Sometimes we struggle to find things and get frustrated when they don’t appear, whether it’s locating your house keys, finding Wally in a sea of Wally impostors or hunting down the partner to that lone sock at the bottom of the washing basket. Or maybe it’s replacing fonts that PowerPoint…
As a designer that works in the field of presentation, I am constantly on the lookout for inspiration and new ways of thinking to further advance my presentation skills.
A good presentation should certainly be many things, chief among them: eye-catching, and compelling- it should grab the audience. One way we can achieve this is with interesting graphics and visuals (stay away from bullet points!!), if done right presenting can be highly entertaining.
The perfect visuals actually add to what you’re trying to say and help the viewer enjoy, and understand the narrative rather than merely sit through it.
One of my favourite forms of ‘presentation’ are movies; specifically the title credits of a movie. They serve to set up the audience for what is about to come in the film, and sometimes even reflect the plotline of the story. Clever use of typography, photography, sound, collage and countless other methods have been used in the past to open up a film.
But just like movies, presentations have to have powerful openings too – in fact we think this is so important, we regularly give a masterclass on how to do it well. There are lots of lessons we can learn from great movie title sequences in creating great presentation openings, and there’s no better master of the art than Mr Saul Bass.
In this post I’d like to take a look at the hugely important role Saul Bass played in the development of the movie title sequence as an art form, and how he used this presentation method to wrap the audience’s mind around a film before it even began. In turn I’ll outline why, and how his design style inspired not only me- but an entire generation of designers and filmmakers alike.
Saul Bass, for those of you who don’t know, was a famous American graphic designer and movie producer/director, born in New York in 1920.
His Graphic Design style was heavily influenced by Swiss Typography along with De Stijl, (and particularly the work of Piet Mondrian), Russian Constructivism ( specifically Kandinsky) and the Bauhaus movement.
All of which were based on a design ethic of bold colours, simple geometric shapes and form, silhouettes and efficiency.
The early years of the movie title sequence
The opening credits or titles of a movie, traditionally looked and acted very differently before Saul Bass introduced his style. Initially, they mainly consisted of simple black and white chalk boards listing the cast and crew. These were sometimes accompanied by static background imagery and illustrations. There were no animations, and no real thought given to the idea of setting up the premise of a film.
Below are examples of what title credits looked like in the 1920’s 30’s and early 40’s, predominantly from ‘silent’ movies, and a screenshot sequence taken from the silent movie star Buster Keaton’s movie: ‘The Boat’.
This quote sums up Saul Bass’s approach to the Movie title sequence:
‘‘For the average audience, the credits tell them there’s only three minutes left to eat popcorn. I take this ‘dead’ period and try to do more than simply get rid of names that filmgoers aren’t interested in. I aim to set up the audience for what’s coming; make them expectant ’’
Today the title sequence is equal to that of a TV commercial or a music video in terms of scope and scale. It could be said that the title sequences are often more challenging and daring than the film itself. This is largely down to Saul Bass, whose revolutionary style utilised the opening credits of a movie as a platform to reflect the narrative of the film.
To illustrate this point I will look at the work of two notable directors, with whom Bass collaborated.
The first being Alfred Hitchcock; the Englishman who was a master of suspense and the psychological thriller genre; arguably one of the most iconic directors of all time. Hitchcock’s M.O in terms of ‘presenting’ to an audience-was always abstract form and imagery- which is probably why he worked so well alongside Saul Bass. A presentation can really benefit from strong, bold colours and particularly-photography. Adding a flood fill photograph into the back of a slide can really give it that wow factor- it brings a presentation to life. Hitchcock used this little trick to great effect in most of his sequences, blending form and still photography together seamlessly.
The first title sequence here, is that of Vertigo.
A dream-like thriller set in San Francisco, about a Private Detective who falls for a beautiful, suicidal woman; whom he is hired to trail.
In this sequence the shapes in the titles are hugely eye catching and possibly relate to the human eye, along with the workings of the inner mind. The hypnotic spirals create a dizzying sensation, representing the main characters’ loss of control, and subsequent vertigo later in the film.
The next sequence is from Psycho – maybe Bass’s most famous title sequence. The film is about a schizophrenic- killer with a split personality, who dresses in the guise of his mother, in order to lure young women into his motel.
In this sequence the narrative is reflected by the grey horizontal and vertical lines shooting across the screen, which become jagged and juxtapose- a nod to the confusion associated to the title character Norman Bates’s split personality, and schizophrenic mind-set.
In terms of outside opinion and what Saul Bass thought of his own work, the following quote sums up his approach:
‘‘I want everything we do – that I do personally, that our office does – to be beautiful. I don’t give a damn whether a client understands that that’s worth anything, or that a client thinks it’s worth anything, or whether it is worth anything. It’s worth it to me. It’s the way I want to live my life. I want to make beautiful things. Even if nobody cares.’’
The second collaboration focuses on two films from the Italian American director Martin Scorsese. Scorsese has filmed some of the most iconic movies of the last 3 decades, and is famous for his tough, gritty crime dramas and thrillers. The technique in which Scorsese used these sequence to present to the audience was very much down to ‘in your face’ typography, imagery- and perhaps most importantly: sound.
If you want to spruce up a tired/dull looking presentation a nice audio file/track can add that little extra layer of depth.
Scorsese utilised this to perfection, with the soundtracks of his movies often just as famous as the movie itself.
Firstly I’ll be looking at the 1990 Italian/American Gangster bio-pic Goodfellas. A film about the violent, turbulent life of three members of the mafia; across two generations.
In this sequence the narrative is reflected by a simple black background with white upper case credits hurtling across the screen at a rapid rate. The titles are short, sharp and frantic- which reflects the dangerous and glamorous gangster lifestyle that the characters are involved in. The red of the title perhaps symbolises the violence and death associated with life in the Mafia.
The second and final example of the Scorsese collaboration is Casino.
The film focuses again on the Mafia, but this time its association with gambling and specifically the Casinos of Las Vegas.
Bass here shows his expressionistic influences using strong, bold colours- but a slight departure from previous title sequences. The narrative is reflected through photography and computer animation. It shows the main character- Robert De Niro’s ‘Ace Rothstein’ being blown up by a car bomb, hurtling through a vivid fireball, which perhaps hints at the idea of Hell, and danger. This then blends into the vibrant lights of the Las Vegas strip, revealing the energetic, glamorous lifestyle of De Niro’s character.
It’s evident in 2015 that Bass’s work had a huge influence on modern design, and indeed Movie title sequence, so what of his legacy?
Here are two of my favourite examples of modern day sequences that are heavily influenced by Bass, and how he used the sequence to reflect the narrative of the film.
Catch me if you can (2002)
The first is the crime caper- Catch me if you Can directed by Steven Spielberg, about an FBI detective pursuing a con artist across the world.
The sequence uses very bold colours, and simple imagery much like Bass. It depicts the detective chasing the suspect across the globe in various locations.
The final sequence is from David Fincher’s psychological thriller Se7en, about a two police officers hunting a sadistic serial killer who murders his victims through the use of the Seven deadly sins.
The narrative is reflected in these titles through the use of jittering, schizophrenic photography and montage- showing Kevin Spacey’s killer preparing his notebooks and demented scrawling. The type and credits move about in a sinister way, further magnifying the underlying feeling of discomfort.
Bass’s visionary work in title credits not only affected generations of Filmmakers, but also generations of designers. From a personal point of view- Saul Bass has been a huge influence on my Design and I’ve created several pieces over the years that reflect his design approach, one such an example is a piece that I created for a Horror festival back in 2007- with Saul Bass very much in mind.
There is a wealth of knowledge to be mined from these title sequences, particularly in relation to presentations and how we set up our audience. It could be argued that without the exploits of people like Bass, the art of presentation would not be what it is today. New techniques in new movies are being created all the time, so if you want some inspiration and your presenting skills could use a little brushing up- you could do much worse than check out the work of Mr Bass himself. Oh,and you now have an excuse to re-watch all your favourite movies!Leave a comment
Senior design consultantView David Talavera's profile
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