Buzzing the doorbell to Sarofsky Corp.’s office in Chicago, what you notice first is how well the design-driven production studio blends. The building so melds with its industrial environs as to be nearly invisible: The side lot wears the scruffy crabgrass, cornflower and dog-crap look shared by most unpaved patches west of Fulton Market. The taxi-repair man on the corner grinds out a cigarette butt. A guy slams the door of a quilted-metal food concession truck before trundling back to Pilsen. But inside the building, another world waits.
Late on a Friday afternoon, the long, bright space is full of sunlight. On Fridays, everyone in the studio gathers for a shared lunch, so the smell of the candied bacon somebody made earlier lingers. Just back from Los Angeles, founder and executive creative director Erin Sarofsky and executive producer Steven Anderson sit across from each other, typing the creative brief for the next feature film gig that they’ll present to the team. A creative director swoops by on a scooter while two other designers break for a Ping-Pong match.
“This is exactly how I wanted it to be,” says Erin, gesturing with one arm across the sleekly modular space designed by Olson Kundig, a Seattle architecture firm known for creatively repurposing old buildings. “I wanted it to blend into the Chicago surrounds, and it was important to me to have a space that my team would both enjoy and want to live up to. I mean, if you are stuck at a dark, shitty desk in a basement, your work is going to reflect that. Here, you feel like you are living your best life.”
That she built the studio in Chicago was borne out of Erin’s love for the city: its opportunities—a lot of Sarofsky Corp.’s advertising work is here, along with a huge talent pool—and its better quality of life. Born and raised in Levittown, New York, Erin holds a BFA in graphic design and an MFA in computer graphics from the Rochester Institute of Technology. She worked at Digital Kitchen in Chicago and Superfad in New York City before launching her own firm. “Chicago is the nice sweet spot between Los Angeles and New York,” she sums up.
Like some kind of diviner with a witching rod, Erin’s dogged pursuit of and knack for finding “sweet spots” affects everything her studio does: plotting title sequences for film and television; collaborating with advertising- and entertainment-industry clients; moving among fresh, fun ideas born of intuition; and working through long, pressured hours sweating the details that make those ideas technically perfect. So far, she’s been sweet spot–on.
Sarofsky Corp. is currently working on a concept for the title sequence of a sixth Marvel Studios film as well as taking on more design-related visual effects for films. The 20-member team has also touched most of the television sitcoms broadcast today.
In addition, the studio is garnering a growing amount of advertising work, including huge commercial projects for Aleve, Capital One, CenturyLink, General Motors and McDonald’s. Although the studio’s film title sequences are the sexy attention-getters, Erin says she’s just as proud of the spots the studio has done for ad agencies: “The work we produced for Aleve, for example, I hold in as high regard as what we did for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
For the Aleve campaign, ad agency Energy BBDO approached Sarofsky Corp. to create life-giving, memorable motion graphics for the brand. “We felt health-care industry packaging had such a stale look,” says Tim Pontarelli, group creative director at Energy BBDO. “We wanted to condense the Aleve brand down to a couple iconic elements: the shape of the bottle, the arc and burst with a beam of life. Sarofsky [Corp.] came to us with tons of really rich ideas—six or seven deep in each bucket. The finished work is beautiful.”
Sarofsky Corp.’s every-job-is-equally-important attitude is a core tenet that has earned the studio loyalty. “[The team crafts] something special every time,” says Tom Gundred, vice president of worldwide television marketing, creative services for Lionsgate: “Even if it’s not a sexy project, they make sure that they come up with something spectacular. They are great listeners and collaborators, which cultivates long-term relationships.”
Likewise, film directors Joe and Anthony Russo say, “We met Sarofsky [Corp.] when we were doing Community. We had such a strong reaction to the main title ideas they were presenting and are so in love with the work that they do, we’ve just been doing job after job with them.” After Community, the studio created main titles for Russo brothers–directed TV series Happy Endings and Animal Practice, then the Marvel Captain America films.
Pinpointing the “why” behind that, Anthony says, “Sarofsky [Corp.] has an interesting combination between showing you something that’s out of the box, but at the same time, it remains thematically or stylistically relevant to whatever the TV show or movie happens to be. It’s a very difficult balance, but a sweet spot they strike.”
At Marvel Studios, executive vice president of physical production Victoria Alonso relies heavily on Sarofsky Corp. for main title work. “I adore Sarofsky [Corp.],” says Alonso. “The title sequence is not some cheap button that we put at the end of a film. For us, it’s like the jewel in the crown, the treasure. Sarofsky [Corp.] has been an essential partner in making it that.”
But the production company had to work hard to earn Alonso’s trust. “So often, we meet small companies that want to be part of the Marvel machine,” Alonso explains. “But they completely underestimate what it takes to succeed. So in the beginning, I didn’t want to work with Sarofsky [Corp.], because I thought it would stretch them to the point where they would fail.”
The turning point came halfway through making the titles for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Sarofsky Corp.’s first Marvel film. “We had a difficult complication, and I had a choice,” says Alonso. “I could either fire them or walk them through it. I decided to do the latter because … I thought it would be worth it. So I talked, and the most impressive thing? They listened. And then they did what I needed.
“Our notes are always brought forward in the imagery,” she continues. “Sometimes what you say in words, you can’t always translate to an image. But they have the ability to view our notes, come back, show us an image and wow us with it.”
The design studio’s ability to merge the creative with technical proficiency is also vital. On the film side, it can even do the stereoscopic work for title sequences. “That is no easy task,” says Alonso. “They have figured out how they need to structure themselves technically in a way that fits with our pipeline so that they can give us stereoscopic files. A lot of companies can’t do that.”
If there is one story that best illustrates how a small female-owned production company in Chicago that didn’t even exist ten years ago got to an A-list place in the Marvel universe, it’s Erin’s decidedly low-tech “run toward the fire” doozy.
“It started with cootie catchers,” Erin says with a smile—those paper foldup things you put over your fingers and flip back and forth while somebody picks a number, opening a flap to reveal whatever “fortune” is written there. The idea to use these for the community-college-conveying title sequence for successful NBC TV sitcom Community was the fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants pitch Erin made to the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, and director-producers, the Russo brothers. The pitch got Sarofsky Corp. its first big entertainment contract. Hand-folded and scrawled with cartoonish ballpoint pen drawings depicting the show’s stars, Community’s cootie catchers have become an analogous epigraph to everything that’s happened since.
“I got a call from a producer asking me to come in the next day to talk about the [Community] title sequence,” Erin explains. “I thought it was going to be a download. You know—they’d tell me about the show and what they were looking for. But an hour before the meeting the producer called and said, ‘Do you need a TV for your presentation?’ And I was like, ‘Holy shit! They want me to present!’
“This is where most people would run away,” Erin says. “But I thought: ‘It’s really just a conversation.’ So, I ran toward the fire.”
Equipped with pen, journal and the knowledge that the show was about an unlikely group of friends at a community college, Erin spent the next half hour writing up ideas. Minutes later, she pitched to a room full of TV executives. “It was fascinating to see the writers ping these ideas back and forth,” she recalls. “For the first time, I really understood the essence of a great title sequence: Making something look good isn’t enough. If you don’t have a really strong idea, you don’t have anything.”
Since that seminal moment, Sarofsky Corp. has fine-tuned its idea-focused process to a science. But each project has its challenges. In creating the title sequence for John Wells’s edgy TV series Animal Kingdom, the studio explored the show’s heist theme and criminal behavior—but juxtaposed with the family’s twisted love and codependent relationships.
“Basically? We had 60 seconds to explore the unsettling bond between this mother and her sons,” Erin says. Sarofsky Corp. reduced hundreds of hours of footage to dozens of flash frames: a worm on a fishhook, a child licking a bright red popsicle, meat going through a grinder—very visceral stuff. The challenge was to connect the complicated relational ideas Sarofsky Corp. wanted to suggest. The visual vehicle? Shooting the making of a tattoo in extreme close-up. Seeing the pucker and dimple as the needle moves in and out of the skin provided a metaphor for the indelibility—and in this case, poison—of the mother-son connection. Fractured Helvetica type stutters in time with the haunting soundtrack by Atticus Ross.
“We really like that Sarofsky built a narrative into their visual imagery, [creating] a cohesive impact with the audience,” says Jinny Howe, executive vice president and head of television at John Wells Productions. “A lot of the imagery for the title sequence was symbolic and deliberately disconcerting, but it definitely left you with a specific impression.”
Looking ahead, Erin says the hardest thing about her job is trying to strike the right balance between investments made to find and keep the right talent and expenditures necessary to give that talent the tools they need to do work for huge clients like Marvel. “It’s a difficult path, but we’re constantly evolving. Ultimately? I just want to create media that’s relevant to see tangible results—whether that’s movie ticket sales or a documentary doing something good or selling more deodorant—creating the work that influences people to do things. That’s what I enjoy.” ca