Friday, July 02, 2010

Flashback Friday: Balsmeyer & Everett Creates 'Magnolia' Titles

Today's Flashback Friday highlights a great interview with the creative team at Big Film Design who were contracted to create Magnolia's composite clip underneath the main title presentation card. They discuss the process, ideas and working with Paul along the way.

Design director Randy Balsmeyer and his team at Balsmeyer & Everett designed and produced the opening title sequence for P.T. Anderson's enigmatic film Magnolia. Working from abstract design directions born out of Anderson's mental imagery, Balsmeyer and his team combined a blooming magnolia flower with street maps and images from the film to create a poignant and provocative sequence. The result is a dynamic explosion of contrast and color that heralds the fortuitous character intersections of the film's intricate storyline.
"Director Paul Anderson and editor Dylan Tichenor were incredibly secretive about the film. We never got to see the whole thing -- only the first reel and numerous scene clips -- so the project was quite mysterious. We knew only that the film was about the intersections of people's lives. The creative thrust for the title sequence came from Paul. 
The veins in flower petals had always reminded him of street maps, and he wanted to tap into that idea to communicate the notion of the characters' lives crossing and connecting, almost tangentially. He also wanted the opening to include a montage of images from every scene from the film so the viewer would subliminally recognize each scene when it played. 
He couldn't really define what he wanted much more tightly than that, so it was a question of us trying to see things as he saw them -- all in a six-and-a-half second graphical sequence. We came up with three ideas and showed video tests to Paul and Dylan. We had no way of knowing if we were on the right track, but one of our tests was exactly what Paul wanted. It would have been just as easy to completely miss the mark, but what I saw in my mind turned out to be the same thing Paul was seeing.
"We thought we were going to have to shoot original time-lapse photography of a blooming magnolia flower, but our research revealed that magnolias bloom only once a year, and we had just missed that year's bloom. We opted to use stock photography instead. After coming up with three or four passable clips, we found one that was outstanding. We had it scanned, skipped out a number of frames to get it to bloom in the allotted time, and brought it into Photoshop to do the paint work. 
We removed a number of branches that crossed in front of the petals and added all the veins in the flower."

"The street maps were scanned from a poster-sized version of the Thomas Guide to Los Angeles and combined with satellite photos of the corresponding geography. We turned them into 10K-20K textures in Photoshop and used After Effects to edit them into the order we wanted. As the sequence progresses, the map layer evolves from the street map to the satellite photo. We constructed the final layer of the sequence out of single frames from every scene in the film. 
Our original plan was to use high resolution film scans to preserve the image quality, but time got short and we realized it would be much more expedient to work off videotape. Everyone was nervous about it, but we ran a film-out test with a few dozen digitized frames from the dailies and were pleased with the results. In terms of the balance between the film frames and the other two layers, we didn't tweak the color of each frame individually; it was more a question of selecting the right frame to complement what was happening in the other two layers. 
We did quite a few passes like that, and subject matter made a big difference; for example, one particular iteration had a film frame with a big sign in it. Having the text from the sign showing up underneath the 'magnolia' title was very distracting. It was a one-frame blip, but it brought the whole sequence to its knees. In other iterations we had light-colored frames that washed everything in the frame out. We focused on the overall composition -- a balance of light and dark and considering the interplay of tonal values rather than colors. We wanted a feeling of randomness, so if we had too much repetition, the whole sequence would stall.
"The title sequence remained in three layers until the end, allowing us to manipulate any part until we were satisfied. As we developed each layer, we checked it against the other two. We'd look at a portion, and think for example, 'The picture looks good but the flower's overpowering it, so let's bring the flower down.' It was always a question of balance, which amounted to a great deal of fussing over six seconds of image. 
When we got the sequence to the point where we were happy with the total composition, we brought it together in After Effects and added the solarizing effect on a secondary pass. Gray Miller was the principal hands-on guy for the After Effects work, and he certainly deserves the lion's share of credit for making it work. 
In retrospect, there was some trepidation on our part going in because the project was so loosely defined. I was concerned that we could go around in circles for months, but it turned out to be one of the most straightforward, streamlined projects I've been involved with -- none of those horrendous dead-ends that you sometimes run into. In spite of our initial concerns, everything came together beautifully."