A Film Title Pioneer
Wolfgram Evans) A night at the movies once went like this: you'd
arrive at the theatre, see a short subject, a cartoon, a smaller
(B) movie and then the main feature would dance across the screen
followed by a slate of coming attractions.
and for a variety of reasons this bill shifted and changed until
we arrived at the movie night of today: arrive at the theatre,
see a commercial, a couple of previews, the main picture and go
home. With the hectic pace of today's life, no one really complains
about theatre's dropping the first feature and the absence of
a short subject is all but forgotten but having no cartoon, that's
on a different level. The majority of filmgoers wouldn't mind
seven minutes of color before the main feature. Unfortunately,
the advent of television and the rising cost of animation, combined
with other factors and contributed to the 'demise' of the animated
short theatrical feature. Or did it?
and viewing the landscape of film exhibition, particularly in
regards to animation, it is reasonable to see that animated shorts
have not in fact disappeared from the silver screen, rather they
evolved into an integral part of the main feature. Today when
going to the movies, chances are that animation will be a part
of the bill, most likely as the main feature titles.
In the days
of silent film, the story was moved along by title cards, which
were imbued with text and inserted through out the action. The
white lettering on black backgrounds was sometimes livened up
by some decorative additions (such as 'lace' outlines, type treatments
or drawings of characters or buildings) but for the most part,
they were rather plain. The cards could be found not just within
the film, but before as well. And so film titles were born, dull
and plain, but they were here. Thankfully they evolved and matured
to where they were not just reciting off the names of the films
participants, but were actually an integral part of the main feature.
This maturation of the film titles was due in large part to one
man: Saul Bass.
was one of the first to seize on the potential storytelling power
of the opening and closing credits of a film. He used a number
of styles (animation, live action, type treatments) to create
credits for films as diverse as Casino (1995) and It's a Mad,
Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). What he created were opening credit
sequences that did not simply announce the credits and open the
movie, they were instead a logical extension of the film. Each
sequence was in it's self a short film that prepared the viewer
for what was to come. In his closing credit sequences, he worked
to give the story a 'semi-prologue', to give the viewer a chance
to continue the experience of the film while bringing it to a
Saul was born
in New York City on May 8, 1920. He was interested in art from
an early age and did all that he could to expand his passions.
At the age of 15, he began taking painting classes at the Art
Student's League in Manhattan. He studied here until he was old
enough to attend Brooklyn College. His stay here, under the tutelage
of Gyorgy Kepes, would be the turning point in his life and work.
He was deeply influenced in his studies on the Modernist School
of Design and what he learned would have a hold on all that he
did for the next fifty years. Following graduation, he worked
his way around a number of New York advertising agencies before
moving to Los Angeles in 1948.
his time in Hollywood doing print work for film ads. After a brief
bit of time he found his job expanding and in 1954 he was asked
to design and create a title sequence to the film Carmen Jones.
Bass saw this as an opportunity to enhance the filmgoers experience.
He didn't want to just have his sequence inform the audience,
nor did he want to use the time to do some fancy graphical work
that would show of his talents but add nothing to the film.
"My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set
the prime underlying core of the film's story, to express the
in some metaphorical way. I saw the title as a way of conditioning
the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers
already have an emotional resonance with it"1
As Bass went
forward, he proceeded in perfecting these thoughts, creating mini-narratives
which would help bring the viewer into the film.
Coupland feels that in this respect, Bass is something of a
"I believe that a great title sequence almost literally
you, especially the work of Saul Bass where there's a very strong
repetitive swirling motion and abstract things that happen that's
putting you into a dream-like state."2
is especially true in Bass' work for Alfred Hitchcock on the titles
for Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1958). In the latter
film, Bass used animated lines working behind the credits to create
a maze like feel. He ensnared each name while using the animation
to foreshadow Cary Grant's plight. Perhaps the real trick comes
at the end of the sequence, when the lines 'become' the skyscraper
in the films opening.
Some of Bass's
early title work is very 'graphic design-centric' but as he went
on, he moved away from that center, using a number of mediums,
particularly animation. His work on two pictures in particular
shows his knowledge and understanding of animation including it's
effects and influences on it's audience and it's surroundings
(here the feature that followed/proceeded it).
of a Murder (1959)
One of 11 films that Bass worked on with Otto Preminger, this
may constitute his best work in the collaboration. Inspired by
the animated interludes that John Hubley created for The Four
Poster (1952), Bass used limited animation playing over a jazz
soundtrack (created specifically for the film by Duke Ellington)
to bring the viewer into the film's world of murder and betrayal.
The entire sequence is based on the 'ad' for the film: a silhouette
of a corpse, broken into pieces. It looks like a puzzle, where
all of the pieces are close to being snapped together but just
not quite there. This piece is the central image in the two minute
opening animated title sequence.
with the image as a whole and then it quickly disappears from
view. We are then presented with the separate pieces of the body
which slide on and off the screen in a cool and smooth manner
as Ellington's music walks us through. Sometimes the image moves
quickly on and off and sometimes it arrives on screen and stays
passive for a moment only to suddenly shatter apart.
perfectly sets the viewer up: by using only parts of the body,
and in no certain order, one is left wondering what will come
next and, like the puzzle pieces that they are, how each relates
to the other. Just when things start to make sense, an image on
screen shatters, effectively telling the viewer that nothing is
solid, nothing is what it seems. It all works together to bring
the viewer into the proper frame of mind for the mystery that
follows. All of this is underscored beautifully by Bass's decision
to use a limited style of animation. The 'jumpiness' of the medium,
helps keep the viewer jarred and on their toes, they were not
allowed to simply waltz into this movie relaxed, they would instead
enter the film as participants.
here is all the more impressive when it is viewed against another
equally strong, but completely different sequence.
the World in 80 Days (1956)
This Michael Anderson directed film (which won the Academy Award
for Best Picture) is one of those three-hour Hollywood blockbusters
filled with nearly every star of the day. In this extravaganza,
Bass' work appears not at the beginning of the film, but at the
end. The six-minute cartoon that he created to display the end
credits gave people a reason to stay in the theatre even after
'The End' flashed across the screen.
For his work,
Bass used fully realized animated figures against a plain background
to retell the story of the film. In this short our hero is a clock
on legs. Starting in London, the clock begins its journey around
the world; this is done not literally but through the use of symbols
(pyramids for Egypt, Elephants for India). An interesting twist
that Bass added was not to scroll the credits across the screen
but to integrate them into the movement. When the clock reaches
the American West, a saloon door swings open and behind it is
the name of one of the players in that scene. The door swings
closed and another opens, revealing another name. In Paris, the
names appear as fireworks blasts that illuminate the city. (While
tricks like this may seem old hat today, remember that the majority
of the films at this time used plain, static text for their credits.)
all of his action off of Victor Youngs jaunty score to produce
a completely realized animated version of the essence of the film.
The credits here don't just rehash the story material, but rather
present it for us in a new way and it really is only after witnessing
it that you feel as if the film is truly completed.
talents stretched into many areas. For film, besides creating
title sequences for others' movies, he also Produced and Directed
several of his own short features. In 1968 he won an Academy Award
for his partially animated short film Why Man Creates. He continued
to work in film up until his death on April 25, 1996. He left
an incredible body of work that still influences filmmakers and
continues to hold movie watchers in amazement. He has been celebrated
in exhibitions both 'static' (at New York City's School of Visual
Arts) and 'moving' (a number of film exhibitions travel the country
now celebrating the art of the film title). His name even adorns
an award that is given annually to the film with the best title
sequence. Mr. Bass' greatest legacy though may be that in a time
when others were removing animation from theatres, he helped not
only to keep it there, but to make it an essential part of a night
at the movies.
1. Film Quarterly. Fall 1996
creativeloafing.com September 2000
Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio. He has
written for the Internet, print and had several plays produced.
He enjoys the study of animation and laughs over cartoons with
his wife and daughter.
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