Movie titles - more than just setting type, it's an art form
NEW YORK — If you're stuck in the popcorn line at the movie theater as the opening credits roll, you're missing more than just the names of stars. Although few audience members realize it, title sequences are an art form that creatively preps moviegoers for the film to come.
"The title sequence is lulling you into that dreamlike state you're in when you watch a movie," says Ken Coupland, a design writer in San Francisco who co-curated "For Openers: The Art of Film Titles," a touring program that premired this spring at Lincoln Center in New York.
Before the first scene plays in Hitchcock's 1960 thriller "Psycho," screeching music and names that slice up the screen create uneasiness. During the opening credits of the James Bond classic "Goldfinger," scenes from the film are reflected on golden body parts. While a flower blooms at the start of last year's "Magnolia," the entire film is simultaneously previewed, as one frame from each scene zips by in the background.
"That's the wonderful thing [about a title sequence] - you don't notice it until you notice it," Mr. Coupland says. "Titles are experimental, abstract filmmaking within the world of commercial moviemaking. They're a film within a film."
But unless it's 007 shooting at the screen, who's paying attention to the credits as its own entertainment? And when titles are memorable, few realize it's not the director's work but that of a graphic designer who has a head for storytelling.
"I used to say, 'I designed the opening titles,' and people [would] say, 'What, you're a typesetter?' " says Kyle Cooper, who designed the title sequences for "Seven," "Arlington Road," and "Mimic."
Only film enthusiasts might know the names of title designers Saul Bass (who worked with Hitchcock) and Maurice Binder (creator of the Bond credits).
"Typically [our names are] right above the disclaimers" in the end credits, says Deborah Ross, a designer in Los Angeles who created titles for "The English Patient" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley." "I've trained my whole family to wait until the bitter end."
The revolution in title design started in the 1950s with Bass, who worked on advertisements for films and who eventually transformed opening titles. Starting with director Otto Preminger's 1955 "The Man with the Golden Arm" (with Frank Sinatra as a drug addict), the title sequence integrated ideas about the film with images from the promotional posters.
"All of the posters [for 'Man with the Golden Arm'] showed abstract images - this cubist arm reaching down - and when you got into the theater, there it was again" in the opening sequence, says David Peters, a co-curator for "For Openers."
Bass also created the extensive credits for the 1956 "Around the World in 80 Days." "There are minimal titles at the beginning and then an eight- to nine-minute reprise of the film in animation that is like a short film," Peters says. The mini-movie format still shows up, most recently in the John Cusack comedy "High Fidelity." The expanded palate brought 1960s gems like the Bond sequences designed by Binder.
"[Binder] created high energy, bravura titles that characterized spy stories and secret agents," Mr. Peters says, including the nearly trademark sequence of the gun being swung on the audience.
Directors are also discovering that titles "can be a perfect vehicle to avoid the expense of re-shoot and cover something that got left out of the film or to fit in backstory," designer Mr. Cooper says, since the title sequence is usually added on once a film is complete.
After "The Talented Mr. Ripley" wrapped, director Anthony Minghella determined that there was still more background to give. He gave designer Ms. Ross five pages of script that turned into an eight-minute title sequence. It took five months to complete as opposed to the average four to six weeks.
The sequence, which was so integral to the film it was mentioned in reviews, has images that "get more and more aggressive and harsh and knifelike as it goes on," Ross says. "It's a signal on a subconscious level that things are not as they seem."
Titles are, as with most aspects of moviemaking, a collaborative process. The New York design team of Randy Balsmeyer and Mimi Everett presented several ideas to director David Cronenberg for the opening of "Naked Lunch" (a fantasy that came out in 1991) before hitting on one that worked. The designers tried inserting elements from the story, but then realized that, in this case, the sequence simply needed to establish mood.
'For Openers: The Art of Film Titles' is touring the country. Check the schedule at www.designfilms.org
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