Embers fly toward a warrior’s shield, surrounding her in a coil of smoke. Sparks crackle from the tiara on her forehead. Cut to the next sequence, and she’s leaping from a cliff into a sapphire sea.
Of course, this is no ordinary woman. It’s Wonder Woman. You may have watched this title sequence cap off the eponymous summer 2017 blockbuster directed by Patty Jenkins, but you might not have known that the motion graphics were created by another wonder woman.
Helen Greene had only launched her studio, Greenhaus GFX, in 2009. In the years since, she’d bootstrapped title sequences with small budgets and even smaller crews for films such as Fury and Entourage. With that same gumption, she was determined to land DC Films’ high-profile project. Her team was up against several studios in the United Kingdom, where much of the movie was filmed. Warner Bros. was incentivized to choose a British vendor because of a rebate, so Greenhaus was the only American studio in the running.
“My husband was like, ‘You’re never going to get that job,’ and I was like, ‘I might,’” Greene remembers. She relentlessly shared clips with a former colleague who worked as the post-production supervisor. After feedback and a round of revisions, the Wonder Woman crew noticed how well Greene and her team listened to direction. So Jenkins hired them. “It was a miracle.”
Greene had watched an early screener of the movie and just knew it was going to be a “slam dunk.” Under Jenkins’s direction, the superhero wasn’t strong despite her feminine qualities, but because of them.
Then, it clicked for Greene that those TV shows she had watched as a young girl in the 1970s must be responsible for who she is today: Lynda Carter twirling to transform into Wonder Woman, Charlie’s Angels wielding weapons with their disco-ready hair. Today, Greene embodies that fierceness as she raises three children while leading a company in a male-dominated industry.
“They must have developed my whole personality, which I didn’t realize until I was older,” she says, “And then you’re older and you’re like, no wonder.”
GROWING UP AND OUT
Not far from Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Los Angeles, on a block lined with California comfort food restaurants and a funky froyo shop, Greenhaus GFX occupies a shotgun sliver of a second floor. Two animators worked together in a shaded room that overlooks the sidewalk while Greene taps away at her towering Mac desktop with her blinds drawn. The better to see movies with.
In total, they are a lean staff of four. Near a desk in the hallway, Wonder Woman holds her sword in a movie marquee signed by Jenkins: “Thank you”—underlined twice—“for the most incredible, gorgeous & badass title sequence of all time. I/we love it so much. Can’t wait for more.”
Greene’s offce is lined with knickknacks of inspiration: a Donnie Darko bunny figurine, Kewpie dolls and a rock crystal lamp. Her decorational aesthetic hints at the studio’s draw toward the macabre and the art-school bizarre.
There’s a reason for that. Greene herself is an art-school kid through and through. She started drawing seriously in the sixth grade. Ultimately, she attended Minneapolis College of Art and Design and got her BFA in illustration and fine arts. “I thought I was going to be this famous painter,” she says. “Yeah, that didn’t happen.”
She applied to work in Hallmark’s illustration department. “My work was really dark, and they were like, ‘Ehhhhh,’” she says. Creatively frustrated, she decided to attend ArtCenter College of Design. “I took my first After Effects class, and I knew that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” she says.
This was around the time that the neo-noir crime thriller Seven came out in 1995, and Greene was gobsmacked. Its title sequence came to define the process that Greenhaus follows today: crafted with a low budget but high production values, using a lack of resources as an invitation to experiment. Not to mention, the jittery cuts and scrawled writing appealed to Greene’s grim style.
ArtCenter was one of the best times in her life, she says, though the art critiques were grueling and the teachers were tough to please. “That really got me ready for my first boss,” she says. “Though I love him, he was a yeller.”
After graduation, she worked in motion graphics at advertising agencies for more than a decade, crafting movie trailers. At her last job as an employee, she once scaled up a graphics team from one to sixteen designers. She treated the department as if it were her own and used it as a training ground for her big dream.
“I had a four-year crash course, but not using my own money, which I sure miss,” she says with a wry laugh.
Her boss let her go because her husband launched a rival company, a conflict of interest. So, just as she was pregnant with twins and her partner was striking out on his own, Greene launched Greenhaus GFX—during the recession.
“The best time to start a company is when people are cutting,” Greene says. “If you learn how to do something cheap, you can really learn how to do it. Sometimes having to do grunt, guerilla-style makes the work better.”
That’s evident in Greenhaus GFX’s work for the 2015 comedy Entourage. The team had three days to shoot and exactly zero permits to do so. The brief? Craft a title sequence inspired by the HBO show’s opening credits, in which Los Angeles buildings—edited in post-production—have neon signs revealing the names of the cast.
During Super Bowl weekend, Greene, a director of photography and a camera assistant drove around the city in a top-down convertible with a camera on the floor. “If we got pulled over, I was going to say it was a student film because it looked like it,” Greene says.
The first day was overcast, and the following two were sunny, but they simply had to edit these details to match because they didn’t have the money to shoot again. In post-production, Greenhaus GFX stepped it up with motion tracking and rotoscoping that allowed layers—such as blue skies and the cast’s names—to move realistically within the shot. During filming, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was surrounded by construction scaffolding, but the team modeled and animated a new, clean building and edited it back into the scene.
The result is a slick time capsule of Los Angeles architecture that looks even sharper than the opening credits that had inspired it.
“I was really proud of that because it was a really big project for us at the time,” Greene says.
Jared Fujikuni, associate art director at Greenhaus GFX, loves collaborating on these experimental title sequences with a small team.
“I feel like I’ve grown as a person from this job,” says Fujikuni, who’s been at Greenhaus GFX since early 2016. “We work in a fast-paced industry, so it’s tough, but [Greene] pushes us to be creative, which is awesome as an artist.”
As someone who excels at improvising with limited resources, Greene has found a way to craft elegant title sequences with her tight-knit team. She says she feels more nimble in scaling up or down the workload with a leaner staff, plus freelancers as the need arises. Lately, they’ve created title sequences for several horror movies produced by Blumhouse Productions, including Insidious: The Last Key and Happy Death Day.
“They’re so creatively open,” Greene says of these movies. “They’re lower budget, and as an artist, that’s really fun. I like to be a little more free.”
For horror comedy Happy Death Day, the studio came up with end title credits that show joyful death-day cards—like birthday cards—for every time the protagonist died. Director Christopher Landon says he adored the solution, and he’s looking forward to collaborating on the sequel.
“It’s that juxtaposition of something sweet and cute and dark, and they blended it seamlessly,” Landon says. “Even if you make a bad movie, they’ll make a great credit sequence for it”—he pauses to laugh. “They’re super collaborative, and there’s nothing lost in translation. It’s just the best experience a filmmaker can have.”
David Hall also recognizes the team’s craftsmanship. Hall collaborated with Greenhaus GFX as the post-production supervisor on Wonder Woman. He notes how Jenkins wanted to make a classic Hollywood film, with the end titles adding the flashiest, most modern elements. Still, she wanted it to recap many of the film’s iconic scenes. Hall says he was struck by how well Greenhaus GFX listened.
“Greenhaus brings the creative and the logistical,” Hall says. “They came up with amazing things quickly.”
It’s no wonder Greene has learned to work efficiently. She continues to manage a household and a business. She hopes to be a role model for her own children, the way Lynda Carter was for her.
“My kids constantly ask me why I go to work and their friends’ parents are home,” she says. “Early on, I decided to let go of the guilt. This is the choice I made. I didn’t pay for ArtCenter just to not pursue this. I hope my two girls will thank me someday. I know they don’t understand now because they want mom, but I hope they understand later.”
In the meantime, Greene has ambitious plans for the future of Greenhaus GFX, including, hopefully, the sequel to Wonder Woman. Who knows? The studio might even fulfill an item on Greene’s bucket list.
“My biggest goal in life is to not have to pitch,” she says, “but for a director to just ask for me.” ca