Fresh off the passing of Halloween comes the title sequence for Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant — yU+co‘s latest main title opus.
While many cinematic title sequences suffer from a sense of auto-pilot, the main title for Cirque du Freak keeps you guessing. Taking on the thrust of a children’s nightmare, the resulting aesthetic is innocent but deftly tuned with motifs of fear—a surefire way to take the edge off the sweetness.
Borrowed from themes developed by the film’s director, Paul Weitz, the typography serves a dual purpose in providing information, while also being extensions of the puppets themselves. By redrawing original woodcut lettering, the typeface takes inspiration from lithographic circus banners, and as a narrative device, leads the children along an ominous journey. Cracked from the vault of graphic design, inspiration for the letterforms where drawn from the stylistic sentiments of Dada, shadow puppetry and German Expressionism.
The result is decorative but highly engaging, with an undercurrent of darkness and grit à la Tim Burton. Even so, similar themes are vested in the main-on-end titles for Lemony Snickets A Series of Unfortunate Events,  and in this piece, a renewed bond between Hollywood horror and the big, fat orchestral score. Through a string of slick transitions, the entire sequence strides forward with a sense of athletic perseverance resolving in moments of compositional clarity.

Interview with yU+co's Garson Yu
How hands-on was Paul Weitz, director of Cirque du Freak, in the creation of the main title, and how much creative input did the he have in the end result?
The film director’s role in title design is to guide the direction of the design process. Paul directs every single aspect of his film. There are many aspects in the creation of a film that need attention from the director. As the title designer, we need to be in the driver’s seat in the development stage, showing Paul what we think the opening tone should be. Once the idea is sold to Paul, it is our job to run the whole creative process independently and show work in progress to Paul. I worked with my design team to make sure we worked towards the vision that Paul and I had discussed.
No directors will micromanage the design process. They all have other more important things to deal with during postproduction, especially when it comes to the end stage of making of the film. Directors usually are very busy in final audio mixing and dealing with studio reviews. Paul was hands-on at the end of the title design process. He worked with the composer making sure the music hits every single beat on our picture. All filmmakers have their final touch for the end result. Although title design is the work of the title designer, it is always the filmmakers’ film. We are always one of the many contributors to their film. The filmmaker is the soul of the filmmaking process.
How has working with director Paul Weitz compared to your experiences working with directors such as Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, or Sydney Pollack? 
Paul is a young director compared to all the directors that you mentioned. In our first meeting with Paul, he said to me that he had no idea of what the opening should be. He left it up to me to come up with ideas, and I had no ideas at that time either. He invited me to watch his film and after some time passed, he called for another meeting. In that meeting he told me he wanted the story of the opening to be Mr. Tiny controlling the boys like puppets. I always try to think on my feet, and have a quick answer for the director on the spot. My response to him was: why don’t we create the opening sequence with shadow puppet animation. And he loved that idea. It sounds obvious, but he bought it and I think it turned out to be the right idea for the project.
I enjoyed working with Paul because there was a creative back and forth dialog with him. He was very receptive to all my ideas. All directors have their own directorial sensibilities. Sometimes they have clear ideas but sometimes they have no clue. As for working with Ang and Sydney, they are always very clear on what they want. They have a lot of respect for our work and they hire us to do what we are good at.
With the main title for Cirque du Freak, how much time and effort went into development?
We had a decent amount of time to develop the concept and the design of the look. We also had enough time to execute it as well. Yes, on most of the commercial projects we don’t have time but film is a craft and that’s why we like to do it. When the room is dark and we are looking at a huge screen, we have physical space to enjoy the large image and longer time to appreciate details.
I always identify good projects for my design team and we put our best effort into them. A good project needs a good client as well. We had 2 months to develop the design and 2 months to produce. Paul was very supportive on what we wanted to do. Because of him, we were able to focus and put our best effort into his project.
What was the most challenging aspect of squeezing the film’s long-form narrative into the economy of a main title?
It is quite a challenge to condense the film’s long-form narrative into a title sequence. I normally do not over think too much in creating a complex narrative for the opening unless it is needed. The idea of a main title sequence is to set up the tone and mood for the audience to discover the story as the movie unfolds. The opening sequence needs to be metaphorical in content and impressionistic in tone. Unless there is a very specific prologue that the filmmaker feels strongly needs to be explained, I usually will try not to be too literal and keep it simple.
We don’t want to reveal too much about the plot of the film in the title sequence. As for Cirque Du Freak, it is a graphic opening. The idea is to introduce six freak show characters and bring them all together through the journey of two puppets. I wanted to let the credits play an important role in the sequence. They become the main actors throughout the sequence then the story becomes a backdrop. I think title design is about the titles and other elements are secondary.
Who and what did your team look to for inspiration in the titles array of creepy characters?
Cirque du Freak is a series of three books by a British writer named Darren Shan. The creepy characters and motifs were described in the book. When Paul developed his film, he worked with his art department to come up with the look of wood cut illustrations and also the look of German expressionist paintings. Those were the main source of inspiration for us to follow.
Can you explain your approach to typography in the piece?
The typography is inspired by some older reference in graphic design history. I am particularly interested in Dada artists such as Filippo Marinetti in the way they use letters to literally illustrate the content. It becomes a figurative poem. And concrete poetry—the idea of seeing letters as actual objects, as well as Bradbury Thompson’s work in the 50’s and 60’s. All those are the original source of inspiration on what we did for the title.
I also wanted to invent a new way of seeing how the credits behave. If you see the credits as actors on stage instead of just titles in the foreground, then we can imagine them to do anything that you want them to do as long as you direct them. They can dance and they can interact with the characters. In this case, they are truly the actor on stage with the puppets.
How did you decide between using transitions versus cuts?
Great question. The determination of whether to use cuts or visual transitions is based on how the music drives the visuals. Within the overall story, there are many small stories to introduce each freak show character. There are about 6 different vignettes in addition to the intro and closing, a total of 8 short stories. Each story is connected by a visual transition. The idea is to maintain a flow to the piece instead of a fragmented sequence.
How does your creative process differ in designing a main title versus a main-on-end title?
A main-on-end title is the credits. The movie is over. We no longer need to set up any tone or mood. The only objective is to engage the audience to stay in their seats and watch the credits. Therefore the title needs to be visually engaging. Any heavy storytelling will not work. The credit becomes the most prominent element in the sequence. For end titles, I usually build the graphics around the credits. 
Finally, how do you see technology affecting the continuing evolution of film title design?
I believe the medium that we use will change the end result of the product. With changes in technology, the look will change as well. With the help of technology, future title design will get more sophisticated in execution. However, film is about storytelling. The choice of medium to use will always depend on the need to tell the story. Films have many different genres in which to tell different stories.
This article was originally published on
Written by
Brandon Lori​​​​​​​
Client: Universal Pictures
Design/Animation: yU+Co., Hollywood, CA
Creative Director: Garson Yu
Art Director: Etsuko Uji
Designer: Edwin Baker
2D Animators: Wayland Via, Allen Yeung, Jill Dadducci, Chris Coogan
3D Animators: Pota Tseng, Stephen Delalla

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