Before the 50s, credits were not always on display. Projectionists only pulled the theater
curtains after the credits in the beginning of the film had passed. If you thought nobody in the audience pays attention to who makes films today, imagine in a time before DVDs and IMDB as reference, when the credits weren’t even bothered to be shown in the theater.
Saul Bass changed all that.
First, some history on Saul Bass. He was born in 1920 in New York City. He started taking
painting classes by age 15, and later studied at Brooklyn College and the Modernist School of Design.
Bass’ professional work began in advertising agencies in New York until he moved to Los Angeles in 1948. In Hollywood, Bass found himself doing print ads for films until he got the chance to create a title sequence for Carmen Jones. He had the opportunity of influencing the narrative with his contribution, saying “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.”
image courtesy artofthetitle.com
Bass really changed things with his title sequence for The Man with the Golden Arm. The film centered on a jazz musician addicted to heroin. Saul Bass created a stop-motion paper cut-out animated sequence that turned into the image of a heroin addict’s arm. This arm, he knew, was a powerful image meant to be shown to the audience. It worked. Instructions were put on the film cans: “Projectionists—pull curtain before film titles.” This intro worked so well that Saul Bass had invented a new art form, and before his death in 1996 he would make over 50 more, for great directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Otto Preminger and Martin Scorsese. His early titles are characterized by animated paper cut outs and moving lines, many underscored by the talented composer Bernard Herrmann.
For North by Northwest, the titles are worked into grid-like lines seen at an angle. At one point, the lines are like cross-hairs of a gun, foreshadowing the danger that is to come.
Saul Bass’s legacy lives on, especially so in Kyle Cooper. Born in 1962, he has been dubbed the revitalization of the title sequence. Graduating with an MFA in Graphic Design from Yale, he was influenced heavily by title designers of the 1960s such as Stephen Frankfurt and undoubtedly Saul Bass. He has definitely proven himself, surpassing even Bass’ impressive fifty-plus titles by creating or producing over a two hundred for movies and television shows alike. His title sequences are so impressive, they can be better than the film they precede.
Cooper’s titles are meticulously crafted and have an incredible amount of detail. He is the one who created the flip-comic logo for Marvel studios, starting with the first Spider-man film. He scanned dozens of comics to create the five second clip that is now a standard in Marvel movies. He even had his own collection of black widows to use as reference. The title design from concept to finished product on Spider-man 2 took a year to complete. That’s dedication.
A title sequence can be used as a metaphor for the film or reveal the story. In the horror film remake Dawn of the Dead, it wasn’t clear to test audiences what caused the zombies in the first place, so the title sequence showing news reports and riots made the message clear. Real blood was even used in the imagery. In fact, an end title sequence was added to create an ending the test audiences liked much better. Otherwise, the film would have stopped when the main characters reach a boat to apparent safety. Now, through the end titles, we see them discover an island overrun by zombies, and they no longer have a vaguely happy ending.
image from watchthetitles.com
The title sequence of Se7en helped establish who the serial killer was, because during the movie the killer isn’t shown all that often. This montage of disturbing images of strange diaries, razor blades and the serial killer’s scrapbook being put together really gives an idea of who this character is. The famous typography during this sequence was scratched by hand onto the film stock with a needle.
The Walking Dead‘s title sequence did an excellent job portraying a world taken over by a
zombie apocalypse. The images of empty streets of the once-busy Atlanta, shattered picture frames of the series’ stars layered with grimy layers of filth sets the tone. One might also notice how the stars’ names appear next to props or sets important to the character they play. Norman Reedus is over an image of arrows stuck in a tree, and his character primarily uses a crossbow. Andrew Lincoln’s name is superimposed next to a fallen Sheriff’s badge.
A title sequence in a film or television series is more than a clever way to get the creator’s
names in front of an audience. It is up to two and a half minutes of prime real estate that has many purposes. It can help to tell or set up a story, by showing what might not have been clear in the rest of the film. Images can foreshadow what is to come, and
establish the characters before a single line of dialogue is uttered.
Title sequencing is an art form worth appreciating. The next time you watch a film, pay close attention to the details present during the title sequence, and you may learn a few things.