In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, there’s a journey to be taken. Daydreams to drift in. Adventures to spin. Whether in the original 1939 short story by James Thurber, the 1947 movie starring Danny Kaye or the recent globe-spanning turn by director and lead actor Ben Stiller, a man’s journey through his imaginary life to find wholeness and authenticity is compelling. And it’s the perfect vehicle for artist/muse/main-titles guru Kyle Cooper.
Blending the grit of actual conveyance, shown in sharp-edged subway bridges and trash-swept, tar-colored streets, with the figurative conveyance of dreams and imagination—swaths of complementary colors move like ribbons, stretching out—Cooper gives us the tone of Stiller’s movie, positioning type in places that surprise and delight. In the streetscapes, type cuts its own path across buildings, overpasses, along highways. In dreamy sections, type hides and then reveals itself, like the ebbing thoughts of a mind.
Of Cooper’s work, Ben Stiller has said, “His mind works in a way I can’t quite comprehend. I am astounded at how he is able to interpret an idea that is expressed with words on a page, or by an inarticulate filmmaker, and create something better, that is always visually bold, stunning and unexpected. He constantly strives for originality, and while he is ego-less as a collaborator, his insane talent elevates any of us who are lucky enough to work with him.”
Cooper, co-founder of Prologue in Venice, California, has distinguished himself for having a sixth sense for getting under the wrappings of a film. His titles don’t just set a tone or summarize the action; they evoke feelings. Directors have commented that his titles are often better than the film itself. Cooper is part of a tiny, elite group of masterful title creators whose openers and closers are self-contained, fleeting jewels, revered works of art that set the stage for what’s to come, or in the case of main-on-end titles, finesse the story just told. And like niche artisans of all trades, the trajectories of these artists have overlapped again and again. Cooper and noted director/filmmakers in other titles houses, including Garson Yu, Michael Riley, Karen Fong, Michelle Dougherty and Jakob Trollbäck, have all spent time together early in their careers, in cramped spaces, creating work, at points hiring one another and then peeling off. Nowadays they meet in fancy boardrooms, competing for the same projects.
What Cooper finds most meaningful about this band of peers is how they have made “a conscious decision to create a movement or school of thought, so that desktop animation and titles could go to a higher level, to raise the bar.” For his part, Cooper has been credited with causing a sea change in motion arts, forever informing its direction in title design with his seminal sequence for SE7EN, the chilling thriller by David Fincher. The work is disturbing and haunting—and doesn’t leave you. You feel as though you’ve crawled into the mind of an evil serial killer, because Cooper most certainly did, as far as is humanly possible. A devoutly spiritual Christian, Cooper has written that he believes evil exists, and he often explores its themes. His visuals for American Horror Story and the recent TV series Sleepy Hollow delve into shadowy places that are authentically terrifying. Cooper is able to commit to a visual theme and stick to it until you feel the demonic horror seep into you.
Equally visceral, in a different way, was Cooper’s impelling opener for Marvel Entertainment films, which debuted with the first Spider-Man. An amped-up “flip-book” of action-packed scenes delightfully sets the audience up for the epic adventure about to begin. Cooper’s titles for Iron Man 3 were similarly driven by the film’s energy. He says, “We wanted the audience to leave this, the most ambitious Iron Man movie, with the appropriate spring in their step.” Titles for Braveheart, Mission Impossible, Donnie Brasco—more than 150 films all together—round out the impressive depth and breadth of his portfolio. Cooper orchestrated the titles and screen content for the 74th and 76th Academy Awards, and for one broadcast, he created a nearly five-minute tribute to film composers. He is recognized beyond the confines of the Hollywood film industry as a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale with an honorary title of Royal Designer for Industry from the Royal Society of Arts in London.
Cooper’s career was set in motion at Yale School of Art, where he earned an MFA in graphic design in 1988. It was a small program, accepting only 16 to 18 graduate students, with classes taught by legendary designer Bradbury Thompson, as well as other luminaries to whom Cooper is grateful. Although it was a two-year program, Cooper was asked to stay on a third year, mentoring design students. Cooper was especially lucky to earn an independent study with the late art director and graphic designer Paul Rand, who created logos for IBM, ABC, Westinghouse and UPS. Ironically, Rand didn’t think much of title design, but working with him has certainly informed Cooper’s career.
“The school was about teaching us form, and how to refine our visual sensibilities,” says Cooper. “I was all about ideas. Contextual manipulation, word plays, visual puns. I was an idea guy and insecure about the execution part, how I could make things look. Paul Rand was really clear that if you had an idea and didn’t keep your hand in the execution, that there’s something lesser, and not so noble. He would say an idea is only as good as its execution.”
It’s fair to say that Cooper has devoted himself to perfecting both sides of his craft: idea and follow-through. He runs his company in what he calls “boot camp” fashion. Cooper holds himself to a work ethic that demands spending punishing amounts of time to arrive at a solution. He is not afraid of hard work, and he holds others to the same standard. He surrounds himself with art and film directors who show not only talent, but also the willingness to dive deeply into a challenge.
He says, “I’m very happy when people I’ve hired do something that I think is creative and works. I set it up for them so that they can succeed. That’s how the boot camp works: I walk art directors or designers through the process and then they do their own work, and eventually they become their own profit center within Prologue. It’s my job to recruit, and then they have their teams with their own animators, editors, everything.” Simon Clowes, one of four Prologue creative directors, remembers his early days well: “In the beginning, life was all work, very long hours,” he says. “It was a combination of being new to the field, and also having short deadlines and high expectations. High expectations from Cooper, high expectations of yourself, high expectations from the client.” Cooper’s co-founding partner and wife, Kimberly, notes, “Working with Kyle gives you an Ivy League education in design.”
When Cooper himself graduated, he wanted to work for either Stephen Frankfurt, who had designed the titles for To Kill a Mockingbird, circa 1962, which Cooper claims was the biggest influence on his interest in titles (along with Saul Bass’s groundbreaking 1955 film titles for The Man with the Golden Arm), or Robert Greenberg at Greenberg and Associates (now called R/GA). He got both, landing a job at Frankfurt Gips Balkind, but moving on to R/GA after just a month when Greenberg offered him a full-time freelance position. Greenberg told Cooper he didn’t have much of a sense of motion and graphics, which is funny to hear now. Cooper laughs, “It was his way of giving you another goal to chase. He said, ‘You can do our print. When we get a main title, you can pitch.’”
On his first pitch, Cooper won a Martin Scorcese project. He then became the manager of the graphic design department, and eventually his position grew to the point where Greenberg sent him to Los Angeles to open R/GA/LA. He hired his friends: Garson Yu, whom he had met at Yale, Michael Riley, another Yale graduate, Karen Fong and Michelle Dougherty. In 1996, he decided it was time to go on his own. With designers Peter Frankfurt and Chip Houghton, he co-founded titles house Imaginary Forces. The company quickly gained a reputation for producing high-quality work for properties such as Mission Impossible, Arlington Road and Charlie’s Angels, in addition to producing corporate work and events. By 2005, the digital agency employed over 100 people.
Despite this success, Cooper craved more hands-on control with each and every project—something that’s hard to do in a very large company. So, in an effort to get back to his own sensibilities, work ethic and projects, he opened Prologue in 2003, with Kimberly. On a side street in Venice, a beach community west of Los Angeles, Prologue occupies a large, square, two-story building.
On the first floor, Cooper’s office, railroad-car long and narrow, is lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. A library-style ladder allows him to fetch items off the highest shelves. Their contents are telling: Cooper’s childhood comic book collection, with which he spent untold hours as a boy; fist-sized rubber monsters of all variety, in saturated colors; art books, lots of them; Yale memorabilia, including a little handmade replica of the school and posters Cooper designed for Rand; a rectangular metal plate onto which Cooper scratched an etching of a wonderfully gnarly monster when he was a child; and a Batman figurine.
On the second floor, directors, animators and editors work in rooms and open spaces. Kimberly manages the facility and the workflow. As business partners, the couple oversees every aspect of the company. Four creative directors, Simon Clowes, Lisa Bolan, Monica Perez and Ilya Abulhanov, are in charge of projects for movies, TV, the Internet, video games, short films and documentaries. In addition to Prologue, Cooper owns Prologue Pictures, which produces feature films, shorts and documentaries.
Cooper named both of his companies himself, drawing the titles from Shakespeare. He is a huge fan of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, and is equally enamored of the chorus in the original play, which contains these lines:
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
on your imaginary forces work…
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
In Cooper’s world, titles are poetry, an alchemic mix of words, music and images, fused together to evoke an emotional response. His stunning vision as a storyteller, combined with his penchant for painstaking, detail-oriented work, set him on a journey that began when he was a boy obsessively creating and drawing monsters. Now, midway through his career, he has already earned a place among the luminaries he admires. ca