CHICAGO & HOLLYWOOD – John Wells and Jonathan Lisco, the executive producers of the new TV series Animal Kingdom and John Wells Productions EVP/Head of Television Jinny Howe tasked Erin Sarofsky to create the dramatic title sequence for their new series. Sarofsky’s design driven studio, Sarofsky, previously designed the award-winning main titles for Showtime's Shameless, which Wells executive produced. Subsequently the studio’s design work has exploded, with four Marvel blockbusters in the past four years. Given Sarofsky’s innovative storytelling talents, Wells and his colleagues knew she'd be up for a different challenge.
"The Shameless main title couldn't be more different than what we were attempting with Sarofsky for the Animal Kingdom main titles," Wells began. "Shameless is playful, and it tells a very specific story about all the individual characters, while warning viewers that they're in for a raucous and ribald hour. In contrast, through images, the Animal Kingdom main title prepares the audience for the violent, amoral, and virile world they will encounter in this show."
"John and Jonathan really understand the root of what makes their series special," Sarofsky said. "They emphasized that it's more than just a complicated family drama, describing how the humor, the Oedipal complex underlying their relationships, the complexity of each individual character and the tension, love and co-dependency they all share, impacts all aspects of their lives."
For Sarofsky's canvas, Erin and her team were given 60 seconds to explore the permanence of these relationships, using the tattooing process that matriarch Smurf (Ellen Barkin) endures as a metaphor. During the tattooing sequence, scenes appear distilling the boys' childhoods and their transitions to manhood, intentionally juxtaposing jarring imagery that interweaves youthful emotions, adult sexuality and masculinity. Stuttering visual effects and shifting on-screen type add subtle finishing touches to the title's visceral punch.
For Sarofsky, co-director and lead artist Duarte Elvas sees the piece as portraying a memory, "with all the non-linear narrative qualities associated with it. I really love how the tattoo story threads together flashbacks and flash-forwards that evoke different sensations and metaphors reflecting all the characters and their relationships," he explained.
With the exception of the surfing footage provided by the show, the Sarofsky team of 30, led by Sarofsky, Duarte, executive producer Steven Anderson, line producer Stefanie Spiegel and principal director of photography Michael Bove, began by organizing shoots in Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles. Gathering everything on their extensive shot list required seven total days of production, resulting in nearly 20 hours of original footage. Erin described the process of getting everything they wanted as being quite a puzzle.
"Some scenes had to be shot in California, but we knew we could shoot the tattoo sequence, and the macro and generic interiors, here in Chicago," Sarofsky said. Chicago's Brown Brothers Tattoo hosted the production, with proprietor Marshall Brown performing his artistry on-camera on an extra who agreed to get inked ("That was a crazy Craigslist ad," Duarte added with a smile).
The Sarofsky crew also shot in their own West Loop studio space, in her home and other locales. "The prop list was also the most bizarre thing of beauty you ever saw," she continued. "Fishing hook, meat grinder, handcuffs, road flares, crib with round bars, red popsicles, Ducati, etc."
"We used a variety of different cameras on this project, and each served a specific purpose," said DP Bove, before detailing the approaches for each segment. For the tattooing sequence, the team used a Phantom Flex4k outfitted with Cooke S4 prime lenses and diopters for macro details. Shooting in 4K for post flexibility, Bove said they maxed out the frame rate at 938fps. "Shooting high speed is always fun no matter the subject, but it was particularly intense to see the needle going in and out of the skin and the ripples it produced," he explained. "It all fit very well with the creative tone we were going for."
For various POV sequences (like riding a motorcycle through traffic in LA, and getting physical on a basketball court in Miami), the team used a Sony A7r II and a Canon C300 Mark II, the latter with Zeiss CP2 primes. And for everything else, an ARRI Alexa with the same Cooke S4 primes was their go-to choice. "The images that camera produces are beautiful, the motion is cinematic and the skin tones are wonderful using those lenses," Bove explained.
While tremendous artistry went into producing the live-action elements, the post-production craftsmanship received equal passion and energy. Combined with its choppy editing style, the footage and type treatments conjure a highly intentional staccato effect.
"Some of my favorite sections are where Erin and her team affected the footage with a grainy, ‘stumble' effect," said editor Josh Bodnar. "This combination of techniques really aid in transitioning from the tattoo world to the future and the past. The texture of the footage really helps convey feelings of danger and life in menacing ways."
In addition to all the thoughtful editorial, design and type animation touches, Duarte points to some visual effects work that makes all the macro tattooing footage look absolutely flawless. He confided, "Cory Davis is so masterful that you'll never guess what he did there."
For Sarofsky, one of her favorite aspects of the finished piece is how the music - courtesy of Academy Award-winning musician, composer, producer and audio engineer Atticus Ross - is such a fascinating juxtaposition to the visuals. According to Wells, "We worked hand-in-hand with Atticus and Sarofsky to make certain that the music and visuals were in sync, and delivering on the premise and emotional tenor of the show.
In conclusion, Sarofsky adds one more highlight from the experience. "This is my second title sequence with John Wells, and the second time I've been able to include a man's naked ass in it," she said. "So needless to say, I'm excited to see what he develops next."
Watch "Animal Kingdom" Tuesdays at 9/8c on TNT.