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Working with the Coen Brothers: The Intolerable Cruelty title sequence

By Jon Maichel Thomas In 2003, my wife and I packed up and moved to New York City. She landed a prestigious internship with Pentagram Design and I followed looking for a new opportunity. Exactly one week later, I landed a gig with Big Film Design. Big Film Design’s founder Randy Balsmeyer is a renowned […]

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By Jon Maichel Thomas

In 2003, my wife and I packed up and moved to New York City. She landed a prestigious IntolerableCruelty05internship with Pentagram Design and I followed looking for a new opportunity. Exactly one week later, I landed a gig with Big Film Design.

Big Film Design’s founder Randy Balsmeyer is a renowned title designer and his firm created every Coen Brother’s film title sequence since Miller’s Crossing (1990). I was brought on as designer/animator after meeting with one of their designer/directors, a Minneapolis College of Art + Design colleague, J. John Corbett. Big Film Design was a small group of talented, intensely collaborative individuals where everyone was expected to toss out ideas.

IntolerableCruelty06As a result of Big Film Design’s collaborative approach, I found myself presenting my design direction for Intolerable Cruelty to Joel and Ethan Coen. Randy briefed us on the film and laid out the basic themes to explore. One concept centered around cupids, an iconic image, nestled in the finished film. I riffed off that and came up with a story based sequence that introduced our audience to a world where mischievous cupids spied on courting couples, mended broken hearts and wrote fail-proof pre-nuptial agreements. As I walked the Coen’s through a simple digital storyboard, they started to chuckle. They loved the pitch, found the irony in the idea, and gave us creative carte blanche to move forward.

The Intolerable Cruelty title sequence was an ambitious design and animation challenge. The IntolerableCruelty04sequence was a 2D animated short story; a quirky commentary on the courtship of love, layered with visual and narrative metaphors supported by the Elvis Presley song Suspicious Minds. The world where the story took place was inspired by turn-of-the-century ephemera and postcards that we hand-picked from local flea markets. Our typographic system and framing devices for the credit names were derivative of typography of that same era.

The opening title sequence of a movie is widely considered an art form. A good title sequence will “set a mood” and “capture the audience” before the film begins. The sequence may also extend, clarify or draw out narrative or story themes. Title designers have a very unique role in the filmmaking process. They are in a position where they can creatively affect outcomes, influencing the storyline itself. That said, The Coen’s implicit trust in Randy, after collaborating with him on all of their films, afforded us great latitude – essentially creating a two-and-a-half minute film before the film.

IntolerableCruelty03One of my favorite parts of the sequence is when the guy is standing by a tree with his lover. He is carving “WIFE” into the tree. While designing that piece I remember going back and forth about what it should say. I settled on “WIFE” in the end because I thought it was funny as opposed to “Mark + Sally” or “I love you”. Then “WIFE” came up in the client presentation. We paused on the frame. Joel and Ethan once again started to chuckle. “That’s funny” they said, “Back then, that’s what he would probably have called her, ‘WIFE’.”

It was an honor to work on Intolerable Cruelty and I want to thank the Coen’s, Randy and the Big Film Design team for an amazing experience. I was challenged as a designer and animator. It was a blast to work on and what I learned has been invaluable. Joel and Ethan were incredible to work with – I admire them a great deal.

The Intolerable Cruelty Team was:

Randy Balsmeyer – Creative Director

J. John Corbett – Designer/Director

Amit Sethi – Designer/Director

Jon Maichel Thomas – Designer/Animator

Kathy Kelehan – Producer

The sequence won a 2004 Art Directors Club Silver Award.

Intolerable Cruelty screens at the Walker on Saturday, October 3 at 4pm.

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Jon Maichel Thomas is a designer and filmmaker. He lives in Minneapolis and runs a boutique design firm with his wife Alyssa called Studio Collective where they Design, Direct, & Produce Film Titles and projects for Broadcast, New Media, and Print. Jon also blogs.

Jon is currently finishing his first short film Photos & Drawings which he wrote and directed. Jon & Alyssa Thomas are also excited to announce their first published children’s book No Monster Here.