Credit Where It’s Due: The Father of the Title Sequence

Features — May 8, 2020

The opening and closing credits in a film are a form of housekeeping, fulfilling a legal obligation to compile the names of cast and crew who made the final product possible. Visionary designer Saul Bass saw the aesthetic potential in these cinematic bookends and, over the course of a four-decade career in the movie industry, pushed them into previously uncharted territory. Employing everything from animation to live action and time-lapse photography, he crafted sequences that stand on their own as works of art. Not only did he leave an indelible mark on the work of some of Hollywood’s greatest auteurs, he also went on to influence the course of modern graphic design with a sensibility that combined conceptual elegance with out-of-the-box experimentation.

On the hundredth anniversary of his birth, the Criterion Channel is showcasing some of his best-known works along with a handful of deep cuts, including the sole feature film he directed, Phase IV. As part of the celebration, we talked to six leading figures in contemporary title design about the Bass sequences that stand out to them.

Marlene McCarty
The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

I first saw Saul Bass’s work in the late seventies while studying graphic design and film animation at the Allgemeine Kunstgewerbeschule Basel in Switzerland, and I was struck by the realization of how titles could impact a film. The sequence for The Man with the Golden Arm is one of my favorites, and what appeals to me is its simplicity. Bass is using the most minimal language to show that if you put animation, typography, and rhythm together, you can make something dynamic and amazing. You don’t need a thousand filters or a hundred renderings to engage people.

At the beginning of the sequence, the typography is very simply set in straight lines. It’s then complemented by vertical lines coming in from the top of the screen while moving up and down—basically a wipe technology. The whole sequence choreographs these long, heavy, slanted lines moving on and off of the contrastingly straight typography. You’re pulled along by this abstract rhythm until the end of the sequence, when those bold white lines merge to reveal an arm coming in from the top of the screen. 

Though that animation may look simple to our eyes in 2020, it had to be done frame by frame in an optical house. In the fifties and sixties, seemingly straightforward film animation required a lot of conceptual preparation. It wasn’t like it is now. It all had to happen in your head before you delivered instructions to the animator, and you had to know every frame that was going to be on the screen. You had to be extremely exact about when everything came on and went off.

This sequence reflects the fundamental building blocks of what Bass did in almost all his titles. It’s not the most dramatic or unusual, but I think right here, in 1955, we already see the foundation upon which he built his body of work. There’s a purity to it; it reveals the bare-bones structure of what you need to master the art of a title sequence.

I believe that film titles are intrinsically tied to the aura of a film. That’s often where I have had the most intense conversations with directors. Some directors get very panicked about the title sequence overpowering the film or striking the wrong emotional tenor. I think Bass and his collaborators must have had a great trust in each other’s creative abilities, without one side being threatened by the other. I always say that titles act kind of like book covers: before you leave the real world and go off into this imaginary realm, you need to take a little moment to transition.

Bass was one of the early pioneers to establish this section of a film as unique, something that would require a designer to achieve. Asking title designers whether they consider Bass’s influence on title design while working is like asking if people think about Picasso when they paint.

Marlene McCarty has designed the titles for American Psycho (2000), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), and several films directed by Todd Haynes, including Safe (1995) and Carol (2015).

Caspar Newbolt
West Side Story (1961)

My first exposure to Saul Bass’s work was through films like North by Northwest, Vertigo, and Psycho, as my father took watching films as a family quite seriously and had a great love for Alfred Hitchcock. But it wasn’t until 2000, when my graphic design brain had properly switched on, that I really started to notice his work and pay attention in a different way. Around that time, I attended an exhibition of his work in London and heard a recording of Bass talking about an argument he’d had with Otto Preminger while creating the title sequence for The Man with the Golden Arm. It was from hearing about that particular fight that I started to learn about the nature of good collaboration in graphic design, and also about how much can be said with so little material. 

For West Side Story, Bass created both an opening and a closing sequence. He described the two parts as the “time before” and the “time after,” and in their graphic form, they give the narrative a prologue and an epilogue. The idea behind the opening was to introduce people to the film’s tone, the city it’s set in, and the specific location of its tale of gang warfare. It begins with a series of flat color backdrops upon which abstracted hand-drawn lines appear before making a beautiful, slow transition into a line drawing of the main title card. The sequence then transitions into filmed footage of an aerial shot of Manhattan—an element that was new territory for Bass and his collaborator Elaine Makatura, with whom he’d just gotten engaged during the production. Working out of Los Angeles, they directed that sequence from afar, deploying the movie’s codirector Jerome Robbins in New York to film it. 

For the end sequence, Saul and Elaine revisited the graffiti-filled alleyways of the set to create an unforgettable experience in which suddenly, after the tragic ending, you find yourself back in the lively New York streets. They were exploiting the way in which graffiti itself has a memorial, elegiac quality, and that helps imprint the already moving narrative even deeper into the viewer’s mind. It all has a very bespoke, meaningful quality that led the film’s other director, Robert Wise, to comment (in a letter to Saul) that the sequence played like a “part of the film itself and kept audiences in their seats until the lights came up in the theater.”

The part of this sequence that means the most to me is where Saul and Elaine wrote their initials into the graffiti on the background wall not once, not twice, but three times. At least one of those times, their initials are written inside a heart. For me, it’s this desire to include personal touches like this that often makes good work exceptional. Their joy and their care for what they did is present from start to finish, to the point where they’ve included a piece of their personal lives within it.

As a graphic designer and filmmaker, I’ve always had the goal to not only make everything I do by hand (even the typography) but to film live-action title sequences when possible. That requires immense trust from the directors and producers. In 2016, I met a director who asked me to create a title sequence, and when he loosely detailed the film’s narrative, I immediately suggested we shoot it live-action in the style of West Side Story. His eyes lit up. The film itself was centered on the search for a valuable piece of music, the only recording of which was on an old but missing 78 record, and much like West Side Story the sequence was shot in two locations.

Everything that Saul—or later, Saul and Elaine—did had a signature look to it. Saul’s very pencil markings were unmistakably his. Whatever he put his hand to had an indelible character—rather like Matisse’s cut-outs—that gave all the work a baseline high standard. You always felt the minds and hands that made the work were there off-camera, just a little out of frame.

Caspar Newbolt has designed the titles for Pavilion (2012), Entertainment (2015), A Ciambra (2017), Waves (2019), and Anne at 13,000 ft. (2019).

Alan Williams
Walk on the Wild Side

A fundamental characteristic of Bass’s work—one that he often talked about—was how he took mundane subjects and abstracted or rearranged them in a way that made the audience see them anew. His title design for Walk on the Wild Side is one of the strongest examples of that.

The sequence begins in a concrete culvert at the center of the frame. Out of the shadows comes a pair of cat eyes that move from right to left before looking directly into the camera. Although the sequence is live action, these eyes feel very graphic; it’s like the cat is looking straight into your soul. That’s where the Walk on the Wild Side title fades up. Even if that alone were the title, I’d still be talking about it, because it exemplifies how Bass could make anything evocative. The threat and the intrigue and the boldness behind those eyes take you out of whatever reality you’re in and transport you into the film.

From there, the sequence is a two-and-a-half-minute journey following the cat on his stealthy walk, and there’s not one moment that doesn’t captivate my attention. It’s not just a cat walking, and there are a few techniques that allowed Bass to make it more than that. He over-cranked the shots, slowing down the footage so that the cat’s walk feels more like that of a panther or a tiger. To manipulate the scale, he pushed in super-tight so it suddenly looked monolithic in the frame.

My favorite technique is the use of shadows. The materials in the back-alley scenes and the overlapping parallax of different shapes come together to make the cat disappear and reappear. Bass abstracts those shadows and turns them into an urban jungle. He imbues this cat with an element of danger that speaks to the film’s themes of stepping outside the rules of normal society.

Bass had guts. He was doing things with typography that you shouldn’t do, taking pristine film and distorting it and blurring it and washing it with color, and making edits so frenetic that you might get disoriented or motion-sick. He took whatever the mood of the film was and set the stage for it. That rare gift is why filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, and Otto Preminger would consult him time and time again.

Walk on the Wild Side has been a great influence for me as a title designer, especially on my work for Scorsese and Terence Winter’s HBO series Vinyl. The challenge for that title sequence was to take something as big as the 1970s New York City rock scene and deconstruct it in such a way that the producers of the show would feel like they were seeing that period for the first time. Bass’s aim to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary is a vision that’s going to fuel me for the rest of my career.

Alan Williams has designed the titles for Vinyl (2016), Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (2017), Anne with an E (2017), and For All Mankind (2019).

Teddy Blanks
Bunny Lake Is Missing

There is a specific look that comes to mind when you hear Saul Bass’s name: hand-drawn sans serif font; bold, high-contrast illustrations; and abstract geometric shapes—all with a shaky, paper-cutout feel. Not all of Bass’s titles are like this. He tailored his approach to the tone and subject of each film. But he did return to this aesthetic often in his work for Otto Preminger, his earliest and most frequent collaborator.

Of the sequences in which you can sense the presence of his hand, Bunny Lake Is Missing is the only one where you can see his hand. Well, somebody’s hand. I like to think of it as his hand. In any case, what this hand does is reach across a black screen, grab it, and tear, revealing it to be not just a black screen but a black sheet of paper, under which is a white surface displaying the cast and crew names.

It is an audaciously dumb idea, executed so beautifully it somehow becomes poignant. It is the kind of concept that any design student could come up with, but that only a true artist could implement without embarrassing himself. What makes it great are its details: the squat, rectangular letterforms; how each name sits perfectly in the negative space created by the missing paper strip; the fact that this space always looks both totally random and perfectly balanced. There is simply no way to pull this off without finely honed craft, the patience to endure a tremendous amount of trial and error, and an expert-level gut feeling for visual composition.

The sequence ends with its one figurative element. The hand tears away a small, person-shaped piece of paper—a child, or perhaps a doll. Preminger’s director credit fades in next to it, the only title in white over black. Then the hand reaches across the screen, grabs the entire sheet of black paper with its fist, and violently pulls it away to reveal the first image of the film. What follows is an immensely watchable psychological thriller, which is most enjoyable when you know nothing about it. The opening title sequence sticks in your head, though. It is so basic, so bare, that its possible metaphors and meanings multiply with each reveal of the plot. 

Most of Bass’s work seems like it would be easy to imitate because it’s so simple. That’s why so many people try. Google “Saul Bass–style movie poster” and you’ll find hundreds of parodies and homages, some of which are fun to look at, but all of which are missing some indefinable quality. I mention this because I am a designer who loves to imitate, to take apart and recreate existing pieces of design. Seeing other designers try to mimic Bass reminds me that the goal shouldn’t be to have the ability to replicate a style of design you love. It should be to develop your work to the point that it’s inimitable.

Teddy Blanks has designed the titles for Heaven Knows What (2014), Love & Friendship (2016), Lady Bird (2017), Her Smell (2018), Russian Doll (2019), and Midsommar (2019).

Aaron Becker
Grand Prix (1966)

Saul Bass was the origin of my entire career. I was in a college animation class and we were learning about title sequences, and the first one we looked at was North by Northwest. Of course I had seen title sequences before, but I never really connected with them because, like a lot of designers, I didn’t see any intersection between cinema and design. That sequence became a foundation for me and enabled me for the first time to appreciate the power of graphic art through film, and its ability to create tension and mystery with the use of simple shapes and lines. All of a sudden, title design seemed like a way for me to tell a story without having to make a feature-length movie.

The Grand Prix sequence introduces the viewer to the escalating action and tension around a race car driver preparing to compete. It uses the device of a split screen—in a few instances, up to sixteen or thirty-two panels—in a very interesting way, almost like a literary device. By compounding a lot of footage and arranging it through repetition, it creates a new tapestry, a whole out of smaller parts—something for us to feast our eyes on that also speaks to a larger theme. I imagine Bass had to have been thinking of the checkers on a racing flag, and since he avoids actually showing one within the sequence itself, the idea strikes me as a brilliant use of restraint. In the 1960s, when the use of split screen became increasingly popular, filmmakers experimented with how this kind of visual repetition could evoke emotion—Pablo Ferro does something similar with the split screens in the opening titles and montages for The Thomas Crown Affair, which was released just two years later. I was directly influenced by both of these films when working on the titles for M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, which employs split screen with text.

What’s unique in Grand Prix is that Saul Bass, true to his style, is using live-action footage as a flat compositional element. The opening shot shows you how far you can push this kind of imagery into abstraction: we see an out-of-focus exhaust pipe on a car, which serves as a title card that doesn’t need to be read literally or narratively to be beautiful. Later you see the tightening of bolts and the circular shape of an odometer, and as the editing picks up in speed and intensity, these Mondrian-like compositions and the repetitions within them become a way of saying: Look at how much is going on. Look at the army of people and all the crucial tasks required to initiate this race and get someone across the finish line. A lot of things need to go right in order for this one thing to happen.

There’s a real art to laying type over this footage, to getting text to fall perfectly symmetrically on top of an exhaust pipe. Bass used Helvetica—I think it’s Helvetica—and the type is simple, legible, informational, and elegant. This was often his style—he usually didn’t do anything fancy with type unless the design was illustrative. You can tell he knew the footage and the edit needed to do most of the work here, and that type that looked like it was trying too hard would take away from the complex narrative underneath.

One of Bass’s strengths was that he was capable of creating more illustrative work—like North by Northwest or Anatomy of a Murder—but could also guide the look of an actual live-action movie, as it seems he did for Grand Prix. This is an example of how title design reaches into filmmaking—it’s not just a matter of slapping type over something; you’re really designing with moving images. I don’t know the nature of Bass’s exact collaboration with John Frankenheimer for this film, but the sequence looks like it had to have been storyboarded with a lot of intention in advance, as it appears to have been shot and lit at the same time of day. On occasion, Bass directed or consulted on the live-action shoot for a film’s title sequence, and that’s what we’re often doing at Filmograph, the company I run with Seth Kleinberg. The average moviegoer might assume that the footage and the edit are coming from the director, but in many cases it’s the title designer who is responsible for those things—and that’s why many title designers consider themselves to be at least amateur filmmakers.

With Grand Prix, Bass wasn’t just trying to create a metaphor for something; he was doing the work of comfortably and gently ushering the viewer into the world of the film. By the time the sequence is done, we’re fully immersed and ready to go.

Aaron Becker has designed the titles for The Conjuring (2013), Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation (2015), Split (2017), and Get Out (2017).

Karin Fong
The Age of Innocence (1993)

When I was a teenager, I was an art-nerd making my own Super 8 films with cut paper, and I didn’t know that that was called graphic design. I first encountered Saul Bass’s work at this time. You can’t help but notice the title sequences in those movies. What Bass did to merge the titles with the tension, the music, and the tonalities of those films was so eye-catching. A lot of his designs carried through into the marketing of the movies, so that even though I was too young to see them in first run, the paraphernalia and the posters were still an unavoidable part of my pop-culture consciousness.

I did see The Age of Innocence in the theater, in 1993, so I experienced it not as a retro artifact but as a contemporary filmgoer. I remember how gorgeous that title sequence was. We usually associate Saul Bass with his earlier work, a lot of which is 100% animated—a favorite of mine is North by Northwest. But The Age of Innocence is not only live-action but also distinctly manipulated, with a number of different layers being combined in lush, beautiful ways. You have images of time-lapsed flowers overlaid with a lace pattern, as well as a typographic and a calligraphic layer, and all of these images fade in and out within the composite. 

The macrophotography of the flowers is so stunning—it’s like you’re watching a series of photographic O’Keefes. They’re a sexual metaphor. We see the flowers open and unfurl in slow motion and at high speed through this lacey overlay, and these elements come together to give a sense of the repression of the period that the film depicts. As the sequence goes on, the music intensifies, and the edit becomes more urgent.

It’s a sequence that has a classic look but is also very much of its time. I was just finishing up my graphic design studies when the film came out, and there had been a desktop revolution underway in filmmaking and photography. Because of Photoshop, things that had been very complicated to do were now much easier, and designers were playing a lot with this kind of layering. It used to be that if you wanted to put a piece of type over a film, you’d have to physically shoot the two separate layers with an animation stand to achieve that double exposure. The beginning of my career coincided with this shift from optical to digital, which saw the emergence of compositing systems that allowed you to combine and play with multiple images in this way.

I’m not sure if this sequence was achieved digitally or traditionally, but regardless it’s interesting to me how Bass’s work always mirrored the visual trends of whatever era he was working in. Just as his earlier title sequences reflected the modernism of the fifties and sixties, so The Age of Innocence encapsulates how designers were exploring a supremely manipulated photographic language in the nineties. At the same time, this sequence has the Saul Bass hallmark of communicating the essence of a film in a very graphic and abstract metaphor. He was always able to distill something so simple from a very complex story.

This encapsulates what Saul Bass (and Elaine Bass, who worked with him on this sequence) did so well. You don’t want the titles to replicate what you’re going to see in a film or to simply be a trailer; I like it when they raise more questions than they answer. Bass was always looking at every film and what it needed, and he used a wide range of solutions to address those needs. The way he tailor-made the titles to the specifics of each story reflects a design philosophy I hope is always present in my own work.

Karin Fong has designed the titles for Charlie’s Angels (2000), Boardwalk Empire (2010), the seventeenth season of South Park (2013), Black Sails (2014), Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (2019), SEE (2019), and Little Fires Everywhere (2020).

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