Moving Letters, a discussion of film titles. An Introduction to looking
The Title Sequence as an exercise in communication and promotion
We'll look at three
title sequences by the American designer Saul Bass for films by Alfred
Hitchcock. All three films have music composed by Bernard Herrmann.
We'll go on to look at the title sequence used by de Palma for The Untouchables
and for Body Double , where the letterforms alert us to the type of
film we are to see. We'll then look at other title sequences to sharpen
that analysis (see list beneath. We'll end with Bass's most celebrated
sequence of all, for Walk on the Wild Side .
If there is time I would like to start
you thinking about how designers should be looking at film, as narrative,
as sequences in time, as a converging point of all the design talents.
Many twentieth century artists have found the medium particularly stimulating,
Alfred Bestall, Peter Knock, Rob Mason, Sue Coe, Edward Burra, Paul
Nash ,Evelyn Waugh etc.
There are particular links between Graphic
Design and Film. Alfred Hitchcock began as a designer of screen credits
and dialogue cards for silent films. The director of Kramer versus Kramer,
Robert Benton was art director of Esquire magazine. Kurosawa began his
career as a commercial designer and illustrator in Japan. Eisenstein
was a political cartoonist before he started stage design. Many of his
films are worked out in elaborate story-boards that show his extraordinary
graphic talent. An exhibition of caricature sketches by Fellini is on
show at the Italian Institute. Films have had particular influence on
the way twentieth century narratives unfold. In a recent interview,
Salaman Rushdie revealed that his early works as a writer were stimulated
by the films he was watching - more than the books he was reading.
1. Psycho Alfred Hitchcock 1960, John Russell (Herrmann)
2. North by Northwest Alfred Hitchcock 1959 Robert
3. The Birds Alfred Hitchcock 1963 Robert Burks
4. The Untouchables Brian de Palma 1987 (Ennio Morricone)
5. Body Double Brian de Palma 1984 Stephen Burum(Pino
6. The Thing John Carpenter 1982 Dean Cundey (Ennio
7. Walk on the Wild Side Edward Dymtryk 1962 J.McDonald
1. Psycho a woman steals from the bank in which she works. She flees
and takes shelter in a motel overnight. The Bates motel is run by a
man and his unseen mother. The woman determines to return the money
but is horribly murdered in the shower. After a long investigation the
murderer is revealed as the son who has preserved his dead mother and
occasionally takes on her personality as a way of self-reproach.
2. North by Northwest an advertising executive has his cosy shallow
world of chic big city sophistication cut away from him when, mistaken
for somebody else, he gets caught up in a spy conspiracy. He flees,
is nearly murdered and contributes to the capture of the spies by US
government agents. He ends in a tunnel of love on board a train with
Eve Marie Saint.
3. The Birds, a small coastal community in America is suddenly attacked
by birds. There is some mysterious link with the arrival of a fashionable
woman carrying lovebirds for the man she met in the city. The end of
the film is ambiguous, suggesting that the birds will eventually assert
themselves totally over the environment.
4. The Untouchables, the campaign by Special Agents led by Eliot Ness,
is mounted to eradicate crime rackets (actually Al Capone) in Chicago
of the 1920's.
5. Body Double , an actor who is ineffectual and whose life is failing
at all points is to witness a murder. In the opening section he plays
a vampire in a crypt, but he suffers from claustrophobia.
6. The Thing , a space craft crashes into the Earth, the last survivor
is unthawed by an unsuspecting group of American scientists in the Antarctic.
"I don't know what it is, but it's weird and pissed off."
7. Walk on the Wild Side , a penniless farmer wandering the roads of
Thirties America finds the girl he once loved working in a brothel.
A brilliant title sequence for an awful film.
The title sequence gives information (title, director, technicians,
names of principals). It is usually governed today by strictly negotiated
terms of point size of type and hierarchy of reference.
The title sequence also arouses anticipation among the audience, making
a clear division between peripheral programming and the main body of
The title sequence offers guidance as to the genre of the film to be
These propositions are achieved with lettering over images accompanied
by music, never by the most natural of film media, the voice over. This
is odd because the title card or card sequence were associated particularly
with the dead-end characteristics of silent cinema."Titles were
a definite liability to the silent cinema, since they interfered with
the flow of its narratives, and the rhythms of its montage." See
David Cook, A History of Narrative Film , Norton & Co, New York
1981 p252 ff.
b.1920, studied Art Students League and Brooklyn College with Gyorgy
Kepes, moved to Los Angeles in 1946 where he began to specialise in
film titles and promotional pieces. Also worked on programmes of corporate
identity, eg Quaker Oats, AT@T, and Warner Communications. See also
titles for The Man with the Golden Arm ,Spartacus, Anatomy of a Murder,
Exodus. See Idea, special number, 1986, Graphis Vol.59 1955.