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Monday, September 12, 2011

Saul Bass

Art takes many forms, one of which I believe is overlooked: the title sequence in a movie. You know, the roll of names of the actors and crew, sometimes called "the credits".

Except for Woody Allen films since the 1970s (all of which have the same format for titles), someone is charged with designing a unique title sequence for every movie. Some titles are plain, others are fancy; some are understated, others are garish. Most are unremarkable.

No one did title sequences better than Saul Bass. A graphics designer by trade, Bass created art that you've seen thousands of times. He drew the logos for AT&T, United Way, Quaker Oats, Girl Scouts, and on and on. He also did movie posters. But today's blog is about title sequences, so watch my favorite of all time. It's virtually a five-minute music video in its own right.

One could argue that Leonard Bernstein's reflective suite would make any title sequence look good. Perhaps so. But this particular title sequence has a style of its own, evoking the background scenery of the movie in an abstract way. There is no old-fashioned scrolling of names; the camera pans, zooms, and fades. The then-new Helvetica font – which became common 20 years later when Apple Computers included it in the Macintosh – was used for dancers' names, superimposed on subtle Jets and Sharks graffiti. Elsewhere, Helvetica text is placed carefully not to obscure the backgrounds. From the perspective of production finances, a conscious decision was made to spend money on these credits.

The title sequence appears at the end of the film instead of the beginning. This, too, was avant garde in its day. I'll bet not many patrons in 1961 walked out of the theater before these credits were over.

So, if these credits were at the end, what was at the opening of the film? A simple but stylized view of lower Manhattan with modulating color, accompanied by Bernstein's energetic overture. It sets the stage, so to speak.