Monday, August 14, 2006

Red Flecks on a Chess Board (Black Dahlia, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance)

I have to note the branding of Black Dahlia, whose trailer has recently appeared on Apple Trailers. The obsidian black, chalky white, and smear of red may be a gimmicky combination, but they really have an effect on me.

So today I'm going to discuss graphic design, which should be fun, because it was my major as an undergrad. Specifically, I'm going to discuss two functions of design, and how this particular branding scheme works, or doesn't work, in terms of each. I'll call it "Red Fleck Branding." If you want a good idea, take another look at that Splash screen at Apple.com, linked above.

You may have seen this look before. It was used to exceptional effect in a recent indie film called Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, primarily in the opening credits. Seriously, this was one of the most brilliant opening sequences I've seen in a long time. It'll provide a good point of comparison, so I don't have to analyze Black Dahlia in a vacuum.

So here are two things designers think about...

1) Pure aesthetic effect.

A lot of designers are hung up on the fact that they're business people, rather than real artists, because they serve the content and the client they're designing for. Even so, one of the basic skills of a designer is assembling a cohesive look and mobilizing a set of stylistic influences to create something unique. Rendering images that are both novel and attractive is an artist's skill.

What makes the Red Fleck Branding style so effective is that it mobilizes two decorative modes that have traditionally been opposed to one another. On one hand, they're minimalist, allowing them to place emphasis on very specific points of interest, like the red lips and the drip of blood from the mouth. On the other hand, however, they're florid, with a sensual, organic interplay of curves that was once associated with Art Nouveau and people like Alfons Mucha. Minimalist but organic... the extraction and isolation of forms that make a profound subliminal impression... it makes for an effective approach.

Now, I'm not saying that either of these films (Black Dahlia, Sympathy) are the first media to do this, but they make it work really well.

2) Appropriateness to the content.

Paul Rand is quoted as saying "Design is the method of putting form and content together." This is the broadest and most consistent claim that defines design... designers are preoccupied with making a presentation fit the content that's being presented, so the media comes across as a cohesive whole.

Here is where we come to the meat of the design discussion, and it's where these two films start to diverge. Now, Black Dahlia is about a 1940's Hollywood murder and a web of neurosis and obsession that the murder initiates. The trailer makes it look like a gritty, grainy visual composition, referencing the silver screen projection quality from the old film reels. An awesome effect, mobilized brilliantly in the branding of a similar film coming out: Hollywoodland.

As much as I adore the razor-sharp colors and curves of Red Fleck Branding, do they really reflect this time period and this milieu? The use of sans-serif type, the artificially high contrast in the images, and the sharp curves reminiscent of vector graphics all invoke a contemporary, even cyber-punk feel, and the sudden appearance of film grain in the trailer causes some cognitive dissonance.

Consider, by contrast, the use of this theme in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. It's another gritty film about a gruesome sequence of murders, but the combination of narrative elements... the strong, unabashadly feminine protagonist, the avowed use of colors as symbolism, and the reference to prison tatoos and decorative gilding on the protagonist's pistol... all these aspects serve to tie the narrative to its visual treatment.

If that wasn't enough, take another look at that intense opening sequence. The interlaced themes of the film, violence and stark beauty, are brought together in an unrelated but surreally relevant image: the image of the cake in the bakery, white flour and red glaze, and the knife used to carve it up. In my admittedly humble opinion, it rivals Kyle Cooper's infamous Se7en opening credits.

So props to Hollywood for picking up on a strong visual theme, and for making it work its magic in another gorgeous stylization... but more so, props to Chan-Woo Park for doing it first, and doing it best.

3 comments:

Kelly said...

Re: Lady Vengeance:
I was just going to point out how the detailing of the credits mirrored the cake, the tatoos, pistol, and that last scene where they're standing in the snow. The brilliant whiteness is another thing I noticed. The red is the most striking, but it wouldn't stand out as much if the white weren't so stark. Much of Lady Vengeance takes place in winter, and the snow symbolizes redemption, baptism, but also death and rebirth. That film ties together so well in both content and art direction. So.Well.Done. Kudos to Chan Woo Park.

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