Artist portrait courtesy Isabell Hacker

Artist portrait courtesy Isabell Hacker

Karin Fong

Los Angeles based designer/director

Interview by Mark Daybell

MARK DAYBELL: It’s February 3, 2020 and I’m here with Karin Fong at Imaginary Forces in Los Angeles, California. Karin, can you tell me about your work?

KARIN FONG: I work on a variety of things, I’d like to say it’s a lot of where film and design intersect. That can mean anything from title sequences to directing commercials to films that are projected onto architectural spaces, to things you see on your phone. I use a lot of hybrid methods of production, meaning combining graphics and animation with live action and CG and seeing where that all meshes together.

Tell Me a Story – Season 2, 2019

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Agency: CBS All Access

See, 2019

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Client: Apple TV+

DAYBELL: Doing some research, I was intrigued by how you describe film as a series of transitions. Can you expand on that notion?

FONG: I think transitions are the crux of designing with a time-based medium. It’s actually more difficult for me to design a single frame for a poster or a print. It’s hard when you only get one image to tell the whole story! But with film, time is on my side and I can take the viewer on a journey. To me, the drama is in how things are revealed.

DAYBELL: Or what isn’t revealed.

FONG: Right, exactly. I think the element of surprise is really important in the kind of design I do. I’ve always been a big fan of optical illusions and visual puns–how one image can be two things at once. Is it a rabbit or a duck, a vase or two faces. I like that idea, that complexity of just shifting your viewpoint, from one to another.

So, for me, transitions are often what makes a work. It’s something that is enhanced by the camera’s eye because you have this advantage of directing exactly your viewer’s gaze. You have that level of control and so you can give the audience a moment of revelation. That’s the fun part of designing in this medium.

DAYBELL: Are there reoccurring themes in your work?

FONG: One thing that’s very important to me is developing a strong concept. I’m a very concept-based designer. I wish I could make things that are just simply beautiful. I always admire people who can do that, but I like to have some sort of conceptual idea on which to hang the design.

DAYBELL: Do you have projects outside of your professional practice?

FONG: Currently I don’t, ones in the past have included working with words that don’t have translations in English, like, “schadenfreude.” If you know any words like that, please let me know. I collect them for experiments. I’m planning a project that I hope will take place in the next couple of years…it would involve some travel.

DAYBELL: What initially attracted you to art and art-making?

FONG: I always made things. I have things from when I was three or four, so I’ve always been making little books, little films, little super 8 films. Always making my own little newspapers and comic books and self-publishing calendars and things. I think it was just born in me to be a designer.

DAYBELL: Did you receive a formal visual arts education?

FONG: I did. I majored in art when I was an undergraduate.

DAYBELL: What does your practice of creativity involve? Can you talk about some specifics?

FONG: The research part of a project is always very important to me. It’s often the most enjoyable time of the design process. One of the reasons I enjoy being a designer so much is being able to dip into all these different topics. You’re working on something that is taking place in a certain time period, so, researching all the politics and art and social movements of that time as well as the aesthetics is really interesting to me. Or, if it is a new kind of technology, exploring how that works. Because a lot of times what I’m doing is trying to find some sort of metaphor for some kind of larger, more complex idea that I’m trying to get through in the work in some sort of abstract way or some symbolic way. It requires an understanding of that whole world and then to take a piece of it and try to make that an idea that can represent a greater theme.

“Because a lot of times what I’m doing is trying to find some sort of metaphor for some kind of larger, more complex idea that I’m trying to get through in the work in some sort of abstract way or some symbolic way”

DAYBELL: Is there an example you can think of in one of the title sequences or any other projects?

FONG: Yeah, for Counterpart, it was really interesting. A lot of the ideas were from the Cold War, so, I was looking at a lot of the aesthetics of that era. Also, it was a very specific technological time period, which was the mid-eighties. So, I was looking at a lot of the dot matrix printers and computer technology, that are of course very archaic to us now.

Whenever I’m working on a brand or a show or story, I’m just immersed in that world. So, that meant visiting the set and seeing what the production designer had already put together. Which was wonderful in the case of Counterpoint to have all these period props and things to really inform a lot of the ideas. So, whatever is available to me, whether it’s a script or a set or a location, all those things play into the research phase.

Counterpart, 2017

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Client: STARZ

DAYBELL: Would you characterize your process as collaborative?

FONG: My process is extremely collaborative. I think filmmaking is a very collaborative sport. For instance, Black Sails is very CG, a lot modeling, wonderful sculptors I worked with but who all worked in modeling in the computer. Whereas something else like Boardwalk Empire or Counterpart, we shot it live action and that requires a different crew working with a cinematographer, often stylists, costume designers, so it’s a whole group.

Also, I love the brainstorming aspect. I think a lot of times each of these projects is sort of like a puzzle to be solved and it’s fun to toss around ideas and see if they can go somewhere that you didn’t think they would go on your own.

Black Sails, 2014

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Client: STARZ

Boardwalk Empire, 2010

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Client: HBO

DAYBELL: Talk about how you begin a project.

FONG: I begin a project by researching and trying to learn everything I can about whatever it is, whether it’s a product I’m doing a commercial for or a show, for which I’m trying to do a title sequence or a trailer. It’s just essential to know the tone and the character and the messaging that is going to be conveyed in the final piece. Understanding that completely is a priority. And so that’s where I usually start.

“I begin a project by researching and trying to learn everything I can about whatever it is, whether it’s a product I’m doing a commercial for or a show, for which I’m trying to do a title sequence or a trailer.”

Lexus – Intensity, 2013

Agency: Dentsubos

Target – Christina Aguilera, 2008

Agency: Peterson Milla Hooks

DAYBELL: How do you record your ideas for projects?

FONG: I’m still old-fashioned, I use paper and pen to scrawl all kinds of chicken scratch notes to myself. But, it’s updated, I’ll take a picture of it with my phone and then put it in a slide deck. Right now, we have a lot of shared documents where we all put our references and our ideas and works in progress and frames. If you’re working with a team, it’s really nice to be able to share these things and iterate on each other’s work. That becomes its own kind of document of the ideas.

DAYBELL: As a follow up to how you record your ideas, do you make both visual references, such as sketches and photos or is it mostly words and notes?

FONG: Both. Both. I think I always loved children’s books because they equally split between the visual and the writing and it’s not necessarily duplicating each other. If you draw it then you don’t have to write it and vice versa. So, I think it’s both. Sometimes I have a very verbal storyline I want to follow. Other times, all it takes is a single image to kick you off in a certain direction.

DAYBELL: What is the role of chance in your creative practice?

FONG: Well I think like in life chance has a huge role, you know? So, it’s not the only thing, but it’s definitely a thing.

DAYBELL: How does risk factor into your practice?

FONG: I think every project has a little bit of risk or should have a little bit of risk because you don’t want to always feel safe. There’s been times when we’ve pushed it and it’s like you want to get on that edge of riding right at the border of what you can do and sometimes you might go over the edge a little bit. But I think that’s the tension that keeps work interesting. There is a play between comfort, or comfort is the wrong word, but having some sort of experience in something, but then also being able to see that you need to go a little bit further if you want a different result.

DAYBELL: One of my instructors suggested building levels of risk in a design solution. So that the client has choices, some solutions should be “safe” an others more “risky.” Is that something you think about when you’re presenting an idea? Like, I’m going to push this as far as I can in terms of risk, or do you want to make those choices in house, before you would present an idea to a client?

FONG: That’s interesting. I think every project is a little bit different. Some projects aren’t worth it unless you take that risk and some projects, it would be right to do something that was a little more conservative. I think you have to always do what’s right for the project. To be risky just for the sake of riskiness doesn’t make sense to me.

DAYBELL: How do you recognize a good idea?

FONG: There’s often an “aha” moment of, “yes, we cracked the code,” or this makes sense, this seems like it’s not forced and it feels like it was inevitable. But we all know things only seem inevitable…

DAYBELL: After the fact.

FONG: Yeah. But when you’re in it, it’s sometimes hard to see if it will work. Also, so much of the idea is about execution. So, you could have a good idea, but if it’s not executed right, then it loses its good idea quality.

DAYBELL: How do you know when a project is finished?

FONG: They call time on me.

DAYBELL: The deadline.

FONG: Right. And it does what it needs to do.

“So much of the idea is about execution. So, you could have a good idea, but if it’s not executed right, then it loses its good idea quality.”

DAYBELL: Do you find your creative process more of a challenge or an asset?

FONG: There are probably times when my creative process gets in the way, but I’m probably so in it, that I don’t even see exactly when that is or I’d probably try to change it. But, I have to think it’s an asset because that’s the way forward for me. But like everybody, is there room for improvement? Most certainly.

DAYBELL: Do you ever hit a creative wall and how do you break through it?

FONG: I think there’s times when you do have a little bit of block. When I was younger, I would just sit there and power through it. But now I change a lot of things, like I go exercise or go walk through an art gallery or go read that book or play with my children or do something that moves my mind and my body so I’m physically unstuck and I think that helps me become less mentally stuck. Getting to bed earlier can also help. Let my mind work at night.

DAYBELL: What advice would you give emerging artists?

FONG: I would say work with people you feel are more talented than you are so you can learn from them. That’s what I’m still doing.

More of Karin Fong’s work can be viewed at: 

Article edit by Mark Daybell


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