Graphic content in movies: a look at the changes since the 50’s


Courtesy  of Steven Heller, ( former art director at The New York Times,  co-chair of the MFA Design Department at the School of Visual Arts and a blogger and author.)

Before the mid-1950s, most Hollywood movie title cards and opening credits were typographically static (and routinely bland). Then Saul Bass came along with the first animated title sequence, for “Carmen Jones” in 1955. Bass, a Los Angeles graphic designer, introduced the novel idea of beginning a film with a moving graphic narrative to establish a mood or set a tone through a kinetic confluence of images and typefaces, often set to music or sound effects. In subsequent films, from “The Man With the Golden Arm” (1955) and “North by Northwest” (1959) to “Casino” (1995), Bass — along with other early modern title designers like Pablo Ferro (“Dr. Strangelove”), Robert Brownjohn(“From Russia With Love”) and Maurice Binder (“Dr. No”) — set the bar for what has become an essential popular art. These movies within movies are sometimes as memorable as the films themselves. And designers have been paying homage to — and building on — them ever since, especially now that the Internet has made access to film titles easier.

Lately, however, there has been renewed interest in the old, static titles, particularly the ones with drop-shadow lettering or metaphoric typography in the shape of trees, stones and jewels. Chief among their proponents has been Christian Annyas, a Dutch Web designer and title-card maven whose Web site, the Movie Title Stills Collection, is a sublimely obsessive online resource for buffs, geeks and fans. He launched the site last August, after he saw his “big three” movies for the first time: “Casablanca,” “Gone with the Wind” and “Citizen Kane.” He liked the films but — smitten with their title designs — voraciously sought more.

Film noir titles were the next to pique his curiosity: “I Wake Up Screaming,” with its dazzling light-bulb title motif, and “Scarlet Street,” in which the titles are neatly composed on a lamppost street sign. Annyas found 1930s melodrama titles like “Night Nurse,” “Public Enemy” and “I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang” and musicals like “Footlight Parade” and “Gold Diggers of 1933,” with their stark mix of bold letters and scripts, drop shadows and sparkles, ostentatiously beautiful and possibly useful in his own work. He started taking screen shots and never stopped. “I had hundreds of them, just gathering dust on my computer,” he said. So a Web site seemed like the best way to store and share them.

Annyas admitted that most titles are rather dull. “But when placed next to other titles, they suddenly become interesting,” he explained. So he decided to display them chronologically, to illustrate the evolution of title design by decade. His favorite, “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), one of the few pre-Bass titles with a real narrative concept (the title in the gutter refers to the rise and fall of both protagonists), doesn’t look like it is 60 years old, aside from the fact it’s in black and white. “What’s special about this one,” Annyas said, “is that it’s part of an opening sequence that was shot as the opening sequence. For after this first shot, we make a short trip over Sunset Boulevard, during which the opening credits are superimposed over the asphalt.” Unfortunately, though, Annyas doesn’t know who designed it. Before the advent of freelance designers like Bass, title designers working within the studio system seldom got credit for their work.

Nonetheless, a few early designers earned solid reputations, notably Lotte Reiniger, a German animation artist. Her most famous work, according to Annyas, is “Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed” (1926), in which Reiniger cut figures out of black cardboard with a pair of scissors and joined movable parts with thread in order to animate them. Annyas learned that between 1923 and 1926, about 250,000 frame-by-frame stills were made, 96,000 of which were used in the film. “This must have been an incredible amount of work and forms a nice contrast with the times we live in, where it’s possible to create an entire feature film with a computer,” Annyas said.

The most recent feature on Annyas’s site is “The End of Warner Bros.,” a collection of end-title cards for movies released by the studio. Displayed on one Web page, the otherwise monotonous array becomes enticingly graphic.

Annyas speculates that even the titles of the pre-Bass era might have been more important than they are today. “Just look, every title is as big and bold as possible and almost fills the screen to attract attention. In fact, titles from the ’30s are perfectly readable on an iPhone today,” he explained. But compare that to the minuscule type for the Batman movie “The Dark Knight,” which is barely legible on the small screen. Maybe it’s time to bring back the old style for the new media.

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