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Critiquing the Major Film Studio Logos

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About 90% of the money paid to see a movie in North America goes toward one produced or distributed by one of the six “major” film studios. These are mega-profitable, highly visible corporations that nevertheless usually don’t have a lot of brand distinction between them. A movie is a movie is a movie, for the most part, and I don’t know anyone in today’s world who associates any one major with a particular type or quality of product (with the one exception probably being Disney). Yet each company has a rich history and an identity they try to convey to indifferent viewers, probably more for the sake of tradition and corporate pride than for advertising or branding purposes. The way they do that is through their animated logos which they slap in front of their releases. I decided to examine these little-scrutinized industry totems and review those of the six majors. Here are my conclusions:

Columbia Pictures

“Columbia” dresses up as a Men in Black.

Columbia’s logos over the years have varied as to whether they zoom in to or out of the torch’s light, but all have featured “Columbia,” who looks exactly like Annette Bening, and is supposed to be a female personification of the United States. (A little ironic for a studio owned today by Japanese conglomerate Sony.) The latest iteration, which has been in place since the early ’90s, contains some rich detail and color, especially in the clouds. I think it would be cool if those clouds were animated to move in a more noticeable way, but it’s still an impressive feat to make clouds so visually interesting. This logo also features a lens flare big enough to embarrass J.J. Abrams, which was certainly not the case in the logo’s early years, when lens flare was thought of as an unacceptable error rather than the cinematographic weapon it is today. Although the scene is presented about as attractively as it can be, this logo feels a little off to me. Its patriotism, even after being toned down—the blue drape Columbia holds used to be an American flag—doesn’t seem all that relevant to the idea of movies; the symbol isn’t evocative of much other than silver dollars and World War I propaganda. I really like, however, how the studio lets their mascot have fun: She wears sunglasses and holds a neuralyzer for Men in Black, and in a bizarre meta-joke, had her face replaced with that of the real Annette Bening for her 2000 film What Planet Are You From.

Paramount Pictures

Like most of the logos in this list (movie studios rarely go with a full re-brand, I’ve discovered), the Paramount logo has changed from one variation to another of the same theme for the entirety of the studio’s existence. I had always assumed the mountain depicted was supposed to be the Matterhorn, but it’s a bit too misshapen, and possibly a bit too associated with another company, to be it. The logo’s original designer was a Utah native and many have suggested it could have been inspired by any number of peaks in the Wasatch Range. But if there’s one mountain in the world that most resembles the Paramount peak’s current form, it has to be Peru’s Artesonraju. Anyway, the identity of the mountain is irrelevant; the question is, how does it function as a logo? I would say this logo does a lot with relatively little, and the stars that ring the mountain are the unsung heroes here. For decades, their appearance came spontaneously. Starting in 1986, they approached from downstage right. And after 2002, they descended from the heavens. As you can see in the logo above, the new 100th anniversary one adds some new wrinkles including the stars taking a meandering, leisurely skip across a lake and a bright sun in back of the mountain. I give Paramount credit for making such an obtuse, formerly static symbol interesting. It doesn’t have much to do with movies or anything else really, but something about it just feels right.

Twentieth Century Fox

The monument topped with a huge “20th” predates the company itself, as it was originally used by Twentieth Century Pictures before its merger with Fox Films in 1935. The gleaming Art Deco colossus is a splendid thing to center a movie studio logo around, because it belongs to a certain design era that everyone associates with Classical Hollywood. Until 1994, the image was stationary; only after then was the twirling view of a CGI Los Angeles cityscape introduced. The first iteration included a number of easter eggs to be found in the signage on buildings, including, for instance, “Murdoch’s Department Store.” The version seen above was updated within the last few years but is largely unchanged, as the most visible difference to the old CGI one is the addition of palm trees surrounding the spotlights. I’m wholly in support of this. The more classic Hollywood tropes they can cram in there, the better. I like this logo a lot because it’s sort of like a slightly more reality-bound version of the new Disney one. In this case the fantasy world isn’t one of medieval legend but an idealized, romantic Hollywood, and it feels alive, with individual buildings and moving cars and the Hollywood sign. I think they could probably do more with the idea—how about throwing in a majestic old movie palace marquee or two?—but I still think this is one of the best studio logos there is.

Universal Studios

This is one logo that has benefited a lot from the development of CGI in my opinion. Its extraterrestrial vantage point was ambitious when it became the first still-operating American film studio to be founded in 1912 (beating Paramount by a few months); early renditions of the logo were obviously of the scale model-on-a-matte-background variety, and it stayed that way pretty much until the ’90s. It was only then that the magic of 0s and 1s could provide the vivid detail we see today. The 100th anniversary logo seen above takes, aside from the huge interstellar cloud it has the Earth residing in front of, a very realistic approach to to the globe. This includes depicting the luminescent signs of human inhabitance, a decision that I’m not sure how I feel about. For sheer aesthetics, I think I preferred the late ’90s and ’00s version with an Earth that was shimmering with white light and comprised of the brilliant rainbow of hues normally reserved for topographical maps. To its credit though, the new one is a tiny bit less Americentric, as it doesn’t conclude with North America perfectly centered. (The Earthcentrism of the company’s name referencing the universe but only focusing on our planet is another issue.) All in all, this is definitely a logo I can get behind. I like anything in space, the globe is an instantly recognizable icon, and the subtextual message—that through movies you can have a world of experiences—is a comforting one.

Walt Disney Pictures

The Disney logo of my youth holds a good deal of nostalgia but it was looking aged by the mid-2000s. Knowing nothing but the two-tone, two-dimensional representation of Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, the 3D, flag-fluttering version that preceded Toy Story (and a few other Disney/Pixar films after it) was a bit of a shock. But nothing prepared us for the staggering orgy of color, sound and visual information contained within the current Disney logo. It starts in space, focusing on the star to be wished upon from Pinocchio, along with the “second star to the left” from Peter Pan. The camera swoops over an ocean, multiple rivers, an expansive network of small villages, a large sailing ship and a steam locomotive before settling before an amalgam of Sleeping Beauty Castle and Walt Disney World’s Cinderella Castle. I love this logo. If you look really closely, you can see numerous individual buildings and trees, a network of roads, docks extending into the rivers, another faraway castle-like structure, and an entirely different landmass beyond the sea. On its bad days, Disney can feel sterile and like a soulless simplification of everything; that feeling is not to be found in this logo. it presents a breathing universe that represents Disney’s position as a modern custodian of timeworn myths and implies that that universe can be explored and lived in rather than only known of at the basest level. Essentially, I want to play an open-world video game taking place inside the Disney logo, and I’m impressed when any 30-second clip of anything gives me that feeling.

Warner Bros.

Unfortunately, I think there is a clear last place among the six majors’ logos, and it is occupied by Warner Bros. Although they’ve gone through some interesting minimalist periods, the gold shield as we see today has been pretty much the same as long as it’s been their logo. I have a number of issues with it, and the fact that it’s hard not to think of Looney Tunes when looking at it is the least of them. Biggest of all is the opening view of the sequence, in which we see a warped, gold-stained aerial shot of what I presume are Warner’s studios. Like I mentioned with the Fox logo, I applaud attempts to showcase imagery that evoke the essence of Hollywood. But this one fails because there’s nothing romantic, exciting or emotionally resonant about looking at row upon row of warehouse-like soundstages, even if they are where the proverbial magic is made. And it doesn’t help that the image is probably too distant to look like anything identifiable anyway unless you are really concentrating, which you are not, unless you are scrutinizing it on YouTube in order to blog about it. Another problem with this logo is the sky background. Columbia proved that with CGI you can make clouds look amazing. So why is Warner still rolling with what looks like a matte painting from the ’40s? It’s jarring, especially since the shield itself has had a 3D, CGI sheen since 1998. I don’t think this logo concept provides very much to work with compared to some of the others, but I still think WB is really dropping the ball here.

Well, that ends my review of the Big Six, though there are dozens more logos like them in the wide world of film production and distribution, including a few real gems. I think my personal favorite might be that of Skydance Productions, which, for some beautifully inexplicable reason, shows the letters of its name being released into zero-gravity space by elaborate vice-crane contraptions in the vicinity of the Sun. I’m also a big fan of those of Marvel and DC, which in my estimation express a similar idea—the mythmaking power of the comics medium—in admirably different ways: Marvel by overwhelming the screen with the vastness of its canon, and DC by showing rays of weightiness emanating from those iconic building blocks of comics, the Ben-Day dots. Hollywood has been owing much to these companies lately, and I think it could learn a lot from their movie logos too.

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The End of Geography (Except, Not)

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When I was young I loved maps. (Not that I don’t now; I still spend a lot of time browsing Google Sightseeing, the book of transit maps from around the world my girlfriend and I bought, and reddit/Map Porn.) As a child I had a puzzle of the United States that I would regularly trace, writing in information of limited importance such as the order of their admittance to the Union. I remember being enthralled at my friend’s CD-ROM street map that covered the entire country.

The intersection of Internet technologies and the traditionally geographically diverse nature of sports has created some interesting issues, and for that matter, maps. This one shows what teams are blacked out in what locations on MLB.tv, baseball's out-of-market TV service.

Of course, today we don’t think twice about being able to pull up a comprehensive street-level atlas of the entire Earth on a portable device the size of a Game Boy Light. Anyone could come up with countless examples of how the world has shrunk even more as the Internet has pervaded our lives more and more.

One might think this would mean that physical location doesn’t matter as much as it once did. In some ways, this is definitely true. It’s easy to get into Singaporean politics, Namibian cricket or Greenlandish hip hop while you lie comfortably in your American bed. This huge expansion of the information one can find if they put a little bit of effort into it is one of the things, if not the main thing, that makes me happy to be alive when I am.

But when it comes to the mass media, I’ve noticed an odd thing: It seems today that location means destiny more than ever.

Take national politics, for instance. Coverage of presidential races is now overwhelmingly reported on by 24-hour cable news networks that deliver the same content whether you’re in Hawaii or Maine. Yet political parties worry about the optics of geography more than ever.

Look at where national nominating conventions have been held. From 1992 to 2004 Democratic conventions were held only in liberal metropolises: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston. Since then the conventions for both parties have been swing-state only affairs: Denver and Charlotte for the Democrats, St. Paul and Tampa for the GOP.

Another area in which geography is playing a larger role is television. Scripted TV shows of the past may have had real settings, but the Milwaukee of Happy Days or the Seattle of Frasier were little more than abstract concepts flavoring the L.A. soundstage environments. While there are still some spectacular examples of this—until you’ve seen the Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place, you have no idea how much Greenwich Village looks like Disney World’s Main Street, U.S.A.—the phenomenon has lessened as single-camera, on-location shows become the norm. And it’s even more pronounced when it comes to reality TV.

A somewhat-less-than-true-to-life New York City street set from Wizards of Waverly Place.

The Real World is often cited as a reality pioneer and that holds true in its featuring a different city for every season. Because today, it seems like most big reality franchises are somehow location-dependent. You’ve got Pawn Stars in Las Vegas, Swamp People which inspired a bevy of other shows set in the Louisiana bayou, Jersey Shore which did the same for New Jersey, and The Real Housewives of most conceivable upper-class locales, the format of which is now being exported internationally.

The area in which location seems to have taken on the most added significance recently, though, is sports. ESPN and other national media outlets once acted actually national; now their inordinate focus on teams from the very few largest media markets is unmistakable.

Take the Jeremy Lin phenomenon. I think his is an incredible story and it certainly deserves media attention. But you’ve got people like Mark Cuban—the owner of a team in a big, but not huge, non-coastal market, the Dallas Mavericks—saying that it wouldn’t be much of a story if it wasn’t happening in New York. I’m sure Cuban was exaggerating when he said “no one would know” about Lin if he was playing elsewhere. But it seems clear to me that it wouldn’t have developed into the same obsession for the Worldwide Leader.

Interest in consolidating the NBA’s elite talent into the biggest markets seems to be at an all-time high, if the recent demands of players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard to be traded only to alpha cities are any indication. It’s hard to blame young men with boundless fame and disposable income for wanting to live in New York, Los Angeles or Miami. But I do blame certain media outlets for encouraging them by focusing so disproportionately on teams in places like that.

North American celebrity culture in the realms of film, TV, music, comedy, and so forth have always been centered around an extremely narrow group of cities. I don’t have a problem with that—after all, that’s part of what gives those cities their unique attractiveness. But I have always thought it was kind of cool how sports, by the nature of its organization, is a glamorous industry that is quite geographically egalitarian. To ply their trade professionally, a baseball player from Miami could go to St. Louis, a football player from Southern California could go to Green Bay, and a hockey player from Stockholm could go to Calgary, and all of these moves would be considered seriously moving up in the world. I don’t like the feeling that we’re losing that idiosyncratic feature of sports with increased emphasis on big-market teams.

In my opinion, this is particularly unfortunate in the NBA, which has a tradition of placing teams in small cities that no other major pro leagues are present in, like Memphis, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Portland, Salt Lake City, and San Antonio. Before securing a new arena deal this week, one such city, Sacramento, came extremely close to losing their team to Anaheim, in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, which has two teams already. Is this idea of stacking huge media markets with ever more teams a sign of things to come? I hope not, but with the media focus on those areas, it would make a perverse kind of sense for the teams.

The way I see it, national media has two choices about how to approach coverage of a nation- or worldwide sports universe. Either they can identify stories from anywhere in the country that they think, if widely publicized, would have the most wide appeal; or, they can act like a local outlet focusing on the teams with, statistically, the most fans, and push stories about these teams onto the rest of the country that might not otherwise care at the same time. I think they choose the latter far too often. Which frustrates me, because in this day and age, I want to revel in the fact that we’re no longer beholden to local newspapers and TV for our information. And I certainly don’t want to feel like our spectacular modern communication technologies are just feeding me a facsimile of that experience, and about a location I might not even care about in the first place.

Living in the age of cyberspace hasn’t made geography irrelevant—if anything, it’s amplified it. Some of the effects of this are positive and some are negative in my opinion, but either way, I find it pretty counterintuitive at first blush. But as a recent study showing that Twitter connections match up quite tightly with airline routes indicated, the Internet serves as a compliment, not a replacement, for the physical world. Methods of communication may shift rapidly, but human nature has proven much more resistent to change.

Written by Dan Wohl

03.02.12 at 1:53 am