The Thomas Cobb Group

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Thomas Cobb has made impressive pit stops at some of the big guns of broadcast design. In 1994 he joined Kyle Cooper at RGA/L.A., creating film titles for Braveheart, Mission Impossible and Seven. In 1996 he formed Montgomery/Cobb with co-CD George Montgomery, where he crafted promos for HBO, Nike and UPN, as well as film/TV main titles for High Fidelity, 24 and Wolf Lake, whose main titles were nominated for a 2002 Emmy. Though the winners have yet to be announced, the 38-year-old designer had enough momentum in the business to break out on his own, which he did in July with The Thomas Cobb Group, in Venice, Calif.

"I was really ready for a change," he says. "While I loved creative-directing, I wanted to get closer to the animation box, the editing box, to be behind the camera, to be writing the stories. I wanted to get back to getting my hands dirty." Which explains why his new operation is decidedly small-scale - the permanent crew consists merely of Cobb and executive producer Jill Nakayama. The boutique has already landed some choice gigs: main titles for the upcoming NBC sitcom Hidden Hills and the indie flick Manhood, as well as an under-wraps advertainment project for Reebok and The Arnell Group.

Like many designers, Cobb fesses up to an almost starry-eyed infatuation for typography. "In order to do type well, you have to really be in love with it," he insists. "You have to get your jollies out of sculpting a letterform." Moreover, palpable throughout Cobb's work is the sense that motion design is as much about calculated randomness as it is about exact form. One of his most memorable projects can be found in the mostly forgettable The Island of Dr. Moreau. The film was a critical bomb but the titles were remarkable - a series of kinetically flickering serifed letters that scramble and explode against lush footage and effects. Cobb's design inspiration was actually visceral, drawn from the way RGA/L.A. CD Cooper fluttered his hands during the creative brief.

"Maybe I pick up more on hand movements because my hearing loss may have amplified my sight," he surmises. Cobb lost about 70 percent of his hearing when he was 3, but with the assistance of hearing aids it hasn't been much of a handicap; nonetheless, "It's just a theory, but there's something about hand movements that allow you to get more than just what people are saying," he muses. "It was just really a feeling from his gestures that he wanted the titles to be unpredictable." Initially Cobb turned up a painstakingly detailed test animation, which led to the final look of all the credits in the opener - an "intense typographic challenge" for the technology of the time, he notes. Each credit involved crafting a series of masks and drawings of disjointed letters, which were then grouped into entire words that reverse color and burst into smithereens.

Although he works with the usual digital tools-After Effects, Avid, Illustrator - Cobb's background is all about mixing media. At RGA, he also worked on the acclaimed titles for Seven, for which he devised a large-scale projection method to impart wild movement to the hand-carved fonts of designer Jenny Shainin. At Montgomery/Cobb, many of his projects also merged different media forms to tell a story, as in Wolf Lake, which features elegantly dimming titles against glowing moonlit scenes, and in the open of the Star Trek series Enterprise, which uses an overlay of an ancient seafarers' map to unite simple fonts and a motley assortment of stock and effects footage.

As broadcast design is often a nexus of various creative disciplines, it's not hard to imagine how Cobb found a home in the field. The Mississippi native grew up in a family of painters and attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he studied photography and fine art. He went on to get a BFA at Parsons in New York, and after freelancing in advertising on both coasts, Cobb eventually made his way to RGA/L.A., which went on to become Imaginary Forces. Skill and experience aside, Cobb insists that, the key to standout design is not following formulas. It's fine to have a plan, but "let accidents happen," he insists. "If you invite the unpredictable into the process, the end result will be something more spontaneous and interesting."

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