The Beginning before the Beginning ... Janet Merewether Writes about Her Work Designing Opening Titles and Motion Graphics for Short, Documentary and Feature Films, Including Her Memorable Title Sequence for Rowan Wood's the Boys

Article excerpt

Opening titles. Post production design. Visual effects. Motion graphics. These were almost unknown concepts in the Australian film industry that existed when I became a production design student at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in 1988. Having come from art school, I'd already toyed with the first generation of Apple computers in 1985, hooking them up to video cameras and manipulating the blocky looking digital image to create large format prints on paper. So it was actually a technological leap backwards to be attending a film school where I was hand drafting film sets and sewing costumes. However, at the AFTRS that existed in the 1980s, a design student could also be empowered by the opportunity to use film cameras, to learn about editing and sound post production, and to fall in love with the process of cinema.

My first multiple exposure

The first time that I used an older model Arriflex camera, my instinct was to explore the possibilities of in-camera multiple exposures, and slide projections of typographic imagery on the bodies of performers. The Boudoir (Janet Merewether, 1988) was an extension of the normal boundaries of production design, where pacing, editing, and an awareness of timings and of exposures were integral to the formation of the image. What happened if I rewound the camera two or three times, creating pictures built up of layers; some static, some moving, some different in scale? What happened to colours and tones in this process of multiple exposure? This exploration was very instinctive, and several years before I saw the 'primitive' cinema of George Melies.

It took me a year to realize that there was a camera at the AFTRS specially designed to shoot optical effects and animation. It was a specialized brand of rostrum camera called an Oxberry, which could shoot 16mm and 35mm effects with frame accurate precision. It could also be used to create aerial image shots (in the era before blue screen effects) as it had its own projector attached. When I first used this camera, the animation had to be timed and shot completely manually, frame by frame. By 1990, it had been adapted into a multipurpose, computer-controlled motion control camera, where north, south, east, west, rotate and zoom movements could be pre-programmed using Lynx software. It took me six months in the dark dungeon of the Oxberry room to shoot my major work at the AFTRS, the animated film A Square's Salad (Janet Merewether, 1992). The film interwove slides, animation, live action and text, and was my transition from design into writing and directing.

Production Design to Post Production Design

By the early 1990s I was also starting to be invited by other directors to construct titles sequences for their films, for example Tran the Man (Rowan Woods, 1993). The role of designing opening titles sequences presented the possibility of constructing drama and expectation by the manipulation of type, editing, sound and music. My focus moved away from the silent realm of production design, which always seemed to sit behind the action, into what I consider post-production design. In this period I would commence my two parallel careers--titles designer, and short film director and media artist.

Jane Norris, Head of Design at the AFTRS from 1988 to 1994 had similar ideas regarding diversification. She had started at AFTRS when Production Design was simply a one-year short course where interior designers could come to service the films in production. In 1999, Jane and I had lobbied the AFTRS to integrate Production Design into the three year BA course, so that the design process could be acknowledged as an integral part of filmmaking. I became the first guinea-pig student. Jane also realized that there was no department at AFTRS integrating other design activities such as animation or titles design. She proposed and established a one year Film Titles Design course, and wrote the initial curriculum with animator Lee Whitmore. …