Starting Strong: Using Your Movie’s Title Sequence Effectively

Released in the mid-1950s from the relatively static role of simply assigning credit, title sequences have evolved into an art form in their own right, one in which successful sequences fulfill a vast variety of functions—mood, backstory, transition, character development, etc.—while still providing contractually mandated screen credit where credit is due.

If there’s any doubt what a great sequence adds to a film, just consider the influential impact of two contemporary pieces: The eerie vibe that Kyle Cooper’s meticulously hand-scratched typography adds to David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) or the playful sense of time and mood that Nexus Productions’ opening animation lends to Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002).

Tellingly, these influential sequences aren’t cited as top efforts based merely upon innovation and aesthetics—usual gauges of film excellence. These sequences work because they brilliantly complement the film as a whole, with creepiness in the case of Se7en and a lightly entertaining touch in Catch Me If You Can. As title pros are quick to point out, a successful sequence—no matter how simple or ornate—should be faithful to the spirit of the film without upstaging it. The sequence should simply belong to, and within, the film.

As William Lebeda, creative director for Picture Mill, puts it, a sequence’s litmus test is the answer to the question: “Could this be attached to any other movie?”

Being true to the spirit of the film is also a guiding axiom of Garson Yu, creative director for Hollywood design studio yU+co. For Yu, who also points to Se7en and Catch Me If You Can as standouts, the movie should always come first—not the title team’s desire to display its bag of tricks while creating a trophy sequence just because they can.

“It’s not about putting the Mona Lisa at the beginning of a film,” says Yu. “A title should blend in seamlessly.”

The Master

The revolution in film titles began with Saul Bass, a graphic designer turned moviemaker and acknowledged master of the modern title sequence.

Bass’ revolutionary approach was simple. His goal was “to create a climate for the story that’s about to unfold,” he explained in Bass on Titles, his self-produced 1977 documentary, which includes 10 complete sequences. Bass’ results were stunning in scope and quality; as film critic David Thomson writes, “His credits, trailers and ads seem like part of a Golden Age.”

Bass’ contributions speak for themselves: Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Spartacus (1960), Walk on the Wild Side (1962), Seconds (1966), Cape Fear (1991) and Casino (1995) are just a few of his masterworks. Of particular note is Bass’ work on Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). In The Man with the Golden Arm, jagged lines converge into an arm, brilliantly prefiguring the film’s depiction of heroin addiction. In Psycho, type peeks from behind horizontal and vertical lines before coming into view, suggesting the voyeurism at the center of the film (adding to the effectiveness of the sequence is Bernard Herrmann’s inimitable score).

From handmade sequences heavily dependent upon two-dimensional shapes playing against typography, Bass found his way into a more realistic approach. For Bass, this progression was natural because “the live action approach seemed central to the notion of film,” Bass said. Edward Dmytryk’s Walk on the Wild Side (1962), with its lithe, prowling black cat, stands out for its ability to encapsulate the steamy nature of the film.

Additionally, Bass found that “titles could act as a prologue. They could deal with the time before.” He used this approach to great effect in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966), where the opening sequence artfully reveals back story as seconds tick down toward the race’s start.

Not surprisingly, Bass’ shadow still looms large.

“Someone will come in and say they want ‘Saul Bass,’” says Picture Mill’s Lebeda. “What they mean is that they want something compelling—they want a mark of quality.”

Before and After Bass

To appreciate Bass’ contribution, consider typical, pre-Bass sequences.

In the beginning, the function of a film’s opening credits was quite simple: To list, literally, the makers of and contributors to a movie. Thematic links to the movie were achieved by a simple combination of score and typography itself—delicate script for a romance, bold sans serif for a crime picture, etc.

“Artsy” credits might be ripped away one by one by a hand, appear on an antique map or be blown away, but they were still distinct from the movie proper and remained relatively static. Early titles, really a holdover from theatrical playbills, functioned like a book’s title page: When they ended, the movie started.

Today, moviemakers are faced with a dizzying range of choices about sequence. (The breadth of services—concept, design, animation, compositing and live action and editorial services—offered by title design studios hints at the complexity of modern sequences.)

To illustrate the adaptability of a title sequence, consider the following extremes: A sequence can appear as extended, nearly standalone cartoon setting a tone for the movie (see Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther, Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can), or a film (particularly an action film) may start with a bang, in media res (i.e. mid-explosion) with the opening credits appearing well into the film.

The title sequence for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, designed by Saul Bass

The title sequence for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, designed by Saul Bass

With so many approaches and options, how do title pros first approach a sequence?

Lebeda and Yu make it clear that the best source for an effective sequence is found within the film itself, hence the importance of the title team spending a lot of quality time with the latest available film cut.

“It’s best to look to the film itself,” says Yu, whose company has created sequences for Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007), F. Gary Gray’s The Italian Job (2003), Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006). “We don’t just want to decorate some other people’s work. The sequence should be picture-driven.”

Of course, the sequence must not overpower a film in terms of production value, tone or style.

“If someone says the title sequence is the best part of the movie, that’s a failure,” says Lebeda, a veteran of many sequences, including memorable pieces for M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water (2006), Robert Schwentke’s Flightplan (2005) and Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls (2006).

The Fine Print

Of course, it would be too simple if credits were merely a decision between moviemaker and designer.

Enter lawyers with their thick contracts…

As far as film credits are considered, size does matter. The oft-heard professions of cast/crew equality goes out the window when it comes to billing size and, in some case, the duration of credit time on screen. (Yes, someone is watching; credits are physically measured to assure compliance.)
In the end, Lebeda acknowledges that dealing with the fine print of contracts can be a challenge, but “they really constrain you as much as you let them. They are simply part of the process.”

What is the best path to a strong, appropriate sequence and what advice does a title designer offer moviemakers?

Both Yu and Lebeda mention an ideal (but rare) production process, one in which the title designer is involved in a project from the start, a process that can take about 12 months. On 300, Yu worked with Snyder’s team from start to finish, as did Lebeda on Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. But the more typical process is for the title designer to enter late in a project, with a production period of around 10 to 12 weeks.

So, with the realization that best-case scenarios are all too rare, the following title advice, culled from a conversation with Lebeda, is offered to both moviemakers and designers:

1. Get to the heart of a film. Designers need access to a lot of time with a cut of the film as early as possible. Remember that “what you need to know for the title sequence is already in the film,” says Lebeda.

2. Plan for the title sequence from the start. “Allow an appropriate amount of time to achieve the goal.”

3. Budget for the title sequence from the beginning. It’s less than ideal to need a sequence and have no money left for one.

4. The title sequence should be a partnership—with the film’s best interest in mind. “Don’t tell the title designers what you want. Help them discover what the movie needs.”

5. Trust yourself. Ask Lebeda’s key question, “Does the sequence best suit my movie and my movie only?” Rethink it if you cannot answer with an immediate and resounding “yes!”

Finally, for those moviemakers with limited means, one of Lebeda’s favorite sequences offers hope: The decidedly low-tech, over-the-top opening to Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984). “Those titles that just scream at the top of their lungs and the loud punk rock… One of the greatest titles ever.” MM

Featured image of Catch Me If You Can, courtesy of Dreamworks Pictures.

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