Big Film Design

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When husband-and-wife team Randall Balsmeyer and Mimi Everett co-founded Balsmeyer & Everett, which, in 2000 became Big Film Design, they got their first big break in a manner you'd expect to see in the movies, not in real life. After the 1986 release of She's Gotta Have It, they wrote Spike Lee an unsolicited letter to say they wanted to work with him. Lee responded with a call. He asked the team to create the opening title sequence for School Daze.

New York's BFD has gone on to produce award-winning title design and visual effects for an enviable selection of the movie industry's most critically acclaimed directors. In addition to 13 sequences for Lee, BFD has created title design and visual effects for Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson and Milos Forman, to name a few. The studio's recent credits include Chicago, View from the Top and Mona Lisa Smile. What distinguishes BFD is its range. BFD's staff of eight draws on expertise in an array of disciplines-including live-action directing, motion control, animation and digital compositing.

Balsmeyer describes the animation style of BFD's recent titles for the Coen Brothers' Intolerable Cruelty as "2-and-a-half-D." The sequence uses flat imagery from Victorian Valentines-including winged cupids and swooning women-in a multidimensional environment, creating a feeling of depth. The term, however, describes more than an animation style; it highlights the way BFD's body of work straddles the disciplines of 2- and 3-D design. "We live with one foot in the design world and one foot in the visual effects world," says Balsmeyer. But the two areas of the company's expertise are intrinsically linked.

Designer/Director John Corbett used visual effects in response to Robert Altman's mandate that the titles for The Company not upstage the dance that opens his movie. The challenge was to satisfy both Altman's concern and Corbett's own creative vision. In the dance footage Altman had shot, long ribbons streamed from the ceiling. Seizing on their strength as a design element, Corbett wove the titles through the streamers, illuminating the text with the same shifting light source as the dancers. The result is that the titles are part of the dance. Corbett notes that the best title sequences ease the audience into a film, neither stealing its thunder nor simply acting as a plot summary. "It's a balancing act," Corbett says. "You don't want to give the story away, but it's also not the time for the viewer to get popcorn and a drink."

In recent years, Balsmeyer has diversified his company's creative output to include commercials production and television opens, earning two Daytime Emmys for PBS' Sesame Street and Between the Lions. Although motion picture work is generally brisk, Balsmeyer notes that New York's movie industry since 9/11 has become less predictable. Cheaper and faster technology has also opened up the playing field, with more title designers vying for the same number of projects. BFD's expansion generates a more reliable flow of work. At the same time, it creates the opportunity for new types of creative problem solving.

Without the captive audience of a movie theater, a television sequence has to keep viewers in the living room and their hands off the remote. This means TV producers are often more willing to take creative risks. Most recently, BFD's open for TNT's Bad Apple draws inspiration from the 1964 noir classic The Killers and Saul Bass' title design (Vertigo, Psycho). The black, white and red sequence features the movie's characters in high-contrast stills, with blocky sans serif typography. More than just striking images, the stills provide a visual reference for understanding a complicated web of relationships that unfolds during the movie. The fact that the sequence does so much work typifies BFD's commitment to making choices for the good of the film. "I love to make title sequences that stand alone as great visual pieces," says Balsmeyer. But the point is to make the film better than what it was before the titles were there."