Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Projectionist - Pull Curtain Before Titles. An essay about the emotional power of movie title sequences

How film credit designers access emotion through narrative

Invention of Total Cinema                                           
A New Hope                                                                  
Computer Aided Design est arrivé                             

This paper shows how title sequence storytelling evolved during a century of cinema. It demonstrates the various approaches that can be harnessed to elicit emotional responses to sound and vision. It reviewed what are considered very important phases in the production of title sequence form. Analysed here are Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 film ‘Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed’, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Lodger: A Story of London in the Fog’ from 1927. The titles designed by Saul Bass and also Orson Welles’ ‘Touch of Evil’ from the 1950’s then finally the work of Kyle Cooper, Daniel Kleinman and Tom Kan. The examples referenced can be said to contribute to the ‘graphic world’ we live in. Title sequences work on multiple levels the best seamlessly combine artistic expression filtered through commercial expediencies. They work on audiences’ expectations and provide a visual explanation of what is to follow. Through the research presented it has been shown that the future path of this industry is known and unknown all at once. It is possible that once again the cinema curtains will remain closed until action of the main film starts.
Key words:
Film credit designers, Motion graphics, Narrative, Saul Bass, Title sequences

Prologue – a speech, preface, or brief scene preceding the main action or plot of a film. A title sequence is like a prologue to a movie. It sets you up for the emotional content to follow and it makes you excited. Ones prior experience informs how your imagination is stimulated. Technologies are advancing rapidly and people now have unprecedented access to information and interactivity. This situation has had a massive influence on how they ‘read’ and ‘engage’ with visual information. What do they feel when they encounter this pixilated world? ‘Man on the eve of Revolution, that is to say, alone, still blind, on the point of having his eyes opened to the revolutionary light by the ‘natural’ excess of his wretchedness.’ (Barthes, 2009, p.36). A vital part of storytelling defined by using graphic design to elicit emotional empathy in the audience as a prerequisite to connect them with the films main content. ‘The pull toward emotional involvement is counterbalanced by elements in the work that promote distance, disinterestedness, impartiality. Emotional involvement is always, to a greater or lesser degree, postponed’ (Sontag, 1987, p.177). Storytelling craft is powerfully expressed through motion, sound and vision. I will demonstrate that continued developments in moving image output will only continue to affect us if it remembers to reflect our feelings.
Invention of Total Cinema
A well-designed title sequence signals the producer/ directors’ artistic autonomy. The craft of title design has been influenced by multiple changes not least the arrival of a visually sophisticated audience and design graduates who were happy to blur the boundaries between print and moving image.

As Emily king states in her MA thesis:
Possibly the most important long-term impact of the relationship between graphic design and film has been the blurring of the border between the graphic and the filmic. The influence of what Bernard Lodge (the designer of Dr Who TV credits) described as “the graphic designers’ eye” became strongly evident in the films of the late 1960s and remains so in those of the early 1990s. (King, 2004).

For practical and legal reasons each title designer is confronted with the conventions imposed by the films producers and distributors. The integration of this required content is a challenge to the most inventive thinkers to continue to create interest in a predictable list. ‘Art generally, thrives on limitations. When those limitations change, that same work ethic should direct us to expand our efforts to the new outer reaches of the possible.’ (McCloud, 2009). When there are no justifiable financial reasons for including a sophisticated and memorable titles sequence (films are announced to the public, advertised through the trailer and coming attractions and marketed in interviews and the scrutiny of the mass media) it’s for building the reputation of a movie its ‘coolness.’ As technology gets better and cheaper it becomes increasingly attractive to people. The availability of larger, high resolution screens means people will begin to access the infinite canvas.

Scott McCloud states on his blog:
On an expanded canvas, he or she can add or subtract "beats" until the sequence feels right, just as a film editor might do. But in print, the size of the page and restrictions on page count make the length of a given sequence the first consideration, instead of a by-product of good pacing as it should be.’ (McCloud, 2009)

Some artists are going to find ways to exploit the interface for narrative and experimental purposes. Already the mainstream media outlets see this as a 'natural' way of imparting information e.g. news journalism it's not just about writing anymore it is straying further into the world of entertainments. This being the case they will need to stay relevant to real people. ‘The only way the infinite canvas approach can ever come of age is if the readers' needs come first.’ (McCloud, 2009).
To find out how we got here we need to analyse some humble beginnings.

Richard Matarazzo states in his MA thesis:
The earliest credit sequences were for silent films. Presented on title cards and containing printed material that were photographed and later incorporated into the movie. These cards also included the dialogue and set the time, place and action for the scenes. As the movie industry evolved, so did the titles. After the implementation of sound, titles began to function as a transition: taking on the responsibility of displaying the movie's title, the name of the director and establishing the hierarchy of actors. In the 1950s, titles began to move beyond realistic communication and evolved into complete narratives establishing the mood and visual character of the film. (Matarazzo).

Emily King also agrees with Matarazzo’s MA thesis:
‘The first titlers hired by the film industry almost certainly were trained sign-writers because from the start film credits were set out in templates derived from nineteenth century hand-lettered signs. These formats were so dominant that they were adhered to even in memos between members of a movie’s production team regarding credit.’ (King, 2004).

‘Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed’ 1926 Lotte Reiniger
27 seconds
Title card showing black silhouette cut outs. Credits hand-rendered arabesque text changes while the illustrated frame of oriental ornamentation remains static. Manual pigmentation has been employed to add lemon yellow. The title sequence suggests a gentle or lyrical film is to follow. Orchestral music is light building to a cymbal crash at its climax. We are not introduced to the characters. Imagery is unified but does not create tension. Visual style is the same as the rest of the film. This is a unique film from this German experimental animator. We feel that excitement must follow.

‘The Lodger: A Story of London in the Fog’
1927 E. McKnight Kauffer & Ivor Montagu
31 seconds
Intention is to suggest a German Expressionist atmosphere. The sequence begins with an image showing an illustration of a hat-wearing figure (who might be The Avenger character) picked out in a triangular window and films title, the window closes over the image of the hat-wearing figure screen goes black, then we are shown a list of the technical makers then a short cast list. Sequence ends with triangular window opening on the illustration of the hat-wearing man again. Film hand coloured indigo and cadmium yellow. We jump cut straight into the plot with a live action close-up shot of a woman screaming. The title sequence suggests we are about to see something mysterious or a crime story. The Typeface is the primitive looking Neuland design in 1923 by German Rudolf Koch. Sequence designed by an eminent graphic designer of the period who also receives a credit during the title sequence. Hitchcock began his film career as a titles and inter-titles designer and went on to work with the highly influential Saul Bass in the 1950’s.

A New Hope
Bass has the ability to grasp the very essence of a film and present it in such a way that in an opening sequence lasting just a few minutes he could convey the atmosphere and premise of the film to come. ‘My position was that the film begins with the first frame and that the film should be doing a job at that point.’ (Bass J. & Kirkham P., 2011, p.106). Under his influence the title sequence became an extension of the film, as well as an art form in its own right, with the capacity to symbolise and summarise what the audience was about to experience. Creating a title sequence a designer or director must include some essential factors that drive the emotional and psychological dimensions of the visual appearance, Narrative – what are you being told or not told, the enigmas; Characters; Production Values – High end or low budget; Genre = Retro or Progressive. The origin of this applied art with a service function implies non-authorship.

David Peters, designer and media historian of Design Films argues:
“A new seriousness about the role of titles followed from the hostile and prolonged Hollywood strike of 1946 that led, among other things, to the founding of Scenic and Title Artists Local 816,” & “These specialists declared themselves to be artists and not just laborers.”
(Titles Throughout Time, online article Creative Planet

The examples of title sequences in this essay transcend the mere functional and approach high art.
Discussing ‘The Man With The Golden Arm’ Alice Rawsthorn suggests:
It wasn’t the first movie with striking titles. Back in 1936, the names of the cast of the M.G.M. musical “The Great Ziegfeld” were literally spelled out in lights. In Britain during the 1940s and 1950s, Emeric Pressburger crafted equally elaborate sequences for the films he made with Michael Powell. Their 1945 movie, “I Know Where I’m Going,” opens with a mini-biopic of a girl growing up with the credits appearing on props: chalked on to a school blackboard, or painted on a truck. (Rawsthorn, 2012).

‘The Man With the Golden Arm’ 1955, ‘Vertigo’ 1958, ‘Anatomy of A Murder’ 1959 and ‘North By Northwest’ 1959 Saul Bass
80 seconds, 193 seconds, 85 seconds and 126 seconds
This is the era in which the discipline of film title design was actually born. In all four cases the sequences are designed to promote the director of each film at the start and at the finish. We are being made to anticipate a thrilling ride from the tone of each score. In ‘Vertigo’ we see a main character in the other three films there are no principle characters are shown. Colour palettes range from Black & grey to red, green and blue. White typography hand-rendered sans serif faces used ‘The Man With The Golden Arm’ & ‘Anatomy of A Murder.’ In the case of ‘Vertigo’ Clarendon Outline Regular serif face is employed. For ‘North By Northwest’ Franklin Gothic Condensed is used for the kinetic typography in the sequence. All films use music that was originally scored to fit these title sequences. Elmer Bernstein, Bernard Herrmann and Duke Ellington wrote these scores. Bernstein and Ellington have created Jazz scores to indicate the modern qualities of each film. Herrmann was trying to place us into the world of the film without reference to trends.
Film canisters for ‘The Man With the Golden Arm’ had a note stuck to them that read: PROJECTIONISTS – PULL CURTAIN BEFORE TITLES. Otto Preminger wanted his audience to see The Man with the Golden Arm’s titles as an integral part of the film. Preminger the independent director of ‘The Man With the Golden Arm’ and ‘Anatomy of A Murder’ was also Saul Bass’ father-in-law this relationship helped the creativity of both men.
‘Touch of Evil’ 1958 Director Orson Welles
214 seconds
Famous single take title sequence filming live action tracking shot from a crane using Black and white cinematography. The camera sweeps around the night time streets first following a car caring a man and a woman that has had a bomb planted in it then tracking a couple out for an evening stroll (these are the stars of the film). No one is aware of what is to come. We as the viewer share in Welles’ Godlike POV. Time is running out. This long take ends with a cut to the car burning after the explosion has occurred. We have in this sequence established the location, purpose and direction of the film. Natural street sounds picking up dialogue and musicians playing in bars and cantinas. This is a masterful shot Welles is at his best. It sets the tone for the movie to follow we are shaken out of our complacency. In the Re-edit version released in 1998 the sound in the sequence is diegetic only. In the original release version the cast and main crew credits are shown over the sequence and non-diegetic sound is added in the form of Henry Mancini’s swing/jazz score. (On the original release print the title, main cast and crew are listed in white over the filmed scene and the swing music of Henry Mancini is to dominant.

Computer Aided Design est arrivé
‘The introduction of Adobe After Effects in 1993 had a profound effect on the creation of title sequences, allowing designers to create and composite titles on their desktop computers.’ (Titles Throughout Time, online article Creative Planet

Emily King goes on to say:
To take the title sequences out of their context within film, treating them purely as examples of moving graphics, would be to miss their point. Equally, to dismiss them as packaging, as film historians have tended to do, is to ignore both the importance of the opening sequence to the body of the film and its potential to throw analytical light on what it precedes. Recognise that proper analyses of the role of graphic design in film demands a catholic approach and an eclectic methodology. Movies are most characteristically wholes constructed of many diverse parts. (
King, 2004).

‘Se7en’ 1995 Kyle Cooper/ R/Greenberg Associates
121 seconds
Seminal piece of design that credits cast and crew but also acts as a prologue showing thoughts and deeds of the unseen and un-credited nemesis ‘John Doe’. We are in the world of a mad man coloured sepia, grey, red and white and we may not come out. Filmed collage and juxtapositions of filmed images overlaid by deconstructed typographic credits Final image shows director’s name against a black background. Typographic style is used in the first shot of the actual film. Heavy rock music that has a driving forward motion. It helps set the tone and grime of the visual design. Nine Inch Nails track ‘Closer’ remixed by Trent Reznor. Showed that motion pictures were now incorporating the output of graphic design studios into film language for marketing products. The technological democratization of high-end software is beginning to be exploited. Cooper's titles for ‘Se7en’ transformed the written word into a performer. “We did a full alphabet by hand and then we filmed the credits…we did all sorts of experiments with the camera while filming” adding, “The types are like actors to me. They have their own characteristics.” (Solana G. & Boneu A., 2007, p.257)

Julia May quotes from ‘The New York Times Magazine:
“he almost single-handedly revitalized the entire film titling industry” the scratchy, jittery acid-bathed glimpse of a twisted serial killer making his grisly preparations shocked audiences and drive clients to the door, but it also typecast Cooper as a sort of evil genius with a penchant for dark subject matter.’ (May, 2010)

‘Casino Royale’ 2006 Daniel Kleinman
186 seconds
This sequence starts 215 seconds into the film after the prologue. It shows Bond with a gun that he fires. Then men are engaged in fighting and shooting at one another the background reminds one of gambling and playing card graphics in black, red, yellow ochre, yellow, blue and white. The fallen in the sequence either morph into playing cards or hearts, spades etc. In some cases the fallen bleed and this blood rhythmically becomes part of the stylized back- drop. We are to expect thrills and spills with lashings of ‘real’ violence. Final image shows Daniel Craig’s face in close up with director’s name to the left (associating the director with the brand). Craig’s face is covered in black using a technique reminiscent of Saul Bass. Title song commissioned for this film (as is customary for James Bond movie) ‘Remember my Name’ sung by Chris Cornell. Animation with special live action effects within the animation. Daniel Craig and Eva Green the main characters are referenced here.
Kleinman is paying homage to the sequence legends Maurice Binder and Robert Brownjohn as a James Bond reboot it states where the filmmakers are going with this character. What they are leaving behind (sexist imagery maybe) and what they are keeping (guns and violence). It seeks to validate Daniel Craig as Bond

‘Enter The Void’ 2009 Tom Kan
137 seconds
Words flash across the middle of the screening a progression of quick and flashing cuts. The type represents the main character acting in the film and aspects of the crew. There are references to a variety of font styles and the colours across a wide spectrum used are meant to suggest the neon signs of Tokyo. The energy of the imagery becomes more and more intense as the sequence continues. The type is shown in three languages French, English and Japanese this relates to the production team on the film. Our perception has been challenged by the flashing fast cuts the jumble of written language the colours suggest an unusual experience to come. We are not introduced to the cast and crew but we given indication of their characters through the choice of type style adopted for each one of them. It has a quieter first credit sequence the music become more insistent in the second credit sequence. Track used is ‘Freak’ by Intelligent Dance Music group LFO. Our senses are over stimulated and assaulted. Sets the tone for the film to come. Puts typography back at the heart of title sequence design.
So do Film Study analysis and Design Historians continue to miss the point?

“To watch a main title out of it’s context, without being a captive audience without having bought the popcorn and being in the theatre, ready to see the movie is a little unfair. I think a main title has to be really good to exist in this context separate from the movie itself.” According to Kyle Cooper he goes on to state “…I think the reason it got everybody's attention was less about the graphical language and more about the idea.” (Matarazzo).

‘The title sequence has come to rival commercials and music videos as the leading indicator of contemporary visual style. Claiming it as art-form. Described as dense and multi-layered constantly more challenging than the film that follows it.’ (Matarazzo). A good example of this is ‘Watchmen’ (2009) credits designed by yU+co. However fashionable trends in design and the direct lifting it inspires can promote overkill.

In an essay called "The Cult of the Scratchy," Jessica Helfand characterizes the state of contemporary film titles:
‘Scratchiness is a kind of celebration of the non-committal. It thrives on jumpy cuts and skewed perspectives as if the goal was anything but to stand still. This urge comes from a knee-jerk response to all things digital, borne out of a fear of projecting the unquestionably static history of your profession onto this seemingly new kinetic world. Such tactics speak of a level of cultural anxiety that has perhaps found its visual incarnation in the twitchy qualities of scratchiness.’ (Helfand, 2001, pp. 98-100).

A natural extension of moving typography into the main film was explored in Reuben Fleischer’s ‘Zombieland’ (2009) perhaps inspired by the work of ‘Kazakh director, Timur Bekmambetov, for his Russian blockbusters, “Night Watch” and “Day Watch.” [He] has also reinvented the forgotten medium of subtitles. Rather than lurking at the bottom of the screen, they reflect the action by gliding on and off screen at different angles, exploding in puffs of smoke and melting into liquescent pools.’ (Rawsthorn, 2012).
This new thinking might counter the trend for main titles to be relegated to the end of the film.

The desire to engage or entertain the gathering audience in the auditorium when coupled with the designer or artists eye for sensitive and meaningful image sequences raises not only the quality of the story but also gives us pause to reflect on the significance of what I call the ‘introduction etiquette’ of cinema. The communication of complex ideas to a diverse but visually sophisticated audience is still paramount. I have shown here that even after 100 years of cinema we still need our emotions catered for. There is a note of caution; apart from showing the logos of the film companies and production companies at the start of a movie there is now a trend for placing title sequences at the end. Could we return to the days when the curtain remained closed until the action of the main movie begins?

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