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August 14, 2019

Magnificent Obsession

For Peter Anderson and company, creating the titles and motion graphics for Amazon’s Good Omens was a year-long dive into another world.

Melissa Byers

What do title and motion graphics designers really do?

Peter Anderson, of the Peter Anderson Studio, works with a creative team to help with the storytelling on a production, as they did recently with Amazon's adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's 1990 novel Good Omens.

Anderson is quick to note that it is the team for whom he speaks, "It's important for me that we are presented as the Peter Anderson Studio, as a studio. Everything I say I am saying it as the Creative Director of the studio. There's a team of eight people from our studio that worked on this, and they're all creatively equally responsible for what we created."

In the case of Good Omens, Anderson says, "We lived the Good Omens world for over a year. We got quite obsessive about what we did. I think both with the titles and the graphics we were trying to build worlds and contents with graphics as opposed to just give information, which is what people traditionally think of graphics."

When telling the audience where they were in that world, Anderson wanted more than the simple captions. He says, "For example rather than have captions coming up on the screen, we actually had little people who lived in the television screen who physically and theatrically lifted up signs to tell you where you were, or what ditch you were in, or how long it was until the end of the world."

For those unfamiliar with Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's 1990 novel, the story concerns two celestial beings, an angel, Aziraphale, played by Michael Sheen, and a demon, Crowley, played by David Tennant, who are trying to stop Armageddon. The story jumps back and forth in time, and also has a sort of countdown to the end, which the two protagonists are trying to beat.

It became the job of Anderson and company to act as a guide through the maze of the story.

Anderson explains the genesis of the sequences, "I think that in some of the cases with some of the animations, we were actually explaining quite complex and bizarre content. If you think of it, we created the first five minutes of the drama. The first two are explaining the beginning of all time in a very complex and bonkers way.

"For that, interestingly, we actually built sets and created props. We brought in actors to act out scenes and then we planted them into this graphics world that we created.

"It was quite frightening in some of the cases because we built these big machines that had scrolls on them, and then we were filming them. From that point, we only knew that was one element inside a graphic world. So, that was, as you can imagine, quite terrifying investing all the time and money making these things thinking, 'I hope it works.'

"On every occasion, I think, when you're trying to build worlds with graphics, I think that's very very different than trying to simply provide information. Our approach for building these bizarre worlds where, one minute you're in live action, the next minute you're in one of our crazy animations. It helped ... it contributed to the overall wonderful story telling by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman."

Beginning with the title sequence, Anderson wanted to be an integral part of telling the story. He says, "Our view about title sequence is that really, you should get the big story, the epic story the first time you watch it. Then, every time you watch it, you should be able to pick up another clue, or see another little element in each scene that you go, 'I didn't see that the last time I watched it.'"

The detail is complex and multi layered. Anderson explains, "Our ambitions were simply to do what we could. For example, in the title sequence, a large proportion of our obsession, our live action characters wearing costumes from the show.

"What we did, and it came from something very clever that Neil said, just casually, as clever people do in these things, he said, 'One of the things that's important to me is realizing there's good and bad in everyone.'

"That inspired the idea within the title sequence of, even though we built and almost included every character throughout the drama in our grand opening sequence, each of them ... even though most of them were made up from live action, we actually put a two dimensional character head on each of them.

"I think it's quite a quirky result, this combination of live action and two dimensional animation.

"Each of these heads were either our angel, Aziraphale, or our demon, Crowley. They were all representing either good or evil. We went one step further because Neil kind of insinuated that our angel and our demon represent the good and evil in everyone. So, we wanted to play on that little clever detail in the title sequence.

"If you look closely, and you're not supposed to see it the first time, you will notice that it's Michael Sheen with a Mohawk, or it's David Tennant with sunglasses on, or with a mustache, or with red hair. So, that's layers of story telling on top of the story telling.

"Again, as you hopefully see throughout that sequence, they're playing tricks on each other. It might be as simple as the demon putting plastic bags in the ocean. It might be, again, as simple as him killing a cactus flower as he walked past it. Or, more dangerously, setting the spacecraft off course, in which our angel turns into a biblical fish to save said disaster.

"Probably one you haven't picked up was, when everybody's going up the escalator towards heaven, everybody's fine. When they're going down the escalator towards hell, you'll notice one little character realizes where he goes, is going, and changes his mind and runs off the escalator against the traffic with everybody else.

"Again, it's laced with these little clues, even right down to the type face. I hand drew the type face, so it's a unique type face for the drama, which is kind of squiggly and kind of biblical looking. We were that obsessive about the detail."

That obsession was shared by the filmmakers. Anderson says, "A lovely thing happened at the beginning of the project, which I think kind of almost summarized the approach to the whole thing.

"Neil [Gaiman, author and executive producer] and Douglas MacKinnon [executive producer and director] said right at the beginning. 'I want you to promise me something. I want you to promise me that you send us emails that start with, "This might sound absolutely mad. My idea is" ... best boss ever.

"Saying that, they would scrutinize every detail. They also gave us trust, and I think when someone gives you trust it actually gives you more responsibility and more ambition. If someone thinks, 'I know you can do it.' You think, 'Well, I've got to do it.' The other thing that was important to them, they said they wanted us to try and give them something that they'd never seen before, which is quite a big ask."

Anderson and his team did all they could to answer that ask. Anderson notes, "That's kind of how obsessive we are. If there was such a thing as a method type of graphics design studio that's us; we kind of live it. I think one of the other things that we tried to do was mix styles, so never would you be anything other than surprised."

And how does one become a Title and Motion Design professional? Anderson explains, "It's a very good question. I think it's somewhere where you get to. Anyone who said a book isn't judged it's cover is a liar. I think you're making a mini film, but you're also creating a tonal cover.

"If you don't like the title sequence, you're not going to like the drama. The attention to detail is reflective, I think, of what's coming with the next eight hours. My view is if the title sequence doesn't have attention to detail, then the drama won't have attention to detail.

"If people cut corners with the title sequence, they're going to have cut corners with other aspects of the drama. I guess what makes us as a studio so excited to be making title sequences is what we get to do.

"For example, we just did The Hustle for MGM in Hollywood. Again, we made a cartoon, we made a mini film that's in a way inspired by the script, the essence of something that's there. I guess you're interpreting a script, but rather than have eight hours to do it you've got between 30 seconds and two minutes.

"It's both inspiring and challenging because you always have to be clever in collaboration with the drama. It holds two stories, a title story and it holds a tonal story. The mood has to be right for the drama, if it's comical, if it's fantastical, if it's bizarre, if it's serious, if it's tragic. All those elements have to be felt without giving away the secrets.

"It's a wonderful challenge because I think you can tease an audience without spoiling it for them. That's very important. A title sequence can hint at what's coming. Very often a drama will start off with a great deal of exposition, which can be quite boring. Then let's meet the cast, let's be introduced to our world.

"A title sequence gives you a little tease of the overall drama. In other words, the drama may start slow, and speed up, speed up, speed up, and end in a frantic pace. A title sequence will let an audience know it will build, it is exciting, what's happening, what is the piece, what is the future of this.

"It can do that, it can tell an audience there's something really exciting coming without spoiling it. It's something you have to spend a lot of time thinking about, talking about, even after you know what it looks like, more importantly if that look comes from that story."

In Good Omens, Anderson introduced and kept the story moving. "I would also say, there's all of this layers and layers of little graphic tricks I could tell you about. Also, within the drama there are layers and layers and layers of in jokes and extra levels, what a building's called, what a street's called, what a ... everything means something. It's definitely one that's worth watching more than once.

"Again, I think that what excites me is it's a wonderful example of new world television, drama. This is a production that was released to the world in one day. It's sensibilities are quintessentially idiosyncratic."

Anderson hopes that he and his company can be a part of this new television world, especially if he can work with Gaiman and MacKinnon again. . He says, "Really, we want to work with this new television. Our ambition is to create something completely fresh and new and original for another ambitious project.

"Our absolute dream would be to work with Neil and Douglas again as a team because you have creators who follow through all the way, ambitious creators. That's going all the way, from the source of ... normally, by the time something's made, the writer has been left behind. It's so wonderful when the writer is the show runner.

"What's in his mind, obviously collaborating with the director, gets made, rather than just handing it over to a studio. Nobody else knows what it means than the person who wrote it. So, having that direct access. Also, somebody who's incredibly humble. Both the director and Neil, they were both annoyingly very nice people, and incredibly clever.

"I think when we meet famous people, we either want to love them or hate them with the stories that we bring about them. I think for me, I was a fan before from reading Neil's books, and I'm more a fan from having worked with him. That doesn't happen very often."


 

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