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.
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 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.”