Noir meets reality

Title Sequence (Laurie Dix)

Title sequences are important, as they give a feel to a film before it’s started, setting the tone. It’s a bit like cover art in that respect, it gives an immediate impression. It’s also a way of getting some of the credits in right away, giving information about the cast and the higher echelons of the crew. A lot of people would not pay much attention to titles, the thankless task that they are, but if you’re going to do something, you got to do it right.

Saul Bass knew this, and he is the undisputed king of titles. Some of his most famous include the opening sequence to “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “Psycho” although he has a lot of titles under his belt. Saul Bass’ fame in the world of opening titles has led not only to him being idolised by designers but also to people referencing his work, like the opening sequences to “Catch Me If You Can” and “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” which have a distinctly Bass-esque quality to them.

The art of the title has changed significantly over time, being full frame title cards overlayed onto the picture in the 20’s, through bolder sequences in the 30’s and 40’s, still being text-rich and mostly static, through animated sequences such as Saul Bass’ and up to the full length titles we have now, which are usually less text driven. In the earlier days of film, full credits would be given at the beginning of the film, along with a version of the score which would describe the full story of the film musically as it went, before embarking on the film proper. Nowadays, we have a few choice names given at the beginning, in order to leave space for a full title reel at the end (often lasting minutes at a time). Some films have sections of animation, ‘outtake reels’, illustrations or extra footage at the end, before starting on the full credits reel later on (like these for Guy Richie’s ‘Sherlock Holmes‘). It is also worth noting that films used to give “The End” a full frame title to itself, as Ann Shen explains:

“In the early days of cinema almost every film had it’s own ‘The End’ title. The reason for this was that the credits were shown at the beginning of a film. This changed in the sixties when only the most important people like actors and directors were mentioned in the opening credits, the rest of the cast and crew would be mentioned during the (now often minutes-long) closing credits.”

Some people consider the titles to be so important, that they hire people specifically to produce the opening sequences, like Saul Bass or Kyle Cooper (the mind behind the famous Se7en title sequence). In the case of television nowadays, the title sequences are huge budget operations, with a lot of thought going into them, as it’s what brands a show from the start. Some of my favourites include the opening titles to Deadwood, Dexter, Mad Men and Six Feet Under. It is worth noting that the music is particularly effective in all these instances, and historically music has played an incredibly important part in the title sequence. There can be no accounting for the importance of a good score.

Other particularly interesting titles to me include those for Double Indemnity, which show the titles over footage of a man on crutches, and those for Memento, which show a polaroid photograph un-developing as the footage is played backwards. Both of these pose mystery and intrigue about the film, asking questions which the film will answer. They draw you in as you want to know more about the film. Brazil also poses questions, but in a less subtle way.

The titles for Raging Bull are simple but effective, as Martin Scorcese visually compares boxing to ballet. Sometimes simplicity works best.

The titles for Kiss Me Deadly make me chuckle, as they are displayed backwards, like the writing on a road. So you read them in order, but they are displayed the wrong way on the screen, as they scroll downwards. This is so obtuse, it shows how experimental cinema was at the time. The logic is there, but it is highly unusual.

The titles for ‘The Thing‘ are so simple, yet so effective. The effect was achieved by cutting the text out of a piece of card, and shining a light onto a bin bag behind it. The bin bag was then set on fire, and as it burned away it revealed the text. This is just one of the reasons I love the design on that film. But that’s a different story.

The opening credits for The Third Man are simple again, showing zither strings being played, and highlight the importance of music in a film. They are more traditional, and similar to the ones I will be experimenting with.

This article has been incredibly useful when researching this subject, and it has given me several ideas about how to approach the titles. Unfortunately, we do not have any suitable footage over which to play the titles, so I will have to produce some full frame boards to produce the titles on, in the hope of roughly mimicking titles of the time.

The music must be excellent.

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