Text by Kristians Fukss

When opening credits are made into individual film sequences… that’s where the fun begins. Title sequences such as James Bond’s Dr. No (1962) are well known but when and how did it all start? If we slice the history of cinema open as a cake, which ones are the greatest and most original ones?

When looking at the film title sequence history, we are looking at the start of the 19th century. The very first films didn’t have title cards, nor credits. In Scrooge (Or Marley’s Ghost) dir. Walter R. Booth (1901) we can see the very first intertitles. At the same time, Thomas A. Edison (the light bulb inventor, who also has the patent for the first motion picture camera) makes the first piracy warnings and title cards. After they become more common but actor names did not, so the actors do not get a popular following and demand bigger wages.

In A Birth of A Nation (1915) D. W. Griffith uses the title card to show his name five times.

In the 1920s film studios started to hire full-time designers to make title cards. In 1929 the first Academy Award was given to Douglas Fairbanks (for no film in particular) for the best Title Design. It was also the last year the Academy gave this award as the sound was shaking things up. With it came the overture – music and opening credits, to set the mood of the film, which is something that we are all familiar with – the original title sequence. But film studios followed a very classic and pretty strict approach of showing titles in a certain and a very classic way, experimenting only with the fonts. It was only after 1949, when the Hollywood Studio System collapsed and each author became more invested artistically with the entire film, including marketing & trailers which came in at the same time.

An admirable example of this time is the film noir Night and the City (1950) directed by Jules Dassin.


Poster by Saul Bass for Champion (1949) dir. Mark Robson

A “star” on the rise in the 50s and already a legend in the 60s is notably Saul Bass. Influenced by New Bauhaus and Swiss styles, in the 40s he started as a Hollywood a poster maker. In Champion (1949) we can already see his brilliance, combining American realism with Swiss style. He was also one of the first ones to understand the emphasis and the potential opening credits have. Slowly he climbed to his peak – Hitchcock’s (who started his career as a title designer) Vertigo (1958) & North by Northwest (1959). The inspiration for Vertigo, which could be the greatest title sequence ever, is rather interesting. It was the 19th-century French mathematician Jules-Antoine Lissajous, whose book – full of the fortunate spirals, that make up the sequence – Bass found in a Manhattan book store’s bargain bin.

He knew how to transform lists of the cast and crew into thrilling sequences. Although for me, even more interesting than writing the rules is breaking them. Francois Truffaut is know for breaking the cinematic rules over and over. In  Fahrenheit 451 (1966) he also shows a masterclass in a simple and a little expressive opening to a film, which is fully French new-wave – breaking the barrier between the text, visuals and sound.

Of course, Saul Bass had a huge influence on coming title designers. Some have shined on Pablo Ferro, who just as Bass dedicated his whole life to the film. In The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) with more complex (for the time being) opening titles and with Michel Legrand’s The Windmills of Your Mind, he shows multi-dynamic image montage and quick-cut editing in which he became a pioneer.

In the 80s Saul Bass was still working. Martin Scorsese was a fan: “They (Saul and his partner Elaine Makatura) make films special… penetrate the heart of the movie and find its secret.” In the 70s they abandoned movie titles for directing their own films and designing logos for big American companies. In the next decade, they returned and created spectacular sequences for many of Mr. Scorsese’s films. Notably, Casino (1983) stands out. In his own words, he wanted to achieve such simplicity, which also has a certain ambiguity and a certain metaphysical implication that makes that simplicity vital.

Further, such directness is brought out in both opening titles of The Shining (1980) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but nothing does is as good as David Lynch in Blue Velvet (1986). This time, the dark symbolism that surrounds it – a blue velvet curtain slowly moving with music by longtime companion Angelo Badalamenti transcribes Lynch’s vision thoroughly. These opening titles do one thing – set the mood for what is coming, showing a sneak peek, into the film’s landscape.

Since the golden age when titles were done by hand, we are now in a digital era, that started with Superman (1978) and a computerized Oxberry animation camera. What does digital has to offer? In Breaking the Waves (1993) we can see that a little text in a classical way can still do the job, as intertitles are put in a dreamlike pause, dividing the film into seven chapters.

However, most notably recently has shined the visionary world citizen Gaspar Noe. With Futura font as a high energy field – his signature move, he warns You that the journey will be fun. In Enter the Void (2009) Noe uses individual designs for each cast member, mixes English, French and Japanese in a time-travelling pace. Epilepsy warning below!


Thanks to The Movie title stills collection – the largest online archive dedicated to title sequence design and typography on the silver screen, with title sequences from over 5,000 movies.

Support them here: www.patreon.com/MovieTitles

August 11, 2020

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