Diego Coutinho layered illustrations amongst information and animated all of it in the main titles for HBO’s documentary film Between the World and Me, based on the National Book Award-winning book by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
The striking main title sequence (above), on which Coutinho served as art director working with Elastic Creative Director Hazel Baird and her team, was nominated for an Emmy this year.
Coutinho practiced design, animation and motion graphics in São Paulo, Brazil, where he studied to be a designer at university and ultimately fell in love with animation. As he progressed in his craft, working for São Paulo-based agency Lobo, he decided to relocate to Los Angeles to be closer to the world’s top content companies. As a Brazilian, just up and moving to the U.S. in 2017 wasn’t that easy. But Coutinho took the risk and brought himself and his wife over and got himself settled in Los Angeles, even though he had neither connections nor clients in the city.
Still, his talent stood out. Right after arriving, he began sending his portfolio to agencies around Los Angeles. The very first place he sent his stuff to was Elastic. Two days later, Elastic called.
“My very first project there was an opening title sequence for Dave Chappelle,” he said. “I was just a lead designer and animator and the art director on the project was Hazel Baird.”
“Right after this project, [Hazel] became staff and creative director and I ended up following her. As she became creative director, I ended up becoming her art director. We’ve had a really good partnership through the years.”
Together, the two and their team of designers, animators and editors have created main titles for such pieces as LeBron James’ and Maverick Hill’s three-part documentary series for Showtime, Shut Up and Dribble, and HBO’s Agents of Chaos, about Russian interference in U.S. elections.
“Every single main title is super different because every story is different. It’s not about transforming a script into something visual. It’s about your interpretation of the documentary or movie and I really like the deep side of these projects,” Coutinho said.
Shut Up and Dribble
Agents of Chaos
Many of the projects Coutinho has worked on since arriving in the U.S. have a political bent to them.
“I love making political projects because it’s an excuse to communicate things. [When I’m working on these projects,] I feel that I’m really helping the world in some way, not just making things for money,” Coutinho says.
The main titles for HBO’s Between the World and Me are densely packed with art, information, typography and imagery, requiring multiple rewatches to catch it all. But even though the sequence feels complex, it started with one simple idea.
“There is a concept that I try to bring to my work that I learned through my wife, who is Japanese. It’s this concept called wabi-sabi, which is a philosophy drawn from the Japanese tea ceremony. It’s not just about drinking the tea. It’s about living in the moment and enjoying the cup and paying attention to the mug. It’s about the value of imperfections. When someone looks at the mug, it’s not a perfect mug, it’s a little broken and this is what makes it unique. Humans are like that. We are not perfect,” he says.
For the Between the World and Me main titles, Coutinho started with a collage idea, similar to the final result above. But the content focused more on the difficult side of the American Black experience and less on the triumphant part. And the latter was more what Executive Producer Kamilah Forbes, who first turned Coates’ book into a stage play and then a film, was seeking.
“When we had our first meeting with Kamilah, it was life-changing,” he says. “She saw the illustrations [in the piece] and she liked them, but the meaning of it wasn’t what she was looking for. She said, ‘we have been seeing Black people in the media being portrayed all the time but it’s not what we are looking for here. We want to celebrate Black culture—it’s beautiful, it’s not just about being oppressed.’ It was so clear to me—of course people don’t want to be portrayed like that.”
While Coutinho has since grown to appreciate that critique, in the moment, it was difficult.
“I was a little lost after this feedback so I asked Kamilah if she had something she could provide us—illustrations, videos, paintings—to help me understand what she was looking for. She said ‘I have a library of things I want to share with you.’ She ended up putting all of that together into an edit and it was one of the best edits I ever saw because it was like a movie. Each shot had three or four different pieces of footage, and those were videos, photos, art and so forth.”
The concept was admittedly dense but Baird and Coutinho took on the challenge.
“We started to mix different content on the same screen using paper as a base for everything and Kamillah loved it. The challenge was to make everything work together. The result is a mix of paper, typography from book covers, and archival and current pieces of art.”
The sequence also includes art from such famous illustrators as Molly Crabapple and others.
“It’s really vibrant and it celebrates Black culture,” Coutinho says. “It celebrates what it means to be Black.”
The below behind-the-scenes video provides a bit of insight into how the magic happened:
Design Studio: Elastic
Creative Director: Hazel Baird
Art Director: Diego Coutinho
Animators: Rafael Morinaga, Eugene Hyun, Andrew Young
Producer: Michael Ross
Coordinator: Mitchell Fraser
Executive Producer: Luke Colson
Deputy Head of Production: Zach Wakefield
Head of Production: Kate Berry
Managing Director: Jennifer Sofio Hall
Original Illustrations: Molly Crabapple