FORCES TO RECKON WITH: IT'S NOT JUST MOVIE TITLES ANYMORE FOR KYLE COOPER AND HIS CREW AT IMAGINARY FORCES.

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"Imagine this: I go to my job, punch in, have a cup of tea, sew the pages of a book together, scratch a little boy's eyes out, and have some more tea," laughs Kyle Cooper. It's all in a typical day's work for the creative director at the Hollywood-based conceptual design and production company Imaginary Forces.

Well, it's all in a typical conceptual day's work in a company that can do film titles with the kind of intensity Robert de Niro brings to his acting. It might be called Method design, the most notable example being the evil serial killer of the David Fincher flick Seven, for which Cooper designed the remarkable opening credits (and to which he refers in his description of a 'typical' day). The benchmark piece was created in 1995 while Cooper was still at R/GA in Los Angeles,

and it helped him launch Imaginary Forces the following year.

"We were very fortunate in our timing," recalls Peter Frankfurt, a founding partner/executive producer at the firm. "Seven woke everyone up to the possibility of main title sequences again. Seven felt totally of the moment; this dark, fucked-up thing that was 1995. That was the moment and it just clicked."

Indeed. When was the last time ordinary moviegoers talked about titles, of all things? But Cooper's work on Seven was an instant conversation piece. "It hit a nerve in the culture," Frankfurt says, "and clients are still asking for it. We're like the evil guys. 'Let's go ask the evil guys.' That was just the job for that particular movie."

Not only does Imaginary Forces not want to be typecast (sorry) as the place to go for 'evil' credits, they also don't want to be pigeonholed as the place to go for credits. "I find it insulting when people say, 'You're the best titlehouse in L.A,' " complains Chip Houghton, executive producer and the third founding partner. "That's only part of what we are."

Movie titles (recent work includes Zorro, The Avengers and Armaggedon) are only 20 percent of the company's output. Imaginary Forces also does movie marketing (billboards, posters, trailers), commercials (the type for Nike's "I Can" campaign and Target spots from Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners), corporate identities (the redesign of the Netscape logo), environmental design (a movie shown in the stadium before Baltimore Ravens games), broadcast design (Ally McBeal), music videos, and print. Less than two years after its inception, Imaginary Forces has a box office hit in the Wesley Snipes action film Blade, produced by Peter Frankfurt (surprise: he and his colleagues did not do the titles). The company also has a staff of 78 (average age 26), and with an array of in-house Avids, Flames and Infernos, Imaginary Forces is a one-stop shop for film advertising.

The three partners met years back while working at R/GA in New York. Soon the thirtysomething trio tired of applying the glittering star in the toothpaste smile, a box in which many motion graphics companies find themselves trapped.

"There was a good chemistry between the core group of us three," says Frankfurt. "We had a good opportunity to get away from the effects industry and get involved in conceptual design ideas."

Houghton credits Cooper with the start of Imaginary Forces' runaway success. "Kyle has developed an extraordinary skill in communicating a story in a very short amount of time," he says of his partner, who may seem a bit like the goose who's still expected to lay the golden eggs.

For Cooper, trained as a graphic designer at Yale under Paul Rand, the tremendous reaction to his design of Seven is perhaps as much a curse as a blessing. "We raised the bar, and now there is an expectation," he says. "The scratchiness of the type became fashion and was chewed up almost instantly by the culture." It's something a designer can neither stop nor repeat at will. "To get that emotional reaction is so hard; you can't just open a bag of tricks," Cooper sighs. So maybe it's no surprise that his eerie quick-cut title treatment for Mimic, while very effective, is a bit like Seven with bugs. Both jobs are also part of what one female executive producer mildly criticizes as "very masculine, testosterone-driven design."

"We need to keep pressure on ourselves to come up with new graphic languages, to do something original, to break away from modernism," Cooper acknowledges. Type, he finds, can be a great story-telling device if the treatment is based on a concept, an idea, rather than on esthetics and purity of form.

That kind of sensibility "helps sell a movie," says Frankfurt, who believes the right type can give a film "a gestalt, an aroma." Not that the importance of this is immediately evident to everyone -- not even people who hire the company. But "occasionally you get a client who gets it, and who can even actually approve it. A lot of what we need to do is prepare the client, bring them along in the process." Still, Frankfurt says, he's not precious about it. "We keep the idea intact, but if you don't like this we'll try to do something else."

Jakob Trollbeck, creative director at R/GA in New York, holds no grudge against the Imaginary Forces crew for making off with the whole movie title operation. "There is so much crap out there, there is enough room for everyone," he says. "I'm doing the opening sequence for Saturday Night Live right now. I'm sure when Kyle hears that, he'll say, 'I would have wanted to do that.' But we're not competitors. It's about getting five times more great stuff out there. Motion design is the second desktop revolution. The good thing this time around is that a whole generation of designers is involved in it from the start."

And with postproduction costs coming down, the technology needed is becoming more widespread and more accessible. Mikon van Gastel, a 26-year-old art director at Imaginary Forces, believes that "What Ray Gun did for magazines, and MTV for music, Imaginary Forces is doing to the moving image." Then, perhaps remembering that Pride is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, he adds, "And now everyone is doing it. It's the new thing."

New enough, and popular enough, anyway, that the current masters of the genre, Imaginary Forces included, have a nice problem: more work than they can handle. Says Peter Frankfurt: "Right now, it's a matter of controlling the growth and being really clever about what we do -- and maybe more importantly, what we

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