How a Chicago Studio Builds Titles for the Biggest Names in the Business

How a Chicago Studio Builds Titles for the Biggest Names in the Business

If you ask the owner and executive creative director of Sarofsky Corp, Erin Sarofsky, how she would define the role of a designer, she’d tell you that they’re natural problem solvers. As she explains in this 2017 FITC presentation in Toronto, “We need somebody to bring something to us and then we’ll chew on it and work it out.”

“Art is part of our ethos, but it’s really the problem that gets us going.”

“The best design is done artfully, so art is part of our ethos,” she adds, “but it’s really the problem that gets us going.” And it’s clearly this drive to solve her clients’ problems that contributes to Sarofsky’s success, winning them an impressive client roster that ranges from Marvel Studios to Apple, HBO Max to Netflix. Put simply, if you watch movies and TV, there’s every chance you’ll have seen something that Sarofsky Corp has crafted.

Gray area

One of the more recent examples of this craft is the main-on-end (MOE) title sequence for Netflix’s The Gray Man, a Russo brothers action/espionage flick that pitches the ever-cool Ryan Gosling against a fabulously psychopathic Chris Evans as they chase down a thumb drive-sized plot device.

For those not familiar with the term main-on-end, it’s the credits sequence that plays at the end of a movie—often as the audience is thinking of leaving, so it needs to be engaging. The MOE is a relatively new but increasingly popular technique that replaces the previous convention of having the big names of a production shown at the very beginning.

As Erin explains, “It’s a creative decision by the filmmakers about where tone- and narrative-wise it’s best to place the main titles. Often, it’s because they want a standalone title sequence that celebrates what you’ve just watched. So it makes sense that the MOE acts as a curtain call. Everyone gets to take a bow in a big way.”

With a cast list that not only includes two of Hollywood’s leading men, but also headliners like Ana De Armas, Regé-Jean Page, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alfre Woodard—not to mention being reported as Netflix’s most expensive production yet—The Gray Man’s MOE has to carry a lot of weight. So when the Russo brothers start looking for someone to create something like this, what leads them to a studio like Sarofsky Corp?

When you’re representing heavyweights like Chris Evans and Ryan Gosling (for the Russo brothers and Netflix), your work needs to stand up to scrutiny.
When you’re representing heavyweights like Chris Evans and Ryan Gosling (for the Russo brothers and Netflix), your work needs to stand up to scrutiny.

A foot in the door

Well, it certainly helps to have prior form with the client. Which Sarofsky does, starting way back with the opening titles for the die-hard cult TV series, Community (six seasons and a movie!) And more recently with the undeniably stylish MOE for Captain America: The Winter Soldier—a sequence that answers the question “What would Saul Bass have done with a Mac Pro running Cinema4D?” But success is by no means assured, even when you have Marvel Studios’ biggest directors in your contacts list. You’ve got to know what the client wants in order to give it to them.

As you’d expect, Erin has a very clear idea of what that is. “We are design-led,” she says. “When people come to a studio like mine, they know we have all the tools and resources at our disposal, but they also know they’ll have a team of designers looking after their job. And that matters.”

But getting the pitch to stick is about more than having the right team. “You also need a concept,” she adds. “Titles aren’t about setting a look, they’re about an idea. Keep it simple and don’t forget the fundamentals.”

Proof of concept

For The Gray Man, Sarofsky’s idea was to render key sequences from the movie as static vignettes featuring the characters as statuettes. It’s a theme that hints at the characters’ resilience—as well as their inability to change who they are at heart—and a nod towards the classical architecture found in many of the movie’s 16 locations.

Work on the project started during pre-production. The team was brought in during the script phase to bring their motion design perspective to the brainstorming sessions that helped develop the look and feel of the film.

They brought treatments into these early sessions and engaged in an open discussion with the directors, editors, executive producers, cinematographer, vfx supervisor, and other key creatives. Coming in at the beginning isn’t always an option for the studio handling the motion design, but it makes pre-production a much more collaborative affair. It gave Sarofsky a voice in early creative conversations and also a head start prior to production.

The end result was a cohesive plan and a project scope to develop not just the MOE, but also an opener and the locator titles that appear throughout the movie’s runtime. And there were a LOT of locators.

The Gray Man has a lot of locators.
The Gray Man has a lot of locators.

This is territory that Sarofsky is very familiar with, having built similar in-movie components for movies like Guardians of the Galaxy (1 & 2), which used a font created specifically for the job. For The Gray Man, a more direct approach was chosen, with Heading Now Extra Bold taking center frame as a partially opaque matte with an offset diffusion and glow, built in After Effects.

Sarofsky’s locator title treatment works equally well against dark and light backgrounds.
Sarofsky’s locator title treatment works equally well against dark and light backgrounds.

It looks simple, but it’s a surprisingly sophisticated approach. It clearly separates the text from the background plate whether the frame is dark or bright and borrows color from the scene without the title fading into the background. Which is a neat trick if you can pull it off.

Heading Now Extra Bold brings a high-impact, modern look to The Gray Man’s typography.
Heading Now Extra Bold brings a high-impact, modern look to The Gray Man’s typography.

Show stopper

But the real hero of this story is the MOE. According to Sarofsky, the Russos presented The Gray Man to Sarofsky as “The biggest blockbuster franchise ever produced by Netflix.” So as you’d expect, living up to these expectations involved a considerable amount of scrutiny. But each round presented an opportunity to polish and refine the look and incorporate feedback from the production team until the final model material was determined.

The model material needed to convey weight and physicality without obscuring the identity of the actor being portrayed.
The model material needed to convey weight and physicality without obscuring the identity of the actor being portrayed.

With the look locked, the team could move onto the next step—storyboarding. And because MOEs happen after all the action has taken place, Sarofsky had free rein to pick and choose from the many action sequences in the movie without worrying about spoilers.

Shot selections were made and a wireframe of the MOE was built from thumbnail sketches. These are fast, informative, and easy to adapt or replace, which provides valuable insight into the content, composition and motion required.

Traditional storyboarding is used to quickly build flow and structure.
Traditional storyboarding is used to quickly build flow and structure.

Just as with the film itself, storyboarding plays a foundational role in developing how the end result will look, including timing and transitions. Once approved, the sketches are then used as the basis for subsequent 3D assets, and one by one, the sketches are replaced by finished scenes.

As the project progresses, individual sketches become fleshed-out scenes.
As the project progresses, individual sketches become fleshed-out scenes.

Led by the project’s creative director, Duarte Elvas, Sarofsky’s CG team built the sets and characters for each vignette in Cinema4D, before assembling a grayscale animatic with rough camera moves. To complicate matters, only some of the cast members had prior 3D body models, while the others needed to be sculpted from scratch from photographic references.

The 3D vignettes and models were built in Cinema4D. Click here to see the full-resolution version.
The 3D vignettes and models were built in Cinema4D. Click here to view the full-resolution version.

Facial expressions for each scene were adjusted, and a displacement map applied to the model material to add some rough edges and a sense of age.

The Gray Man’s director of photography, Stephen Windon, used colorful gels and bold contrast throughout the movie to create a vivid, graphic color story, so Sarofsky followed his lead when lighting the scenes in the MOE.

Lighting the scene and building camera moves in Cinema4D.
Lighting the scene and building camera moves in Cinema4D. Click here to view the full-resolution version.

And finally, because it’s hard to build motion and energy with static models, dynamic paths were added to the lights and camera to keep the pace high—which you need to do when you’ve got The Black Keys’ Wild Child as your musical theme.

By cleverly matching camera moves and velocity between scenes, what could have been a jarring series of disconnected events is turned to a smooth, high-energy sequence that engages the audience without overwhelming them.

The whole thing was polished and wrapped up with particles, glows, and beauty passes in After Effects.

Final polish in After Effects with review comments in the Frame.io panel.
Final polish in After Effects with review comments in the Frame.io panel. Click here to view the full-resolution version.

From the moment Sarofsky’s MOE edit was locked, the team leaned heavily on Frame.io’s After Effects integration to access change requests, notes, and versions. With frame-accurate comments and annotations on the composition timeline, they could see exactly what was required (and where to look), without leaving the application. As Duarte puts it, “Saving clicks is saving time.”

Annotating The Gray Man in After Effects using Frame.io
Frame.io’s frame-accurate annotations inside an After Effects comp for The Gray Man’s MOE. Click here to view the full-resolution image.

“Being able to have full discussions and follow progress on each frame of the piece made Frame.io an essential part of our workflow,” he continues. “The fact that we could easily draw and annotate on the frames made it possible to get extremely specific and even circumvent what would normally be a screen-sharing meeting.”

“Saving clicks is saving time.”

With dozens of revisions in play, and both internal and external stakeholders to satisfy, being able to carry over notes and tasks from one version to the next made Frame.io a robust addition to Sarofsky’s collaboration and approval workflows. And for a motion design studio that produces work for some of the biggest names in the business, anything that smooths the path to client satisfaction is a tool worth using.

Creative director Duarte Elvas reviews feedback from Erin Sarofsky in Frame.io
Creative director Duarte Elvas reviews feedback from Erin Sarofsky in Frame.io.

As Erin Sarofsky herself puts it, “There are a lot of noes along the way. But the yeses all add up to something really great.” And we can’t wait to see what the Sarofsky team comes up with next…

Thank you to Laurence Grayson for contributing this article.

After a career spanning [mumble] years and roles that include creative lead, video producer, tech journalist, designer, and envelope stuffer, Laurence is now an editor for Adobe/Frame.io. This entirely unexpected turn of events has made him extremely happy but, being British, he finds it hard to express this emotion.

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