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Subject: Motile overlappography and the _Homicide_ question
From: Joe Clark <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:TYPO-L Discussion of Type and Typographic Design <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sat, 21 Sep 1996 22:46:29 -0500

text/plain (82 lines)

One is a very big fan of the NBC program _Homicide: Life on the Street_,
which manages to be smart and complex, also fresh and cinematically
exciting, while also being hugely popular. (Yes, it's still just a TV show,
OK? We're not talking _Citizen Kane_ here.) The program's original opening
credits-- in black-and-white-- featured filmnoirish close-ups of the cast,
impressionistic blurry footage of a barking German shepherd seen through a
fence, twisted vantage points of Baltimore back alleys, extreme tight shots
of a shadowy police badge, streets and landmarks, and, at the very end, a
field of defocused city lights zipping back and forth blurrily as cast
names appear in Clarendon (or *a* clarendon) in black sky above the lights.
The theme music, a very bizarre piece by Lynn F. Kowal that works
brilliantly (I have an E-mail explaining its genesis if you're interested),
acts as highly effective counterpoint.

BUT! The new "season" began last night and the credits are completely new--
half for the worse, half for the better. We get a warmed-over variant of
the currently fashionable distressed-overlapped-fuzzy/sharp-buzzword
typography that very, very few designers do well (viz., Makela and
VanderLans). It's in colour, mostly. Still some blurred fast-panned street
scenes, still a few badge and police-pass close-ups, but mostly we get fake
blurry layered paper cutouts of words all-too-obviously related to the the
theme of homicide (REPORT, 911, a big block of sansserif text standing in
for a police report that would certainly have simply been typed, EXHIBIT A,
EXHIBIT B, crime scene, victim, and on and on).

Also, a few windows within the TV frame-- sometimes several at once-- show
an allegedly dead body (female, of course), or the barrel of a gun (three
of these, with the increasingly trite trick of panning a spotlight past 'em
quickly-- see Peter Care's R.E.M. video "Man in the Moon"), a close-up of a
pupil, feet with toetag.

Then it gets better. We now get to see what the cast looks like along with
their names, again written on fake paper cutouts (font looks like Arial,
but maybe Akzidenz), in French style: Andre BRAUGHER, Richard BELZER. These
cutouts vibrate and float and twitch a bit just as the B&W photos of the
cast pan across or zoom toward us slowly, with two exceptions-- my faves,
Reed DIAMOND and Clark JOHNSON, actually are depicted in floating moving
video that then freeze-frames and floats. All the while, defocused flashing
lights and headlamps and whatever illuminate the background. Some weird
distorto siren-like sound was added to the score at this point, which might
not have been wise.

This whole cast-name section is a stunningly unexpected use of computer
matting and animation technology (the internal inconsistency of still vs.
moving images also works), while the earlier segments strike me as
fashionable, mannered, and not-very-smart imitation. (Heck, even in Pearl
Jam's "Jeremy" they have the good sense to make newspaper text look and
read like actual copy, not disembodied catchphrases whipped up in an edit
suite.) _E.R._ does it better, at least in the logotype section.

After some more typo-collage with fingerprints and the like and some
colours Pantone never intended us to use, we get a very nice
cinematypographic trick revealing the name of the show: A gloved hand
brushes fingerprint dust away from a dirty pane of glass, revealing
HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET in really twitchy and unstable Helvetica.
Fabulous, kids. Fabulous.

So: I want everyone out there with access to this show (Fridays at 10 on
NBC; also seen in England and, in the past, in Oz) to evaluate this new
example of kinetic pomo typography and say what they think. I love it and
hate it. But I don't think I'd go back to the old credits. Remember, film
credits are usually crap and TV credits even more so. The old *and* new
_Homicide_ credits show that someone was, at least, on the ball, if only
part of the time.

Maddeningly, the end credits (retyped and scrunched by NBC into the side of
the frame while the rest is given over to promos) don't tell us who did the
job. Anyone know?

Finally, this was apparently one of the first shows broadcast on NBC using
the Intel Intercast system, which uses the vertical blanking interval to
broadcast Web pages. Of course, what the VBI was really born to do was
carry captions, and I can say that after four years of infuriatingly
slipshod work, the captions are still not unappalling on _Homicide_, as I
am always pointing out to NCI, the readers of my Media Access list, and
others. This has not really changed. Not all kinetic typography connected
to the show has been improved.

                                        Joe Clark
                                    [log in to unmask]

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