Packing a Punch with The Suicide Squad

Image source: Sarofsky.

From writer/director James Gunn, The Suicide Squad is an action adventure that features a collection of the most delinquent supervillains in the DC lineup, including Harley Quinn, Bloodsport, Peacemaker, Captain Boomerang, Ratcatcher 2, Savant, King Shark, Blackguard, and Javelin. The group of cons join the super-secret, super-shady Task Force X, as a way to get out of Belle Reve prison and are tasked with saving the world.

We spoke with Sarofsky executive creative director, Erin Sarofsky, and creative director, Duarte Elvas, who created the titles for the Warner Bros. Pictures film. They discuss their workflow using After Effects, Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign, from typography to motion design, to craft the title sequences.

Image source: Warner Bros. Pictures.

How did you first get into motion design? What drew you to it?

Sarofsky : I was one of the few people exposed to it in college, circa 1999. I was studying at the Rochester Institute of Technology and stayed for my masters in computer graphics. That's where I was exposed to After Effects. Once I learned to make my designs move, I was hooked. Then, after school I wanted a job where I could be focused on working on main titles and other motion design projects.

Elvas: I remember watching David Fincher’s “Seven” in the theater and, for the first time, really being blown away by a title sequence. It was artful, expressive, unsettling and really set the tone for the film by taking us on a trip through this character’s mind. When I was in film school at the Savannah College of Art and Design, I had a few friends who studied computer arts and were kind enough to show me After Effects and the concept of ‘time-based media’ took on a whole new meaning for me. I understood I could take my Photoshop layers and animate them with simple keyframes! It seems silly looking back but, at the time, it felt like a magic trick was revealed to me. Suddenly, creating something similar to that “Seven” main title didn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.

“The Suicide Squad” After Effects Timeline.

Image source: Sarofsky.

What was the inspiration behind your title sequence? What were you trying to achieve?

Sarofsky: James had a cool reference genre: 1960s action film. We wanted to create something that evoked that, but didn’t feel like a period piece. I think James walks a similar line with his filmmaking… And successfully pulls it off!

Elvas: Going after that `60s caper war film vibe, other than watching main titles made for that genre, we also researched printed ads, album covers and any other typography reference that felt relevant. We wanted to make sure that the typography felt in line with the tone of the film. It’s a bold film, it’s a gory film, it’s a very fun film and the typography had to play well off of all those qualities.

How did you begin this project? Can you talk about the collaborative process with the director and the process of creating the sequence from start to finish?

Sarofsky: The job begins with us watching the film and then having a conversation with James and his team. That includes the producers and editor. After they explain their practical and creative needs we begin the creative process. To start we do a bunch of treatments, photoreal, and craft a presentation to James and his team. Then we go through the process of eliminating what isn't right and noodling and refining what is.

Elvas: I really love how our creative calls with the filmmakers were always a very collaborative exchange of ideas. As we presented our explorations, we would talk about what we both liked about one or another treatment. These exchanges informed our next round of exploration and we narrowed down our designs, allowing us to move into the animation phase. A lot of the timing work, for both the main title and the subtitles, was also a close collaboration with Fred Raskin, the film’s lead editor.

Describe your favorite part or component of the title sequence. How did it come together and how did you achieve it?

Sarofsky: I love how our typography throughout becomes another character in the movie… And really impacts the tone and overall takeaway of the film.

Elvas: Other than how unique the type choices are and how well they work together with the visual language of the film, I think my favorite aspect is the actual optical treatment of the typography. When the type appears over footage, we digitally replicated an old process of compositing titles in which an optical printer was used to burn the titles onto the film strip. This process gave the titles a certain softness around the edges, a little color offset and some very subtle qualities that were super fun to recreate in After Effects.

“The Suicide Squad” After Effects Timeline.

Image source: Sarofsky.

What were some specific challenges you faced in making this sequence? How did you go about solving them? Was there any 3D work? If so, how did you accomplish it?

Sarofsky: This project went really smoothly, so the only challenge was coming up with an amazing visual treatment. It’s great when the most challenging part of the process is just being a designer solving the problem in a way that both you and the client are thrilled.

Elvas: Definitely, creatively, narrowing down our designs was a huge challenge in this project. We had a lot of love for many of the treatments we presented initially. Technically, there were some challenges with the Warner Bros. logo animation, especially because there were some lighting shifts in the original Burbank lot flythrough, caused by the sun being obscured by the water tower. With the sun flares gone in our poster-like treatment, we had to digitally paint out large light rays throughout a moving shot, which proved to be quite a compositing challenge. As far as 3D, the water tower had to be replaced with a completely re-textured 3D model. We were provided with the original camera tracking data for that shot, which made the process very manageable. The prison wall as well as the Warner Bros. shield were created, textured and rendered in Cinema 4D and Redshift.

“The Suicide Squad” Warner Bros. Logo.

Image source: Sarofsky.

What Adobe tools did you use on this project and why did you originally choose them? Why were they the best choice for this project?

Sarofsky: We use Adobe tools throughout the process. For me, the development phase is where my hands tend to be super active. For that I use Illustrator and Photoshop to build frames and InDesign for the actual presentation.

Elvas: In this particular project, we relied heavily on Adobe Illustrator for type design and typesetting. We started with tracing Alpha Midnight and using it as a base but we ended up tweaking the letterforms quite a bit, in a way making it a new and unique typeface for this project. Each name was also custom typeset in a separate layer, so these could be imported into compositions in After Effects. For all time-based work we used After Effects, which referenced the Illustrator file with all the typography. So, if there was ever any layout change, spelling revision or even a kerning adjustment made in Illustrator, it would conveniently trickle down the pipeline and update our After Effects timeline.

What’s your hidden gem/favorite workflow tip in After Effects or Adobe Creative Cloud?

Sarofsky: I am really loving this publishing tool in IDD. To be able to send a presentation like this is amazing. I hope they continue to develop this out.

Elvas: I just recently found out about the Cinema 4D composition renderer, which is kind of a game changer for quick 3D extrusions within After Effects. We used to stack 3D layers in space to achieve the effect, which was kind of a silly hack. With this feature, we can have a little bit more control, while still not needing to leave After Effects.\

“The Suicide Squad” Title.

Image source: Sarofsky.

Who is your creative inspiration and why?

Sarofsky: I think that Saul and Elaine Bass as well as Ray and Charles Eames are my absolute creative role models. I am also inspired by furniture, fashion, interiors, fiber arts and of course, production design. I like how textural, real world things can inform our work.

Elvas: I sometimes romantically convince myself that I search for inspiration in nature, travelling, looking at different cultures and talking to new people. That’s not always practically the case, though. I tend to look at other artistic disciplines for inspiration, such as architecture, painting, sculpture, printmaking, graphic design, street art, and so on. Very often, I will build Pinterest boards for inspiration for a specific project, or for a future project that hasn’t even been dreamt of yet!

What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to face in your career and how did you overcome it? What advice do you have for people aspiring to get into the motion design space?

Sarofsky: It would have been amazing to have had a female mentor. Now looking back, I see that it was a significant disadvantage. I had to learn everything in a vacuum without a diverse support system. Thankfully I was so focused on the work, I didn't understand what I was missing by working in a white-male dominated industry. As a youngster I could have used words of wisdom about developing a career, navigating motherhood, building a company and being a mentor to others.

If someone is looking to develop a career in motion design, I would encourage them to not only take motion classes, but to focus on graphic design as well. Sometimes we see well-animated work, but the design is really sub par... So, it’s super important to focus on design.

Elvas: There have been challenging projects and challenging clients throughout my career, but I think the toughest, but also the smartest thing I had to do was to, at 31, pack up my place in Lisbon, put my (fairly successful) career on hold, separate from my family and go back to school for my MFA to essentially start over in a new country. It all worked out in the end, but it was far from an easy thing to do.

What I find exciting about the medium is that it encompasses so many disciplines! In a motion piece, you can have illustration, photography, graphic design, animation, music, storytelling… it really is endless! So, there is always an opportunity to experiment, stay curious, passionate, and never bored. I also encourage tapping into the incredible motion graphics community, who is as welcoming, helpful, and supportive as no other I know of.

Share a photo of where you work. What’s your favorite thing about your workspace and why?

Sarofsky: Well, home for the time being is work. My favorite thing about my home workspace is seeing my daughter more and my wallpaper habit.

Erin Sarofsky workspace.

Image source: Erin Sarofsky.

But also the studio, which we will be back in next year. My favorite thing about our studio is how our green space feels central to the studio. I also love how the kitchen sits on the space. It’s a lovely way for people to feel comfortable congregating and really promotes company culture.

Sarofsky office space.

Image source: Sarofsky.

The Suicide Squad is available to rent or buy today.