Imaginary Forces is part of a new breed of production studios that specialize in design.

By Yash Egami

When the New York office of production and design studio Imaginary Forces was asked to create a tribute video for Paul Rand in the One Club's Creative Hall of Fame ceremony last year, its team of directors jumped at the chance. But what happened afterwards when the animated short film started appearing on countless blogs and Web sites caught everyone completely off guard.

"It was actually a complete shock to me," says director Mark Gardner about the video's sudden popularity. "We wanted to do it because it was Paul Rand, because he's such an iconic person. [Our directors] all come from design backgrounds and are huge fans of his work. But he's also an icon to everyday people and not just designers, and there is a big public appetite for this sort of thing."

Filling the growing demand for design-oriented work has been the primary goal for Gardner and his colleagues at the ten-year-old company. Initially started as the West Coast office of R/GA, IF's partners expanded their repertoire from movie titles to commercial production, special effects and what they call "experience design." Some of their more recent projects include multimedia installations for clients such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and title sequences for films like Transformers and Charlotte's Web as well as commercials for Sears and Infiniti.

Peter Frankfurt, co-founder of Imaginary Forces and son of legendary Y&R advertising executive Steve Frankfurt, believes that having a diverse background puts the company at an advantage in an extremely competitive market.

"Because we're liberated and a bit on the outside of the traditional way of doing design, we were comfortable looking at lots of other disciplines," says Frankfurt. "We started in motion graphics for films, then moved into live action and editorial and understanding how that's impacted by design. Then we quickly got involved in large scale projects by people finding us and us being almost naïve by saying, yeah, we'll try that, or we'll try programming that stadium, and being able to pull it off."

While IF may not yet be a household name, its design work, particularly in the area of title sequences, has created a buzz. One of the firm's most recent projects—the opening credits to the AMC television series Mad Men—has garnered praise for its innovative concept and stylish execution. In it we see a silhouette of a man freefalling past ads depicting 1950s perfection and temptations such as women and booze.

"Matt Weiner [the show's creator] wanted something that distilled the message of the show, which is actually quite complex, and get that across in 30-seconds at the beginning," says Gardner, who worked on the project with director Steve Fuller. "He was not going to settle for just something pretty that just told you the title at the end of it. He wanted to make a statement, and that does show through when people respond to things."

The final version of the sequence so impressed Weiner that he not only used it to brand the show, but he even went so far as to recreate it during filming. "The image of the guy shot from the back with the cigarette in hand that you see in the title frame, that became the marketing device for the whole show," says Gardner. "When we did it, they had only shot the pilot. But then they decided to shoot loads of scenes where you actually saw that same image."

In the Mad Men credits, the influence from legendary designers like Paul Rand and Saul Bass is obvious. The same sort of visual style is also used in some of IF's other recent work like the credits for the NBC show, Chuck, and a TV ad campaign for Sears. Karin Fong, a founding member at IF who co-directed both Chuck and Sears, attributes the recent spate of illustrated projects to the public and their own renewed interest in modern graphic design.

"We looked at a lot of classic advertising, and we looked at a lot of publications like '60s Esquire for the Sears campaign that Steve [Fuller] and I directed," says Fong. "The idea was sort of like the Sears catalog come to life, which we remembered from our childhoods. It's this classic American icon. And obviously with Chuck, we were riffing on classic James Bond titles and that graphic, '60s spy-novel look and turning it on its head and making fun of it."?

"We've all been educated in the history of design, so for Karin, right away you knew what language would resonate and what's relevant," adds Fuller. "So the faster you can do that and the better you can do that, the more advantage you have."

Lately, IF has been making waves with their design-centric philosophy in the booming realm of experience design. With technology becoming cheaper and more available, the company has been increasingly asked to work on cutting-edge projects that go beyond what a traditional production studio does. One recent project involved designing the environment and avatars that appear in the Virtual Laguna Beach Web site, which is based on the popular MTV show. Another experience design project was for an installation at the Museum of Modern Art, for which they created content and designed the digital environment.

"We're imagining that everything is a screen," says Frankfurt. "So we're working on a project now in Vegas where we're going to be creating content that's going on a building that's almost 800 feet across and 300 feet high. Then the flip side of that is, we're working on projects like MTV's Laguna Beach where they're taking shows into a virtual environment with avatars. For us, that's where TV is going to end up, and how we watch movies is already changing, so we're just trying to be part of that conversation."

"Technology isn't leading edge anymore," he continues. "It's off the shelf and it's available and it's more about how you combine it. Stuff that was super-exotic ten years ago is now do-able. And then it's about research and being imaginative about how you combine different technologies and getting clients and people to go along with it."

Another Vegas project where IF was asked to re-imagine the screen was Fremont Street. The four block-long walkway features a dome-shaped roof where colorful underwater shapes and animated objects move seamlessly across it. For director Fong, it was a learning experience about the challenges of taking a visual concept from the computer to a real-world environment.

"The first time I saw it, it actually made me kind of nauseous," admits Fong. "Some of the motion graphics that we thought were going to be cool moved a little too quickly when we stared up at them and it gave me vertigo. So we learned to think about those kinds of things and adjust them."

Steve Fuller recalls a similar experience he had with a video installation on a building in Times Square for Morgan Stanley that shows live data streamed from a computer along with images and animation from all over the world.

"I didn't even know how to approach that idea in the beginning," he says of the project. "We're all pretty new to a lot of this stuff, but as directors with design backgrounds, we're kind of learning it as we go along. And we're collaborating on projects as the technology changes and seeing what works and what doesn't."

With ongoing experience design projects in far-flung places such as Dubai and Macau along with more traditional projects like producing commercials for General Motors, the crew at IF have their hands full. But Mark Gardner believes that no matter what they're working on, classic design principles play an important role in everything they create.

"There are so many disciplines that are needed now, not just in advertising but in movie making and TV and other places," he says. "If you look at the amount of special effects and design that goes into movies now, it's about the incorporation of all of these things. And coming from a design background, we're in a unique position to bring all of that in—composition, typography, 3D and special effects."

Concludes Fong: "We've had the question posed to us before of whether designers are the new directors. We kind of do feel like we're at the forefront where having a directorial voice with a design background has become very valuable these days."

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