Better then the film?
There’s a sidelong query trotted out – in the memory at least - by every other sub-Seinfeld late-Eighties stand-up ever to grace open-mic night as to why they don’t build the aeroplanes out of the same stuff they use to make the black-box flight recorders. It’s a fairly flatulent line of reasoning, but some refined stylistic variant of this disingenuous horse-sense flits through many people’s minds every time they plonk themselves into a cinema seat.
Movies today are more market-conscious and committee-led than ever, with your average blockbuster pandering to every demographic and regularly pleasing none. But one area of filmmaking that has maintained and steadily developed a level of artistic integrity and audience appreciation is that of the opening title sequence.
The title sequences for many – if not most – movies are not tackled by the feature director, but farmed out to design houses and graphic artists who are charged with setting the mood for the subsequent film or filling in something of the movie’s backstory. While ‘show-stopping’ and ‘scene-stealing’ are not compliments that credit sequence directors are keen to hear about their work, so many feature films these days are so contemptuous of their audience and so staggeringly inept in their execution that the economy and craft of many opening sequences usurp the films they precede. So why, to flog the flight recorder analogy, do they not let the title designers loose on the entire film..?
Eye-popping opening montages are, of course, nothing new. The dazzling name-in-lights credits of lavish MGM musical ‘The Great Ziegfeld’ (1936) and Saul Bass’s many collaborations with both Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock offered sumptuous entrees to some wonderful films. Later, Maurice Binder’s wildly iconic work on the first James Bond outing ‘Dr. No’ (1962) not only introduced 007’s trademark gun barrel intro, but the ultra-modern electro-gimcrackery that accompanied the credits proper announced to audiences that had – in Britain at least – endured the grim fortitude of the post-War Fifties that the future had most definitely arrived. Animated title sequences also had their day, with Bass’s lightly unhinged opening for ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ (1963) proving a perfect prelude to cinema’s finest madcap ensemble treasure hunt, while the insouciant feline anti-hero of the titles for 1964’s ‘The Pink Panther’ was such a hit that he even snagged his own freaky-deaky Saturday morning cartoon series.
Pablo Ferro, title designer for groovy Steve McQueen vehicles ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ and ‘Bullitt’ (both 1968) - and hailed as a genius by no less than Stanley Kubrick – explains some of the basic ground rules of the discipline. “Everything has to be part of the movie. No matter how eye catching it is, if it doesn’t fit the movie you have to throw it out and start over.” The success of this approach is evidenced in Ferro’s seamless work on Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove’ (1964). “The B-52 refueling in mid-air looks like it was done when the movie was shot. Actually it was found at the last minute. Also, the long, thin lettering allowed you to see the screen and the lettering at the same time. It all fits perfectly.”
Films, of course, mirror their times and the close of the Sixties saw the likes of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ (1967), which recalled a nation torn by the Great Depression of the Thirties as badly as it was by the turbulence of the Sixties. It also featured a stark, documentarian title sequence featuring bedraggled and oppressed country folk that mirrored the photojournalism coming back from Vietnam. Later, Charlton Heston-in-a-safari-suit sci-fi chiller ‘Soylent Green’ (1973) served up the last word in dehumanisation, and was preceded by an excellent sequence tasked with nothing less than charting the entire evolution of human technology.
The Eighties threw up very little in way of truly memorable title sequences, but the smash-and-grab ninety-minute blockbusters of the time were straightforward and direct affairs, and the back-alley conception of most VHS fodder left little time or money for notable production design. It would be the Nineties that ushered in something of a renaissance for the art of the title, with two wildly disparate sequences that reveled in squalor and glamour respectively; Kyle Cooper’s grungy, crepuscular and – watching it again – all too brief credit sequence for David Fincher’s ‘Se7en’ (1995) and Saul Bass’s glitzy, fatalistic opening for Martin Scorsese’s ‘Casino’ (also 1995).
‘Se7en’ was a real landmark in movie title design, and the attention to detail that makes it work so well is almost tangible. “That’s where the fun is,” notes Kyle Cooper, “looking at something over and over again, finding ways to improve it, finding new solutions to the problem; tweaking the aesthetic, the timing, looking at a piece frame by frame and making it beautiful. That is how the best work gets made, and that is the work I would always choose to be measured against.”
Garson Yu, whose contribution to 2003’s ‘Hulk’ was a clammy microscopic maelstrom that prepared us for Bruce Banner’s cellular meltdown, has nothing but praise for Cooper’s work. “When ‘Se7en’ came out, it brought a new approach and look to feature films. Film is conservative compared to commercials and music videos in terms of a visual look. ‘Se7en’ at that time was edgy and it was new to the movie-going public.”
Not quite as edgy, but equally eye-catching, was Bass’s wondrous credit montage – his last before his death – for ‘Casino’, in which Robert De Niro, blown sky-high by a misfiring car-bomb, tumbles through a gaudy inferno of Vegas neon. Yu seems to be in a reverie when recalling what is already a distant, bygone age. “They were not done digitally but were all in-camera optical double exposures,” he says of Bass’s kaleidoscopic overlaps. “Beautiful colour montages. The look is different. We are all looking for a groundbreaking technique and look in title design. When that came out, it was mesmerizing.”
David Fincher is just one big-name feature director who appreciates the values of a well-drawn opening sequence. As well as ‘Se7en’ and the circuitous delirium that fronted up ‘Fight Club’ (1999), Fincher opened his claustrophobic yuppie-flight polemic ‘Panic Room’ (2002) with a stately aerial tour of a Manhattan hung with ominous, floating credits that foreshadow the emotional distance of the film. William Lebeda, proud recipient of both the ID Forty’s 2003 Best Title Designer award for ‘Panic Room’ and their year’s worst equivalent for M. Night Shyamalan’ ‘Signs’ (2002), details the process. “Fincher had a rough idea of placing type around the buildings,” he says, “but no one knew how to arrange it or what it was going to be when it was all done. We met with him and thoroughly discussed the potential and then went back and brought it to life for him. In many ways it is a visual effect sequence more than titles. Visual effects with words, really.”
As might be imagined, the realm of title design is a small one, but not, it appears, in any way vicious. My initial request for an interview with Mr. Lebeda was incautiously cut‘n’pasted to him bearing the name of a direct competitor, but he was more than willing to look past it. Similarly, I was invited to get in touch with Kyle Cooper by his putative rival Danny Yount. It is heartening to know these things go on under the Hollywood sign, no?
Yount, the design muscle that brought you the stripped-down vector assault of the ‘Iron Man’ credit sequence as well as one of the few good things about Guy Ritchie’s ‘RocknRolla’ (both 2008), is winningly self-deprecating when he describes his role in the Tinseltown process. “A title sequence is as important to a movie as a good cover is to a novel. Creating the first moving visual statement of a film is huge and delicate responsibility - I am invited by the director to set the tone of the film in the most expressive manner possible.”
If the director does not have a clear vision as to how he opens the film, he will, like any other area of design world, take pitches for ideas. This can take place at any point in the film’s development and can mean that prospective designers often have very little to go on. Pamela B. Green of PIC Agency, producer of many arresting montages such as that for Peter Berg’s overlooked Saudi actioner ‘The Kingdom’ (2007) elaborates. “Every film is different. When we worked on ‘The Kingdom’ all we had was the script, the same on ‘Van Helsing’ . With ‘Twilight’  we saw the whole film, but on ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’  we only saw third. And sometimes we get nothing.”
Such last-minute breathlessness, however, can provide cover for some under-the-radar excellence. As Kyle Cooper says, “the title sequence becomes a side project for the director, almost like another little film, with a whole different set of concerns. So if we're lucky, we can stay fairly independent - and can usually get away with doing something good.” Naturally, modifications are often necessary, but Laurent Brett, designer of the titles for joyous French spy spoof ‘OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies’ (2006) and middling Bruce Willis payday ‘Hostage’ (2005) embraces the challenge. “I would say it is less case of revision, but rather a logical progression.”
The best sequences tend to stem from true collaboration between director and titles designer, and Gareth Smith of Shadowplay Studio worked especially closely with the director of precocious fertility fable ‘Juno’ (2007). “We generally prefer to work with people who specifically ask us to make a proposal or who have seen our work. The ‘Juno’ title sequence was just such a collaboration with director Jason Reitman. He was interested in the idea of a sequence that was somehow animated and featured the main character” What emerges is a savvy, winsome sequence that puts the inexplicably popular indie-flavoured dramedy that follows it to shame.
So why, to yank everything back to the initial analogy, do the powers that be not hand over the blueprints to the entire moviemaking behemoth to the designers of these wonderful sequences? “Huh,” snorts Garson Yu. “If they made planes out of the black box material, they wouldn’t fly. Maybe the same is true for films.” It’s a fair point – after all, the demands of modern filmmaking mean that having a nose for a good story and an eye for detail are nought compared to possessing the hide of a rhino and a stomach for battle. William Lebeda expresses it a little more eloquently. “I think it’s a bit like asking a poet to write a novel. The tools are the same, but the style is so profoundly different. And as title designers, we gravitate toward poetry.”