The City in Motion 

L.A.’s hyperactive graphics scene

Thursday, Feb 24 2005
“I want to do motion.” Skinny and sweaty, the 20-year-old snapped the clasps open on a shiny silver portfolio case and hauled out sample letterhead and brochures, careful not to smudge the surface or dent the edges of the expensive paper. “You fold this right here,” he said, nimbly tucking two corners into slits in the card stock. Within seconds he’d erected a mini–promotional display, with standing business cards and stylish letterhead, all of it sporting a sharp graphic style that hinted at years spent hunched over notebooks sketching logos during recess. “But all of your work here is in print — why do you want to do motion graphics?” His eyebrows arched, and he leaned forward on the tip of his chair: “Because motion is cool.” The next student said the same thing. And the next. And the next. Participants in the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ annual portfolio review, these budding graphic designers wanted to make their static, inert graphics jump and dance and fly. Who cares if they’d never before made a single pixel move or not? Motion, they said, is where it’s at. And not just for recent MFAs: Does the following sound familiar? A swirl of colored brush strokes swims around a dancing figure, with sinuous washes of green, blue, gray, yellow and magenta highlighting a bouncing ball. The body’s outline spins, melting and morphing in a glamorous mix of dance moves, basketball and sexy music. Only at the very end, when a white swoosh stamps the images, do you know that this is a Nike ad.

(from top): Geoff McFetridge's Burton snowboards ad, and (bottom) Jeremy Blake's The Winchester Trilogy

The work of the Venice directing collective and production house Motion Theory, Nike Presto Hip-Hop is one among dozens of recent moving-image artworks that converge at the intersection of art, design and commerce. The ad marks not only the evolution of a new form of TV commercial but also significant shifts in the previously distinct and well-established worlds of advertising, broadcast design and graphics. A handful of Los Angeles companies similar to Motion Theory, with a super-relaxed style, founders in their 20s, and a cheerful disregard for age-old advertising wisdom, are not only inspiring an emerging generation of artists, but reinventing moving-image design as we know it. Or maybe as we don’t know it. Generally referred to as “motion graphics” or “broadcast design,” the moving images that introduce TV networks or dress up live-action commercials with animation and moving typography often remain essentially invisible to many of us, just more visual detritus in an already cluttered media landscape. And yet the motion-graphics field has certainly had its breakthrough moments of high visibility. Starting in the 1950s, Saul Bass made film-title design an art form, mixing graphics and motion for the breathtaking sequences that grace The Man With the Golden Arm, the original Cape Fear, Vertigo and many, many others. Pablo Ferro, another design icon, was responsible for the main titles of Dr. Strangelove in 1964, and went on to do the remarkable titles for A Clockwork Orange and Jesus Christ Superstar. Bass and Ferro didn’t simply make typography move; they made the entire screen come alive with a graphic sensibility that embodied the nascent art form’s creative optimism and sophisticated edge. In the 1980s, computers helped catapult broadcast design into new dimensions, with the spinning logos for each TV network becoming ever more spectacular — giant, whirling dervishes of type in glistening steel, then neon, then glass, with the camera drawing viewers inside logos (and inside the screen). In the 1990s, designer David Carson’s grungy look and irreverent disdain for text — it doesn’t always have to be readable, he argued — rocked the graphics world when it appeared, first in the magazine Beach Culture and then in Raygun. A little while later, the jagged, frenetic titles by Kyle Cooper for Se7en raised the bar again, rivaling the film itself with dark, haunting shards of images and words. An older generation of design firms, such as R/GA and Pittard Sullivan, had already reinvented moving-image design in the late 1980s and ’90s. And Imaginary Forces, while a mere 9 years old, is a potent trendsetter, with offices in New York and Hollywood, and an array of award-winning film title sequences to its credit, including those for Spider-Man and The Cat in the Hat. Each of these companies helped rethink the potential of moving-image design while conjuring inventive approaches to marketing and branding. But as creative as these companies are, they now represent the grand old school next to a spate of youthful and impertinent newcomers. A few of these newer designers operate individually, guys like Mike Mills and Geoff McFetridge, whose hand-drawn illustration styles belie the digital foundation that makes their images move so smoothly. Mills has made short films, music videos and commercials; he’s designed logos; he’s drawn album covers; he’s a featured artist in the new “Beautiful Losers” exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art; and he just recently completed his debut feature film, Thumbsucker, which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Working with Roman Coppola, Mills also co-founded The Directors Bureau, a Hollywood company that represents directors with similarly eclectic backgrounds and do-it-all career goals. McFetridge’s best-known work may be the hand-drawn titles for Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, which uncannily evoke a high schooler’s labored Pee-Chee folder scrawls, but his strong graphic style has added an edge to companies like Burton Snowboards. Mills and McFetridge are new-millennium stars, even if this is the first time you’ve heard their names. But motion-graphics artists tend to work collaboratively, in small, relatively new shops such as Stardust, Colourmovie, Logan, Brand New School, Tomorrow’s Brightest Minds, Blind, Traktor, twothousandstrong, Fuel, Belief, bangbangstudio and the aforementioned Motion Theory. The shops share certain traits: Most are located in Santa Monica or Venice; in addition to banks of computers, the offices tend to feature an array of boards — surf, snow and skate — or games of one sort or another, from Brand New School’s pingpong table to Blind’s professional-looking foosball setup to Motion Theory’s basketball court. Often a hound or two lopes around the office, attire consists mainly of faded T-shirts, and the boss, who isn’t ever all that bossy, is probably wearing Reefs.

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