In clever shadow play, the title type is the very thing you pass in the darkness that makes your blood run cold. With an issuance of fractal lobotomies and mirrored banishments worthy of Zod, the opening titles to John Carpenter's The Ward begin with woodcut prints from the middle ages depicting men and women racked to the tools of torture. Glass shards fly in the final moments before death sentences are carried out, and we are shown the early days of mental science in which similar and yet more evil devices were used to "cure” the insane.
The designers, Gareth Smith and Jenny Lee, known for their work on Up in the Air and Juno, exacerbate the already robust sense of dread that exists regarding the sensed helplessness that has become synonymous with the mental profession in the viewers' collective minds.
A discussion with GARETH SMITH at Smith & Lee Design.
Give us a little background on Smith & Lee Design (formerly Shadowplay Studio.)
GS: Jenny Lee and I began our collaboration on Thank You For Smoking, and have since designed a number of other sequences for film and television, including the sequence for Juno. The title sequence for The Ward was the final major project completed at Shadowplay Studio before we shut down last year. For a variety of reasons we decided to close shop and move on to new things.
How did you get involved with the project?
A producer we had worked with on a previous project recommended us to one of the producers on The Ward, and she in turn, invited us to pitch for the job.
Talk about your first meeting with director John Carpenter.
I have to admit I was a little intimidated because I was meeting one of my favorite directors from my childhood. John Carpenter was a really fun and nice man during our pitch meeting, but before we started talking about our ideas, he enlisted me to be a part of a small prank that he wanted to pull on a producer who was running late to the meeting. Mr. Carpenter gave me a line to say to the producer when he arrived. As we waited and chatted, Mr. Carpenter frequently interrupted to get me to practice the line, and gave me acting notes to help me make it sound more convincing.
When the producer arrived, we all shook hands, introduced ourselves, and I said my rehearsed line to him: "I really want to thank you for doubling the budget of this sequence!" He saw through the ruse instantly. I guess I should just stick to design and not venture into acting!
Detail the production process, from concept to final delivery.
Before we met with John Carpenter, we were given the script to read and told that he was interested in creating a sequence that showed images of the brutal treatment of the mentally ill throughout history. We quickly came up with the idea that ended up onscreen, but of course had no idea how on earth we'd be able to pull it off as it was quite ambitious.
We created some initial style frames that demonstrated the breaking glass concept. This allowed us to do a little initial exploration with developing computer simulated glass. We then pitched the concept, and soon found out that Mr. Carpenter was interested in pursuing what we proposed.
We then started the very long, involved process of creating the sequence. There were two significant hurdles that we had to overcome. The first was creating photo-realistic, slow motion shattering glass, and somehow embedding images onto the glass. The second challenge was to research, acquire and/or create the images that would eventually appear on the glass. This all had to be done with a very limited budget, but we had a generous amount of production time, so that made all the difference.
The shattering glass effect was a computer simulation. Under Ari Sachter-Zeltzer's supervision, our vfx artist built panes of glass with a variety of crack patterns. Our artist then virtually hurled objects through the digital glass, and the shattering effect was recorded as a 3D animated sequence. He then showed me how to move the camera around in 3D space, and I was able to explore the various shattering panels of glass to find the shots that we would use to cut together a sequence.
After we worked out the various shattering animations and which angles we were going to view them from, the rest of the CG effort was spent on dialing in the lighting and rendering of the glass. By carefully placing reflection objects and adjusting material properties, we could sculpt the lighting and sparkles as the glass shatters.
The research process involved a combination of exploring various historical image collections and staging photographs. We put together a still photo shoot to create the photos that appear during the second half of the title sequence (images of the lobotomy, electroshock therapy, the woman in the straightjacket, etc).
We cast the actors, acquired the costumes and props, and shot the images in a building that had a creepy looking abandoned floor that was under construction. That close-up shot of a hand strapped to the gurney is my hand. I almost got a concussion when the prop gurney we rented mysteriously collapsed to the floor!
Was the sequence deliberately planned to hint at the dark nature of the film?
Of course! This is, after all, a John Carpenter film. He wouldn't have it any other way. The main purpose of the sequence was to create a sense of dread of the place that the film takes place in. It was intended to make the audience feel disconcerted and apprehensive of what they are about to witness.
How did you mold the visuals to the music?
The music was composed after we finished the entire title sequence. We chose a temp track to edit to that had a steady rhythm to it. The composer was able to use the pacing that we had established and then created a piece of music that goes perfectly with the visuals. This was the first time we've had a title sequence with a score that was written after we were done, so it was exciting to hear it for the first time. I love how it turned out.
Detail your roles on the project.
Jenny Lee and I were the main title designers on the project, meaning we developed the initial concept, laid out the type, directed the photo shoot, and shepherded the production from concept to completion.
Ari Sachter-Zeltzer served as the CG supervisor for the title sequence. He's an absolute visual effects whiz and has a great eye for detail. He also created the shaders, lighting and rendering techniques that you see in the final sequence.
What elements of this sequence are you most happy with?
My favorite moment is probably the final transition into the film itself, where the camera flies into a large piece of glass and into the shot of the police car driving down the road. I love it when a title sequence seamlessly moves you into the film. That's something we really try to achieve in all of the sequences we create.
View the credits for this sequence