Counterpart is on the verge of finishing up its premiere season on Starz this weekend. The espionage thriller is a cornucopia of Hollywood talent, created by Justin Marks (writer of the live-action Jungle Book screenplay), produced by Jordan Horowitz (La La Land), and starring J.K. Simmons (Whiplash, which won him an Oscar). Simmons plays Howard Silk, a U.N. bureaucrat stationed in Berlin, the setting of so many Cold War spy thrillers. Everything is pretty much monotonous and boring for Mr. Silk until he comes across a version of himself from a parallel Earth, which had been created by East German scientists in the late '80s and has been diverging from our own timeline ever since.
The show's use of the Many Worlds Theory is none more prominent than in its opening title sequence, designed and animated by creative company Imaginary Forces, the folks behind other shows like Stranger Things. Part of Counterpart's almost Kafkaesque opening is meant to emulate Go, a board-based game that tests the strategic skills of its two players; it is played by Simmons' character every day on the series. While there are fewer moves than chess, there are many more possible permutations that can play out on the board.
"It is said that no two games of Go are ever the same," says Justin Marks in a video about the inception of the title sequence provided exclusively to SYFY WIRE. "It speaks to just how fragile the nature of identity really is."
Check out the video below, which features insights from both Marks and the title sequence's director, Karin Fong, whose portfolio also includes Black Sails and Boardwalk Empire. In total, the whole sequence took around nine months to make after Imaginary Forces was contacted while the production was wrapping up the pilot episode, "The Crossing."
To begin the project, Fong wanted to immerse herself in this material, and the idea of Go's many outcomes intrigued her, she tells SYFY WIRE over the phone.
"We were really interested in the idea of emergent art or generative art, or the idea that if the Go game was more of a metaphor for life, you could play it different ways in different combinations," she says. "As you know, this is a show that deals with the parallel world or where a world splits, so if your identity splits — this became an interesting philosophical question — are you really playing two completely different games or will they meet back in the middle at some point?"
While it does take place in the present, much of Counterpart has an old, "analog" feel to it, Fong says. The drab and Cold War-esque setting of Berlin helped underscore this outdated, semi-retro vibe.
"As a starting point, we looked at a lot of the architecture of Berlin and [the production] listed certain buildings [like] Tegel Airport," Fong explains, adding that they were looking for "motifs" and "scale." "This isn’t about the reality of Berlin, it’s more of this Berlin of the mind," she says. "We were taking motifs and twisting them into more abstract forms."
And even with the major science fiction element of the series, Marks had a word of warning for Karin and her crew: "This is a spy show/thriller. There’s elements of sci-fi, although it is really an espionage thriller. It [isn’t] a Bond movie.’"
"It [isn't] that kind of extreme, action kind of environment," Fong says, as they strove for a tone that conveyed the monotony and blandness of a bureaucracy. "It’s this interchange between the two sides, and so we were playing with the mundane qualities of it, too, like the sort of manila folder sort of world and passport control or visas."
As for the Kafkaesque nature of the opening, it was decided early on that the titles would purposefully remain cryptic. "Justin and I decided that it wasn’t going to explain anything, but to just allude to this metaphysical dilemma or psychological break," says Fong. "That was a real treat to be able to deliberately be making something that hopefully drew somebody’s curiosity rather than have to answer any particulars."
Not all of Karin and her team's ideas made the final cut, though. At one point, they toyed around with the idea of cubicles as a metaphor for bureaucratic isolation. "But then we learned that German offices really don't use cubicles! So, that was it for that metaphor. The germ of that idea, the tone, did make its way to some of the final scenes, where you see the figures in an extruded grid, each in their compartment, sensing but not seeing other selves," she says, adding that Jeff Russo's score had a bearing on how the finished product was edited.
Head on over to the gallery below for a frame-by-frame glimpse of Counterpart's opening title sequence. The show wraps up its first season this Sunday with the episode titled "No Man's Land, Part Two."
Karin's team at Imaginary Forces on this particular project was composed of:
- Lead Animator/ Designer: Jake Ferguson
- Editor: Zach Kilroy
- Animator/Compositor: Kiyoon Nam
- Designers: Filipe Carvalho, Nathan Lee
- Flame Artist: Rod Basham
- Additional Visual Research: Wes Yang, David Orwasky
- Producer: Maggie Robinson
- Head of Production: Franceska Bucci
- Executive Producer: Chris Hill