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When I met Saul Bass and the art of titles

My love of title sequences and the power of what they can deliver was first born out of a lecture I attended a very, very long time ago called ‘Icograda’ at the Odeon Leicester Square. The key speaker was none other than Saul Bass (1920-1996), a man I knew little about at the time, but has since become a huge inspiration.

Saul BassSurely familiar to most, but for those who don’t know, Saul Bass worked in New York as a ‘commercial artist’ before moving to Los Angeles in 1946. Working freelance for various advertising agencies in the early years, he then started his own agency specialising in commercial art. After a while opportunities started to arise in the film business, firstly in movie posters and promotion, until eventually he was given the brief to work on the opening titles to a controversial film: ‘The man with the Golden Arm’ (1955) starring Frank Sinatra.

At this time ‘titles’ were exactly that; scrolling text on a screen, seen only as a necessity to introduce actors and directors to the audience. In most cinemas the curtain would remain closed right up until the time the movie would start. ‘The man with the golden arm’ changed everything. The movie was centred around a main character who was battling heroin addiction, an incredibly taboo subject at the time. These were exciting times in America – the 50’s were a time of huge optimism and booming economic success. This was the birth of consumerism and prosperity so as I’m sure you can imagine, a film about heroin addiction went down like a fart in a spacesuit.

I’m sure the brief to Saul would have been something along the lines of, ‘be brave, we want to signal something very different’. Saul Bass decided to use the strikingly powerful image of a cut out, contorted arm as the visual metaphor to the central theme of the movie and not Frank Sinatra’s bankable face. This was then utilised across posters and the now famous titles. Note the role the music plays in the sequence – the slow, steady descent into madness reflecting the perils of addiction.

Saul Bass Man with the Golden Arm These titles set in motion the precedent for what every good sequence should do for a movie. An audience should be gently manipulated and coerced into a particular frame of mind and should be ‘primed’ for the experience they are about to have.

Saul had a long and very successful relationship with another genius of these times, Alfred Hitchcock, creating promotion and titles for Psycho, North by Northwest and Vertigo to name but a few. Saul was also a very gifted director and is responsible for arguably one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous moments in celluloid: the shower scene in Psycho. This was in fact directed by Saul and I was lucky enough to see the original storyboards that he created. As you can see they were practically followed frame for frame.

Saul Bass storyboard for PsychoMartin Scorsese was a huge fan of Saul’s and worked with him on titles for Cape fear, Goodfellas and Casino. He had an extraordinary talent for honing in on the emotional premise of each film, communicating it iconically and with clarity, a skill he undoubtedly learned when working on print and identity projects. As Scorsese himself said: “he (Saul) would penetrate the heart of the movie and find its secret.” Something we can all learn from, as this is the essence of visual communication regardless of the medium.

Saul Bass Casino Film TitlesSaul Bass was the finest example of what a true creative should be – he worked tirelessly across multiple disciplines and never let himself get pigeon-holed into one area of expertise.

During his long career in movie titles, Saul continued to work for corporate clients, creating enduring, classic identities for United Airlines, AT&T, Minolta, Bell Telephone Systems and Warner Communications to name a few. The parallels in his skill for distilling a complex movie plot into one singular image obviously transferred brilliantly to branding large corporations.

Saul Bass logosWhat Saul Bass started can now be enjoyed by the masses, as directors and designers find exciting and beautiful ways to enhance the movie (and TV) experience. One designer who has taken up the mantle is Kyle Cooper. Who could forget his frankly terrifying insight into ‘John Doe’s’ mind during the titles to David Fincher’s ‘Se7en’ or more recently ‘Argo’ (2012). He brilliantly framed the subject matter and political background of the movie through the medium of a storyboard, which without giving too much away, is the premise of the film itself…genius. Note Saul’s original Warner Communications logo at the start too.

Saul Bass Se7en Movie Titles

Saul Bass Argo Movie TitlesThe recent trend towards TV as the most creative and exciting medium, has been reflected in the effort spent on the series titles. The best recent example I can think of being ‘True Detective’. It strikes the balance of being hauntingly beautiful but incredibly sinister at the same time, the music perfectly capturing the tone of the series. The skill and craft in these titles are nothing short of genius. If you haven’t seen the series… put it top of your list!

Saul Bass True Detective Film TitlesSo next time you’re sitting down watching the titles for a movie (or TV show), take a moment to absorb the skill of the designers and story that is starting to unfold. As for my meeting Saul Bass, I’d love to say that I sat down with him and had a lengthy discussion on the fine art of visual communication. Unfortunately I was very young, I didn’t really know who he was and I merely said a nervous hello. Still, I shook his hand and that’s good enough for me.

Blog written by London creative director Tony Connor.