Everyone loves Saul Bass. It’s a deserved love. He’s a design giant and designers pay the respect due. But even those amongst us who don’t get hot under the collar for fonts and logo treatments love him, whether they know his name or not. They love his his incredible title sequences for films like The Man with the Golden Arm, Vertigo, and Anatomy of a Murder. I recently came across some commercial work he’d done for television in the 50’s, and upon doing some google-sniffing to search out more information, was surprised to find none of it was already represented on the web. With that in mind please consider the following images my small contribution to the digital remembrance of all things Bass.
This first sequence was a “corporate presentation for television” (read: mini-commercial) created by Bass for the Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation. It appeared at the beginning of the series Small World, which the company sponsored. Its goal was “to indicate the firm’s range of activities through symbols.” Saul handled the animation and it was put out by Playhouse Pictures.
You can see the entire sequence in one large image by clicking here.
The second sequence was also created for Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation. This time the “corporate presentation” focused on the companies range of packaging materials and their “functional suitability.” Again Saul handled the animation and it was put out by Playhouse Pictures.
You can see this entire sequence in one large image by clicking here.
It’s hard to really get a sense of these mini-commercials from a handful of stills, to tell whether they were “successful” as corporate presentations, whether they were fun, or catchy, or memorable. I suspect that they were.
It’s interesting to see, even on this limited level, how Saul approached that task which has been seemingly omnipresent since the beginning of direct advertising- making giant corporations which manufacture things like blasting powder, gunpowder, ammunition cartridges, and and endless array of deadly chemicals seem cuddly and approachable, or at very least human. This is a task advertising agencies still wrestle with today, with often cloying and nauseating results. (Think petroleum, defense, tobacco, and pharmaceuticals.)
I believe beyond his unquestionable talents Saul actually had a built-in advantage over those that wrestle with the task today. The 50’s and 60’s were an era in which the friendly, “cartoony,” hand-drawn illustration was king. King I say! It was a visual language and style that could make damn near anything seem wholesome. ?
Lastly, as a tiny bonus let me offer a few scant shots from the title sequence for the film The Shrike which Mr. Bass did and which seem to be absent from the internet as well. Here you go.
Anyhow, hope you completeists and design-folk found some pleasure in that. To the rest of you- better luck next time.
Note: all of sequence images above were scanned from the book, Design In Motion by John Halas and Roger Manvell, published 1962.
By Joseph Tabbi
Was Saul Bass a writer? Was he a poet? Given that his film title ‘texts’ are not ‘his’ – not his compositions in the accepted sense, what is his art and how can it be seen as a writer’s art, a literal art? N. Katherine Hayles, an important theorist of writing in new media, suggests that the materiality of any text, emerges as a dance between the medium’s physical characteristics and the work’s signifying strategies (personal communication). Saul Bass does this dance with words. We need, says Hayles, to follow the dance when we read and write because our moves require a ‘ media specific ’ analysis of language art. The physical characteristics of the media that both deliver and constitute writing are in flux, and writers are using novel or re-emergent signifying strategies to generate their meanings as literal art.Personal email communication with John Cayley. Here is a published formulation: ”The materiality of an embodied text is the interaction of its physical characteristics with its signifying strategies.” N. Katherine Hayles. My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 103 (emphasis in original). The work of Saul Bass re-emerges, and can be shown to underlie the so-called new.
Words move. The graphic bodies of language – from letters to words, from phrases to entire texts – translate, scale, and morph on our private and public screens in a bewildering and so-far uncatalogued array of transitions. As readers, we are more and more habituated to such literal dynamism, a kinetic textuality that is hard to square with capital-l Literature’s notions of the copy-text, the edition, the authorized textual event – all those institutionally published forms of words that transform the writer into a ‘person of letters’ – and, for example, allow her to generate royalties from licensing what has legal-magically become an enclosed property.
When did words begin to move? This question pulls me back – from a familiar, if utopic and theoretical, ‘new textuality’ rant – to the work of Saul Bass, to a history of practice. Written words first moved on film. Film titling, in particular, is where we must look for a self-conscious and aestheticized practice of dynamic typography and, indeed, of dynamic writing. This work predates the small body of video-based language work (Richard Kostelanetz), the few but significant essays of art language practitioners (Jenny Holtzer), and also, of course, what writing there is that exists in programmable media. Given that time-based, dynamic writing is here to stay, on screen or wherever it next migrates, its largely unacknowledged and little-analysed early history – in media that support its time-based properties – deserves far greater attention. And not only for a history of the form and its aesthetics – readers like you and I are now, for example, increasingly subject to advertising’s appropriation of ‘type in motion.’ To my mind, there has been a recent marked increase in high-end ads with sophisticated dynamic textuality. We need tools for its critical reading.
The major exposition of Saul Bass’s graphic and film title work at London’s Design Museum was, therefore, essential. Saul Bass was the first film title designer to be given a screen credit by the Director’s Guild of America (for Preminger’s Carmen Jones 1954) and remains an all but uniquely name-checkable artist in the film titles field. Yet his fame derives equally if not in greater measure from his related, more purely graphic work, where he is a central figure in that late-50s, early-60s school of jazz-rhythmic, cool, flat, monochromatic design, with a clever use of abstraction that allowed for significant interaction between normally distinct representational modes: paper cut-out silhouettes become body parts, become an assembled corpse, become (once more) a potential and actual surface for writing (see his titles for Anatomy of a Murder 1959, with the process I’ve just described encapsulated in the film’s famous posters). Many visitors to the exhibition will have gone there simply to revisit one source of a perennially hip graphic style.
Anatomy of a Murder, 1959 (Director: Otto Preminger; Design: Saul Bass; (c) AMPAS)
Nonetheless the film title work is crucial. Certain aspects of the style I’ve characterised are also vital to the dynamic writing of Bass’s most important titles. Specifically, we must try to understand the distinct ways in which Bass plays with abstraction; how they carry over from his graphic work and become, as it were, played out and dramatised in his time-based titling. Bass uses abstraction in a manner that recalls Scott McCloud’s brilliant sketch of the subject in Understanding Comics . For McCloud, the disjuncture between visual abstraction and written language is a creative problem. He suggests a continuum from the extremes of graphic abstraction to conventional signs of writing. The folk etymologies of pictorial word-signs (early letter-forms, hieroglyphics, Chinese characters) lend their evocative history to a range of suggestive procedures. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not (and neither is McCloud) a theoretical naive, or wedded to an orientalist hallucination of ideography. The disjuncture between language and graphics remains clear. The two practices are materially distinct because their signifying strategies and physical characteristics are radically different. Nonetheless, suggestive links are links, and such links may signify. They can do more than this. They can constitute a rhetoric and materiality of their own, a trans-medial art practice.
Like McCloud’s ‘invisible art,’ graphic design, particularly typographic design, is a trans-medial art par excellence, part of an engaged project which strives to make the visual and sub-linguistic aspects of writing signify. Graphic design proceeds to set out writing’s ‘paratextual’ properties – conventional and creative aspects of writing’s layout and framing – and render them not only aesthetically but substantively meaningful. How else can the performances of typography be appreciated? What need of typographers otherwise? Saul Bass, through the reality of the once-new technology of film and its illusion of animation, gave us the first literal performances of this necessary and vital interplay between language-as-visual-form and language-as-symbolic-representation. He animated the bodies of words along with their paratextual demons and familiars.
Bass achieved this during the second half of the 1950s, in his groundbreaking titles for films from The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) through Psycho (1960), and, to a certain extent, Spartacus (1960). The latter marks a distinct shift in his practice, after which, in the 1960s and 1970s, he turned away from film titling and worked more directly with the visual imaginary of cinema, as then understood. Spartacus uses photorealist images of objects – especially a bronze bust – but shot such that they hover on the edge of the silhouette-abstraction that had become a Bass trademark. From Spartacus on, the actual words of his titles are distinct typographic forms floating over or through the visual imaginary that they caption. In Spartacus, a letter-edge might still have caught on the edge of a silhouette. By contrast, none of the words in the titles for Cape Fear (1991) would share a surface with the water and shadow over which they move.
This more familiar, later work – in what has become the establish mode of film titling – sets the innovations of Bass’s 1950s work in sharp relief. The typographic ‘rule’ – typically a printed bar of ink – was an important trans-medial element in his film titles of the time. Rules are quintessentially paratextual. They share the surface of writing and they share its graphic materiality – particularly contrasting monochrome colour. They manage and marshal the spaces in which writing is set, but they are not writing in the strict sense of symbolic representation. At one and same time, rules are also lines, lines that may shape themselves into abstract visual representations.
The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955 – two versions (Director: Otto Preminger; Design: Saul Bass; (c) AMPAS)
Titles for The Man with the Golden Arm demonstrate this perfectly. A single heavy rule sweeps down to mark the director’s credit; three more are propagated and, while introducing the names of the (three) lead actors, suggest, to my eye, walking legs. Three of the four vanish leaving one upper rule, with the three now returning, sweeping in from the other screen edges, to set out the superbly composed spaces of the film’s title. The same rules go on to marshal and punctuate the remaining credits, suggesting more visual forms and spaces, and also, I would argue, letter forms, before finally and infamously combining to become the jagged silhouette of the ‘golden arm’ itself.
Rules in Bass’s work do not typically become letters, but they do interfere with the surfaces of writing – sometimes making the switch from foreground to background and becoming a newly delineated surface of inscription. This is shown, for example, if we consider the torn-out surface spaces of Bunny Lake is Missing as in some sense a special type of rule. Rules can also interfere directly with writing, which provides a reading of the titles for Psycho where they become manic and overwhelming, slicing through the caption words, momentarily allowing us to glimpse and read, before destroying legibility in a striated frenzy that is permanently linked with cinema’s most notorious shocker.
Bass’s masterpiece is the title sequence for North by Northwest (1959) where rules are present in their primary role as the squared lines supporting text. But more, in this sequence, their formation of a (archi)textual gridwork also provides a direct link to the visual imaginary, to a world of real images, a prefiguration of Bass’s personal concerns with cinema per se and also, I’d argue, an unconscious premonitory graphic representation not only of the interaction of the symbolic and the real but of the information-age virtual and the real. These titles are a ‘central processor’ of writing in new media, before its time had come.
These images of North by Northwest have been taken from notcoming.com
The sequence opens with a landscape-aspect grid receding in perspective, not yet quite recognizable as the surface of a modernist office block. Words of the titles glide in on the gridlines and, in particular, glide up and down the vertical lines where they meet and come momentarily to rest for reading. As they do so, their movements are suddenly like those of elevators in a building, giving us one of the first visual clues to a real-world referent for the abstract grid as a signifier or representation.
This resemblance of the words’ movements to elevators marks a relatively uncharacteristic evocation of Concrete poetics – bodies of words behave like objects. Words in Bass’s Goodfellas (1990) titles imitate coke-accelerated cars, but I can’t think of other prominent examples. In fact, his work is remarkable for its avoidance of Concrete. Paratextual elements, like rules, are allowed to crossover, via abstraction, into the visual, but words remain set in legibility, as tokens of the symbolic. The important thing in Bass’s titles is the continuum that is played out in literal time-based art, a continuum of rhetorical possibilities and signifying strategies that cross and recross from visual to linguistic media and back, in evocative iterative performance, without ever loosing a grip on their specific materialities.
The ruled gridlines of North by Northwest are faithful to graphics, typography, visuality, and text all at once. As the sequence progresses this becomes clear. The words of the title perform their function – we can simply read the credits – and give material pleasure in their design and movement. At a certain point the grid moves away from abstraction and is filled in with the mirrored glass windows of a modernist office block. It becomes real or rather more than real because it is a also mirror, a surface that is one particular privileged representation of the world. We see people and traffic alive and moving in the mirror-world and world of filmic naturalism. Meanwhile, the title words continue to share this same surface. They are still well-set and respectful of typographic principles but now they share a surface of visual representation that is simultaneously a real object (the building) in the (film) world. It’s a tour de force. These titles embody a continuum of signifying strategies across media that could only be performed in time.
The potential for the now familiar screenic surface of programmable media as a site of a literal trans-medial art is discovered in the titles for North by Northwest . It’s as simple and as richly suggestive as that. Where do we go from here? In his work on West Side Story(1961) Bass quietly and wittily played with real surfaces as a site for (title) writing, with the credits expressed as graffiti and intermixed with signage. One of the recognized artists in contemporary film titles, Kyle Cooper, literally etched the credits for Se7en (1995) onto film stock. Some suggestions: We continue to write with a Bass-resonant reverential materialism, with respect for the surfaces on which we make our inscriptions. We move writing from surface to surface, from media to media, with this same respect, not only from the pseudo-transparent surface of print to the screen or the virtual surfaces of artistic performance, but onto real surfaces. We do this writing in real and in human time.
*This essay has also appeared in Mute: Culture and Politics After the Net , Winter/Spring 2005 Issue 29.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Kitchen Sink Press, 1993. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.
Title sequences of the 1950s and ’60s grabbed moviegoers with psychological insights, orchestral violence and some lessons learnt from the early pioneers of animation, for whom motion graphics, sound and story were inseparable. By Joel Karamath
Title sequences have reached an unprecedented level of attention, with vast numbers of design studios dedicated to television and cinema motion graphics. Yet the history of the contemporary title sequence stretches back a generation or more, when Saul Bass and Maurice Binder laid the foundations for the modern form, and even earlier, to the short cartoon films of the 1920s and ’30s.
Bass’s titles for director Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) emerged at a time when popular music was consolidating its position as the dominant art form of the twentieth century. The musical impact of both films reflects the zeitgeist of the post-war era that marked the advent of commercial television and advertising – the engine room of consumer society in the us. Television advertising, like the title sequence and the radio ad before it, was defined by music. Yet the influence music had in shaping visual culture on the screen predates this golden age of consumerism.
Sound had always been a goal for mainstream cinema: even in the days of the silent era, sound was unavoidable, complementing and enlivening the screen action via a cinema pianist or, occasionally, a full orchestra. Warner Brothers’ first “talkie” The Jazz Singer in 1927, was a famous success, but it could be argued that the first truly successful marriage of sound and image came with the animated shorts produced soon afterwards, and typically shown as part of the exhibition programmes (feature, b-movie, newsreel, cartoons) to which audiences flocked at that time. One only need look at the names the studios gave their productions to see their debt to music: Merry Melodies, Happy Harmonies, Loony Toons, Silly Symphonies.
Max Fleischer, MGM, Disney and Warner Bros relied heavily upon music for the structure of their short cartoons. Disney’s first major success Steamboat Willie (1928) was Mickey Mouse’s debut in a skit that derives much of its humour from the surreal visualisation of musical cues. In one instance Mickey turns the tail of a goat to the accompaniment of a barrel organ, while in another he plays a cow’s teeth to the sound of a xylophone. When he pulls the string of the boat’s whistle, the instrument forms a mouth and blows.
The most prominent use of music as a catalyst for character and plot visualisation stemmed from Warner Bros, one of the most productive studios (known as “Termite Terrace”), with a huge staff that included some of the greatest animators of all time. Throughout the studio’s heyday in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950 the prime focus point for artists such as Jones, Avery, Freleng and Clampett would often stem from the sound department, where specialist Mel Blanc created the voices for Bugs, Daffy, Porky et al, and composer Carl Stalling (who had previously worked for Disney on Steamboat Willie) scored the music. While Blanc largely delivered voiceover dialogue and jokes to a script, Stalling was engaged at all stages of production: the interaction between his music, producers such as Leon Schlesinger and animators such as Chuck Jones resulted in a unique body of collaborative work.
The avant-garde films of that time were produced by visual artists who treated the new medium of film as an extension of their respective disciplines: artists such as Man Ray, Ferdnand Léger, Dudley Murphy and Len Lye worked to existing music or silence. Stalling and, similarly, Scott Bradley, head of music at mgm, had helped to create something that was, like the Bollywood musical and the pop promo today, much more than film with musical interludes. It was a specific form, just as grand opera is distinct from opera, or pantomime from dramatic theatre; something that Hollywood would not begin to amend, with the shift from non-integrated to integrated musicals, for over a decade. Further still, these cartoons were products in which the music was both non-diegetic score and diegetic sound effect at the same time, compounding their innovative uniqueness.
Through its publishing division, Warner Bros had an extensive music catalogue, affording the animation studio access to some of the most popular tunes of the day. So it was also the first to seize upon the opportunity of promoting its records visually. The sight of Tom (of Tom and Jerry) crooning Louis Jordan’s “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” marks a marketing strategy that predates MTV by decades. The immediate artistic and commercial success of the animated short in integrating sound, vision and movement supports historian Eric Hobsbawn’s assertion that with the “failure of modernism” advertising and cinema became the true avant-garde.
Stalling retired in 1956 just as television was beginning to usurp the big screen. As genres such as the newsreel and the short moved to the small screen, animation suffered a drastic drop in funding. The elaborate music arrangements of Stalling and Bradley, hitherto scored individually for each production, were replaced by cheaper generic mood pieces, sterile melodies dropped in behind impoverished visuals.
THE START OF A FRANCHISE
As television heralded the demise of quality mainstream animation, cinema began to find a new outlet for the amalgamation it had spawned: the title sequence, which set the mood and provided audiences with a taste of the narrative to come. For the movie-going audience, the title sequence filled a gap left, after the demise of the old exhibition package, by the absence of newsreels and animated shorts.
The way in which this symbiosis between title sequence, score and story can be used to establish motif and character traits is exemplified by the James Bond series (nearly twenty “official” Bond films), started by Dr. No (1962). The Bond title sequence and theme tune are two of the most instantly recognisable cinematic signatures. Despite the obvious impact and lasting impression of Binder’s work, the highly complex mixing and layering of his sequence for Dr. No almost renders the Modernist ethos of his mentor, Saul Bass, redundant: it foreshadows a postmodern tendency to mix and match.
The congested complexity of the Dr. No titles is simplified on subsequent films in the Bond series by separating the original sequence pattern into two individual entities. The opening sequences for From Russia With Love and Goldfinger separate two musically led graphic segments with an opening action scene (unrelated to the movie’s plot) that reduces the harsh juxtaposition of competing graphic images and music of Dr. No . The use of very specific title songs in the Bond movies, as with Goldfinger, also created a separate (and marketable) product.
THE COLLABORATIVE AUTEUR
The postwar period saw a marked shift in film scoring, when composers such as Elmer Bernstein and Bernard Herrmann began to develop a dramatic style that Bernstein described as a move towards a more “emotional . . . inner psychological state”, which relied not so much upon a series of themes as “creating atmosphere”, often without resolution. The brutal violin shrieks of Herrmann’s score for Psycho stand out as one of the most memorable sounds in the history of cinema. Herrmann began his film career with Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) and died shortly after completing Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). At the hub of an exemplary career in the movies was his eleven-year, eight-film partnership with Alfred Hitchcock. Herrmann’s conception of cinema was an interpretation based upon the balance between sound and image: “The moment that you do a story on film, music becomes almost imperative . . . It is in the nature of cinema that it needs music, theatre doesn’t need music really.”
Herrmann’s statement certainly rings true in relation to the role of the title sequence and is best shown by his work with Saul Bass for Hitchcock, at the end of the 1950s. The collaboration between the three men, though short-lived, was extremely fruitful. Hitchcock is often spoken of as the auteur’s auteur and while there is no doubting his influence on everything he touched, it is equally important to acknowledge the contributions of his regular production crew: Robert Burks’ cinematography, George Tomasini’s editing and the costumes of Edith Head. As much as anything else, Hitchcock’s genius lay in his ability to relay his messages to and through others, most specifically through the work of Bass and Herrmann.
Their first film titles together, Vertigo (1958), provide a perfect example of Hitchcock’s communicative powers, with Bass and Herrmann working separately through the director, Herrmann later scoring to Bass’s visuals. The final construction, like the movie itself, is a slow-moving and uncannily evocative piece that transcends the sum of its melodramatic and repetitive parts.
Vertigo, often considered Hitchcock’s finest work, was quickly followed a year later by North by Northwest, another thriller based upon identity, though not nearly as dark or brooding as Vertigo. Cary Grant’s lead makes play with a witty and romantic script by Ernest Lehman. Bass, Herrmann and Hitchcock conjure an opening score and title sequence that work as a mini-prologue to the film, engaging the audience with related plot themes from the outset. Herrmann’s score is simple and to the point, reflecting the juxtaposition of humour and suspense in the movie with a mixture of high and low notes (flutes to timpani) that represent the opposing forces at work in the film. It has a lighter tone than his score for Vertigo, including a “Gershwin-esque” homage to New York where the film starts, and an exhilarating theme for the chase that covers half of the us.
Bass’s titles are equally engaged with the plot through the use of an animated grid: the names of the stars and production staff follow each other vertically on and off the screen in a game of cat and mouse, prefiguring the precarious positions in which the main characters find themselves. A final twist comes when the grid fades into a shot of a skyscraper, its windows reflecting the street below, a distorted vision of an everyday scene that primes us for a tale of mistaken identity.
Vertigo may be Hitchcock’s most critically acclaimed work and North By Northwest one of the most entertaining but Psycho (1960) is his most notorious, ushering in a new era of film-making and spawning the “slasher movie”. Made on a low budget, in black and white without major stars, it is one of the most influential and imitated ever. Despite several radical changes in production methods, he hired Bernard Herrmann as composer and Saul Bass for the titles. (Bass is also credited as “pictorial consultant”.) Psycho has a special place in twentieth century culture, honoured by several “sequels” with the late Anthony Perkins, a much-derided scene-for-scene 1998 remake (in colour!) by Gus Van Sant and an installation by artist Douglas Gordon, whose 24-hour Psycho clicks slowly through each frame of the original movie.
The film’s content is anticipated in the opening title sequence by the violent music (a string chamber orchestra that Herrmann chose to reflect John L. Russell’s monochrome cinematography) and the slices made in the block capitals of the director’s name, closely followed by the pattern made by slicing a series of vertical bars.
The pinnacle of Bass and Herrmann’s collaboration with Hitchcock would come with one of the most memorable scenes in movie history. The condensed montage of shots in the shower scene – which took the best part of a week to film, placing the camera in over 70 positions – is on screen for little over a minute. It was storyboarded, shot and edited by Bass, who also had to persuade Hitchcock to include Herrmann’s score: the director had originally intended to screen the scene without music (see extract on p41). Less than halfway through the movie, they created a cinematic climax that has never been bettered.
ALL THE ANIMALS COME OUT AT NIGHT
Psycho marked the apex and the conclusion of the collaboration between Hitchcock, Bass and Herrmann: the three were never to work as a team again. Bass and Hitchcock (whom Bass said had “taught him the art of film-making”), would fall out, some say over their differences on Psycho. Hitchcock’s next picture, The Birds (1963), featured a title sequence by James Block and electronic music by Oskar Sala. (Herrmann acted as a consultant.) A few years later he would be removed from his position as the composer on Torn Curtain (1966) by Hitchcock, never to work with the director again. All three continued to produce good work, but never quite reached the symbiosis of their work on Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho. Bass went on to produce two of his most outstanding creations, Walk on the Wild Side (1962) and Nine Hours to Rama (1963), soon after the split from Hitchcock, yet these movies highlight the pitfalls of working outside the confines of a tight team. Both sequences are superbly crafted entities (working with scores by, respectively, Elmer Bernstein and Malcolm Arnold) that work as separate narrative interpretations and represent their films’ stories in miniature. Yet Bass’s titles are considered by some critics to be more memorable than the films.
Herrmann’s final score for Taxi Driver symbolises the gothic sleaze of mid-1970s New York. Without overtly graphic titles, the saxophone-led cues intensify the glaring montage of traffic signals, street signs, cinemas, theatres and storefronts in Manhattan, while the more orchestral passages glance back to the emotional turmoil of Scottie in Vertigo. The parallel nature of Herrmann’s work to Bass and Hitchcock on Vertigo was best summarised in reference to a composition made over twenty years later. When Martin Scorsese was asked about the importance of Herrmann’s score for Taxi Driver, he said: “It provided the psychological basis throughout . . . a vortex that never comes to completion. Just when you think it’s finished it starts all over again.”
Both Bass and Herrmann worked best with visionary auteurs brave enough to let them interact with their work on a intellectual, physical and emotional level, enabling them to create work that not only complemented but raised the films on which they collaborated to new levels of emotional richness.
Title sequence from Dr. No, 1962. Design: Maurice Binder. Music: John Barry and Monty Norman. Animation: Trevor Bond. Director: Terence Young. Producers: Harry Saltzman, Albert R. Broccoli. © 1962 Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation.
In Dr. No Maurice Binder sows the seeds for what was to become the classic Bond opening: a white circle appears on the screen, to the accompaniment of primitive electronic music – simple bleeps like test tones. The circle manifests itself as the spiral of a gun barrel (or the iris of a lens) in which “Bond” is focused. He beats his would-be assassin to the draw and with a single shot turns the screen red. This screen fills with flashing multicoloured dots (animated by Trevor Bond) that finally form the title of the film and serve as an accompaniment for the main actors’ credits. The third segment of the titles introduce the cavorting silhouettes of go-go dancers that later became a Bond hallmark. Here they are intended to evoke the “exotic” Caribbean, where the film is set, and London in the swinging 1960s. There is then a dissolve to the fourth and final segment as the dancers fade into the silhouettes of three “blind” men loping across the screen from left to right, which in turn dissolve into the live footage of the same three characters, soon to be revealed as vicious assassins, as the story begins.
The four sections of Binder’s opening are paralleled by four distinct soundtrack segments. In the first part, Binder’s dot logo is seen accompanied by high-pitched electronic test tones (which, like the dot, establishes a link between Bond, the film and the onset of the computer age). A gun shot then ignites the dot-matrix spectacular, introducing the title of the film, in the second segment, along with Monty Norman’s Bond theme, arranged by the hastily recruited John Barry with its long, chromatic string line and twanging guitar. Stage three uses an exotic bongo rhythm for the dancing figures, which then develops into a calypso version of “Three Blind Mice”, a tentative first use of the Bond device of using a theme song linked to the story (“Diamonds Are Forever”, “The World Is Not Enough”).
Title sequence from Goldfinger, 1964. Design: Robert Brownjohn. Music: John Barry. Director: Guy Hamilton. Producers: Harry Saltzman, Albert R. Broccoli. © 1964 Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation.
By the time of Goldfinger, which had a budget at least five times that of Dr. No, the James Bond title formula was firmly established. The short opening iris segment is largely copied from Dr. No, except that it dispenses with the electronic bleeps and uses the John Barry version of the Bond theme throughout. A four-minute plus action scene follows that establishes Bond’s credentials as a resourceful spy and “ladykiller” – glimpsing a would-be assailant in a lover’s eye in mid-clinch, he spins round so that the girl takes the blow.
The pre-credit sequence works as a mini-Bond movie that re-establishes the 007 persona for fans and provides a swift introduction for newcomers. Robert Brownjohn’s credit sequence shows scenes from the movie projected on to a woman’s golden-painted body (the villain’s nubile assistant is sadistically murdered by “epidermal asphyxiation” early in the plot) to the accompaniment of Barry’s theme song, with lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse sung by Shirley Bassey. This was the first Bond movie to feature a full-blown song over the titles – From Russia With Love uses an instrumental version of the theme song. Goldfinger could be seen as the first complete Bond sequence, as well as the aesthetic pinnacle of the franchise, setting a template for the series that, though often imitated, has rarely been surpassed.
Title sequence from Vertigo, 1958. Design: Saul Bass. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Director: Alfred Hitchcock. © Universal Studios.
In Vertigo, the acrophobic protagonist Scottie (James Stewart) obsessively recreates Madeleine, for whose suicide he feels responsible, in the person of the living Judy (Kim Novak). Bernard Herrmann scored the “Prologue” music to Bass’s visuals, constructing an uncannily evocative piece that far outweighs the sum of its parts. Indicative of what David Toop described as the “intellectual” impact of images and text in relation to the “emotional” content of music, the sequence manages to convey issues inherent in this slow, complex film through simple means.
As the studio logo fades we hear a harp initiate a repetitive melody which is taken up by the violins. Bass’s images enter at a point where low strings have just introduced a sense of foreboding. Bass crops Novak’s face tightly, employing what film-maker Barney Cokeliss described as a “cinematic blazon”, a technique later deployed to great effect by Scorsese at the start of Taxi Driver, when Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is introduced through the window and rearview mirror of his taxi. With his Vertigo titles, Bass suggests the notion of a constructed woman, giving us fragments rather than a whole. Herrmann’s melody continues, but is interrupted by a Wagnerian surge of horns, as credits for the lead actors, director and title appear, before returning to its melancholic cycle.
Appropriately enough for a film about image and identity, the title appears over a full frame of Novak’s eye. As we are drawn into the centre of her iris a small, animated vortex begins to spiral and grow until it engulfs the whole screen, undergoing a series of colour changes. This spiralling icon, coupled with the repeating melody, provides a theme that runs throughout the movie: that of revisiting and re-inventing the past. The spiral represents Scottie’s vertigo, the coil of hair on a woman’s head in an oil portrait, a bouquet of flowers and the winding wooden staircase of the bell tower from which Madeleine falls to her death. Bass’s colour changes for this graphic are equally significant. The icon first appears in Novak’s eye tinted red before trawling through the spectrum, a cue to the importance Hitchcock gives to colour throughout the movie as Scottie, the ultimate fall guy, is sucked into an emotional void.
Title sequence from Psycho, 1960. Design: Saul Bass. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Director: Alfred Hitchcock. © Shamley Productions.
Psycho will always stand as one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces but there can be few of his films which have had such a direct, creative input from outside sources. Without Herrmann’s score, Psycho would be something completely different, something less, while Bass picks up all the themes that are established in the opening credits, right through to the midpoint climax of the movie. Paul Hirsch commented that “the extreme emotional duress is due entirely to the music”. What we see is not just heightened by the music – it is taken to another level. The shrieking violins are the externalisation of Norman Bates’s internal angst. Hitchcock’s brief to the composer, for a light jazz score, was thankfully ignored.
As with Vertigo and North By Northwest the score sets up a repetitive momentum that keeps bringing us back to the same place over and over again, but unlike the two previous films, there is no genuine respite. The introduction is abrupt and jumps in almost with a climax; everything about the score is an attack. The repetition does not take us around in a circle but is a constant onslaught, wave after wave that cannot be resisted. Visually, the violence to come is relayed in the opening sequence by horizontal slashes that rip through the pure white titles and credits on screen. As in The Man With The Golden Arm, solid white bars appear but they offer little defence from this attack. The Powers of Ten-style zoom into the doomed heroine’s bedroom window implies that this is just one of many stories in this particular naked city.
First published in Eye no. 39 vol. 10, 2001
by Noell Wolfgram Evans
A night at the movies once went like this: you’d arrive at the theatre, see a short subject, a cartoon, a smaller (B) movie and then the main feature would dance across the screen followed by a slate of coming attractions.
Over time and for a variety of reasons this bill shifted and changed until we arrived at the movie night of today: arrive at the theatre, see a commercial, a couple of previews, the main picture and go home. With the hectic pace of today’s life, no one really complains about theatre’s dropping the first feature and the absence of a short subject is all but forgotten but having no cartoon, that’s on a different level. The majority of filmgoers wouldn’t mind seven minutes of color before the main feature. Unfortunately, the advent of television and the rising cost of animation, combined with other factors and contributed to the ‘demise’ of the animated short theatrical feature. Or did it?
Looking back and viewing the landscape of film exhibition, particularly in regards to animation, it is reasonable to see that animated shorts have not in fact disappeared from the silver screen, rather they evolved into an integral part of the main feature. Today when going to the movies, chances are that animation will be a part of the bill, most likely as the main feature titles.
In the days of silent film, the story was moved along by title cards, which were imbued with text and inserted through out the action. The white lettering on black backgrounds was sometimes livened up by some decorative additions (such as ‘lace’ outlines, type treatments or drawings of characters or buildings) but for the most part, they were rather plain. The cards could be found not just within the film, but before as well. And so film titles were born, dull and plain, but they were here. Thankfully they evolved and matured to where they were not just reciting off the names of the films participants, but were actually an integral part of the main feature. This maturation of the film titles was due in large part to one man: Saul Bass.
Saul Bass was one of the first to seize on the potential storytelling power of the opening and closing credits of a film. He used a number of styles (animation, live action, type treatments) to create credits for films as diverse as Casino (1995) and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). What he created were opening credit sequences that did not simply announce the credits and open the movie, they were instead a logical extension of the film. Each sequence was in it’s self a short film that prepared the viewer for what was to come. In his closing credit sequences, he worked to give the story a ‘semi-prologue’, to give the viewer a chance to continue the experience of the film while bringing it to a close.
Saul was born in New York City on May 8, 1920. He was interested in art from an early age and did all that he could to expand his passions. At the age of 15, he began taking painting classes at the Art Student’s League in Manhattan. He studied here until he was old enough to attend Brooklyn College. His stay here, under the tutelage of Gyorgy Kepes, would be the turning point in his life and work. He was deeply influenced in his studies on the Modernist School of Design and what he learned would have a hold on all that he did for the next fifty years. Following graduation, he worked his way around a number of New York advertising agencies before moving to Los Angeles in 1948.
Saul began his time in Hollywood doing print work for film ads. After a brief bit of time he found his job expanding and in 1954 he was asked to design and create a title sequence to the film Carmen Jones. Bass saw this as an opportunity to enhance the filmgoers experience. He didn’t want to just have his sequence inform the audience, nor did he want to use the time to do some fancy graphical work that would show of his talents but add nothing to the film.
“My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set mood and
the prime underlying core of the film’s story, to express the story
in some metaphorical way. I saw the title as a way of conditioning
the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would
already have an emotional resonance with it”1
As Bass went forward, he proceeded in perfecting these thoughts, creating mini-narratives which would help bring the viewer into the film.
Writer Ken Coupland feels that in this respect, Bass is something of a magician:
“I believe that a great title sequence almost literally hypnotizes
you, especially the work of Saul Bass where there’s a very strong
repetitive swirling motion and abstract things that happen that’s
putting you into a dream-like state.”2
This is especially true in Bass’ work for Alfred Hitchcock on the titles for Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1958). In the latter film, Bass used animated lines working behind the credits to create a maze like feel. He ensnared each name while using the animation to foreshadow Cary Grant’s plight. Perhaps the real trick comes at the end of the sequence, when the lines ‘become’ the skyscraper in the films opening.
Some of Bass’s early title work is very ‘graphic design-centric’ but as he went on, he moved away from that center, using a number of mediums, particularly animation. His work on two pictures in particular shows his knowledge and understanding of animation including it’s effects and influences on it’s audience and it’s surroundings (here the feature that followed/proceeded it).
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
One of 11 films that Bass worked on with Otto Preminger, this may constitute his best work in the collaboration. Inspired by the animated interludes that John Hubley created for The Four Poster (1952), Bass used limited animation playing over a jazz soundtrack (created specifically for the film by Duke Ellington) to bring the viewer into the film’s world of murder and betrayal. The entire sequence is based on the ‘ad’ for the film: a silhouette of a corpse, broken into pieces. It looks like a puzzle, where all of the pieces are close to being snapped together but just not quite there. This piece is the central image in the two minute opening animated title sequence.
Bass opens with the image as a whole and then it quickly disappears from view. We are then presented with the separate pieces of the body which slide on and off the screen in a cool and smooth manner as Ellington’s music walks us through. Sometimes the image moves quickly on and off and sometimes it arrives on screen and stays passive for a moment only to suddenly shatter apart.
The sequence perfectly sets the viewer up: by using only parts of the body, and in no certain order, one is left wondering what will come next and, like the puzzle pieces that they are, how each relates to the other. Just when things start to make sense, an image on screen shatters, effectively telling the viewer that nothing is solid, nothing is what it seems. It all works together to bring the viewer into the proper frame of mind for the mystery that follows. All of this is underscored beautifully by Bass’s decision to use a limited style of animation. The ‘jumpiness’ of the medium, helps keep the viewer jarred and on their toes, they were not allowed to simply waltz into this movie relaxed, they would instead enter the film as participants.
Bass’ work here is all the more impressive when it is viewed against another equally strong, but completely different sequence.
Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
This Michael Anderson directed film (which won the Academy Award for Best Picture) is one of those three-hour Hollywood blockbusters filled with nearly every star of the day. In this extravaganza, Bass’ work appears not at the beginning of the film, but at the end. The six-minute cartoon that he created to display the end credits gave people a reason to stay in the theatre even after ‘The End’ flashed across the screen.
For his work, Bass used fully realized animated figures against a plain background to retell the story of the film. In this short our hero is a clock on legs. Starting in London, the clock begins its journey around the world; this is done not literally but through the use of symbols (pyramids for Egypt, Elephants for India). An interesting twist that Bass added was not to scroll the credits across the screen but to integrate them into the movement. When the clock reaches the American West, a saloon door swings open and behind it is the name of one of the players in that scene. The door swings closed and another opens, revealing another name. In Paris, the names appear as fireworks blasts that illuminate the city. (While tricks like this may seem old hat today, remember that the majority of the films at this time used plain, static text for their credits.)
Bass plays all of his action off of Victor Youngs jaunty score to produce a completely realized animated version of the essence of the film. The credits here don’t just rehash the story material, but rather present it for us in a new way and it really is only after witnessing it that you feel as if the film is truly completed.
Saul Bass’ talents stretched into many areas. For film, besides creating title sequences for others’ movies, he also Produced and Directed several of his own short features. In 1968 he won an Academy Award for his partially animated short film Why Man Creates. He continued to work in film up until his death on April 25, 1996. He left an incredible body of work that still influences filmmakers and continues to hold movie watchers in amazement. He has been celebrated in exhibitions both ‘static’ (at New York City’s School of Visual Arts) and ‘moving’ (a number of film exhibitions travel the country now celebrating the art of the film title). His name even adorns an award that is given annually to the film with the best title sequence. Mr. Bass’ greatest legacy though may be that in a time when others were removing animation from theatres, he helped not only to keep it there, but to make it an essential part of a night at the movies.
1. Film Quarterly. Fall 1996
2. creativeloafing.com September 2000
Noell Wolfgram Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio. He has written for the Internet, print and had several plays produced. He enjoys the study of animation and laughs over cartoons with his wife and daughter.
Since my return from Philadelphia I’ve been listening to Film Score Monthly’s groundbreaking release of the music of Superman. The FSM “Blue Box” contains eight compact discs containing the complete original scores from all four Christopher Reeve Superman films (1978-1987) and the music from the short-lived 1988 Superman cartoon series. It’s a remarkable achievement by such a small record label, who specialize in the music of the movies. The rich history of the Superman films and their music is documented in an accompanying 160 page book — a must-have for any fan of the series or the music of John Williams.
Superman: The Movie remains the quintessential superhero film and the comic book adaptation against which all others are judged. While director Richard Donner has had other successes — namely The Omen and the Lethal Weapon franchises — his most accomplished work remains Superman. The expensive and exhausting production of the original 1978 film has been documented elsewhere, most recently in the 12-DVD box set released by Warners in 2006 to celebrate their “year of Superman” that coincided with the release of Brian Singer’s Superman Returns. I’d like to focus on a few smaller aspects of Donner’s work, namely the music and the main titles.
Listening to the music of Superman: The Movie by John Williams, I recall being six years old and hearing the soaring march for the first time. The Superman theme — which includes a brilliant three-note phrase that seems to call out “Sup-er-man!” — is the music of flight. It is visceral and transparent, and most important, it soars. Perhaps most interesting is the “balletic preparatory” music that precedes the introduction of the fanfare and, by corollary, Superman himself. It’s a dotted triplet rhythm that is carried by the low strings and sets a variety of action sequences in motion. It’s used to great effect during the first big reveal, when Clark Kent transforms into Superman on the streets of Metropolis to save the life of Lois Lane, who dangles off a building roof. There’s something about that “preparatory” phrase that is very John Williams. It’s dead serious, yet playful, and entirely cinematic. It reassures the audience of Superman’s imminent arrival in the same way that the shark motif in Jaws warned of imminent danger. The moment when Clark tears open his shirt, revealing the Superman shield, is effective because of this musical lead-up.
Part of the original film’s appeal is the opening title sequence — designed by R. Greenberg and Associates — that features the full musical fanfare and march in Dolby Stereo. Donner’s intent was to immerse the audience in the world of Metropolis and the mythology of Superman without losing a sense of verisimilitude — the quality of appearing real. This was also manifested in the film’s marketing campaign, which utilized the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly.” As such, the film itself begins in a movie theater with the curtains closed. The frame-within-a-frame reveals another frame when the curtains part (like in those old picture palaces) and a screen appears, followed by the noise of an old projector.
The appearance of the date “June 1938? is followed by a black-and-white faux newsreel narrated by a small child, who explains that during the Great Depression, not even the great city of Metropolis was spared hardships and despair. The child turns the pages of an Action Comics book and the camera focuses on a sketch of the Daily Planet. The newsreel then dissolves to a live-action version of the Daily Planet building at night, and the camera arches beyond its roof and into the heavens.
Though music has been playing in the background up until this point, it’s been nondescript. A timpani roll formally introduces the beginning of the title sequence and the film-proper. The first title, that of producer Alexander Salkind, appears to move beyond the old-fashioned movie screen (whose ratio is approximately 1.33:1) and into the theater space. As the blue letters invade the theater space, the screen widens to the full Panavision width of 2.35:1 and the side curtains move beyond the limits of the frame.
The music continues to swell, building off of the preparatory phrase, until the S shield fills the screen with a red glow.
The remainder of the title sequence repeats the innovative 3-D effect for each name and credit, giving the impression they are flying past the audience.
The starfield background is occasionally interrupted by a cosmic anamoly or starburst, which is timed to the music. Or, should I say, the music is timed to the image. Either way, it works beautifully to convey the grand spectacle to follow. In his original review of the film, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther expressed his distaste for the sequence when he wrote that the “opening credits … are so portentous they could be announcing the discovery of a new mouthwash…”
Little did he know that the main title sequence was slowly fading from view. In the years since Superman: The Movie, studio executives and filmmakers have moved the bulk of credits to the end of the film. My own research reveals that by the early 1990s, most Hollywood films held the “main” credits for the end, reversing a long history of studio filmmaking that announced up-front who was responsible for the film you were about to see. Some have attributed this move to audience polling during advance screenings. Studios risk losing the audience’s attention during long, cumbersome title sequences. Even Steven Spielberg has noted that he prefers the end credit system, since it enables him to start the film without disruption or pause.
This is ironic since Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can opens with one of the most entertaining title sequences in recent memory. Indeed, the animated titles pay homage to a by-gone era of studio filmmaking, when title songs and sequences became as famous — or even more famous — than the films themselves. Here I’m thinking of the Pink Panther and James Bond series, which incorporated complex animation and choreography to open each installment.
While Catch Me If You Can appears to be the exception, a number of studio films continue to place the main titles at the beginning of the film. They are noticeably translucent, tucked at the edges of the frame, in order not to detract from the introductory scenes that, no doubt, are establishing character and plot. The Devil Wears Prada opens with a montage sequence showing Andy and other women preparing for an early morning job interview. The sequence is set to the up-tempo KT Tunstall song “Suddenly I See,” which glues the whole thing together, and sets a rhythmic tone for the film to follow.
Some films have even crafted intricate and visually interesting end credit sequences. The second and third Bourne films showcase an array of graphics that interact with crew names. The use of Moby’s “Extreme Ways” works not only a musical signature for all three films (they all incorporate this song over the end credits), but it provides the quick tempo and catchy melody that turns ordinary credits into an arresting credit sequence. See the credits here.
Other films have dispensed with opening titles altogether. After studio logos, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor opens on the image of a sunset and gets down to business without even announcing the title of the film. Batman Begins opens with an elaborate sunset shot filled with swarming bats that form the shape of the bat signal. No title, just the shield. I admit there’s an immediacy to this technique, since you are instantly plunged into a fiction without the presentational aspects that have shaped our collective notions of movie structure.
More recently, 3:10 to Yuma, Michael Clayton, and No Country for Old Men offer their respective titles at the start of the film, but nothing more until the closing credits. This is by far the most common technique utilized by current filmmakers: state the title and get on with it.
For a while, especially in the 1960s, the title sequence was an emerging art form. Saul Bass is a legend in the field, producing the titles for Psycho, Anatomy of a Murder,Vertigo, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and my personal favorite, Casino. In addition toSuperman, R. Greenberg and Associates created the titles for Home Alone and The Untochables. And, of course, Maurice Binder’s Bond sequences are among some of the finest and trashiest ever produced.
The novelty of these sequences lies in their ability to set a tone, create a visual and sonic signature, and synthesize the iconographic elements of a given film. The best ones can emerge as standalone set pieces, while others simply serve as introductory “warm ups.” It’s not surprising, then, that the Superman sequence began with a ritual that has also faded from our movie-going habit: the grand theater with a proscenium and curtains that reveal the screen.
Instead, we now get more commercials in front of the feature, smaller screens, and movies that are all too willing to cut to the chase.
What are your favorite title sequences?
There were things that could be done with film, it was crazy not to do them.
In 1976 Saul Bass designed the opening title sequence for That’s Entertainment Part II (Gene Kelly) and in doing so created a piece of film that was about titles sequences, as well as being one itself. The film’s compilation format of classic clips from Hollywood musicals inspired him to emulate a wide-ranging series of titles from the classical period and, in particular, the 1930s. The result is a joyous celebration of a range of titling styles designed to entertain in their own right, sometimes imitating existing sequences, and sometimes inspired by what Bass calls the “mythic memory” of sequences that could or should have been.
This sequence highlights two important issues. In its pastiche of title sequences from the 1930s it shows some of the sorts of novelty sequences produced at that time. It is historically important to remember that such sequences existed since many of the journalistic articles written about film titles in recent years present an inaccurate picture proposing that film titling was universally dull and conservative until 1954 when the form was revolutionised by Bass in his design for Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones. Typical of such articles is David Thomson’s which claims that, “For decades before the 1950s, movie credits had meekly followed whatever standard treatment prevailed at every studio… The music over the credits sometimes had the mood of the picture to come, but the graphics themselves were classical lettering on a bland background.” As I will show, the history of title sequences is far more lively and varied than this.
The second issue relates to what is often perceived as a key purpose of title design, namely finding ways to prepare the viewer for the experience of watching the coming film. In That’s Entertainment Part II, pleasure and function are seamlessly blended in a sequence that names the film, credits the cast, hints at what will follow and sets an appropriate tone, as well as providing a stylistic history lesson. David Geffner has argued that title sequences “form a kind of contract, outlining the filmmaker’s intentions and, for better or worse, setting up expectations that the audience, almost subliminally, will demand to be met.” This attitude can be discerned in the design of many sequences described in this article, but I will also show that in other sequences the importance of this function is displaced by other features. Indeed, the common factor of the sequences featured here is a flamboyant exhibitionism that revels in its own cleverness. In this respect, these sequences differ considerably from the attitudes to film titling that later rose to domination.
Experimentation with striking and unusual title sequences began as early as the late 1910s, but it was the 1930s when an explosion of ideas and techniques occurred that consolidated the role of the title sequence as something more than a list of names. A wide range of styles and techniques were used at this time, many of them indigenous to the period. Although many sequences were designed with relative stylistic economy, others seemed fascinated instead with the potential of the medium for exploring techniques of direct address and self-reflexivity. These highlight a more than usually complex relationship between themselves, the main part of the film they introduce and the process of its production.
In this article I explore a selection of sequences that foreground the problematic relationship between the exhibitionism of title sequences and the need to construct a full diegesis. All of these sequences are self-reflexive, a process normally manifested through the introduction of film titles into the diegetic space, or through references made to them either by fictional characters in the film or a member of the production crew.
Such a collapsing of the boundaries between the diegetic and non-diegetic space contravenes a convention that many theorists, such as Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, have looked upon as central to the ‘classical style’, although these authors acknowledge that exceptions exist. This convention is that the diegetic space should be internally coherent and that filmic technique should not conspicuously impinge upon it. These sequences raise questions about such ways of understanding the construction and pleasures of Hollywood cinema. Are title sequences an entirely different medium from the films they introduce, or does their failure to conceal their artifice and their frequent promotion of non-narrative pleasures represent an intensification of a more widespread mode of film practice in which a narrative structure and apparently seamless diegetic construct exist merely as an organisational principle in which other pleasures are contained?
Many films of the studio era, and indeed the majority of films now, do indeed tend to avoid actively drawing attention to the fact that the diegetic space is an artificial entity constructed in the process of the film’s production. Perhaps the most notable exception to this rule is film comedy. Henry Jenkins has argued that, “the comic film tended to lag behind the rest of American cinema in its acceptance of classical Hollywood norms, remaining one of the places where marginal film practices enjoyed the greatest acceptability.” Steve Seidman’s excellent study of comedian comedy cites a wide range of instances where diegetic boundaries have been rendered problematic, and one of the foremost sites he identifies for using such a device is the opening (or sometimes the end) credits sequence.
The practice of foregrounding the process of production is a feature also found in many avant-garde films. It is not unusual for the materiality of the title cards to be emphasised in such films, as lettering is scratched or painted on film, inscribed onto a physical object, or cards are positioned or removed by hand. Examples can be seen in Color Cry (Len Lye, 1953), Little Stabs at Happiness (Ken Jacobs, 1959-1963) and Gulls and Buoys(Robert Breer, 1974). Moreover, title sequences that rely heavily upon cinematic trickery show a preoccupation that Tom Gunning has observed in the writings of the early modernists, namely “a fascination with the potentialof the medium.” Observing that one feature of early cinema and the avant-garde alike is “its freedom from the creation of a diegesis, its accent on direct stimulation”, Gunning identifies a sensibility that he terms “the cinema of attraction.” The attitude that he describes can be seen to resonate through the titling innovations of films cited in this essay.
Although there are parallels between such instances and features of some mainstream comedies, we should be wary of inferring too close a commonality between the two forms. Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik have argued that “neither comedy nor the comic can be regarded as inherently subversive or progressive, or as inherently avant-garde… [since] the level of generic verisimilitude [in expecting the unexpected] accounts… for the nonavant-garde character of even the most formally adventurous comedies.” Accepting the validity of their argument, we can nonetheless recognise that in some of the title sequences this essay describes, features strongly associated with both classical film comedy and avant-garde cinema are brought together.
Some of the sequences I will describe are from comedies, and in these we can detect some strong consistencies between the title sequence and the rest of the film in the ways in which the viewer is addressed. Most of them are from other genres though, and would therefore seem to be at odds with the films they introduce. Even if we allow that title sequences, like certain film genres, are a site in which self-reflexive devices have been normalised, we are still left with a situation where the artificiality of the film construct is highlighted to a degree that raises questions about the validity of arguments which hold that mainstream films, of the classical period at least, do all they can to present themselves as hermetically sealed entities.
The self-reflexive sequences discussed in this essay can be placed into three basic categories. The first two are quite similar to each other in that they both involve titles inscribed onto physical objects. In the first case there is the insinuation that these objects may belong within the diegetic space but are not unequivocally placed there. In the second group are sequences where the credit titles are inarguably placed within that space. The third group involves some interaction between the credit titles and either the characters in the film or its production crew. Perhaps the most interesting feature of these sequences is the range of ways in which they call into question the nature of the diegesis and the means by which the films structure and present this organisational system.
Traditionally, credit titles have collided with the diegetic image in one of two ways. Either the whole sequence has been marked off from the diegesis by placing the lettering on a totally different background, such as a plain board or piece of paper, or else the lettering has been superimposed over diegetic footage without any attempt to conceal the independence of one plane from the other, or to conjoin them in such a way as to suggest that their origins might be linked. The films described below provide exceptions to this rule.
Defining the boundaries of the diegesis can be a difficult task in itself, although the meaning of the term seems fairly straightforward at first glance. For a popular textbook definition we may as well take the one provided by Bordwell and Thompson in Film Art: “In a narrative film, the world of the film’s story. The diegesis includes events that are presumed to have occurred and actions and spaces not shown onscreen.” When a film opens, the viewer has no frame of reference, however. How is s/he supposed to assess the status of the background image during a title sequence that comes right at the beginning of a film, as many of them do? If the background is plain, or a painted picture, then knowledge of convention may suggest that after the titles there will be a cut to a live action scene that has no spatial link to the title card. Yet as I will later describe,Whirlpool (Otto Preminger, 1950), provides one exemplary illustration of just how easily the viewer can be tricked.
Live action backgrounds and the presence of three-dimensional objects during the titles present a greater problem for the viewer. A comparison of three title sequences, which share strong similarities with each other, will illustrate this difficulty: My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946), The Cat and the Fiddle (Lloyd Bacon, 1933) and You’ll Never Get Rich (Sidney Lanfield, 1941). These belong to a small but diverse group of films that present their opening titles on billboards or signposts. To illustrate the point in hand, the pertinent feature of these sequences is the varying relation between the signposts and/or billboards in the title sequence and the space of the subsequent film. My Darling Clementine uses titles scorched into a single wooden signpost. This is the only physical object in the frame during the title sequence, which ends with a cut. There is therefore no suggestion that the post is located anywhere within the diegetic space (save only that its style suggests rural origins). The Cat and the Fiddle shows cars circling a roundabout, in the centre of which is a notice board that a man approaches. We see that it displays a poster advertising Ramon Novarro and Jeannette McDonald in The Cat and the Fiddle. The camera tracks into this poster and freezes, after which the board rotates to show two further posters/title cards. As in My Darling Clementine, a cut is used to separate the title sequence from the rest of the movie. You’ll Never Get Rich is by far the most elaborate of the three sequences. It shows a man being chauffeured along a country road. The passenger asks the driver to slow down as, watching from the window, he sees a row of signs along the roadside on which there appear film credits as well as pictures of the top-billed stars. Presently credit titles start to appear on fences and buildings too. After the last one, the film cuts back to the passenger, who tells his driver, “All right, go ahead. Thank you.” At this point, as in the other sequences, the film cuts to a different location. It is a city scene and is therefore evidently a different space. Yet a street sign passed by a car establishes this new location, the iconography of the shot thus linking it to the previous sequence.
In these films, we see three examples of titles inscribed upon physical objects that have no clear spatial link to the actual space in which the narrative occurs. There is a gradation between the first sequence, which is completely divorced from any narrative space, and the second, which suggests a similarity between the space of the titles and the following scenes by including some action in the title sequence. In the final example, there is a strong continuity with the construction of the subsequent space and action, due to the presence of dialogue and a minimal narrative content during the titles as well as loose graphic matching between the two spaces. Although in all these examples a cut separates the space of the titles from the main part of the film, some films discussed later in the essay proceed without any intermediary cut. Instead of being insinuated into a mock-diegetic space, their titles are patently positioned within the very space where the narrative action occurs.
The practice of inscribing titles onto physical objects positioned outside the diegetic space is most commonly associated with the trick and novelty title sequences of the 1930s. The sequences discussed in this section are designed in such a way as to suggest the possibility that the space presented may be diegetic though. Instead of using motionless two-dimensional artwork – a far more common technique of the era – they use live action backgrounds that do indeed turn out to have strong graphic connections with spaces seen subsequently.
One of the sequences that most successfully insinuates titles into the diegetic space without ever framing them in the same shot as the narrative action is The Great Ziegfeld (Robert Z. Leonard, 1936). Its titles are spelled out in lights on a large and elaborate scaffolding structure across which the camera pans, pausing briefly on each set of titles. A cut at the end of the sequence provides the transition to the first unambiguously diegetic location: a fairground at night. The nocturnal setting and elaborate incandescent structures of the carnival park are sufficiently similar to the illuminated titles to erode the boundaries between the two spaces.
Boy Meets Girl (Lloyd Bacon, 1938) uses the device of a book to create a visual continuity between its opening title sequence and the diegetic space. A technique used in several films, here the book is on the very verge of placement within the diegetic space. Although it does not appear in any scene of narrative action, it is discovered through a track-in to a desk artistically littered with miscellaneous items including a typewriter and several spilling film cans that mark the location as a screenwriter’s office. This, of course, is a film about screenwriters. In case the other clues leave any doubt remaining, the document is entitled, ‘Final Script’, with the film’s main title and credits revealed on the inside pages.
In other sequences, we discover the credit titles in slightly less expected places than the relatively popular sites of signposts, billboards or book pages. Most of these sequences are enormously inventive. One example of a stock trick-title sequence can be seen in Her Man (Tay Garnett, 1930), where titles scraped into sand are washed away by incoming waves. Maytime (Robert Z. Leonard, 1937) provides another charming example. In this sequence two techniques are used. For the first and last groups of titles, blossom petals fall from a tree onto the surface of a running stream. There they form the letters of the titles before dispersing with the movement of the water. Intermediate titles are cut into the bark of the tree trunk. Explicit homage was paid to this sequence in the titles for That’s Entertainment Part II, which also included a variant on waves washing titles from the sand, although Bass admitted that he had not seen Her Man or indeed any other film using the device. A handful of similar, but more crudely executed examples can be found in later years. For Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (Arthur Lubin, 1944), titles painted on a wall are doused by upturned water jars. In Joan of Paris (Robert Stevenson, 1942), when a waiter opens a champagne bottle with an audible pop, its content brims over, acting as wipes (through a rather crude cheating) between the sets of titles that seem to be printed on the bottle label. These films differ from such examples as The Great Ziegfeld and The Cat and the Fiddleinsofar as the act of removing the credits means that they have to be miraculously replaced somehow. If the more perfectly realised examples, such as Maytime, instil a sense of the marvellous, in other cases the crudity of the cinematic trickery used to achieve this effect can be destructive of the illusion that the credits somehow appear in ‘real’ space and time. The separation between the space of the title sequences and the subsequent action is thus defined not only by editorial strategy but also by perceptual factors centred upon the verisimilitude of the illusion.
Some films unquestionably inscribe their titles into the diegetic space by positioning the text as part of the scenery in which the action occurs, occasionally proceeding without even a cut at the end of the sequence.Whirlpool provides an example that is both unusual and immensely effective. The opening titles appear in black upon an almost neutral background, which is decorated only by a very faint repeating pattern. The pattern crawls upward at the same pace as the lettering, rendering beyond doubt the fact that the text is not superimposed but painted upon it. After the final credit, a swish-pan takes us all the way back up the paper to the start of the credits list, although motion blur means that the titles are not legible during this return journey. As the paper crumples up, it becomes evident that it belongs to a roll of wrapping paper handled by a shop assistant. The shot has proceeded from the credit list to the shop girl without any visible intermediary cut. The most curious feature of this sequence is not its placement of titles on a material that is indisputably part of the diegetic world but rather the postponement of this discovery until after the opening titles have ended.
Where The Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger, 1950) provides another interesting example in a film by the same director. The movie opens with titles hand-painted on a sidewalk, seen under the feet of a man who walks across them. A second man lingers with his feet upon the main title before the camera pans with him as he steps off the edge of the pavement and over a rivulet of water pouring into the gutter. Although there is editing in the sequence, which includes action and diegetic sound, the space of the sidewalk is clearly consistent with continued footage of the city during a rainy night.
Some sequences use for their main title what we might call a ‘found artefact’ – an object that exists elsewhere in the filmic space and which names the film, thereby obviating the necessity of creating a specific title card. One such instance can be found in Verboten! (Samuel Fuller, 1959), in which a group of American soldiers discuss the meaning of the word, which appears on a signpost. A similar device is used in Sunset Boulevard(Billy Wilder, 1950), where the main title is painted onto a kerbstone, an already existent street sign that may feasibly have existed as an artefact outside the film as well as within it. Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948) is limited to a single title, this time shown as a picture gallery catalogue entry – “Portrait of Jennie, dated 1934, h.30: w.25 inches” – the image accompanied by a spoken discussion of the painting. Each of these sequences achieves an interesting subversion of the normal relationship between title sequences and the films they introduce without employing the levels of flamboyant cinematic trickery that were seen with relative regularity in 1930s cinema.
Some films go further yet and depict the very act of creating the titles. As the process of writing is made visible, the act of directly addressing the audience is emphasised and the narration foregrounded. One example from the golden age of novelty title sequences is Carefree (Mark Sandrich, 1938). In that film, a white background is covered over with streaky black paint, in which a finger traces the credits. The lettering is then scrubbed out by a pair of hands before the finger writes out the next set. A range of decorative patterns are created as the titles are erased by different hand movements each time. I Love Melvin (Don Weis, 1953) provides a significant variation on the idea in that the author of the titles is identified. The film’s star, Debbie Reynolds, is shown dressed in a ballet costume and looking into a dressing room mirror in order to apply her lipstick. Her reflection catches the eye of the camera. She smiles, her mirror image looking straight at the audience, and writes the main title in red lipstick on the glass.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of this particular sequence is that, at this point in the film, Debbie Reynolds can be read as appearing in her purest form – as herself, as a star. She has not yet fully taken on the role of her fictional character in the film, although she is dressed for the part. The way that her eye catches the camera so that she appears to look straight at the audience circumvents any fictional distance and allows us to imagine that it is Reynolds, not her character, addressing us with her stare. Her act of applying lipstick also suggests the preparation for a performance rather than the performance itself. By such means, the transition between the film’s production process and its fiction is made manifest, not least through the process of writing the titles before our very eyes.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962) handles the interaction between character and titles is a slightly different fashion. The film begins with a child’s hands opening a box, which contains all sorts of oddments. This, we learn later in the film, is Scout’s treasure chest. Scout, unseen in this sequence except for her hands, sings to herself as she removes a crayon from the box and starts to colour over a sheet of white paper, which reveals the main title. The fact that in this sequence the character is responsible for making visible the title, rather than actually writing it as a communication to the viewer, is a significant difference from Carefree and I Love Melvin. The lettering is something that is already there for her to discover. Another hand can be detected therefore: that of the filmmaker who has set the scene.
There are also many films in which the act of inscription may not be visible but where characters interact with the titles. Since this invariably produces a humorous effect, it is normally used in film comedies although there are occasional exceptions to this rule. Using credit titles as comic props has particular associations with animation. The most famous examples are surely The Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1964) and its sequels, which show the Panther toying with the letters, just as the anthropomorphised letters sometimes toy with him, as when his wolf whistle at Claudia Cardinale’s title provokes a hand to appear from the credit in order to issue a resounding slap. Earlier and equally entertaining examples exist though. One of those went so far as to create its main titles out of the characters themselves. In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Charles Barton, 1948), two skeletons (one short and fat, one tall and thin – the proportions of the stars) collide with one another when running frantically from Frankenstein’s monster. This mishap causes the complete collapse of their frames into separate bones arranged as words. In films such as these, which are live-action bar the credits, there is clearly no blurring of diegetic boundaries, but merely a subversion of the credit titles’ normal form and purpose. There are also some live action title sequences that do similar things however, and these are more problematic in terms of actors slipping back and forth between a plainly narrative role and an ambiguous status somewhere between character and star. Indeed, interaction between actors or characters and title lettering is often accompanied by a direct address to the audience, just as Debbie Reynolds catches the eye of the camera in I Love Melvin.
One film where this occurs is The Court Jester (Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, 1955). Its title sequence is dominated by Danny Kaye’s performance of a song discussing salient features of the forthcoming movie whilst choreographing the appearance, disappearance and motion of some of the titles through his own movements. Another interesting sequence introduces Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Frank Tashlin, 1957), which opens with an extreme long shot of a one-man orchestra playing all the instruments for the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare. A closer shot shows him to be the star of the film, Tony Randall, who introduces himself to the audience. Credits materialize as he clicks his fingers, but his frequent mistakes cause the wrong titles to appear so that he eventually screws his notes up in frustration. At one stage he announces, “The title of this movie is The Girl Can’t Help It. No – we made that!” This is the first of several references to the director’s earlier releases that punctuate a film that is extremely self-reflexive throughout.
Self-reflexive jokes in title sequences normally involve the titles themselves in some way, although this is not always the case. One very original variant occurs in Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952). In this sequence we hear the voice of director, although the only direct address to the audience is in the standard function of the titles themselves. There is no physical or verbal interaction between character and lettering. Nevertheless, there is a confusion of the boundaries between diegetic and non-diegetic space and, perhaps more interestingly, a literalising of the function of the title sequence as an opening, a transition into the diegetic world. In Monkey Business, the diegesis breaks in on the non-diegetic space. The background shows a still photograph of the front of a house, its front door squarely facing the camera. Whilst we soon discover that this image is diegetic, at first it seems as flat as the title lettering so that the status of the image is initially questionable. The otherwise conventional unrolling of the credits in superimposition upon this flat, unassuming backdrop is interrupted twice as the door opens from within and Cray Grant emerges, shifting the image into three-dimensionality. The director’s voice interjects, “Not yet, Cary!”, significantly using the actor rather than the character name. Each time this happens, Grant retreats into the house and closes the door behind him. At the end of the sequence, he makes an identical entrance and this time the film is allowed to progress.
In foregrounding the act of direct address and, in some cases, showing the real or ostensible origin of the credit titles, the sequences described in this essay highlight, to varying degrees, the act of showmanship involved in introducing a film to its audience. Perhaps more significantly, they sometimes go so far as to emphasise that the film is indeed just a film. It is show, an illusion forged of the same materials as the titles themselves. This is a message made manifest in those titles that intrude into the diegetic space or even, as in the case of Monkey Business, a diegesis that intrudes into the space of the titles.
It might be argued that there is nothing particularly distinguished about this feature. Many films, even so-called classical films, have self-reflexive moments, or characters that seem to burst out of the diegetic space to perform for the viewer, seemingly unmediated by plot and character – a common feature of musical numbers, for instance. Indeed, since it is comedies and musicals that seemingly have the least regard for the proprieties of ‘classicism’, it is hardly surprising that many of the most extreme examples of using titles as objects and violating the diegetic boundaries have been found in these genres. The opposing logic of real-world laws and cinematic possibilities provides the meat of the joke. Nevertheless, the non-comic effect of this process in films such as Where the Sidewalk Ends and Verboten! at least indicates that in the title sequences of film genres more circumscribed by the constraints of ‘classical Hollywood’ convention, the level of experimentation permitted by comedy is not entirely excluded.
The legitimisation of a whole range of styles and techniques can be partly explained by the fact that the presence of the written titles (and they are almost always written) delays the moment at which the viewer can be psychologically sucked into the diegetic world, unhampered by overt narrational marks. The way that the credits announce the film crew, and the stars in particular, also means that they refer directly to elements external to the film, so that title sequences have sometimes been written about as existing within the domain of what Gerard Genette has called ‘paratext’, which mediates between text and extratext, that is between diegetic elements and external features. Already appealing to the audience directly by virtue of the title lettering, and by the promotion of extratextual features, some films seek to make the most of the opportunities offered by the impossibility of showing only a diegesis and to make a feature of their exhibitionism instead. Such an attitude has helped to render the title sequence a site in which the usual ‘rules’ of mainstream film do not apply, in which ‘anything goes’. In an era when the innovations of title designers before Saul Bass have come to be largely overlooked, the longstanding exploration of the different possible relationships between title sequences and the films they introduce deserves to be reappraised.
This article was first published as “Innovative Vorspanne und Reflexivität im klassischen Hollywoodkino”, in Alexander Böhnke, Rembert Hüser and Georg Stanitzek (eds.), Das Buch zum Vorspanne: ‘The Title is a Shot’(Berlin: Vorwerk 8, 2006), pp. 90-101, translated from English to German by Andrea Kirchhartz. It appears here with minor revisions.
 A handful of films in this period made use of spoken or sung credits, such as Sweet Rosie O’Grady (Irving Cummings, 1943), Meet Me After the Show (Richard Sale, 1951) and The Road to Bali (Hal Walker, 1952), although these normally occurred simultaneously with written titles, as they did in these examples. Orson Welles famously spoke the credits to The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles, 1942), but did so at the end rather than the beginning of the film, which opened with only two brief title cards.
BAFTA-nominated titles designers Nic Benns and Miki Kato of Momoco take us behind the the art of creating eye-catching opening credits.
Question: What do Dexter, True Blood and The IT Crowd have in common? Before you start wondering about serial killers, vampires and computer geeks, rewind a bit. Answer: They are all TV shows with brilliant opening-title sequences.
A good title sequence is like the bartender from one of those old black-and-white movies who looks up with a warm smile when you walk in. ‘Hey buddy,’ he says, ‘nice to see ya again, same as usual?’ It isn’t something you fast-forward through to get to the beginning of the show; it is the beginning (annoying pre-credits sequence notwithstanding). More than that, at its very best a good title sequence can be like a great cinematic close-up-part of the whole, but self-contained and transcendent.
Two people that understand this idea more than most are Nic Benns and Miki Kato, the creative forces behind Momoco, the company that designed the titles for TV shows like BBC’s Luther and ITV’s Father & Son, as well as many films including An Education, Hard Candy and 40 Days of Night.
“We treat it like a book cover for the show itself,” reveals Benns. “It’s lovely if it’s like a little film in its own right, but it must always live in the same space as the show. It’s got to really set the mood and tone and draw the audience in so they know where they are.”
Indeed, that’s what a good title sequence does. Watch the True Blood credits and you instantly know where you are: it’s a Louisiana swamp, it’s hot and you’re starting to feel that V you took earlier kick in. Even something like Lost with its cursory opening puts you in the right place, like a swish of the Smoke Monster’s tail snapping you onto the island.
In order to reach this level of symbiosis, Benns and Kato explain that title designers require as much information as possible about the show. This usually means seeing a rough cut, but sometimes, Benns goes on to say, this is not always the case.
“At the moment we’re working on a major new sci-fi for the BBC. They’ve just begun shooting but they’ve got us involved very early because they want something really special. All our concepts are coming from the script and we’re not sure how far we’re able to push it. We don’t want the technological aspect to be beyond what they’re visualising in their show.”
Naturally, this implies that some of their ideas might well end up spilling out into the show itself. Kato agrees. “I think that’s what the director wants. He wants to have input from us as well for the film.”
“Yeah,” Benns adds, “and then he’ll probably rein it back later on. It’s quite exciting to see what they come up with and then see if our worlds meet.”
The Momoco office, situated in London’s Carnaby Street, is kind of small and poky – bijou let’s say – but it feels like a place of big ideas. There’s a sense of fun in the air. On Benn’s desk, perched incongruously next to an expensive-looking Apple screen, is a pink 70s-style telephone; casually propped up against the wall underneath a row of stacked hard drives, is a piece of artwork specially commissioned from comic-book artist John Burns.
And they’re visibly excited to have a visitor. Benns brings out the storyboard pitches that they created for Luther. Nobody really gets to see them, he explains, and as he flips through the boards, explaining the concepts behind each one, you can see the pleasure and pride in his face.
“This one is like tiles shifting and then coming together, like solving a case… this one represents the duality of the character, so we’ve got this mirroring going on… this one was a bit off because he wasn’t really a forensics expert… this one’s probably too gory for them… this I think was probably too pretentious… that’s like the hunter and the hunted…”
So much effort and detail has gone into each storyboard that it seems such a shame they’re hidden away and not hanging in some trendy art gallery somewhere. Benns explains how they spend a whole day simply coming up with logo ideas.
“Typeface has got to be a character through the narrative. It should really carry a part of the story. For Luther we had shards, these fragments of type coming together, like he’s piecing a case together.”
The two designers met at the California Institute of the Arts and decided to bring their love for typography and motion graphics to London. But, as Kato points out, there are still big differences between America and the UK.
“Film titles in Britain are a kind of afterthought,” she says. “It’s not something you budget for at the very beginning for the making of the entire show. When they start thinking about the titles, not much budget is left. Whenever they approach us, it’s ‘Sorry, we don’t have the budget, but can you do that?’”
“That’s where the balance comes,” Benns continues, “because we can push things, be a bit more experimental. We tend to do more creative work with tight budgets because we’ve got that freedom.”
Watching a series of title sequences from the latest ‘hot’ shows, one begins to get a sense of cross-pollination going on. Is there a body of work emerging that we’ll look back on one day and say that was this phase or that phase? Luther certainly feels American, even though it’s difficult to pinpoint why.
“If it’s a TV show,” Benns says, “our clients love True Blood or Dexter, and it’s usually American shows that they’d like us to reference. If it’s a comedy, Desperate Housewives, and if it’s a film,Se7en is constantly brought up.”
“We would try to have the same mood,” Kato quickly adds, “but not style. We don’t want to copy other people’s work.”
Another critical element to a successful sequence is its music. When that Alabama 3 track ‘Woke Up This Morning’ kick-starts The Sopranos, who hasn’t angled their foot slightly, pressing down on the imaginary gas pedal, secretly imagining they’re Tony Soprano cruising down the New Jersey Turnpike getting ready to bust some balls?
“At the pitching stage we don’t usually know the music,” Kato says, “which is good because that frees us up in terms of pace.”
Continues Benns, “For Luther they gave us the whole song. We did one edit with the instrumental part of the song, which was quite moving and timeless. But they really wanted the soulful voice so we took part of the chorus and then a bit from somewhere else. It’s a quite truncated version but it works very well.”
There are rules, of course. Rules that, as Benns says, cannot be broken on any old creative whim. “With TV they often ask us to feature the main actor because they want to really sell the point that they’ve got a star in the show. I feel that’s a bit of a compromise, but we try different ways of subtly introducing the character. Every name has got a legal size attached to it. So many years ago, a colleague of mine worked on a film with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and his name had to be 200 per cent the size of the title. That’s an extreme case. Every agent’s got a negotiation of the order and size of each credit and that can take a while with them sorting themselves out. Even though certain names are the same size, sometimes the background might be more sparse or minimalist and then that makes them more prominent, so then the producer or the agent will ring up and we end up having to compromise and even things out. It can sometimes really ruin the pace and dynamics of a sequence.”
Looking through Momoco’s catalogue you start to get a sense of their style. There’s certainly a comic-book sensibility slipping through, which Benns is quick to confess comes from him. There’s also a textural, intricate, layered quality to their work, evident not least in their BAFTA-nominated sequence for the teenage show Misfits.
Kato is more casual about her own artistic influences. “Mainly,” she says, “mine come from daily life, just living as a normal person. Like the audience. Because if I’m different, I can’t empathise. I want to know their tastes and what they like. I’m just like them, very normal. Also, everything has something beautiful if you look at it from different angles. Beauty is always there.”
Catch Me If You Can,
Far From Heaven and
the Art of Retro Title Sequences by Deborah Allison
Deborah Allison is based in the UK and has recently completed a PhD at the University of East Anglia: “Promises in the Dark: Opening Title Sequences in American Feature Films of the Sound Period.”
A title sequence is more than just a list of credits. It can be a mini-movie which sets up the film that it’s a part of. It can establish mood, period and style. A title sequence can take care of backstory. It can soothe the audience or get them agitated. Title sequences are an art form of their own.
– Big Film Design (1)Over the past few months we have been treated to a wave of American films that have taken as their source material the film styles and genres of times gone by. Films such as Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002), Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002), Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002), Undercover Brother (Malcolm D. Lee, 2002) and Auto Focus (Paul Schrader, 2002) have shared the agenda of lavishly recreating period features whilst positioning themselves explicitly within earlier cinematic traditions. Several of these films, including Catch Me If You Can, Auto Focus and Far From Heaven, have announced their intentions from the very beginning, signalling their relationship to their antecedents by using title sequences that combine highly evocative images and musical scores. It is these films I will discuss in this article.
Each of these movies is located at a very specific point in time and space. Each is also characterised by its generic revisionism. Far From Heaven recreates the closeted suburban affluence of Eisenhower’s America in 1957. In doing so it pays homage to classical Hollywood melodrama and in particular the films of director Douglas Sirk, whose 1955 movie All That Heaven Allows forms its explicit basis. Catch Me If You Can showcases the jet-setting new prosperity of the mid-late 1960s, at the same time revisiting the caper movie so popular at that time. Auto Focus charts a course from the clean-cut home entertainment industry of 1964 Los Angeles to the deterioration of family values and the rise of home porn in late 1960s and 1970s America, its focus on actor Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) resurrecting the tradition of the celebrity biopic. In each film, the set and costume designs painstakingly emulate the fashions and decor of their respective eras. Nevertheless, they all derive their verisimilitude less from a bid for historical authenticity than from the cinematic heritage on which they draw.
All three films use their opening title sequence to signal from the outset the sensibility that defines them. To do so is a pervasive technique, as the above quotation from Big Film Design indicates. It has been widely used for decades, and is not in itself peculiar to revisionist movies. Examples range from the animated title sequence of Move Over Darling (Michael Gordon, 1963), which sets a sprightly tone and summarises the entire narrative through the witty orchestration of three wedding rings, to the ‘creepy’ lettering, oozing in front of a misty backdrop in Voodoo Woman (Edward L. Cahn, 1956), or the scratchy hand-lettering of Berlin Horse (Malcolm Le Grice, 1970). There, as David James has argued of many other avant-garde films, “authorship is inscribed not in the narrative or the imagery so much as in the self-consciously domestic manufacture.” (2)
Catch Me If You Can has been compared to “the light, sophisticated Cary Grant comedies of the 1950s and 1960s.” (3) The tale of teenage con artist Frank Abagnale Jr (Leonardo DiCaprio), ever metamorphosing his identity in the course of his relentless pursuit by an FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), it opens with a title sequence that combines the chase motif with an aura of playfulness and excitement. Designed by Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas for Nexus Productions, the sequence is a brightly coloured animation of geometrically stylised figures chasing one another through geometrically stylised scenery.
The sequence moves through a series of locations, from airport, to road, then poolside bar, a hospital, a library and a wedding party, the colour scheme changing with each new setting. Little yellow arrows point to the silhouetted figures representing Frank and Hanratty, so that their progress can be tracked as the Frank figure subtly shifts identity from aeroplane pilot to doctor and so forth. The figure of Hanratty gets ever closer as the sequence unfolds, until they finally share a frame during the producer credit. A fade out leaves the end of the tale open, upholding the suspense of the main film. Other whimsical pleasures are interspersed throughout the sequence, such as the jokey conjunction of technical credits with iconic items. For instance, the real Frank W. Abagnale, author of the book from which the film derives, is credited during the library sequence, and musician John Williams’ credit is placed next to the image of a grand piano.
These titles have been widely noted by reviewers, who have likened them to Depatie-Freleng’s celebrated animations for the Pink Panther films as well as more general design trends of 1960s titling such as the work of Saul Bass. (4) Comparisons might also be drawn with the Disney family comedy, Emil and the Detectives (Peter Tewksbury, 1964), with its three angular ‘Skrinks,’ faceless, black hatted and suited in front of a navy background. The technique of annexing technical credits to appropriate images has been used in a horde of earlier films. Fittingly, this ruse was especially prevalent during the 1950s and 1960s, where it can be found in such movies as Houseboat (Melville Shavelson, 1958), To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962) and Do Not Disturb (Ralph Levy, 1965).
|The Pink Panther|
Sight and Sound magazine went so far as to describe the title sequence of Catch Me If You Can‘s as one of the film’s two most striking features. (5) Such acclaim in itself recalls that which greeted The Pink Panther credits. Whilst Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review of that earlier film was not altogether complimentary, he added,
There is one thing about this picture that is clever and joyous at least. That is a cartooned pink panther that runs through the main titles at the start, making mischief with the lettering, insistently getting in the way. He is so blithe and bumptious, so sweet and entirely lovable that he’s awfully hard to follow. It’s questionable whether the picture does. (6) Indeed, such was the panther’s success that he starred in his own long-running cartoon series on television, spawning an ever-popular merchandising franchise. There is certainly no accident in the fact that Catch Me If You Can‘s title sequence, like the rest of the film, makes unmistakable its relation to its forebears. Co-designer Olivier Kuntzel comes from a family with a strong design background and is brother to the French film academic and videomaker, Thierry Kuntzel, who authored a detailed and insightful analysis of the opening title sequence of The Most Dangerous Game (Ernest B. Schoedsack & Irving Pichel, 1932). (7)
The wide critical acclaim that has greeted the titles of Catch Me If You Can is founded on several factors. Firstly, their style combines a startling modernity with a retro cool that powerfully recalls the light comedies of the 1960s. Its resemblance to The Pink Panther titles, achieved through the combination of visual imagery and a Henry Mancini-like score, offers a well-known point of reference that invokes the sprightly crime films so characteristic of that era. Secondly, it sets the tone perfectly for the tale that follows: a tale where pleasures arise no more from the story itself than from the telling of it. “Like Frank himself, Catch Me If You Can is restless and playful, forever trying out new styles,” argues Geoffrey McNab. (8) The title sequence is just the first of these. Last but not least, to watch the title sequence is a pleasurable experience in its own right. It may indeed prepare the audience for the main narrative but at the same time it provides an almost entirely separate work that contributes, like trailers and advertisements, to the diversity of the programme.
Auto Focus is a very different kind of film from Catch Me If You Can. It charts the personal and career trajectory of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane from wholesome family entertainment icon and devoted husband to a compulsive philanderer whose autoerotic obsession with home-porn spirals out of control and in doing so destroys his career, family life and personal relationships. The film, especially in its early parts, faithfully emulates the aesthetics of ’60s film and television family entertainment, only later deviating from this style in order to represent the decay of that milieu’s associated values. The title sequence, designed by Ken Ferris, acts as a point of connection between these parts: light in style and mood, but using motifs that anticipate Crane’s personal free-fall. The causes and means of his degeneration are thus present as latent images from the very beginning.
The title sequence’s visuals mark both the period in which the film was set and the ironic distance the film upholds between that era and its point of production. In doing so, they evince an almost clinical detachment from the subject of the film. “For all its dedication to showing Bob’s excesses and misapprehensions,” argues Cynthia Fuchs,
the film opens with credits, under Angelo Badalamenti’s slick-jazzy score, that posit a peculiar distance from its subject. Martini glasses, bikinis and cigarette holders, Hugh Hefner and Polaroid cameras: the images designate an era, a place, a sense of insularity, ease, and privilege. And so: L.A, mythic land of pretty surfaces and preening affects. (9) By establishing this cultural context from the start, the film is able to pithily convey its take on the main characters. It is their “absolute inability to see themselves,” argues Fuchs, that “most clearly indicts Bob and John (Willem Dafoe). Not as perverts per se, but as products of a culture premised on consumption and illusion, endless need and promise.” (10) Nothing could signal this meaning more effectively than the title sequence that launches the film.
Like Catch Me If You Can, this sequence also exhibits debts to titling styles of the era depicted. It simply screams early 1960s, using a carefully choreographed array of silhouetted designs that move fluidly across the screen, overlapping with one another so as to provide a formal pleasure of semi-abstract animation, redolent of the animated jigsaw pieces that open The Misfits (John Huston, 1961). In the choice of shapes used, it further recalls Rock All Night (Roger Corman, 1957), whilst the sectioning of the screen into areas of pastel colour echoes Portrait in Black (Michael Gordon, 1960). As in Catch Me If You Can, and many title sequences of the late 1950s and 1960s (the first decade of widescreen cinema) the frame is emphatically a two-dimensional space, to be geometrically divided up and sectioned off, a flat canvas that attempts no illusion of scenic depth.
None of the title sequences of that period used a montage of contemporary artefacts in such a schematic way as Auto Focus, however. The first film to do so was probably designer Don Record’s arresting collage of pop art and psychedelia in How Sweet It Is (Jerry Paris, 1968). The titling of Auto Focus certainly finds its stylistic inspiration in contemporary artefacts but the way they are used is a product of the post-modern era, bearing closer relation to such recent montages as those adorning the 1998 book, Atomic Cocktails. This beautifully produced recipe book illustrates in every detail its argument that “the cocktail came to represent the unique American talent for combining disparate components into a final suitable product for mass consumption.” (11) The sequence can itself be seen as a cocktail in which commingled elements convincingly delineate both the milieu of the film and the complex interchange of agents that help determine the path of Crane’s life. Just as the masterful plot summary achieved in the opening titles for Catch Me If You Can are most fully appreciated after viewing the whole film, so the credits for Auto Focus have an added resonance on a second viewing when the implications of the montage elements are fully recognised.
Designed by Bureau, who had previously worked with director Todd Haynes to design the titles for his earlier films, Safe (1995) and Velvet Goldmine (1998), the titles for Far From Heaven are at the opposite end of the aesthetic pole from those of Catch Me If You Can and Auto Focus. The reason for this derives from the different era of filmmaking from which it draws its inspiration. However, in the way that the sequence relates to the main film it fulfils some very similar functions. Far From Heaven is an emotionally overblown melodrama with striking debts to Douglas Sirk. A well as adopting the main structure of his film, All That Heaven Allows, it emulates its mise-en-scène, mimicking its stylised mode of speech and movement as well as cinematography.
The title sequence refers to All That Heaven Allows as explicitly as does the rest of the film. Brief by modern standards, the sequence groups several credits onto the screen at once, in the ubiquitous style of 1940s and 1950s cinema. The elegant copperplate lettering signals both a historical period and a genteel and restrained style of address. Behind the titles we are introduced to the mise-en-scène of richly coloured autumn leaves that forms the film’s dominant visual motif. All That Heaven Allows had also used a crane shot to combine images of affluent small-town suburbia with the carmine leaves fluttering at the top of a tree and this repetition possesses a heady resonance. The title sequence simultaneously confirms the film’s frame of reference for the cinephilic viewers who will recognise its source material, whilst the rich colours and Elmer Bernstein’s lavish orchestral score create a heightened emotional environment that signal to all the sensibility of this singular viewing experience.
|Far From Heaven poster|
Each of the films discussed here has drawn on earlier titling styles to signal both an era and a filmmaking sensibility. In so doing, they have forged a contract with the audience at the outset, instructing them of the parameters within which the film operates, alerting them to the tonalities of the film to come, and encouraging them to approach that experience in a frame of mind where they will be receptive to the pleasures it has to offer. In each case, this continued a project that began before the viewer set foot in the auditorium, as the title sequences shared common features with a range of publicity materials.
|Auto Focus poster|
The classic lettering style of Far From Heaven was used across its print and Internet publicity. The same is true of the brightly coloured period design of Auto Focus, its poster dominated by a bikini-clad girl silhouetted in blue. A variation on the title animations dominate the website of Catch Me If You Can, and its chase motif appears in subtly varying ways on a range of promotional posters and print advertisements. These posters use pictures of the stars, Hanks and DiCaprio, instead of anonymous silhouettes, although one image simulates motion blur to such an extent that the figures are identifiable only by the names printed above them. The promotional campaign, like the title sequence, combines an impression of perpetual motion with endlessly metamorphosing identity. The title sequences for each of these films may indeed be distinctive, but they are intrinsically part of the whole package, linking the viewing experience with the expectations generated by the studio publicity.
These films are by no means the first to use retro titling styles in order to signal their relation to earlier works. Nor is it the first time that a wave of films using this technique have been released at a specific point in time. The most distinctive cycle undoubtedly occurred in the late 60s and early 70s when a significant number of title sequences examined and adapted their design heritage, persistently flaunting technique and often foregrounding the act of addressing the audience. The popularity of these devices bore testimony to an increasing self-awareness in the field, a tendency more extensively characteristic of American films of the era. Perhaps the best known of these sequences is Saul Bass’s opening for That’s Entertainment Part II (Gene Kelly, 1976) but other striking examples can be found in such films as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sydney Pollack, 1969), What’s Up Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972) and The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973). Whether films such as Catch Me If You Can and Auto Focus herald a new cycle of revisionist credit sequences remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that they represent inspiring additions to the varied and exciting developments that have occurred in film titling of recent years.
By EMILY OBERMAN AND BONNIE SIEGLER
Published: February 21, 2009 New York Times
There’s an Oscar for pretty much every aspect of filmmaking, except one: the title sequences. Titles, though, have always played a significant part in motion pictures. They may have started out as simple black-and-white cards. But in the days before sound, they already did more than identify key players: they communicated dialogue and advanced plot. And as filmmaking evolved, so did title design. Titles have become wonderful bridges from reality into the cinematic world and back out again. At their very best, they are themselves innovative, emotional experiences, microcosms of their movies. Here are some highlights from the history of title sequences:
“The Palm Beach Story,” designer unknown, 1942. This hilarious sequence, full of freeze-frames and set to a mash-up of “Here Comes the Bride” and “The William Tell Overture,” shows the romantic leads beset by strange disasters on their way to the altar. It’s remarkable because it contains all the clues to unlock the screwball comedy’s twist ending.
“Psycho,” Saul Bass, 1960. The graphic slicing through the credits is an abstract representation of the horrors to come. Bernard Herrmann’s score mimics and enhances this violent effect. Like the movie, the title sequence is frightening in its minimalism.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Stephen Frankfurt, 1962. The slow pan over the jumbled contents of the cigar box — a man’s pocket watch, crayons, some marbles — lets you inside the minds of the film’s child characters. The modern typography offers a perfect contrast.
“The Pink Panther,” Friz Freleng and David DePatie, 1963. As a stand-alone cartoon starring the Pink Panther, the character created for this sequence, these titles are a perfect tip-off to the silliness that follows. Of course, Henry Mancini also provides one of cinema’s most memorable scores.
“Dr. Strangelove,” Pablo Ferro, 1964. The title sequence that inspired a thousand hand-drawn title sequences. With an orchestral version of “Try a Little Tenderness” playing, this footage of one jet refueling another in mid-air is delicately, beautifully sexual and creepy.
“Seven,” Kyle Cooper, 1995. These titles offer our first glimpse of the movie’s mysterious serial killer — his writings and possessions, his terrifying preparations. The type seems scratched on the celluloid by the killer himself. This sequence is almost as scary as the movie.
IT’S hard to imagine why these and the other exceptional title sequences have never been recognized by the Oscars. We would like to urge the academy to create this much-needed category. In the meantime, we’ve gone ahead and selected the title sequences that should have been nominated for 2008. During the nomination process, we happened upon an interesting trend: filmmakers, more and more, are plunging viewers right into the action and then ending with elaborate title sequences, which serve as epilogues or bonus tracks. Without further ado — or a badly scripted joke — our nominees for Best Achievement in Film Title Design:
1. “WALL-E,” Susan Bradley and Jim Capobianco/Pixar. These poignant end titles, which show humans and robots flourishing on a revived Earth, offer a quick history of art, from cave paintings to van Gogh. They then proceed to retell the entire movie, this time in the pixelated style of old video games.
2. “Tropic Thunder,” Kyle Cooper/Prologue. These titles feature Tom Cruise’s best performance in years as he dances to “Get Back” by Ludacris. They’re intercut with graphic freeze-frames of the rest of the cast.
3. “Slumdog Millionaire,” Matt Curtis. Another dance sequence, this one in grand Bollywood style. After a film full of difficult and sad struggles, this joyous, cathartic sequence, set to “Jai Ho” by A. R. Rahman, gives us hope that the main characters will actually live happily ever after.
4. “Iron Man,” Danny Yount/Prologue. Amazing in a comic-book way, these take us inside the blueprints for Tony Stark’s armor. The soundtrack, appropriately, unavoidably, is “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath.
5. “Mamma Mia!,” Matt Curtis. The end titles toss off the pretense of winding a story around the songs and give us a straight-up, super-’70s tribute, complete with glitzy rainbow prism effects and Meryl Streep singing her heart out.
Emily Oberman and Bonnie Siegler are the co-founders of Number Seventeen NYC, a design firm.