Saturday, August 14, 2010

Movie Title Sequences

Opening credits have been a part of movies from the beginning. In the earliest days there would at least be a title card indicating the movie's title and production company. Over time titles listing the cast, screenwriter, director,. and other crew would be added. Eventually, the opening credits would evolve into what we now know as a title sequence.

Until the 1950's most title sequences tended to be rather simplistic. During the Silent Era, title sequences were literally that--a sequences of title cards listing the credits for the motion picture. This practice would continue well into the Sound Era. A perfect example of this may be the familiar title sequence of It's A Wonderful Life (1946), although it is a good deal more creative than most movies with its opening credits. The title sequence unfolds as a series of Christmas themed cards bearing the credits, one after another. In the Thirties many films would utilise title sequences in which the credits were superimposed against various backgrounds. The perfect example of this may be the familiar opening credits of The Wizard of Oz, in which the credits are superimposed against a scene of moving clouds.

While the practices of showing the opening credits through a series of title cards or words superimposed against some background tended to be very common prior to the Fifties, it would be a mistake to think that there was no sense of invention with regards to title sequences before that time. Indeed, one of the most inventive title sequences of all time was the opening credits of My Man Godfrey (1936). The credits are shown as a series of neon lights on the sides of and atop buildings. Gone with the Wind (1939) had a much less impressive title sequence. As the film opens, the film's title literally moves from right to left across the screen. The credits are then displayed as words superimposed over scenes from about Tara. Sinbad the Sailor (1947) featured a title sequence in which the credits were formed from coloured water which ran into a fountain. Sunset Boulevard (1950) was also creative with regards to its credits. The title of the film was displayed as words printed on the side of a kerb. The camera then followed the street so that the words were superimposed over the street.

Prior to the 1950s often the movies with the most inventive title sequences were musicals and films noir. Showboat (1935) had the title of the film displayed on banner on a paper model of a showboat, then little paper cut-outs of people who held banners on which the credits were, all on a turntable. Released the same year, Top Hat also had an inventive title sequence. It opened with a shot of men in suits, shot from the knees down, who each lower canes in turn. Fred Astaire, also shot from the knees down, then enters dancing. His credit displays beneath him. Gnger Rogers, also shot from the knees down, enters dancing after Fred, her credit displayed beneath her. As the two join together to dance, the movie cuts to a top hat over which the film's title and the rest of the credits are displayed. Ziegfield Follies (1945) had one of the most interesting title sequences. The credits were revealed as pages in a book turned by hand. While musicals could be inventive with their titles, films noir could be even more so. I Wake Up Screaming had a title sequence in which the credits were spelled out in lights superimposed over the New York City skyline.Scarlet Street also had an inventive title sequence, which opened on a streetlight over which the producer, director, and stars' credits are superimposed. The camea then moves down the streetlight so that the film's title is revealed on a sign attached to the light post. The rest of the credits are then simply superimposed on the screen.

While there were several films that utilised inventive title sequences prior to the Fifties, there can be no doubt that a revolution in title sequences began in that decade. That revolution was led by one man, Saul Bass. A graphic designer by trade, in 1954 he worked with director Otto Preminger to design the poster for Carmen Jones (1955). Mr. Preminger was so impressed that he asked Mr. Bass to design the title sequence as well. What Mr. Bass created for Carmen Jones  was truly quantum leap in title sequences. Quite simply, the title sequence for Carmen Jones was the first animated title sequence ever in a motion picture. By today's standards it was extremely simple. It consisted simply of a rose within an animated flame which moved in sequence with the "Prelude" from George Bizet's Carmen (the operetta upon which the musical Carmen Jones was based) and the credits spelled out in Saul Bass's distinctive lettering. Nonetheless, it was different from anything that had come before it. Even compared to such inventive title sequences as that of My Man Godfrey, the title sequence of Carmen Jones looked starkly modern.

Saul Bass would go onto become the first man famous for his title sequences. Indeed, he is the most famous title designer of all time. His titles were always imaginative, and he became known for his use of kinetic typography--text that literally moves on the screen. For Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm he created a title sequence in which an paper cut out of an arm was the central image, fitting in with the film's theme of heroin addiction. Saul Bass would work with Preminger several more times, notably on Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Exodus (1960), but the director with whom Mr  Bass would become most identified would be Alfred Hitchcock. Saul Bass first worked with Mr. Hitchcock on Vertigo (1958), for which he first provided an imaginative sequence which combined a woman's eyes and lips with spiral designs evoking vertigo. His title sequence for North by Northwest would become possibly Mr. Bass's most famous title sequence. It was also one of his simplest. It consisted simply of kinetic typography superimposed over the glass windows of a skyscraper. Surprisingly, even though Mr. Bass is closely identified with Mr. Hitchcock, he only worked with him on three films, the last one being Psycho (1960). Over the years Saul Bass created some of the most legendary title sequences of all time, including Ocean's 11 (1960), West Side Story (1961), and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).  Mr. Bass would work into the Nineties, his last title sequence being the one for Casino (1995). He died in 1996.

Saul Bass literally revolutionised the title sequence in film, so that kinetic typography, animation, and even sound effects became common place in the opening credits of films. In the wake of Saul Bass would follow a number of legendary title designers. Among them would be Maurice Binder, perhaps best known for the title sequences of  the James Bond movies. Mr. Binder had first worked in the movies as an assistant to the producer on the movie Cry Danger (1951). He would receive his first credit as a title designer for the film The James Dean Story (1957). Like Saul Bass, Mr. Binder was well known for title sequences which utilised a variety of movement, including animation and kinetic typography. For The Mouse That Roared (1959), Mr. Binder used an animated sequence that incorporated imagery of a mouse, the New York City, and, finally, the globe. For Charade (1963) he used a title sequence which made extensive use of kinetic typography. Over the years Mr. Binder would become most famous for the title sequences of the James Bond movies, working on fourteen of the movies in total. It was Mr. Binder who created the famous 007 gun barrel sequence, variations of which have been used in every Bond movie ever since. For the first James Bond movie, Dr. No (1962), Mr. Binder created a title sequence which incorporated moving, multi-coloured circles, the silhouettes of women,  and kinetic typography. Curiously, Maurice Binder did not create the James Bond title sequence that would set the pace for all those came afterwards. Robert Brownjohn, who created the title sequence for From Russia with Love (1963), created a title sequence for Goldfinger (1964) which largely concentrated on the imagery of the girl painted gold. Mr. Brownjohn would come into a disagreement with producer Harry Saltzman and never worked on another Bond film, but his legacy remained in the title sequences which Maurice Binder created for every Bond film until his final one, Licence to Kill (1989). Thereafter ever Bond movie would feature a title sequence in which silhouettes of women either scantily clad or nude would engage in activities ranging from dancing to shooting guns. Although best known for the Bond movie, Maurice Binder worked on many more films, including The Mouse on the Moon (1962), Repulsion (1965), Arabesque (1966), Billion Dollar Brain (1967), Bedazzled (1967), and many others.

With graphic designers such as Saul Bass and Maurice Binder having incorporated animation into title sequences, it would not be long before animators themselves would become title designers. This was the case with the legendary Pablo Ferro, who began his career as an animator. Mr. Ferro made an impressive debut as a title designer, having designed the titles for the movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). For Dr. Strangelove, Mr. Binder created a title sequence in which there was kinetic typography of stylised letters superimposed over shots of bombers in flight. For the title sequence of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) Mr. Ferro used tinted photographs of the actors, divided up into rectangles, combined with kinetic typography. Although he made only a few title sequences in the Sixties, Mr. Ferro would become very prolific, working on films including Midnight Cowboy (1969), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Harold and Maude (1971), Prince of Darkness (1987), Darkman (1990), L.A. Confidential (1997), and Napoleon Dynamite (2004).

With animation playing a large role in title sequences in the Sixties, it should become no surprise that an animation company would become involved in title design DePatie-Freleng was an animation company founded by legendary animator Fritz Freleng and his partner David Depatie after Warner Brothers closed their animation unit in 1963. Depatie-Freleng would be responsible for one of the most famous title sequences of all time, that of The Pink Panther (1963). The Pink Panther title sequence was essentially an animated cartoon featuring a anthropomorphic, pink panther and an animated version of Inspector Clouseau. The sequence proved to be such a hit that the character of the Pink Panther and the Inspector would be spun off into their own series of theatrical cartoons. Depatie-Freleng would go on to create the title sequences of every Pink Panther movie up to Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), as well as the title sequences for Shot in the Dark (1964) and Inspector Clouseau (1968). They also created title sequences for The Satan Bug (1965), as well as the legendary title sequences of the TV shows I Dream of Jeannie and The Wild Wild West.

One title designer who would make extensive use of animation would be Wayne Fitzgerald. Wayne Fitzgerald began his career in 1951 with Pacific Title and Art, the company founded in 1919 by Leon Schlesinger to create title cards. When Saul Bass revolutionised title sequences in 1955, Pacific Title and Art adapted to the times, and Wayne Fitzgerald may have been their foremost title designer. He began his career creating titles for Glory (1956). As an employee of Pacific Title and Art, Mr. Fitzgerald rarely received credit early  in his career, working uncredited on such films as Silk Stockings (1957), The Fly (1958), Pillow Talk (1959), The Music Man (1962), Send Me No Flowers (1964), My Fair Lady (1964), Cat Ballou (1964), and Any Wednesday (1966). In 1968 he struck out on his own. Mr. Fitzgerald would create title sequences for such films as Alice's Restaurant (1969), Catch 22 (1970), Little Big Man (1960), Chinatown (1974), California Suite (1978), Splash (1984). Mr. Fitzgerald created the memorable title sequence for Pillow Talk (1959), in which a man in a bed and a woman in a bed, separated by a box containing the titles, toss a pillow back and forth. His title sequence for Send Me Now Flowers (1964) featured animated flowers and kinetic typography. Mr. Fitzgerald also designed titles for various TV series, including McCloud, Columbo, and others.

Sadly, the fact that Mr. Fitzgerald went uncredited for his title designs was not unusual in the Sixties. If the title design was credited at all, it was often be the company for whom they worked. The legendary, animated title sequence for Lover Come Back (1961) is credited only to Pacific Title. This is sad, as it would prove to be very influential, with its lovebirds and kinetic typography. Over the years Pacific Title created title sequences for literally hundreds of films. In the Fifties and Sixties it included the title sequences for such films as An American in Paris (1951), That Touch of Mink (1962), Ship of Fools (1965), In Cold Blood (1967) and Hang 'Em High (1968).

Sadly, as the Sixties became the Seventies, the creative title sequences of such men as Saul Bass and Maurice Binder would slowly go out of fashion. That is not to say that there have not been great title sequences since that time. For Seven (1995), title designer Kyle Cooper used stylised letters and such imagery as a notebook being written in, fingers handling a razor blade, words being marked out of a newspaper--apparently the serial killer going about his business. Catch Me If You Can (2002) featured an animated title sequence in the style of those created by Saul Bass, similar to the title sequences of the various caper movies from the Sixties which inspired the film. Similarly, Down With Love (2003) took its inspiration from the Sixties sex comedies upon which it was based in its title sequence, which resembles the title sequences of such films as Lover Come Back, Send Me No Flowers, and The Glass Bottom Boat (1966). In its title sequence Hellboy (2004) featured newspaper reports and footage of Hellboy sightings, as well as comic books. In its title sequence Lord of War (2005) followed a bullet from its manufacture to its final destination as it is fired into some poor bloke's body. Casino Royale (2006) featured a very retro title sequence, which not only drew upon the work of Maurice Binder, but upon the work of such title designers as Saul Bass and as well. Watchmen (2009) had a very inventive title sequence, which followed fifty years of superhero history to the tune of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'"

Sadly, while the past ten years have seen many remarkable title sequences, many bringing to mind those from the  Sixties, a recent trend in movies has been to simply begin the movie with only the title of the film, skipping any sort of title sequence. Of course, this is nothing new. Citizen Kane (1941) began simply with the title of the film, as did Stars Wars (1977). In 1940 Walt Disney went even further with Fantasia, featuring no opening credits at the beginning, not even the film's title. Among the recent films which have followed this trend have been No Country for Old Men (2007), There Will Be Blood (2007), The Dark Knight (2008), and Avatar (2009).  While beginning without any title sequence does work for some films (I feel it did for No Country for Old Men), it is not something which I would like to see become very common. Title sequences exist primarily to give credit to those who worked on the film, such as the cast, the screenwriter, the director, and so on. While it is true that these credits can be listed at the end of the film, the sad fact is that most people leave the theatre before the closing credits are even over. I suspect at home they simply eject the DVD or Blu-Ray disc from the  player.

Of course, over the years title sequences have come to do more than simply give credit where credit is due. They would come to set the mood for the movie, to let the audience know what the film is about. The animated title sequences of such films as Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers, set as they were to Doris Day tunes, let audiences know that they could expect something light and frothy. The somewhat more ominous title sequences of films such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and The Satan Bug know that they could expect a very exciting thriller. It was in the Fifties and Sixties that title sequences became an art form all their own, mini-films which were sometimes more entertaining than the movies themselves. They still serve much the same purpose today. Perhaps it is because I am so enamoured of the title sequences of old, but I personally think a film loses something when it lacks a proper title sequence.


NoirGirl said...

What a neat post! I'm always captivated by the title sequences. I love all the hand drawn ones.

Some of my true favorites are the one from Bachelor Mother where it's a store window that turns each time the names change and the one from Lady in the Lake where the cards all have a Christmas motif and a carol plays in the background until the very last credit it removed and a gun is revealed. :)

Sinbad the Sailor has some gorgeous credits - thanks for the DFJ love there!

The most impressive modern title credits I've seen lately are from Delicatessen ( Have you ever seen them? Film aside, it's worth watching just to see that title sequence. They are truly fascinating. Surprisingly enough, I enjoyed the film a lot, too. It's very odd, but amazing nonetheless.

Sarah said...

This is SO COOL! I've always loved title sequences, and I think Saul Bass' are my favorites. I think he did West Side Story too (hmm) and while I'm not totally sure, I love the simplicity of it.
And GUH I love his work with Hitchcock. Incredible.
I love Penelope's (1966) titles; very animated and just fun to watch! It's not like the usual boringness, it's like it's own little story.

kate gabrielle said...

Great post!! I never knew about Maurice Binder -- a lot of the films you mentioned, I always assumed they were Saul Bass titles. Charade and Ocean's 11 are two of my all time favorites. Also The Man with the Golden Arm (I love the music that goes with that one!) And as far as animated titles go, I love The Parent Trap animation. It's so fun!

Ship of Fools was a great one too -- and an example of how a really good title sequence can get you sucked into the movie before it even begins!

Raquelle said...

Superb post! I love the My Man Godfrey title sequence. Saul Bass was definitely more Otto Preminger's guy than Hitchcock. So many Preminger films feature the Bass signature style of title sequence.

Thank you for the information on Fitzgerald! I love those 60s title sequences and never knew who created them.

Mercurie said...

Noir Girl, Bachelor Mother does have a great title sequence. And I still love Sinbad the Sailor. I often wonder how they did that one! I have seen Delicatessen, and it does have an amazing title sequence!

Sarah, Saul Bass did do West Side Story. I think some of Mr. Bass's best work was his simplest! And I agree, Penelope does have a great title sequence! Sadly, they never credit the title designer who did it.

I knew about Maurice Binder because I was a Bond fan. It's rather sad he's best known for the Bond movies, as I think his best work was actually on The Mouse That Roared and Charade!

Yes, Raquel, I have to agree Saul Bass should be more identified with Otto Preminger. I think it's just a case of the titles for Vertigo and North by Northwest were just SO impressive! Mr. Fitzgerald is one of my favourites and really should be counted alongside Saul Bass and Maurice Binder in my mind. After all, he's the reason we think all Sixties sex comedies had animated titles, even though they really didn't!