Arts & Culture

You are now exiting the real world

Stills: Imaginary Forces/Karin Fong.

Stills: Imaginary Forces/Karin Fong.

The wizardry of Karin Fong ’93: still shots from her title sequence for the crime drama Boardwalk Empire. View full image

The opening credits for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire are barely two minutes long, but they flood us with information. As they list the cast and crew, they also establish the coolly vicious heart of this series about the Prohibition-era hoodlums who once ran Atlantic City.

Here’s how they work: with blues-rock blaring in the background, gangster-politician Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) strolls in slow motion toward the ocean. There’s a storm raging. We see lightning reflected in his eyes. And hundreds of liquor bottles float out of the water. Did Nucky conjure them? Were they drawn to him? The sequence ends with Nucky strolling back toward the city, where the sun is rising and his booze-fueled sin is about to darken the world.

It takes an artist to evoke so much so concisely, and that’s why Boardwalk Empire needed Karin Fong ’93. As a founding member of Imaginary Forces, a creative design firm and production company based in New York and L.A., she’s created title sequences for dozens of films and television series, including Terminator Salvation; AMC’s Rubicon; and NBC’s Chuck. Fong was nominated for two Emmys this year, one of them for the Boardwalk Empire credits.

And yes, “title designer” is a specialized job, melding design, directing, and production skills, along with the ability to capture the essence of a long project in just a few minutes. As Terence Winter, the creator of Boardwalk Empire, explains, “While it may be crystal clear to the people who work on a show what that show is, sometimes you get so close to the work that you can only see it from one point of view. Hiring someone as talented as Karin adds tremendous creative value, because she’ll approach the work from an unexpected angle.”

Fong’s perspective on a project is rarely literal. “A good title sequence gets some sort of anticipation or emotion going,” she says. “I always think a great main title is a little bit like the curtain opening”—a transition that lets the audience “leave the real world and go into this other place.”

To suggest those other places, Fong often employs what she calls “hybrid imagery”—meaning she uses multiple types of media but makes them seem to exist in a single world. In the credits to NBC’s spy comedy Chuck, animation, still photography, and stylized text merge into a playful spin on Bond movie titles, both hip and informative. Watching the credits, audiences understand that the series is an action-packed comedy punctuated by bold visuals and witty references. The approach is designed to appeal to a wide audience, from spy movie buffs to channel surfers just looking for something fresh and clever.

“Karin’s aesthetic is young and alive, but it reaches what is known in our business as ‘the four quads’—both men and women above and below 25,” says the director-producer known as McG, who has worked with Fong on Chuck, both Charlie’s Angels movies, and several other projects. “Karin has the elegance to make chairmen of motion picture studios feel confident. But she also knows how to reach a street, skateboard-kid culture.”

Fong’s aesthetic was already visible in her undergraduate years at Yale, where she was an art major with a focus in graphic design. Her senior project was, in her words, an “animated children’s book” that used computer sequencing to animate still images. The inventive piece led to a design position in television, and eventually to the partners who launched Imaginary Forces with her in 1996.

And while it’s best known for its film titles, the company works in many other fields. On a given day, Fong might direct a Target ad, oversee an animated sequence for a live action movie, or design projections for an opera. Her collaborators appreciate her range. “She’s a director, she’s a creator, and she’s a producer that has to lead the team and get the best work done,” says McG. “She’s a complete package of talent, and that’s why I’ve been with her for ten years.”  

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