yU + co explores the elusiveness and transience of memory in its absorbing main title sequence for the new John Woo thriller PAYCHECK, which opened Christmas Day through Paramount Pictures. The design studio's mercurial graphics, where words and names form out of random characters on a computer screen before being quickly erased, serve as a subtle metaphor for the conflict that besets the film's protagonist, who is engaged in a desperate struggle to reconstruct his past.
Additionally, yU + co assisted Woo in the design and execution of the film's tense opener. The four-minute sequence, which plays under the main title graphics, introduces Michael Jennings (Ben Affleck), an engineer who makes his living by stealing other engineers' designs.
The vanishing graphics of the title sequence are intended to prefigure a central plot point in the film, according to yU + co creative director Garson Yu. "We wanted to convey the idea that Jennings has had his memory erased," explained Yu. "The computer screen is a symbol for Jennings' memory. Words emerge but are immediately erased. Those words are like the clues Jennings receives during the course of the story, clues he needs to reconstruct his past and understand what is happening to him."
Although audience members aren't likely to guess the significance of the vanishing titles until the film is well underway, the graphics are key to creating the film's atmosphere and frame of reference. "We don't want to give away the story, but we do want to get people to begin thinking," said Yu. "We want them to view the movie as a puzzle, one where even the most obscure piece is necessary to complete the picture."
In the live-action sequence that plays under the main title graphics, the audience sees Jennings engage in an act of industrial espionage. After obtaining a new holographic computer at a trade show, he takes it into a laboratory and through a process of reverse engineering, reproduces an improved version of the device.
yU + co worked directly with Woo in designing the sequence and also created the vfx and computer animation employed in it. Those effects include the hologram of a woman whose three-dimensional face emerges from a computer monitor and who later appears as a standalone 3D character. Shooting a woman against greenscreen and applying 2D lighting effects to give her the ephemeral quality of a hologram accomplished the effect.
For the laboratory sequence, yU + co artists created a number of intricate computer animations to illustrate the process Jennings uses in his work. As Jennings deconstructs the device, its various internal parts become visible as 3D projections, allowing him to divine the secrets of the underlying technology.
"Our task was to develop a visual means for explaining the process of reverse engineering," explained yU + co lead designer Yolanda Santosa. "Through research, we learned that reverse engineering is accomplished through trial and error. And so, in this sequence, Jennings tests and examines components of the computer and each time he learns something, it takes him deeper until he understands how it works."
The live-action portion of the scene with Jennings in the laboratory was filmed before the animation was produced. As a result, yU + co's team not only had to create animations that made logical sense but also fit the Affleck's physical actions as he moves around the laboratory. "We had to build the sequence around the live action," Santosa said. "The film production provided us with dailies so that we could find shots that worked with our idea. It involved a lot of editing and a lot of experimenting with shots to see what made sense in terms of the whole sequence."
yU + co worked hand in hand with Woo throughout the process of creating the main title and the opening sequence of PAYCHECK. "John wanted portray Jennings' character as slick and confident, really smart," said Yu. "Editorially, we strove to express that, using devices such as jump cuts and speed frames to make it contemporary and hip. John came to us with his vision and we sought to bring it to life."
In addition to PAYCHECK, yU + co also created the main title sequences for Peter Pan and next year's WICKER PARK and THE LAST SHOT.
Additional yU + co credits include: Jennifer Fong, exec producer; Conny Fauser, VFX supervisor/inferno artist; Martin Surya, designer; Emmy Leung & Zachary Scheuren, editors; Benjamin Lopez, Etsuko Uji & David Yan, 2D animators; Nate Homan & Chris Vincola, 3D animators.
yU + co (www.yuco.com) is located at 941 N. Mansfield Ave. in Hollywood. For more information, call (323) 606-5050.