Meet the Artist November 19, 2020

Michael Riley sets the world in motion.

Michael Riley is the Creative Director at Shine, a motion graphics and design studio in Los Angeles. Michael has produced award winning film and television title sequences for such movies as Gattaca, Kung Fu Panda, La La Land, and most recently Birds of Prey for Warner Bros. and DC, Dickinson on Apple TV+, and Perry Mason on HBO, which were all made with the help of Procreate.

Hi Michael, where are you based and how long have you been doing motion graphics and title design?

Shine is on Wilshire Boulevard, in an area called Miracle Mile. Our mission is to create highly evocative visual experiences that push the boundaries of the imagination through engaging design, animation and live action.

My first job after I graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 1991 was at R/GA in New York City. They were doing a lot of movie titles, visual effects, and commercial and film live action production. It was (and still is) and amazing place with so many incredibly talented people. I learned so much from working with all the amazing people there — designers, animators, cinematographers, directors, producers. It was like boot camp for design and film production. Total and complete heaven for me in my 20s. We worked all the time, learning new technologies as we designed.

Opening credits from Birds of Prey

Main title design is a very specific niche in the motion graphics industry, what drew you to that as the thing you love to do?

In college I had a 6-week Winter session internship under Tibor Kalman at his New York studio, M&Co. There I saw Mr. Kalman using graphic design and typography as an expressive element in film titles and music videos. The way he combined design and film completely blew my mind. It changed my view of what graphic design could be, and opened my eyes to so many more possibilities.

You always have a strong concept behind your titles and integrate them into the live action. Where did your love of expressing type this way come from?

When I was a student at Rhode Island School of Design, the faculty pushed students to be conceptual with design. Anything you touch is an opportunity to incorporate an idea or a message. I guess that’s part of the reason I drifted toward film and television. In this area of design, you need to be interested in visual-based conceptual ideas because you’re telling stories with your work.

Type and typography are obviously very important to your work. Do you consider yourself a motion graphics artist first and a graphic designer second? Or is it an even mix of both?

It changes all the time. I love design, animation, typography, photography, cinematography and drawing. I’m also a live action director and a member of the Directors Guild. Sometimes the work I do involves directing talent, often for television work or in a commercial. If people ask, I usually just say I’m a designer. That’s one amazing aspect of being a creative person today: technology keeps evolving - always bringing more power to artists. The boundaries between these categories become more blurred every day in the most exciting ways. So many tools and methods of creative collaboration have changed, every time in favor of generating a better creative result.

The titles for Birds of Prey have a very hand drawn ethic to them. Have you always been into drawing and is it always a part of your process?

I grew up drawing all the time. I would spend countless hours in my room drawing in my sketchbooks, or sometimes with friends who also liked art. I did a summer program at Parsons in New York when I was 15, and my drawing teacher told us to have a sketchbook at the ready every day, always.

That was a really life altering summer for me as a young artist. Sketchbooks are an amazing way to draw without fear, because it’s a place where your thoughts can be as private or public as you want. I draw on every single project, as a way to brainstorm ideas. Drawing was integral to the conceptual stage of every project I’ve ever designed. Drawing is fun. I’ve read that drawing and right brain activity produces serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine. Not 100% sure if that’s true, but I tend to believe it!

'Mr Happy' scene from Birds of Prey

How long have you been using Procreate?

In Spring 2019, I was at my sons’ track meet and a friend had her iPad Pro with her. At the time I had a pretty old iPad and my friend showed off how well the stylus worked, and how helpful it was to her work. She had Procreate, which I tried out. I was totally blown away. I can’t remember if I drove directly to the Apple Store after the meet, or maybe it was the next day? Apple had Procreate loaded up onto all the iPads. I was totally sold, because I could see how many possibilities it offered. Procreate on an iPad Pro was like a digital version of that sketchbook I always loved, but much, much more.

What inspired you to use Procreate for the titles in Birds of Prey?

During the summer of 2019 we got a phone call from Josh Levinson, my former client on a film called Gattaca. He was working with Sue Kroll and Cathy Yan on Birds of Prey over at Warner Bros. Cathy said she liked our work on La La Land and invited Shine to pitch ideas for Birds of Prey.

After Bob Swensen, the executive producer at Shine, and I screened the movie Cathy told us she wanted an end title sequence that spoke to the wild, punk rock energy of Harley Quinn. At the end of the movie, there’s a big finale-battle scene at a fun house. Cathy thought maybe we could take some thematic and conceptual queues from those visuals. So she asked us to create some storyboards that spoke to Harley Quinn’s wild character.

My first thought for inspiration was Cy Twombly’s work. Cy Twombly’s paintings and drawings are spontaneous, wild and reckless. It’s drawing with total abandon. I remember the first time I saw them at the RISD Museum — I didn’t know how to react. They we so brilliant, wild and without regard for what anyone thought. We didn’t end up doing anything that looked like a Cy Twombly, but I did try to channel his wild spirit.

Storyboards are the first step in designing a main title. So I went back to the studio and started sketching ideas. So, okay… this is where Procreate literally took over my life in the best way. Summer 2019 was all Procreate, all the time. It was so much fun. I tried to draw fun-house inspired visuals that looked the way I thought Harley Quinn might draw them. I tried to scribble as many drawings as I could that incorporated the film’s fun-house production design, yet with the visual tone of Harley’s voice. Without Procreate, I never could have done this project. I was a beginner, but Procreate is so intuitive that I was able to launch right into the design.

We presented three concepts in storyboard form to director Cathy Yan, and the producers, Margot Robbie, Sue Kroll, and Bryan Unkless. They responded to the hand-drawn storyboard designed in Procreate because they felt it best represented Harley Quinn.

The animation process was so much fun. Between me, Penelope Nederlander, Amanda Gotera, Young Kim, Myke Chapman, Aaron Bjork, and Bob Swensen… our various areas of expertise were outside of Procreate. But that didn’t matter. Procreate is so intuitive that you can start using it in production without much experience at all. We had an amazing time learning as we worked. I think that speaks volumes about how powerful Procreate is.

How was Procreate used on the Dickinson main title design?

On Dickinson, each episode has a unique main title. We just delivered season two, so we’ve now done twenty unique main title animations for Dickinson. Procreate was central to every one of these animations.

The main title design of Dickinson, a series about the life of poet Emily Dickinson, was inspired by the art of the Victorian photo collage. The show creator, Alena Smith, introduced us to these works. We used the genre as visual inspiration for the spirit of the Dickinson main title design. Artists in the Victorian era, many of them women, would create imaginative photo collages using images clipped from posters, advertisements, newspapers and other printed media. The result was striking and often surreal collages of characters in wildly imaginative ways.

The etchings used in Dickinson were not drawn in Procreate, although all the elements were collaged together using Procreate. Procreate is an amazing tool for collage, assemblage and montage. And it was an invaluable tool for this project. The ability to work interactively to create illustrated collages using layers, different types of layer masks, and brushes was intuitive and fun. The many brushes offered were key to modifying and customizing the etchings we put together.

You’re in production on the Perry Mason main title design. How are you currently using Procreate on this project?

Procreate has again been such an important tool on the Perry Mason main title design. Like Dickinson, this series has a different main title treatment on each episode. In the initial conceptual phase, I used Procreate to come up with ideas. We presented several end title sequence concepts for each episode. Because there are eight unique end title sequences, one for each episode — they had to be simple, and with a strong graphic idea. Procreate was an incredible tool starting with the storyboard concept phase through the delivery. It may not be apparent in the final product, but Procreate was used in many aspects of this project, from the initial conceptual sketches through the creation of graphic assets that were used in the final animation. As I write this, episodes one and two have aired, and we’re still working on five through eight.

How did you find the process compared to how you’ve work previously?

I find using Procreate to be totally liberating. I feel like a kid drawing in Procreate, because… it’s fun.

Do you have any advice for people starting out in the motion graphics industry?

Design with all your might and good things will come to you!

What’s your favorite Procreate feature, and what do you enjoy about using it?

In terms of specific software features, Procreate rates at the highest level in every category. It integrates seamlessly into other softwares like Adobe Creative Cloud, Cinema 4D, and many others. But the main reason I love using Procreate is that it makes drawing more fun than ever. It’s all about the feeling of freedom you have when you’re drawing in Procreate. The possibilities are only limited to your imagination.

If you could add one feature to Procreate what would it be?

An alarm that says stop drawing, it’s really late already!!

Discover more about Shine and Michael’s incredible motion graphic and main title design work at shinestudio.com