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.