Adobe Insights Interview
Thank you to Michelle Gallina, Kenna Alemania, and Laura Thurman for the interview!
By Michelle Gallina, September 15 2021
Talking with Shine’s Michael Riley about creating the pop animation titles for DC’s superhero movie “Birds of Prey”.
Bright and colorful, fast paced and rambunctious, “Birds of Prey” (and the “Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”) embraced the cartoon origins of its titular character, Harley Quinn. This 2020 film starring Margot Robbie earned praise for its fun style, which started with the opening title sequence. The titles use stylized hand-drawn illustrations that hint at the movie’s climactic finale while preparing audiences to enter the wild and colorful world of “Birds of Prey”.
The sequence was created by the inventive design team at design and production studio Shine. Shine was honored with a 2021 SXSW Special Jury Recognition for Title Design plus the Audience Award for the main title category for “Birds of Prey”. We sat down and talked with Shine’s Creative Director, Michael Riley, to learn a bit more about what goes into these inventive titles.
How did you first get into motion design?
When I was a student at Rhode Island School of Design, I did a six-week internship under Tibor Kalman at his studio M&Co. in New York. Tibor was finding all kinds of ways to break free of norms within graphic design. He used typography and graphic elements to express ideas and emotion in film titles and music videos. His use of motion for typography and graphic design in concert with film was something really exciting and different. His motion work was really groundbreaking, and it opened my eyes to so many more possibilities within graphic design.
Can you tell us about how you got started with “Birds of Prey”?
The project started with Bob Swensen, the executive producer at Shine, and me screening the movie over at Warner Bros. Then the director, Cathy Yan, gave us her creative brief. She wanted a title sequence that served as a visual punctuation for the movie and a graphic expression of Harley Quinn. She wanted us to design something that reflected Harley’s wild punk-rock character. Also, she really didn’t want something slick. Cathy thought maybe we could take some visual and conceptual inspiration from the fun house from the end of the film, where there was a big battle scene.
What was the main thing you tried to bring to the title sequence?
This project was all about Harley Quinn. The design of the title sequence was meant to be a visual expression of Harley’s character. She’s wild, strong, smart, compassionate, and very human. The title sequence’s visual style and some of the elements were inspired by the production design from the film. The movie was bold, bright, and colorful. For the tone of initial storyboards, I took inspiration from the spirit of Cy Twombly’s work, some of which consists of wild, expressive, bold, almost out-of-control scribbling. I thought that spoke to Harley Quinn’s character.
What was your favorite part about creating the title sequence?
For me it was all about the fun of drawing. I’m addicted to Procreate on my iPad, and the way Procreate seamlessly integrates with Adobe Creative Cloud — specifically Photoshop — made the process really enjoyable, because I was able to focus on the visual ideas and not worry about the tools. It was a very intuitive process. I spent many weeks drawing and illustrating as many visuals as I could that were inspired by the film.
I’ve always used drawing as a tool to come up with ideas, but I don’t always use illustration in the final animation. I think a title sequence should reflect the characters and the story of the film, and in this case, using wild colorful illustration seemed to be a good fit.
What were some challenges you faced when making the titles?
The main challenge is designing so that we’re speaking to the characters and the story. Every visual we incorporated needed to be an extension of the characters, the conflicts, and the relationships in the film. So that meant the design process was fluid and constantly adjusting so that the title sequence was serving the film as a visual punctuation that tied into the story.
One thing I really love about designing for movies is that film is a collaborative medium. Between the team at Shine that’s animating the project; the director, Cathy Yan; the producers; then the studios executives at DC & Warner Bros… there are a lot of people you get work with. With this kind of collaboration, you need to be flexible. Adobe Creative Cloud is absolutely built for this kind of project.
While the titles use hand-draw illustrations, there’s also real depth. Was there any 3D work involved?
Yes, some shots were animated using 3D cameras in After Effects, and some were created by modeling 3D environments in Cinema 4D. Penelope Nederlander, the lead animator on this project, did some really amazing work on “Birds of Prey”. She brought deep knowledge of both After Effects and C4D and combined the Procreate illustrations into a hybrid 2D-meets-3D aesthetic that the clients really loved. Animators Amanda Gotera and Myke Chapman did amazing work too. The production process was a team effort between all of us, and we had a great time collaborating. I think each of us brought something different to the table — that was a definite plus.
Walk us through the production process. How did you bring these titles to life?
The production phase was so much fun. Adobe Creative Cloud was key to creating this sequence. I drew all the illustrations in Procreate in my iPad, and then exported to Photoshop to create storyboards. We created a storyboard presentation in the form of a PDF assembled using InDesign. For the client presentation, we projected each storyboard frame separately in the screening room over at Warner Bros. for the director Cathy Yan, and the producers, Margot Robbie, Sue Kroll, and Bryan Unkless. This helped give the storyboard presentation a bigger, more cinematic feel.
Once they approved the concept, we started really rough. I simply cut together Photoshop still frames in Premiere Pro against the music. That established which Procreate illustrations we were going to use. We then advanced to animation with After Effects and Cinema 4D. The ability for Adobe Creative Cloud to interface with all the Procreate illustrations was really key on this project. It took us all the way to delivery, where we exported the final 5K frames out as EXR frame sequences for delivery.
Last but not least, I need to mention fonts! There are so many great fonts and talented font designers that are part of the Adobe type library. The condensed bold option of Trade seemed to be a good fit because its voice kind of yells. I felt that was a choice that was in sync with Harley Quinn’s character.
What’s your favorite thing about working with Adobe Creative Cloud?
Adobe Creative Cloud can interface so fluidly between apps: Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Premiere Pro, After Effects, Media Encoder, and many others. The way an artist can jump back and forth between each makes the creative process so intuitive and so much fun. There’s no other set of apps that compares. Some artists might have strengths in one over the other. But every app is both very intuitive for the beginner yet extremely deep for experts.
Also, I love that Adobe has always been open to integrating with other software. I talked about how we used the integration between Procreate and Photoshop for this project. And Penelope is amazing in Cinema 4D, and there’s a very fluid relationship between C4D and After Effects. Adobe Creative Cloud does a great job of being useful to creatives wherever they are in their path, in terms of both creative focus and skill level. As an artist, I can’t imagine designing without Adobe Creative Cloud.
Where do you find your creative inspiration?
My answer on this is a little all over the place! I like to be inspired by all kinds of art, design, music, and movies. I love to find new artists and photographers on Instagram or other places. I love movies, old and new. Lately I’ve been rediscovering a lot of art and design that I studied in art history at RISD. I also take a lot of inspiration from music. I can’t wait to get back to LACMA, MoCA, and all the New York museums. I also take a lot of inspiration from the talented people I have the opportunity to collaborate with!
What’s the toughest part about your design work?
Every time, the initial conceptual design phase is the most challenging part. If you’re working in movies or television, it’s always about designing and authoring ideas that fit the story. It’s also the most exciting part because the possibilities are wide open!
What advice do you have for people aspiring to get into the motion design space?
Treat any design opportunity as a gift. Cherish clients that bring you any creative opportunity. Work hard. And stay persistent!
We’re always interested to learn how people work. Can you tell us a bit about your workspace?
Shine is located on the sixth floor of a grand old Art Deco building on Wilshire Boulevard in an area called Miracle Mile. I love our studio space because we have amazing views of Los Angeles on all sides. I love to design in the studio at Shine!
See more of Michael Riley’s work on his website, shinestudio.com.
Thank you to Leland Maschmeyer, Co-Founder of Collins, and former CCO at Chobani for the TDC67 Judges’ Choice Award, and for the generous words and about the Perry Mason main title design. We feel honored to be included in the Type Directors Club 67th Annual Competition. The team that contributed to Perry Mason includes Michael Riley, Penelope Nederlander, Aaron Bjork, Kate Mrozowski, and Bob Swensen.
This year’s TDC67 Communications Design Competition featured more than 1,500 entries from 66 countries. Only 254 entries were selected as this year’s top winners. In addition to the winning work, 13 TDC judges selected their Judges’ Choice, which are featured in a video as well as in the front of this year’s The World’s Best Typography®, Typography 42 annual.
“Perry Mason” main title logo animations and eight unique end title sequences: Shine designed and animated the main title logo and eight unique end title sequences for Perry Mason. Each main title logo card, designed as if it were created on an animation stand in the 1930’s, was integrated into the scene using rotoscoping and 3D tracking. Each end title sequence was designed to specifically conclude each episode, serving as a visual punctuation as the final scene rings out.
SXSW 2021 Film Awards
Thank you to SXSW for both the Special Jury Recognition and the Audience Award for the Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn in the Title Design category.
Shine designed, animated and produced the main on ends title sequence and “grievance” graphics for “Birds of Prey”. For the title sequence, Shine created unique, hand drawn illustrations of the wild sets for a dynamic, animated reprise of the film’s climatic ending. For the grievances, hand drawn, character based graphics were created and animated as expressions for the villains.
Each character is represented by a graphic image that represents their strength. For Harley, her icon was the sledgehammer. For Huntress, it was the crossbow – as she was known by Gotham as “The Crossbow Killer. Canary used a canary, or a “songbird” as her strength was her voice. Montoya, the cop, was represented by the badge. Cass had the stuffed beaver from Harley’s apartment. And Roman Sionis was placed in front of the red stage in his nightclub.
A femme force to be reckoned with, the Birds of Prey is traditionally an all-women group of vigilante operatives who’ve gone on covert missions across the globe. Originally a partnership between Black Canary and Oracle, the team’s roster has grown over the years to include friends—and frenemies.
Meet the Artist Interview
Thank you to Warrick Sears and everyone at Procreate for the interview!
Collider Feature Article
Thank you to Drew Taylor at Collider for the article about the Perry Mason main title sequences design!
Thank you to Promax for inviting Shine to present the main title for Dickinson on Apple TV+ on the Art of the Main Title panel. Below is the pre-recorded presentation. The full question and answer session can be found on the Promax website.
Modern Family Book
Thank you to Marc Freeman for including Shine in his latest book, Modern Family: The Untold Oral History of One of Television’s Groundbreaking Sitcoms. Below is an excerpt.
When networks air pilots for test groups, they show everything except the show theme song and title. On a practical level, these bits add cost to a show that never reach air. More importantly, however, preview audiences hate them.
WINER (executive producer): They’ve actually discovered test audiences judge the title quite harshly. It hasn’t been normalized for them through advertising.
Therefore, filming a title sequence takes on special significance to a cast.
BURRELL (Phil Dunphy): We’re filming this because it’s going to be on the air. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s hard to believe sometimes when you’ve spent as much time unemployed as we all have and don as many auditions, literally thousands, as we have, that you’re filming title credits. You’re pinching yourself, at least I was.
For Modern Family’s title sequence, executive producer Morton turned to Shine. Shine has designed titles and graphics for many TV shows and feature films, including The Goldbergs, Fresh off the Boat, Pitch Perfect, and La La Land.
MICHAEL RILEY (creative director at Shine): Jeff said he liked the idea of doing something with frames, but he wasn’t really specific about what should be.
LEVITAN (cocreator): There was an HP commercial at the time where they did these cool things with frames where the image would become a frame. I thought that was really cool. I think that family photos and frames are very family-ish.
A 2009 half-hour comedy ran twenty-four minutes (today it’s closer to twenty-two). Because of such time limitations, the producers wanted to keep the title sequence concise.
LLOYD (cocreator): Honestly, we thought we’re doing a series where we have to service eleven characters. We’d probably rather have those extra twenty seconds to start our storytelling.
Shine pitched a handful of ideas revolving around the interconnection of families.
RILEY (creative director): When I talk at design schools, I bring Modern Family. It’s where the only good idea in our presentation was the one we ended up doing. We had one storyboard that was a timeline of families. We started with imagery of cavemen and Neanderthals and then went through history with different families. We had another with a 3-D blue house. As you moved around the house, in each window we found different family members. Then you pulled back and the house became a box that contained the typography that said Modern Family. We had a concept that was a family tree with leaves falling. We pull back and it said Modern Family in the middle of an engraved tree. We had a paper cutout of a family that looked like the Dunphy family. Then it closed up. When it opened again, it was a silhouette of the entire family. Think about that. It’s saying the Dunphys are at the center of the family. I think it’s a terrible idea. We presented a montage of overlapping family frames and one in which we animated the characters using ’60s-style animation. That’s because in Back to You, Steve and Chris did an animated character-driven title sequence. We thought that might be appealing to them.
The producers opted for the family frames. Then they figured out how to use them.
RILEY (creative director): I think our original storyboard had a smooth transition into the main title and then out of it, but they ultimately decided that they’d like a moment of silence. Steve wanted to have something that started off really energetic with a beat over the cold opening so that when you got into the main title, you were on this ride. The beginning of act 1 is a new chapter, so let’s have a moment of clarity.
FERGUSON (Mitchell Pritchett): Now, when we get to that place where we know something’s going to be in the freeze-frame of that opening, sometimes as a cast we’ll sing it.
WINER (executive producer): I wanted to shoot exteriors because so much of the show is shot inside. I thought it’s a nice opportunity to remind everyone what the exterior of each environment looks like and to associate each family with their house.
The houses reside in different locations in LA, including Cheviot Hills and Brentwood. A tight shooting schedule led to a guerrilla filmmaking style.
RILEY (creative director): Jeff [Morton] would call a few hours before and say, “Hey, I think we’re going to get a window to go shoot at Mitch and Cam’s house. Could you please be there at 11:15?” So we’d show up and be the first ones there and wonder, are we in the right place?” Then a truck would speed over. They’d roll the dolly off the back and in fifteen minutes they’d have the camera up and hair and makeup there. Then Mitch and Cam would come in a car. We literally had twenty minutes to get the shot. Every house was the same way.
Each family takes a beat to settle themselves when on-camera.
RILEY (creative director): Jason said he thought it would be funny for the actors to be primping. He wanted to add a little energy and get the moment of capturing a Sears family portrait moment where everyone’s trying to make themselves look good.
The last exterior, at the Pritchetts’, cuts to the final shot: the entirely situated together over a white background. In the center, Winter and Hyland hold a frame containing each family shot, one inside the er. They flip the frame over to reveal the Modern Family logo inside.
RILEY (creative director): I didn’t want to cut to a logo. I thought there was value in having those kids flip to it. You have to do something interesting to reveal the mark.
WINTER (Alex Dunphy): It was cool to be the one that got to flip the frame. It’s still cool. I was a little stressed out about the green screen situation. There’s nothing in the frame. What if it’s lopsided? Am I going to flip it a weird way? What if I get fired based off this frame? Actors being extremely dramatic. That’s something we occasionally do.
HYLAND (Haley Dunphy): I feel like they had Ariel and I flip it a lot. And it’s like the wrong angle. We were at that time very different heights. That made it harder than it should have been.
BURRELL (Phil Dunphy): I felt stressed out for the kids because they were really little at the time, and they were being asked to flip that thing on time in the right spot. Meanwhile, seven-year-olds are driving tractors on farms all over America, but still for some reason, I was feeling stressed for them.
GOULD (Luke Dunphy): Over the years, we’ve had to go back and re-create that because the kids have aged so much. I get a little anxiety when we have to redo it. It takes so long. It’s genuinely stressful. One time, I got slapped with the frame by Ariel.
WINTER (Alex Dunphy): Nolan did get whacked. It was mildly entertaining.
Riley chose a Modern Family title graphic that only uses lowercase letters.
RILEY (creative director): That was a thing with a lot of typography back then. Making the first letter a capital suggested an importance to those two words that typographically gave the voice of the font some gravitas that seemed inappropriate. To me, modern family seems like part of a pull quote from an article about a modern family rather than this is the modern family.
Next came the theme music, courtesy of musician and composer Gabriel Mann, whom Winer knew from some of his early directing experiences.
GABRIEL MANN (musician/composer): It was challenging because you really want to make a statement in a short amount of time. You used to have all the time in the world and could tell a story like Gilligan’s Island. Now it’s not like that anymore. I’ve done some at three, five, and seven seconds. They’re like a miniature statement. In retrospect, twelve seconds was a luxury.
Two camps formed over the type of music to use.
MORTON (executive producer): I wanted to use a piece from composer Dan Licht, who had scored many things for me over the years.
LLOYD (cocreator): I wanted something punchy and short. I like the Will and Grace theme. It’s very bouncy music and seems energetic. The challenge is to get it all into eight to twelve seconds.
MANN (musician/composer): Jason said, “Why don’t you make something that’s like a big band?” So I went to the studio and went for it. I had a great trumpet player and teacher, Tom Marino. I played the piano. Once we got closer to the real thing, I used a drummer and bass player. I did the vocals. A traditional shout chorus in an old-school big band has all the guys in the band doing some “hey” or “yeah” or whatever they do. I divided the music by the frame of the different families. There’s four phrases and an ending. It was very interconnected. It beats you over the head with the energy and fun.
MORTON (executive producer): Dan’s had a more memorable theme. Gabriel’s was all big energy. The reactions split equally among the decision-makers. Ultimately, we couldn’t really break the tie, so we had Stephen [McPherson] weigh in. He chose Gabriel’s because he liked its in-your-face energy.
Not everybody agreed with the decision, although they accepted it.
LEVITAN (cocreator): I never loved the main title song, to tell you the truth. I wanted one that maybe had a little bit more warmth to it. It’s nothing against Gabriel because many people loved it. It didn’t feel like our show to me, but it is after all these years.
MANN (musician/composer): Steve came over to the studio, and I did dozens of versions of a more heartwarming direction with many different iterations like the heartwarming cues at the end of the show I do, these acoustic and bass organic instrumentations. At some point, I think he gave up because everyone else was sold on the other thing.
LEVITAN (cocreator): Music is so mercurial. Sometimes a theme hits you with, “Wow, that’s amazing.” The first time I heard the Mad Men theme, I thought. “That’s great.” That’s what I was looking for. At the end of the day, you have to land on something, and this was by far the best thing we had.
MORTON (executive producer): Gabriel did a great job. It was the right decision. I’m a movie music and big TV theme fan. I get swayed by that type of thing. My late father-in-law was a big-time trumpet player who played in MGM musicals. He was involved with some of the great Hollywood music. I remember him saying that he went to a scoring session for Jaws. When John Williams had them do the badum, ba-dum on a musical level, it was very simple. All the musicians quietly laughed. Forty-five years later, it’s one of the most iconic pieces in movie history. The Modern Family theme goes hand in hand with the show.
Art of the Title Top Ten
Thank you to Art of the Title for posting the Dickinson main title sequence!
Thank you to everyone at Communication Arts Magazine for the shout out on “CA Feature Exhibit Online”. Below is the posted interview.
VoyageLA Feature Article
Thank you to everyone at VoyageLA for the post on VoyageLA Magazine’s site featuring people and businesses in the Los Angeles area. Below is the text from the interview.
Today we’d like to introduce you to Michael Riley. Michael, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I’m the creative director at Shine, a design studio in Los Angeles, focusing on design and branding for film and television. Our mission is to create highly evocative visual experiences that push the boundaries of the imagination through engaging design, animation and live action. My background is in graphic design – I studied at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. After I graduated, I worked for several years at R/GA, beginning in New York. At the time the company was doing lots of film title sequences, and visual effects and interactive design, pushing technology in the service of design was at the core of the company mission, which excited me. It was like boot camp for anyone interested in the intersection of design, film, broadcast, and visual storytelling. To further pursue entertainment work, R/GA opened a small office in Hollywood, which is part of what led me to Los Angeles. Being entrepreneurial was always something interesting to me. In high school I had watched my dad start what became a very successful business, starting in our family garage. I always really admired that, and I am so thankful that I was at an age where I was able to witness it and kind of understand what he was doing. He guided me, encouraging me as I started my own t-shirt silk-screen company in the garage (after he moved to his first office space!). So then in 2005 I did the same, in the garage in my house in Hancock Park. My wife Laura is a successful attorney and I often credit her as Shine’s angel investor! There would be no way Shine could have off the ground without all her support and encouragement. Plus, the name of the company was her idea! So, in the beginning, I just started working on one project at a time. Bob Swensen (the executive producer at Shine) and I had worked together on many projects in New York and Los Angeles, so we were a great fit to work together again. With a small team at Shine, we’ve gradually grown Shine’s reel and client base, one project at a time. Shine has been designing in our current studio space on the sixth floor of a great old Los Angeles Art Deco building on Miracle Mile for the last 12 years. I absolutely love every day I have the privilege of designing at Shine.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Someone smarter than me once said, if you’re going to design something, do it with all your might. Someone else said that any design project is a gift – so treat it that way. I try to follow that advice every day. The pretty side of being entrepreneurial is that one can enjoy the satisfaction of the design work you have the privilege to create. The flip side of that is that, ultimately, any failures are your fault. Even if you try to put the blame somewhere else, the ship in yours. That makes the highs really high and the lows really low. All said, we’ve been lucky to enjoy a pretty good batting average at Shine. The hardest thing its sales, always. We often pitch to win projects. I think a pitch is never done in vain – it’s an opportunity. Winning is part of the business, but so is losing. One important thing is to learn from our failures. When we can do that honestly, we improve and we’ll often do a little better the next time!
Please tell us about Shine.
Each day we strive to design the best ideas, expertly executed every time with an easy and enjoyable experience for our clients. Our mission is to create highly evocative visual experiences that push the boundaries of the imagination through engaging design, animation and live action. We’re known for designing title sequences for film and television, branding for entertainment, as well as motion graphics and live action for commercials, websites and live events. What I’m most proud of is our client base. We have been very fortunate to have amazing, creatively driven, repeat clients that bring us incredible creative opportunities. We work very hard every day to continue to continue to earn the trust given to us by our clients.
Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
I grew up in Palo Alto, California. My favorite memory from childhood was spending countless hours drawing. Sometimes in my room by myself, sometimes with friends that liked art too. I could get lost in drawing for hours, and not notice where the time went… In high school, my sport was biking. I would spend afternoons hill climbing on Page Mill Road in the mountains above Palo Alto. Those are great memories!
What is “success” or “successful” for you?
There are a few criteria. I define success by the quality of the work Shine is producing. If we’re producing a creative piece that we’re proud of, that’s success. Another element would be, was it a positive experience for our client? If it was, that’s another notch on the side of success. Another would be, did we push ourselves in some way? In other words, did we push our own boundaries creatively or technologically? And lastly, did we surprise ourselves or our clients in some positive way? That last one is a little harder to quantify, but it’s something I think about as a way to evaluate whether we’re pushing ourselves.
Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
My luck is being surrounded by an amazing family, great friends and hardworking colleagues, that have all given support in countless ways!