Film and TV titles designer Kyle Cooper was at the Locarno Festival this year to be bestowed with the Vision Award Ticinomoda for his career. In fact, if you research Cooper you will be impressed by how much he's done. Guaranteed. Almost every single title sequence for favorite films and beloved TV series have been designed or influenced in some way or another by Cooper.
From 'Se7en' to 'Indecent Proposal', from 'The Joy Luck Club' to 'Quiz Show', from 'Mission: Impossible' to 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty', and for TV 'The Walking Dead', 'Feud' and 'American Horror Stories' among much, much more, Cooper has been involved in creating those titles.
And if you've ever tried to watch a film without titles, to me it's a bit like traveling without buying a ticket first. Yes, it can be done and you will probably get to the destination desired, but the experience you have set yourself up for won't be quite the same. Disorganized, late and without a clue is never a good way to start off. And arrive.
I sat down with Cooper and a small group of international journalists, and asked him about making titles an art, as he has been doing all his life. And since the world "magical" turned up in his words too, I knew we were in for one cool conversation.
When and how did you choose to become a titles designer?
Kyle Cooper: I used to think when people would ask me: “When did you decide to become a main titles designer?” I would tell the story that I was doing an internship after my undergraduate from the University of Massachusetts and in the internship someone showed a reel of main titles and I saw ‘Altered States’ and ‘The Dead Zone’ from [Richard] Alan Greenberg, and I say at that moment I decided to become a main titles designer. But then I remembered when I was five years old and my parents were fighting — my parents got divorced when I was 8 — and I remember being a little kid. I recently looked on the internet when the show ‘Nanny and the Professor’ came out and it came out when I was five years old. So I have a memory of going to the television and waiting to see the opening credits to ‘Nanny and the Professor’ (Cooper sings the opening song). And it was very meaningful to me because these kids lost their mother and then this nanny showed up and she was magical. So I remembered being five years old and being enchanted by an opening sequence.
And also my brother and I making some popcorn, turning off the lights and settling in to watch ‘The Wild Wild West’ and watching the opening credits to that. And even ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ and looking forward to that.
Now on Netflix and other streaming platforms there is an option to fast forward to skip the credits. What are your thoughts about that?
Cooper: So what’s the point? These TV shows, the title sequence would set the tone. They would draw you in and get you ready for this thing I looked forward to all week. And now on Netflix you can just skip the title and I understand why because people want to binge watch and it makes perfect sense. But at the same time you can fast forward through Netflix.
So why can’t I do it that way, why do I need a special button that is actually encouraging me to skip the main titles? A woman who saw the titles I worked on for ‘Feud’ said to me yesterday that every single time she’d watch ‘Feud’ she didn’t skip the titles. And someone said that to me about the first season of ‘American Horror Story’ that they never would fast forward, so I think it’s up to a title sequence of a show to be so connected to someone emotionally and set the tone that they would want to watch it. They would feel like it prepares them for whatever episode of the show.
Now that said, maybe it’s up to the title designer to make a title sequence and the composer to make a song that you so love and you so become accustomed to that you want that to be part of your experience of watching the show.
What is a title sequence, at its roots?
Cooper: In a film of course the title sequence, in a perfect scenario, can become the first scene of the movie.
A good title sequence becomes the first moment in a movie, it’s intertwined and you can’t really skip it. Yeah you can go ahead and skip it on Netflix because you want to watch so much but I feel like the whole experience should be something.
So how do I feel about skipping it? Whatever, it’s up to you if you want to skip it but it doesn’t work in a feature. If you’re watching it in a theater you can’t skip anything, you’re a captive audience.
'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty', directed by and starring Ben Stiller, the beginning of that film is one of my favorite titles sequences ever. It’s so cool the way the film's title is written on the subway platform… Is it more difficult to make titles for a drama or a comedy, for films or TV? What is the difference?
Cooper: It’s not more difficult.
The things that make it difficult is how hard you have to work. How exacting the director is going to be, how much the director might push me or how difficult the director might be. 'Walter Mitty' was hard because sometimes you get a director that’s reaching for something that’s almost hard to put into words. A feeling is hard to get. So to try to make this magical animation and have the music be right I had to try so many different animations and Ben [Stiller] is patient, but he’s also “no, no, no”. And I kept doing it over and over again trying to get that one thing where the ribbons draw on. You know, it was easy to composite the type on the streams and on buildings and decide in what shot you could put the “presenter”. That’s just the presented cards, there is four cards over the scenes...
It was hard to make it feel magical but also there is something kind of melancholy about it, there is something sort of sad. There is a sadness that I have about my own experience and I feel there is something autobiographical that Ben, identifies with daydreaming and I identify with that. And this idea that this world opens up, flowing free of live action and going into animation — I feel like it gets some kind of emotional thing. A small emotional thing to me.
There is no formula for that. But I liked the way 'Walter Mitty' turned out. I like that one. Maybe it’s a little bit easier to get someone excited when you play the 'Mission Impossible' music but to make somebody sad… I look at the history of main titles and is there any main titles that has actually tapped into the emotion of melancholy? Maybe 'To Kill a Mockingbird', there is something about Scout humming, she’s in her own innocence, her own little obsessive treasure box, her unbridled creativity that is a foreshadowing of the innocence that is lost when you get into the movie. I feel that melancholy.