In an homage to worldwide cinema, motion graphics house yU+co., based in the center of Hollywood, is decked out with striking, graphic movie posters in various languages, giant robot, insect and monster props from B-movies gone by and an assortment of kitsch, from miniature directors chairs to scaled-down sets. Located in the former Propaganda Films space on a small, quiet street, the place has the feel of an airplane hangar, vast and airy, with concrete floors, brick and lots of metal.
Opened in 1998, the company was originally located in a bungalow at the bustling Hollywood Center Studios, where many production companies camped out among the dizzying array of TV and film shoots that went on day and night. In 2001, the day before 9/11, yU+co. moved into its newly designed and built quarters. Three years ago, yU+co. [lab] opened in founder Garson Yu’s native Hong Kong, adding a new creative launch-pad and client base to the organization.
Yu had always intended to focus on film title design, although over the last several years the company has moved into show opens, commercials, experiential design, interactive exhibits and special event installations. With vice president, executive producer Carol Wong, Yu has evolved the discipline he's honed through the years into these additional business streams. For him, it’s a logical progression. “Graphic design becomes motion design. Motion design becomes interactive design. Interactive design will become artificial intelligence,” he says.
The goal, in every project, is to provide context, mood, location, character-or all of the above. “I like to tell a story,” Yu says. “Every second, every frame has to further the story, whether you’re creating a five-minute title sequence or a two-second intro. It’s about setting the tone for the world you’re about to enter.” Sometimes, it’s the world we’re about to leave, as with main-on-end titles. In Enchanted, the end titles whimsically remind us that the story we’ve just been engaged in is, after all, based on a classic fairy tale. A storybook creates the context; the visuals are illustrations of that book, although they come alive with animated type, creatures and music. “Here, we’re designing so that the audience will stay in their seats even though the movie has ended,” says Yu.
After graduating from Yale’s graphic design program in 1987, Yu worked as a designer at titles house R/Greenberg Associates in New York. He then became a senior designer at its Los Angeles offshoot, RGA/LA, which eventually morphed into Imaginary Forces where he was co-creative director with Kyle Cooper. Soon enough, Yu was ready to carve out his own niche: “It was about time to swim on my own,” he says.
“The moment between stillness and movement” is a concept that inspires Yu to create. He says, “In a still image there is movement, there is tension. If we can balance this tension, we successfully achieve a visual moment. A moment that you say ‘aha!’” In looking at his vast collection of title sequences, type and images spin, kick and morph as though they're musical notes moving to a conductor’s baton, punctuating a story. Synderela Peng, art director/designer, says, “In 300, the team was able to pull from the original illustrated source material to create an exciting, visceral sequence that the fans really enjoyed.” In it, black matte sculptural shapes become surprising, new images just by changing the angle of the shot. Blood spurts throughout add the tension.
In title designs as disparate as Enchanted and Hulk, the compelling vision and mastery of execution are uniting elements. Director Ang Lee, whose body of work includes The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, Taking Woodstock and Hulk, says, “Garson’s title sequences are very innovative—they continue the storytelling. There’s something self-effacing and sensitive about Garson. He reflects the movie and the story.” The detail and time that go into a single production can be seen on the screen—and heard. The art directors and designers work closely with composers and sound designers. Yu says, “Music is 51 percent of the equation, design is 49 percent.”
Yu has taken pages from Lee’s style of working. “I’ve been very impressed by how he interacts with his crew,” Yu says. Art director/designer Etsuko Uji works closely with Yu in developing work. “He helps me a lot, not just on the creative side, but also on how to work well with other artists and with clients. It’s been over seven years since I started working with Garson and I'm still learning from him every day.”
In a 2007 documentary titled Designers Abroad: A Chinese Series, produced by RTHK Productions, Yu is shown working with a wire structure the size of a coffee cup. He places it on a tabletop and lights it. The light casts shadows to create different angles at 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 and so on. Yu took a picture of each image. “I could see the wire’s shadow changing, how it worked with the ground, how it moved in space. Every moment was satisfying. Then I began to develop a shape. If you start in one place and continue to move the light, it keeps changing,” Yu explains in the film.
He works with sculpture, sketches and photography to show himself how lines and type are manipulated in space, whether over a scene or in a computer-generated background. Each project starts with elaborate sketches and style boards. Type is something he’s worked on since his days at Yale, when he studied with graphic design luminaries Paul Rand, Bradbury Thompson, Armin Hofman and Alvin Eisenman.
At Yale he also found himself drawn to fine art and painting. “Fine art deals with a lot of visual issues, with space and with light,” he explains. “I was absorbed with studying lines of type at Yale. The so-called concrete poetry.” In projects like the logo sequence for Sony WEGA, his timeline-space manipulation is replaced by dots. In the highly conceptual Warhol-esque Ugly Betty show open, sections of models’ faces swap out with Betty’s—yet another manipulation.
Yu has designed a business which has grown to 30 staffers in Los Angeles and 16 in Hong Kong—designers, artists, producers and account executives who work on projects that range from Pepsi commercials to experiential extravaganzas for Intel. Garson’s brother, Roland, is the visionary behind the Asian annex, yU+co. [lab]. Roland says, “My focus is to develop and build business in Hong Kong and Shanghai. China is such a fast growing country, opportunities here are just incredible. There are so many differences between American design and here. To illustrate one: In our industry, American artists tend to be specialists, while Chinese are more generalist, in terms of professional skills and mentality. American designers are more focused and specialized in one area. Chinese designers are more multi-taskers and can wear many hats at the same time.”
As the organization leaders, the brothers are dissecting the capabilities of motion graphics today, and also its implications for the future. Garson says, “In the early days, there was a film production optical house, there were Moviolas to cut on. Now, we don’t have to touch film. Anybody can finish a movie at home. It’s only going to get
more challenging. The emphasis is going to be on good design.”
In Asia, yU+co. [lab] takes the design process to a different venue: In hotel suites, museum exhibitions, outdoor performances and mobile promos, the designers here use multi-screen projection, seeming holograms, sound design, vivid color and evocative graphics and photography to create larger-than-life experiences, at once promoting a product and educating the consumer about a financial company, an airline, a new world order or Hello Kitty. The productions are more than visual feasts—they're all-encompassing, tactile events.
Director Harold Becker, whose work goes back four decades and includes The Onion Field, Sea of Love and City Hall, worked with Yu on Mercury Rising and Domestic Disturbance titles. “Originally, I had never had anyone design titles for me. I started as an artist and designer myself, so I just took it upon myself to do it. I had relegated titles to something that should be understated,” he explained. “Then I discovered Saul Bass and then the Bond films, and I started to look at it differently. I began working with Garson—he’s very conceptual. He and I share the same frames of reference, like Paul Rand. And, like me, he’s obsessive. His work is an extension of who he is as a person.”
For director Lee, movie title design is a carefully manipulated strategy in managing expectations. “I’m the kind of filmmaker who needs patience from the audience,” he says. “It takes me more than 25 minutes to establish the movie. These days, people won’t let you have that much time. They want it all right now. Titles give me two things: I can get on with the narrative without people thinking the movie has started. And I can use the extra five minutes to set the mood. Garson gets involved very early—in pre-production. He’s part of the filmmaking process.” For Brokeback Mountain, Yu’s titles showed the vastness—and loneliness—that was part of the American cowboy’s existence. In Taking Woodstock, the titles sequence shows the poverty of the Catskills, the setting for the cultural phenomenon. It at once shows the location and also explains the motive of the community’s embracing of the musical event.
Lee concludes, “Garson always manages to give me something extra.” ca