But then a couple of people had a note about the movie, one of them being Quentin Tarantino. He felt we needed a title sequence at the start to let people settle in and hint more about what we were about to see. We did a very rough mock up of this in the AVID* with white on black titles along with waveform graphics.
Even this temporary sequence did the trick of giving the film more of a sense of occasion and a very distinct break between the prologue and the first scene that moves the story forward. It also helped to have Beck's loudest soundtrack song blasting for two minutes straight! So we knew even with our mock-up that the front titles made a big difference to the movie.
Luckily, there was more song to play with. Originally we only used 60 seconds of Beck, but there was a longer demo to play with so we could expand the track to credit sequence length.
How did you come to work with Shynola?
EW: We knew that the opening titles had to be really arresting and somehow hint at the phantasmagoria to come. We had the opening title sequence all finished by this point, but Oscar and Double Negative had their hands completely full with the rest of the effects and graphics within the film. When we knew we would have to farm the sequence out to someone, Shynola came to mind as animators that would completely ace it. I had met them years ago, but we never actually got to collaborate, so it was nice to give them the call after so long. I had no idea whether they were available or interested, so I asked them to come in and see the movie ASAP.
Do you keep a sort of list of people you may want to one day work with? Is selective collaboration the key to good art?
EW: I think it is, yes. In Shynola's case I'd seen all their music videos from way back and knew they were the kings of highly detailed, syncopated animation. I knew they were big music fans too and so I thought they might have a blast with the brief, which was basically to make love to the eyeballs for two minutes.
What is it about marrying the aesthetic of scratched film and fierce three-chord punk that makes for such a spellbinding onslaught?
EW: My brief to Shynola was for it to be like 2001 meets Sesame Street; a marriage of the mindfuck of the Stargate sequence with the early childlike animation of the Children's Television Workshop. I also showed them the titles of Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill as I adored the use of the optical track in that opening. I had also done a video myself for Charlotte Hatherley which was full of syncopated scratches and film dirt. They had a whole bunch of references, too, that were all on the same page.
We wanted to visualize the music and have every graphic, symbol, and subliminal image in time with the music – a hypnotic barrage of colour, light, and music. The idea was to have it as if the animation is a manifestation of how cool the music is in Knives' head. That why we end the sequence on her watching, the titles are like her brain is exploding with how cool the track is.
In the DVD/Blu-ray audio commentary you joke about the elaborate construction and shooting of the band/couch pull-back being solely for the title shot. What was your approach to directing this? How much planning and boarding did you have to do?
EW: We wanted to do as much in camera as possible, so this meant an extended set, a 50-foot technocrane and a trippy, long piece of carpet. The shot took about 20 takes to nail and was shot on the second day of filming, a good ambitious set up to start with. You have to start as you mean to go on. This shot was boarded and then we cut together the boards to the Beck song to see if that particular track would work for the opening. Double Negative then did a pre-vis version of this opening. So it was well worked out by the time we came to shoot.
When you make a film, do you go to anyone outside of the production for advice? Is there anything you consult as a guide?
EW: Aside from the test screening process, which is terrifying, but usually very helpful, I would show the movie to other directors that I respected. So at various stages I'd show the movie to different people in London and LA. It's a nice luxury to be able to call up your peers and contemporaries, but sometimes you only want praise and usually you get constructive criticism. As I mentioned before, the idea of a full title sequence at the start was Quentin's suggestion. I had never done a full front title sequence before this.
Who or what inspires, or has inspired you, in your filmmaking career so far?
EW: Everything and everybody! I am of course inspired by other filmmakers and movies, but music and animation are also big inspirations to me. For Scott Pilgrim I wanted to recreate experiences I had as a youngster at the cinema, sitting in a theatre not knowing quite what had hit me. So I wanted audience members to react to the movie much as Knives reacts to Sex Bob-omb in the opening sequence.
Richard, tell us a little bit about Shynola.
RK: We were just four art students who got restless waiting for something novel to occur at college. We ended up encouraging and inspiring each other and working together collaboratively. We were drawing, painting, and making films pretty much every day. It was a very inquisitive and productive time. When you graduate with an art degree, you're suddenly faced with translating a certificate into a rent cheque, and when the opportunity arose to make a music video we took it. We never imagined it would lead to a decade of making music videos, but here we are.
How were you approached for Scott Pilgrim?
RK: Many years ago we were big fans of a show called The Adam & Joe Show, and somehow got to know Adam Buxton and got invited to their wrap party. I was in the queue to the toilet and got chatting to this guy and we hit it off immediately. That turned out to be Edgar. I think he'd just finished Spaced series two, of which we were big fans. I suggested we do some animation for the next series but that never happened. He then asked us to do some work for Shaun of the Dead, but that never materialised either. Years later, he called us to do the titles to Scott Pilgrim.
What were the initial design stages like? How many different concepts did you go through?
RK: It was a strange project in that Edgar had a pretty tight cut of the film in his hands already. Tarantino had seen a rough cut and suggested he needed a moment at the start to let the audience settle in. Edgar wanted to give the audience a little taster blast of the mayhem to come, but not spoil any surprises, so he specifically didn't want us to use Bryan's artwork from the books. Initially we pitched what is best described as an 8-bit epileptic eye-fight. We cut together a mood film using a bunch of found pixellated clips of geometric patterns and manga FX, which was really over the top.
Edgar liked the energy but didn't want to tint the film so blatantly with computer games from the outset. So we had a rethink. We had a very specific hole to fill – the band fired up their rehearsal, you got a main title, they rocked out, the song ends, and then you cut to Knives' reaction. We had the notion that this was how the song was playing in Knives' head. Listening to the song, we hit on making a visual representation of their slightly amateurish, raw, garage-y sound. Something that had the feel of a live performance. A lively, colourful, in-your-face scratch film seemed a perfect fit. We did a test and it looked really promising.
So what were some of your references?
RK: You can't study animation and not be well-versed in Len Lye, Oskar Fischinger, Stan Brakhage and Norman McLaren. We went back and re-watched those films and they were still full of life. We got excited about projecting such vivid imagery on the big screen, in front of an audience who most likely hadn't experienced that work.
How involved was Edgar?
RK: Edgar's involved in every bit of the process, and that's why his films are the way they are. He cares about the tiniest of details and pores over every frame. Once we'd settled on the idea of having a visual representation of each character, he was wetting his pants about having the right number of Xs scratched onto the screen to indicate the order in which that ex appeared. He's completely living in that world.
What’s the ratio of analog vs. digital in this piece?
RK: We cheated a little. Scratch film is a little unpredictable, and what we needed was control over what we were seeing on screen because we had a tight timeframe. First, we doped out the entire sequence on the computer so we could accurately sync to the music, then make micro adjustments to be sure of what we were getting. Instead of scratching directly onto film we then set up up a system of scratching onto sheets of acetate, which is much the same thing really. We could get about a second of film onto one sheet.
Then, second, we’d deliberately kick it around the floor a bit to pick up a lot of dirt, scratches, and hairs. Then each sheet went into a fantastically high resolution negative scanner and the scans were chopped back up into frames. There was a lot of tweaking of colours as printing onto 35mm is a convoluted, maddening experience: a lot of colours – mostly the ones we wanted to use – are illegal. I also unearthed a scratch film I made at college and we had that scanned into the computer. It was perfect for checking our colours and mark-making, and in the end we used little bits of it in the finished piece.
What advice would you give to someone entering the field of title design specifically?
RK: Don't study other title designs! But I think that's true of any discipline. Sure, it pays to be aware of what is out there, but if you only watch and absorb titles then all you end up generating is regurgitated stale mush. It's far healthier to get your inspiration from somewhere very different.
Is there anything you’d wish would change in the profession?
RK: I think titles often tend to fall into two traps: either they're twee animated musical interludes, or they're a series of dull title cards padding time. It's a shame, and the fault lies in the director's application of them. I'd like to see a more inventive approach to their use where they play an integral part in the film and are interesting in their own right. You do a good job of picking out the most interesting ones on your site, but sadly they're the minority.
What is Shynola focussing on these days?
RK: We really enjoyed making this title sequence, but to be honest, if it was anyone other than Edgar we would have said no. It was a favour to a friend really. A paid favour! Same with The IT Crowd. We're not really in the business of making titles because we're directors in our own right. We've just finished the first draft of our own script called The Red Men and we're currently looking for backers. It's an adaptation of a brilliant book by the same name, a peculiar sci-fi set in London. We're also working on what will be our biggest music video ever. So lots more late nights ahead.
Oscar, what was your role in this production?
OW: I was lucky enough to have two roles on this film. Firstly, I was the head storyboard artist, with two other storyboard artists, Danelle Davenport and Rob McCallum, helping out along the way. I mainly concentrated on the many action sequences within the movie, which was very rewarding. We took key moments straight from the books and translated them to film, usually expanding the action surrounding the key frames. This was very much the case in the early parts of the movie, but as the film's action moves away from the books we were able to create entirely fresh material. The best example of this is the 'Audio Demon Fight,' when Sex Bob-omb battle the Katayanagis. It's also the part I enjoyed boarding the most and seeing through to its final stages.
Secondly, I was conceptual designer on the movie. This actually started long before I began boarding, with accumulating reference and creating an animatic using Bryan's art style. We used the introduction of Patel to convey the kind of energy we wanted, and explore how we would introduce the 2D graphic elements. This animatic proved very useful in all the early meetings, and was even used as a template for our test shoot. About a year later when we finished shooting and returned to England, my boarding duties were over and I started work conceptualizing all the 2D effects that were used in the movie. This was a long design process with lots of experimentation, but once we found the style we liked it really became easier to visualize the whole movie. I believe we ended up with a look very close to how Edgar and I first imagined the film.
Can you detail the process behind the 8-bit Universal logo?
OW: That was actually quite an early decision, if I remember correctly. I mocked up a rough temp that we used for the first page of the boards. The original idea was to treat the logo like some crappy low-res, low frame-rate FMV* you might find at the start of some of those games. We didn't budge much from that. We explored a few more elaborate 3D-oriented ideas, but eventually came back to the very simple take that appears in the film.
With the letters separated from the official logo, and a 3D spinning globe supplied by VooDooDog, I constructed this basic animation sequence along with the transition into the first shot of the film. I then applied the pixelated look and brought the frame-rate down to 4s so it became very steppy. The excellent 8-bit music really seals the deal and every time I see the film with an audience it gets a laugh. Very satisfying for such a simple idea.
Storyboards started out as a quick and dirty way of pre-visualizing a scene, but now each film has an extended life with DVD special features, behind the scenes featurettes, and (ahem) blogs. How does that potential permanence affect your storyboarding?
OW: I'm certainly well aware of the long life storyboards can have now, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't influence my work. Primarily, I want the board to do its job, to quickly and simply illustrate the actions in front of the camera and instructions for the camera. But I can't help also wanting them to look as pleasing as possible.
How did the design of the comics and Bryan Lee O'Malley's design sensibilities influence the title sequence and film as a whole?
OW: It was very much influenced by Bryan's style, as was the look of many aspects of the film. In the first book, Bryan's style was much looser than it became in the later books. There was an innocence to it that we tried to portray in that opening title sequence. I think Shynola did an amazing job with that. It helps introduce the energy and the styles that pop up throughout the movie.
What were some of the main inspirations for the colors in the effects and action graphics? They are incredibly unique.
OW: I'm really glad you think that. The idea was to have the text-style graphics – many lifted straight from the books – look like they just exist in the scene. To exist in 3D space, but not in 3D. Their colours were usually governed by the scene. They would never stay around for much longer than the accompanying sound effect, and they should never just look like an overlay. Even the fun facts interact with the action on screen here and there.
The action graphics were a little different. They are usually accompanied by a flash that was shot on the day and the graphic is on screen for as long as the flash. So very overexposed to begin with, and then taking in the colours of the surrounding scene as it dies off, like a retina burn effect. The influences for this lay in existing anime techniques and how some Japanese games mimic those techniques. We were quite taken with how the Naruto games handled this. The trick was to make them work with live action and never feel out of place.
How did you strike the balance between all out homage to video games and a more subtle arcade impression?
OW: I think the only direct references we used were some particular sound effects and music. Design-wise, we tried to convey recognizable techniques and styles that we've all grown up with. The pixelated glow around Ramona's hammer, for example, is a long-standing effect used in many games to indicate a power-up or special attack. To go the pixelated 16-bit route was a very conscious decision too, as the book only harked back to that era of gaming and its boss battle structure. There are no references to current gaming staples like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty.
View the credits for this sequence