Since the early 1990s, Kyle Cooper has been and remains one of Hollywood’s leading title designers. Mr. Cooper has widely been credited with revitalizing the craft with his main title for the hit movie Se7en in 1995. In the years since then, Mr. Cooper has served as title designer on innumerable motion pictures, such as Nixon (1995), Twister (1996), Gattaca (1997), Mighty Joe Young (1998), Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Iron Man (2008), Moneyball (2011), Argo (2012), Godzilla (2014), and Kong: Skull Island (2017).
Recognizing Mr. Cooper’s unparalleled talent, Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) director Ryuhei Kitamura tapped him and his production studio Prologue to create the main title sequence for the Big G’s 50th anniversary film. Mr. Cooper spoke at length on the telephone with Brett Homenick in a 2005 interview about his involvement with Final Wars as well as his career designing titles for some of Tinseltown’s biggest blockbusters.
Brett Homenick: How’d you get started in the film industry?
Kyle Cooper: Well, I’ve always wanted to work in the film industry. I wanted to be a director. I’m still working towards that. I was a graphic designer, and I saw some main titles in 1985, and it occurred to me that that would be a very good mix of the two things that I was interested in. I was always working as a graphic designer, working my way through undergraduate school, and watching a lot of movies. I thought that titles was a good combination of both of my lifelong interests.
I went to graduate school. I wanted to be a better graphic designer, so I spent three years in the graduate graphic design program at Yale. Even though I was doing typography and, I think, refining my design sensibilities and learning about graphic design and typography more so than when I was an undergraduate, I still had in the back of my mind when I graduated that I was going to try to do film titles. When I graduated, I wasn’t ready to move to Los Angeles, although that was the suggestion that I should do that.
But I found one of the places that inspired me, R/Greenberg Associates. They had done the titles for Altered States and The Dead Zone, and they were actually just finishing The Untouchables when I started to work there. But I had seen Altered States and Superman and the trailer for Alien and, again, The Dead Zone, and I just really liked those credits. So I sought out the place that was doing them. I convinced them to give me a job doing the print graphics. The arrangement was I would be freelance, and I would do their ads and collateral materials. But when they had a main title presentation, they would allow me to pitch. The first main title presentation that happened was for Martin Scorsese’s “Life Lessons” as part of the New York Stories trilogy.
They had three filmmakers — Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese — make these three short films. They packaged them, and it was called New York Stories. I pitched an idea to Martin Scorsese, and he picked my idea. So actually I beat the other, more senior designers that were working there. Since then, I became the manager of their design department, then I became the creative director, then Bob Greenberg sent me to Los Angeles to start R/GA LA, which was the West Coast office of R/Greenberg Associates.
I had done a bunch of titles in New York, but then I got to L.A. and hit the ground running and did a lot for R/GA LA. That’s actually where I worked on Se7en, and I worked on Mission: Impossible and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Then we ended up buying out R/GA LA and started Imaginary Forces and did a bunch of titles with my company, Imaginary Forces. Then I ended up leaving that company and started Prologue, which is another company that I have now. To make a long story short…(laughs)
BH: (laughs) That’s no problem. What would you say is your biggest accomplishment so far in the film industry?
KC: Well, print graphic design is usually behind in terms of experimentation. In the ’80s and early ’90s, main titles were a bit behind what was happening in other areas of graphic design. I wanted to start people thinking — I shouldn’t say that it was intentional — but what was intentional was that motion graphics could be as good as what was happening in print graphics. Main titles go through phases where somebody does something like Saul Bass did with Man with the Golden Arm, and everyone realizes, “Oh, wow, you can make main titles that are cool.” So you start to see some of the great ones happening for a while, and then the studios sort of cool on the idea, and you start seeing white type over black again and people just kind of doing the inexpensive thing or the thing that’s not so risky.
I think with Se7en — these aren’t my words, but other people have said that I reminded people what was possible with main titles again. Also, that was when the desktop filmmaking revolution, if you will, was just starting to happen. I think a lot of people saw Se7en and thought, “I could do animation on my computer, and we could do cool motion graphics.” The same thing happened with the desktop publishing revolution. Like in 1986, everyone got a Mac, and people started doing their own graphic design and designing their own brochures and books and becoming their own publishers. Around the time, 1996, when Se7en came out, it inspired a lot of people to get interested in animation. I’m reluctant to take credit for these things, but I’m happy that I played a part in kind of causing a generation of younger people wanting to be desktop filmmakers.
Now, like video games, there’s so many people in these chat rooms where everyone’s doing animation, and it’s really great to see it. The same thing happens with desktop publishing. You get a million people doing it, and sure, there’s a lot of real bad work, but also, with the Internet, everyone all over the world can chime in and throw their work into the mix and say, “Here’s my Web site, look at my motion graphics and look at my animation.” So a lot of good work comes out of it, and the cream rises to the top.
When I graduated from Yale, I was concerned about getting a job as a graphic designer. A lot of people that came from my program, because they have a master’s degree, go on to become teachers, which is certainly a noble thing to do. Maybe they go on, and they do annual reports, or maybe they make books. I so much appreciate the excellent, modernist history of graphic design and typography education that I got there. Paul Rand was my teacher, Armin Hofmann was my teacher, Bradbury Thompson was my teacher. These guys were just great old graphic designers, and I was so lucky to be exposed to that. But a lot of the people that came out of that at the time were doing more things like annual reports or corporate identities, and I love that stuff. I love a good logo. Paul Rand’s Westinghouse logo — I love it. I fully appreciate the history of graphic design, and I appreciate the education that I got. I really didn’t know if I was going to get a job, frankly, because everyone had always told me growing up that being an artist was a difficult vocation.
But now with the Internet and with video games and with motion graphics, creative people have a forum to show their work to the world. There’s a lot of stuff we can do. I’m happy to be a part of that. It sounds very arrogant to come out and say, “I inspired other people.” It’s almost like I shouldn’t say that, but I’m just repeating what people have said to me or what people have written about me. If that’s really true, if I inspired somebody to not listen to the people, especially an artist, if I could have inspired somebody that wanted to be an artist or a filmmaker or even a graphic designer that was being told that you can’t make any money at it or you’re not good enough, and they did it anyway, then I feel real good about that.
I feel really good about some of the work that if all the conditions are right, and it’s a good director, once in a while you get an opportunity to do something that gets an emotional reaction from somebody or, even better, become like the first scene in the movie or, even better, become an intrinsic part of the story that the movie’s trying to tell. When you get to do that, and when you get to sit at the feet of these great directors — I get to listen to Robert Redford, or I get to listen to Sam Raimi or David Fincher or John Frankenheimer or Julie Taymor. Right now, I’m working with Terence Malick, and just by showing up and presenting your work and hanging around and talking about it, you get to hear about Martin Scorsese. A few hours here and there of these people’s time, it’s amazing what you can learn. I feel that all these things are better equipping me to tell the stories that I want to tell.
I’m digressing a little bit, but what I’m trying to say is that I’m proud of the work, the title sequences that become an important part of the film’s storytelling. That’s why I named my company Prologue, partly because Imaginary Forces comes from the prologue of Henry V. I’m very much into Henry V and the way that he led people is inspiring to me, and the lesson that can be learned by his leadership in that story is inspiring to me. But more importantly, some of my favorite things are when they screen the movie, and the director and the studio find out that there’s some important aspect of the story that’s missing, and all of a sudden all the principal photography is over, and they come to me or come to Prologue and say, “Can you make a main title sequence, or even an end title sequence, that’ll tell this part of the story that we’re missing?” It becomes the first scene in the movie. I think Se7en became the first scene of the movie rather than just a separate title sequence or a music video or a little animation sequence that just gets the credits out of the way. It became an intrinsic part of the story.
I just worked on Identity a couple of years ago with James Mangold, and the studio screened the movie. They didn’t understand a lot about this killer in the movie, and so we went out and shot this whole opening sequence with Alfred Molina and tape-recorded an interview with this killer and edited that whole thing together. You look at it, and you don’t even know that it’s a title sequence, really, except there’s credits over it. You think it’s part of the movie, but we did that. With Darkness Falls, they had to tell this backstory, and so we made a prologue for that that doesn’t even have credits over it. It’s not even a title sequence. It’s just like a prologue that, after somebody saw the movie, they said, “Gosh, we’d better explain that. But how are we going to do that? We’ve already wrapped principal photography. Let’s call Prologue, or let’s call Kyle.” I’m proud of that, I guess.
BH: Describe what you do to design titles in films.
KC: Well, everyone is different, and every relationship is different, and every brief is different, and every situation is different. Usually, the director and the producer and the editor call me in and say, “This is what we’re trying to do.” Sometimes they have an idea, sometimes they don’t have an idea. Sometimes they say, “We know we should do this. We know we probably don’t want to tell a whole different story,” or, “We actually do need to communicate something different.”
Like on Dawn of the Dead (2004), people commented on the way the film ended when they did test screenings, so we did this whole end title sequence where the movie actually ended differently. Instead of those few guys just sailing off into the sunset, we went back and they followed the boat. The boat goes to an island, and there’s more zombies on the island. That wasn’t the way the movie was going to end. So there are different kinds of things that have to happen.
The Hughes brothers for Dead Presidents came to me and knew that they wanted to burn money in the main title sequence, but they were having trouble getting their second unit to do it properly. So we had to print all this money on large pieces of paper. Usually, you get a brief. I read the script, I read the script very closely, I try to pull things out of the script. If I can watch the movie, I’ll watch it. As a rough cut, I watch it. Then I come back and present ideas either in written form or storyboard form. If it’s a pitch, it’s both a blessing and a curse. There’s this revolution in motion graphics, and everybody wants to do film titles because when I first started doing it, I had to pitch a lot because people didn’t know who I was. Then for a long time, a lot of people just called and just asked me to do it, and I didn’t have to pitch. Now it’s kind of a mixture where there’s so many other people wanting to do it, many of them are people that work for me or with me before. But sometimes they’ll just call you in, and they’ll call in three title companies, and everyone has to come up with an idea. Come in and pitch these ideas, and then they decide who they’re going to work with. But I like to compete. I’m happy to do that.
Sometimes I prefer the process like with Spider-Man 2, I already had a relationship with Laura Ziskin and Sam Raimi. They hired me, and you get to go through the process and almost be part of the production. They’re getting ready to do a movie, and so the director interviews the production designers. Maybe he knows the production designer and just gives the guy the job. Maybe they call a few in, he interviews a few, and he picks one. Or he thinks about a couple of DPs (directors of photography), one’s not available, interviews a couple more, and maybe he picks one. But from that point on, you’re selected, and you’re part of the crew, and I like being part of the crew. I like going there every couple of weeks and showing what I’m doing and going to the studios and feeling like I’m part of the crew. So I felt like I was part of the crew on Spider-Man 2, and they treated me very well.
I’m contrasting that situation with a situation where they say, “Get four title design firms and have them do boards.” So they throw out a wide net, and everyone comes back and makes these real complete boards, and then they pick an idea. They say, “Okay, we’re going to produce that idea.” When I was working on Spider-Man 2, I didn’t know what we were going to produce, so you try different things. Sam talks about them, and we have discussions, and there’s an exchange, and there’s a back and forth. You work it out together rather than having a storyboard be picked and then you go produce it. I prefer being allowed to not know going into it what the result’s going to be and listen to the work and listen to what’s happening and listen to what people are responding to in the motion tests and let the work evolve over a period of time. I like to do it that way rather than having this poster contest where they pick the one. But I’m happy to do it either way. Those are a couple of ways that it works.
Some directors I’ve worked with enough times that they’ll just call, and they trust me. John Frankenheimer, before he died, was like that. He would call me and let me do what I wanted and then bring it back. Obviously he always had a comment and gave me direction. So sometimes it’s about a relationship; other times, it’s like a pitch. So however you get to the point of presenting an idea, you present it in either animation form or storyboard form or you edit something. They pick it, and then you start doing motion tests, and you start showing them things in an offline resolution. They make comments, and then you end up finishing it. It takes a while; it’s like the visual effects shots. Someone will look at a shot and say, “Well, that matte doesn’t look quite right.” They send it back, and it’s not approved. They’ll send the main title back and say, “Oh, the type’s too small,” or “I don’t like that,” or “Give me notes.” I go back and fix the notes, and you ultimately deliver the job. Hopefully the film looks good when you deliver it.
BH: How’d you get involved in Godzilla: Final Wars?
KC: I worked on the title sequence for Metal Gear Solid 2 with Hideo Kojima, and I was working, I think, at the time on the title sequence for Metal Gear Solid 3 for Hideo Kojima, who’s the guy that invented Metal Gear. He’s a really interesting guy and was always very good to me. I really like him. He’s kind of a filmmaker himself, although he’s a hardcore gamer, a genius gamer. Metal Gear was an amazing video game. It’s a title sequence, so the process is the same. Nonetheless, Hideo was friends with the director of Godzilla: Final Wars (Ryuhei Kitamura), and he asked me to do the titles. Hideo is actually in the movie. So I said I would do that. I think he even met with me. It was good.
BH: Did you say that Hideo was actually in the movie?
KC: I think he had a small part that he put him in.
BH: Well, that’s interesting because, as a side note, my cousin’s really into video games, and we were at the premiere in Hollywood. When we were outside after the movie, he asked me to get my camera because he found someone that he wanted to pose for a picture with. I took the picture, and the guy went on his way. I asked my cousin, “Who was that?” He said, “He’s the guy who created the Metal Gear video games.” So I thought that was interesting. Your mentioning him brought back that memory. Moving right along, what preparation did you make for this project?
KC: So Hideo Kojima introduced me to Ryuhei Kitamura, who was the director of Godzilla: Final Wars. He came and visited me in my studio in Malibu, and he knew that he wanted to show some highlights of Godzilla over the years. So he wanted to have an homage to all the Godzilla films leading up to this. I thought that was a good idea because I really like Godzilla, and I wanted to go back through the footage. I love to edit things. If there’s footage available, nothing can make me happier than combing through footage and trying to find moments and cutting them together ideally at a breakneck pace. I like kinetic things moving together.
Anyway, he knew he wanted to use that as source material, and he wanted me to treat it in some way. When I watched all the films, I thought it was interesting that he’s always smashing buildings; he’s always kicking over buildings. I was looking at the Monster Island one with Baby Godzilla in it. When he’s fighting other monsters, it wasn’t as interesting to me as when he’ll shoot something and the lightning wraps around something. Also, when he’s smashing buildings and burning things, I like when he smashes something and flaming shrapnel flies off the buildings.
I just started my second company, and my intention was to be a little smaller and spend more time in dark edit rooms. So I wasn’t really set up to do a very slick, computer-generated thing. Actually the things that I enjoy the most usually involve manipulating existing footage or shooting my own footage. I like photographic imagery rather than artificial kinds. It’s the same thing as not knowing what you’re going to do on a title sequence that I talked about. You just work with the director. It’s the same kind of thing.
Sometimes I’ll go into it with a very clear concept, like for Spider-Man 1, I knew that I wanted the type to just be flying, and I knew that I wanted the typography to be webs. There’s a very specific, big idea to me. Or like Wimbledon, I knew that I wanted the type to cut back and forth on the either side of the frame. On Dawn of the Dead, I knew I wanted the type to bleed. I like to make type do what it says.
So I didn’t want to do something that was really computer-generated. I wanted to do something that was more hand-made. I wasn’t real sure what that was going to be, but I liked the idea of seeing the flaming pieces fly off the buildings when Godzilla smashes them. So I thought about just having burning type, and I didn’t want to make fire in CG because I wanted it to be accidental. I wanted to see what would happen when I burned real letters. So I created this elaborate rig where I have these 20-foot ladders, and I cut all the letters out of wood, and then I put nails on the back, and I had magnets. So by hand, we letter-spaced out every credit, and each credit was about four inches high, made out of wood, and then I soaked them down with gasoline, and I had a camera that was looking straight up and a piece of glass between myself and the type above me.
Then I had two guys up on a ladder, and so we’d light the type on fire, and then pull away the metal that’s above the type so the magnets release the type to fall, flaming. Then I just jump-cut through the flaming things flying. Then I had another layer that was animated that was like lightning and just cut it all together and played around. So it was kind of fun, actually. It wasn’t a huge production, but I like the way the edit works. I think it gets you excited about the old Godzilla movies and what might come up next.
BH: Oh, it certainly does. I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback about the title sequence. A lot of old-school fans really enjoy the fact that it pays tribute to a lot of the old movies, especially offbeat movies like Yog (Monster from Space, 1970) that don’t necessarily involve Godzilla.
KC: Right. Yeah, that was good. That was the director’s idea. Ryuhei Kitamura wanted to show the old films, and he got me all the old films. So I just went on an editorial binge. (laughs) But I did like the type. Burning the type was fun. That’s the same thing as Dawn of the Dead. People say, “Oh, we can make type bleed in 3D.” Well, why do that? Why not find a way to make type bleed practically by doing something to it? I like what happens when you photograph something because there are things that happen that are unexpected, like if you’re shooting type in water or reflecting on things, or having glass or mirrors. It isn’t so methodical.
I love 3D. If it’s like Spider-Man or Twister — we knew what we needed to do, and 3D is the best way to get it done. But I like the accidents that happen when you’re shooting live action.
BH: You did say that Kitamura gave you a vision of what he wanted for the main title sequence, but did you pitch anything or did you have a rough cut of anything that got rejected by Kitamura or by one of the heads of the studio?
KC: Not really. We had storyboard frames of different kinds of looks and different typefaces. But I rejected those. He was pretty open. I don’t remember. If the studio rejected something, I don’t remember them doing that. I think they were all very accommodating to me. They were very respectful and very appreciative. As long as I used the footage they provided, they were great.
BH: Aside from Ryuhei Kitamura, did you have any interaction with any other staff members of the film?
KC: You know, I met all the actors. I can give you all their names because I keep everyone’s card, but it’s hard for me to remember. There was a very nice man from Toho that came and met with me. I met a lot of people. But I’m so bad with names.
BH: Do you remember Don Frye?
KC: Yeah, sure! I remember who he is, but I never met him. I used to watch Ultimate Fighting! (laughs) I know who he is. But I did meet the star of the movie. He was with Ryuhei. Not Don Frye, but the main Japanese actor. Then I went to the premiere, and everybody was at the premiere.
BH: What did you think about the premiere? What were your thoughts about all the events going on on that day?
KC: I thought it was terrific. I thought the premiere was amazing. I thought it was great that all those people came out, I thought it was great they had it in Hollywood, I thought they did a really good job. Had a good time.
BH: Were you at the after-party?
KC: I had to go home. My wife was pregnant. I didn’t go to the after-party, but two of the guys that I went with were younger guys from my studio. They wanted to go, and they went to the after-party. I didn’t go.
BH: You seem to have had a lot of interaction with Mr. Kitamura. Overall, what would you say he was like as a person. What was your relationship like with him?
KC: I thought he was a lovely person. I thought he was very encouraging and very appreciative. He had a lot of good things to say. We talked a lot about other movies, and I had worked on The Rundown with The Rock. I remember we were talking about staging fight scenes, and he thought that the fight scenes in The Rundown were really well done. He was talking about Face/Off and some fight scenes in that that he thought were good. I thought he was a lovely person. It was nice to have him in my house.
BH: Overall, what did you think of the film when you saw it?
KC: I liked it. I thought it was good. What did you think of it?
BH: Oh, I loved it.
KC: I thought it was good that they only had one 3D monster, which might have been the American Godzilla.
KC: I thought it was funny that they dissed that Godzilla a little bit. (laughs) I liked it every time he revealed another monster. People don’t know this, but they came to my house when they came to meet with me. I have about 500 monsters — not action figures, although I have a lot of action figures. If they’re action figures, they’re more like Spawn action figures. But I have a Godzilla doll from 1964, which is an antique. I have a huge one that I got when I visited Japan. I used to go to Japan a lot. There were a lot of jobs in Japan. A lot of people liked Dr. Moreau and Se7en and some of the other titles I was doing. So I went to Japan a lot, but I would always buy these action figures. I even have Kongzilla, and when they saw that, they suggested there might be a copyright infringement. So they saw my monster collection.
When I was younger, before I was working as a graphic designer, I never intended to be a graphic designer when I was really young. I used to just draw monsters all the time. I used to sculpt monsters out of wax, and I used to make masks. All I would do was draw monsters, and people would say when I was a kid, “You’re never going to get a job doing that,” which is asinine in retrospect. I would read Fangoria and Famous Monsters of Filmland, and I read Dick Smith’s makeup book and Tom Savini’s makeup books. I used to really like Rob Bottin and the makeup from The Thing…
BH: That’s a favorite of mine.
KC: I have this upside-down Thing — you know, the crab-head?
KC: I have a life-sized crab-head (laughs), which I have to keep in a box in my closet because it scares my little girls. The point is, I always thought I’d try to get a job in Stan Winston’s place or the Creature Shop at ILM or something, and all of a sudden I started doing typography and graphic design. This woman wrote a book about me, Andrea Codrington, and one of the things that she observed, which I never realized, was that when I was younger, I was fascinated by the physical manifestations of horror. Now that I’m older, it’s more about the psychological manifestations, like what‘s going on in your head rather than creating monsters. It’s more about creating this feeling of anxiety or fear or anger through editorial means or excitement. The point is, I was a big fan of Godzilla, so I was happy to do it. Like I said, they were really good people. Every time I go to Japan, they’re always very kind. I visited Hideo Kojima in Japan, and he took me to Konami, and showed me around. It was fascinating, the way they designed Metal Gear games. I understand the next Metal Gear is going to be amazing, Metal Gear 4.
BH: Speaking of monster movies, growing up, what monster movies did you like?
KC: Well, I liked the original Godzilla, and I liked, when I was younger, the Monster Island one. It has the baby Godzilla that blows smoke rings. I think he fights four other monsters in it. I’m not such a hardcore fan that I know all the names like Mothra and Rodan! (laughs) I know a few. But I remember liking that movie, and I liked King Kong vs. Godzilla. That was good. But I haven’t seen any lately, except when I worked on Final Wars.
Gosh, what monster movies did I like? Well, The Thing, as I mentioned. I liked Poltergeist. I guess that’s not a monster movie. You know, Pumpkinhead. Even when I was really young, I think it was “The Head That Wouldn’t Die.” It has a monster in the closet that comes out at the end. I liked that.
BH: The Brain That Wouldn’t Die?
KC: The Brain That Wouldn’t Die — where the woman’s head is in the tray. I remember that was really scary to me. I was a little older when The Exorcist came out. I used to follow Rob Bottin’s work and Dick Smith’s work, so I would just watch Altered States just to see Dick Smith’s makeup, or I would watch Legend, even though people have some issues with that movie. I loved Tim Curry’s makeup in it. That was brilliant. I don’t think I understood Rosemary’s Baby when I was younger. I liked The Creature from the Black Lagoon. That was from before I was born, but I watched that. I liked Mighty Joe Young. I like monster movies.
BH: How would you rate the experience of working on Godzilla: Final Wars overall?
KC: I liked the edit of the final piece, and I liked burning the letters. I liked the way they treated me very well. So I would say I had a very good experience. I’d love to do it again. I’d love to do another one.