Careers: Director/designer/animator Diego Coutinho
Issue: September/October 2021

Careers: Director/designer/animator Diego Coutinho

Diego Coutinho is a Brazilian director, designer and animator, based in Los Angeles. With a background in graphic design, illustration and mixed-media, his work brings a wide range of artistic craft into the field of animation and motion graphics. In addition to work for brands that include Facebook, Google, Netflix and HBO, Coutinho has been recognized with more 40 industry awards, including Cannes Lions, Art Director's Club, One Show, D&AD, Lia and, most recently three Emmys.

Here, he talks about his career and work.

You recently received Emmy nominations for your work on Between the World and Me and Agents of Chaos?

“Both projects have a special place in my heart, I also believe that they are intimately connected. Between the World And Me is a film based on the book written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In the form of a letter to his son, he tells of his life experiences growing up in Baltimore in a backdrop of fear and violence against the black community. The story is extremely moving and powerful. It explores the notion that American society structurally supports white supremacy. The film, in turn, transforms this narrative into something visual through a collective of spectacular artists. Not only the book and the movie, but the project development process brought me a new light on this subject.

“Agents of Chaos, a two-part documentary from director Alex Gibney, examines Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election. The film disentangles the complex details of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and highlights the frightening vulnerabilities in America’s political process. “These projects are connected to each other through one of the most significant vulnerabilities that polarize people in the US, and which needs to be addressed: racism. Otherwise, I believe we will never have a real democracy. “Working on these projects had a deep meaning for me. As a Brazilian, I can tell you that we have the same issues in Brazil, but the scars are deeper. To give you an idea, in Brazil we had 10 times more slaves than in the US. And, at the moment, we have a president who was elected using similar techniques to those the Russians used in the US in 2016. As such, he is a constant threat to our democracy.

“Both projects were made with a lot of dedication and love. The whole team believed in what they were doing. I can only say that I’m delighted with the nominations. In my view, the Emmy community, like me, believes in these values and expresses it through their votes, giving voice to such important causes.”

How did you get involved in Between the World and Me? 

“At first, the project was a surprise, I didn't know the book nor the story, so I had no idea what it was about. The information we received at first was that it would be a main title project and that it would be interesting if we could continue to use watercolor, like the animations in the film do. But a project that started with a simple proposal ended up as something totally different, partly because we became more aware of the meaning of the project, and because it evolved a lot in the process.

“The project was done through Elastic, and I always have a great experience when partnering up with them. I believe what brought my name to the table for this project is my skills and experience, which range from technical skills like design, illustration and animation to creative direction. I'm someone that can handle entire projects by myself or lead a team, depending on the project’s needs.”

What tools do you typically use to design main titles, and specifically for Between the World and Me?

“There is a philosophy that I learned with my Japanese-Brazilian wife, that inspires me a lot, called wabi-sabi. In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi (侘寂) is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.

“With advances in technology, we have seen an evolution in animation and motion graphics, opening up lots of possibilities. But it has also created an overuse of some styles, like the cute and graphic characters we see in the tech field.

“I try to go in the opposite direction. Instead of having everything flat and clean, I want to make things imperfect, textured, and sometimes even messy, because this is how humans are. The strategy I take to achieve this idea is mixing real materials, such as brushes, paper, wood, fabrics, coal and anything related to the aesthetic world of the project. Sometimes I mix them all with digital illustrations, other times with photos and archival footage, always aiming to find something that looks unique.

“To craft the opening of BTWM, I used paper texture and pages from the book that gives name to the film; as well as watercolor, because it was already part of the art direction of the movie. I also used photos, archival footage, and black artists' creations as assets, mixing it not just with the pages from the book, but also with covers of other books related to the topic, such as ‘Native Son’, ‘Song of Solomon’, ‘The Wretched Earth’ and ‘Women Race & Class’. The result was a huge collage, like the movie itself.”

How do you get started with designing main titles? What does your creative process look like?

“I usually first dive into the content. Sometimes we have a rough edit of the project, or a script or a bible. The first thing I do is understand the concept of the movie or series to translate it into other elements, like the main title or the graphical package.  

“For BWAM’s opening title, we had the book with the same title and the first pass of the script. With a clear idea of the concept in mind, the director or client has some rounds of exchanging visual references with the creative team to align expectations. With some agreed references in hand, we move on to the development of the first frames, which will be the guides for the entire film. In my experience, we usually have to make two revisions until the director can identify the concepts being translated in film. Lastly, in the longest phase, we develop and expand the first frames for the film or documentary's entire opening and graphic package.

“Although we have a methodology, sometimes we have to adapt and change the approach, and the main title of BWAM is an example of that. What started with a request for something similar to watercolor, went through the possibility of being just a photo and archival edit, and ended up with a rich collage sheathed with concepts.”

On Agents of Chaos you worked with Alex Gibney, how did you adapt to his directing style?

“Alex is the kind of director that knows what he wants but is also open to the unexpected. It was quite easy working with him. So easy in fact that in one of our meetings I mentioned this directly to him and his team.  

“The process was super straightforward. After some back and forth, he picked one graphical direction that represented the idea of a hacked democracy. Then we translated it into animation. After sharing the first round of animated shots for the graphical package with them, their comment  was something like, “This exactly is what we were looking for.’

“I truly believe that communication and attention are key to every project. Poor communication can spoil a huge budget and a great opportunity, wasting time on things that won’t be used. The opposite is also true; if the expectations are well-set and everybody understands the process, even a small budget treated with care can become something great. On this topic, Alex and his team were great.”

What is your biggest takeaway from working on Agents of Chaos and has it changed the way you will approach projects in the future?

“There are two takeaways. The first one is a new methodology that I tried on this project because the team of animators was composed of Brazilians, and we have different time zones.

“So I developed a methodology with a shared spreadsheet, where everyone had their tasks described by shot and by order of relevance. A note from the director was a top priority; a comment about polishing a small detail in the animation would be a low priority. Since the animation style in the main title was quite clear and approved, they could receive the notes and start working without needing to talk directly to me. Towards the end of the project, when we were in a rush, the team was receiving the notes and finishing the changes before we had talked to each other. Through this methodology, as art director, I could receive the comments from the directors, digest them and add my own, and then delegate them to every person in the team.

“This was the best workflow I’ve ever had, and a big part of this was thanks to the team that adapted fast to this methodology. 

“The second takeaway is the content itself. This documentary is a must see in a world where you can be drawn in (by) misinformation and manipulated content.”

What’s next for you and how can follow you on social media?

“I will be very satisfied continuing to develop the same line of work that I’m in right now — opening titles for projects that aim to do some kind of social good and dare to innovate and experiment with their visuals. 

“At the moment, I’m directing and producing a project that follows a similar line of work as these two projects. If you'd like to see more, and other things that I’m developing, you can follow me on Instagram or visit my website at 

“Thank you for this opportunity. It's been a pleasure sharing my thoughts on these projects.”