Netflix has become a dependable home for riveting true-crime stories and those looking for a fix of “truth is stranger than fiction” fare. One of the latest, most intriguing entries to the streaming service’s true-crime catalogue is Evil Genius. The four-episode documentary series looks at a 2003 crime involving a man who had a bomb strapped around his neck and was forced to rob a bank.
FBI agents’ hunt for the culprits took the complex investigation in all manner of unexpected places, but as complex as the crime becomes, certain core elements anchored it. And that’s where John Morena’s impressive opening titles and graphics for the show come in. We spoke to Morena about what went into the work, and the unusual, non-digital way he approached it.
Creating mini-stories within a mini-story
A good title sequence isn’t just conceptually inventive or aesthetically impressive. The best ones tell a story of their own. As a whole, the Evil Genius sequence is an efficient distillation of the show’s overall arc. It’s all there — every piece of information you need to participate in the mystery of each episode. But there are also more granular narratives. “Each title card was designed to have its own mini story,” Morena explains.
One of the most potent “mini-stories” is the sequence’s final eerie image of suspect Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong’s face transforming from young and smiling to old and scowling. It was Morena’s keen eye that produced that image. “I noticed that in the young picture of her and in her mugshot, her face and everything else was in the same exact position. I had done a transparent overlay just to see if it matched and it matched perfectly,” he says. “It hit me like a lightning bolt from there.” The resulting image had such an impact on the show that it became part of the pitching process. “It was shown at the end of the sizzle reel that they were using to sell the show,” he explains. The complete sequence is no less of an accomplished sell of the show.
Suspects Marjorie Diehl Armstrong and Bill Rothstein
Creating in an analog way
“Most of the things that I did were shot live,” Morena reveals. For example, the maps and notes we see in the sequence were printed out, accentuated with acetate overlays featuring descriptive texts, and shot with a cheap camera. Then Morena got creative. “I basically shot on an overhead projector,” he says. “The camera was pointing down at the light-box part of it. So, I would flip down the map, and then flip down the first acetate sheets that identify, let’s say, the PNC bank, and then flip down the next one to identify the McDonald’s.”
Morena played similarly with images we see in the show of the bank robbery and the victim with the bomb around his neck. “There was no video from inside the bank. It was only photo stills. I just strung those out on a timeline, saved them onto a DVD, hooked the DVD player up to a little 13-inch TV/VCR combo that I bought, and shot the actual screen of the television while the DVD was playing on a loop,” he says. But there was one more effect he wanted to add to capture his low-grade concept better. “To give it more of an interruptive, glitchy feeling, I was literally pulling the video connection in and out of the television to get this real, authentic, analog glitch that comes from a loose video connection.”
Morena also found another analog way to play with the images, albeit with a common digital device. “The vignetting on the images in the title sequence has a viewfinder sort of feeling to it, and then the black wipes go over it. That’s not digitally made. That’s just my phone passing in front of the camera with the light of the light box in the background.”
Method acting in graphic making
In a way, the conceptual inspiration for the Evil Genius titles didn’t come from Morena’s head, but those of the show’s subjects. “I wanted to make it as if the bomb maker was making the graphics,” he explains. Therein came the natural opportunity to go analog, because the bomb maker was a hoarder and DIY tinkerer. Morena channeled that. “I wanted to approach it as if a non-professional was making it, or someone who was using clumsy technology.”
It became almost like method acting for Morena. He visualized using items and objects that reflected a pawn shop or dollar-store aesthetic — materials representative of those used in the making of the bomb. And he felt right at home using analog materials evocative of the 2003-period when the crimes took place. “I worked with my hands with all these types of things like embossed labels, and VHS tapes, and old televisions, and acetate overlays,” he explains, proceeding to put them all to work for his narrative.
Experience begets confidence
Before Evil Genius, Morena took on a unique project last year: Every week in 2017, he created a short animated film for Instagram, all of them ambitious and transfixing and weird in the best way. While on the surface those films would seem to have little connection to Evil Genius, there was something learned from that project that he would carry forward. “I didn’t want to make 52 films that were all the same,” he explains. “It allowed me to work in a way that wasn’t safe. I had to challenge myself and move forward, forward, forward all the time.”
That risk-taking and willingness to play in unsafe creative ways gave Morena the confidence to take his unusual analog route for a modern TV title sequence. “We get in this mindset of having to make things digitally and making it clean and crisp and fast,” he says. “I would say that, in that way, it definitely informs the work, just making me confident in the fact that we can still use all these real things to create something for a major broadcast distribution.”