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

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).

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