Grab some popcorn and settle in for a journey through the past 100 years of film title design.
A long time ago in a galaxy far far away film titles – the graphic image or sequence at the opening of a movie – were simply hand-illustrated cards photographed and inserted into a film. Today, they are much like a mini-movie showcases the art of graphic design with filmmaking.
Although short and (not-always) sweet, film titles serve a number of purposes. Besides introducing the title of the film and the main players that brought it to screen, they nurture audiences’ expectations, evoke the film’s overall mood and set up the story. Film titles are, indeed, the primary impression an audience will have a film. As they have become both more integral to film and a genre of design all their own, “many filmgoers have come to savor the opening of the film,” says designer, media historian and film title aficionado David Peters.
So, just like the historical epics of the 1950s, let’s journey through time to survey the evolution of film title design with much thanks to the awesome title collection, articles and interviews at Art of the Title website.
Movies became big business in the 1910s with an ever-growing entertainment industry offering cheap entertainment for the masses. With movie theaters being a hub of social and cultural life, audiences became so boisterous that during movies etiquette announcements were displayed as part of the opening film title sequences.
Like these announcements, film titles were a very utilitarian affair delivering key information to audiences, such as the movie studio’s name and logo, director, movie title, main characters and actors. They were hand-illustrated by lettering artists and typesetters and then photographed and incorporated into the movie.
For ease of production and clarity, letters were simple and easy to read. In white on black, illustrators used mono-stroke letterforms or characters with small serifs.
This film title card for The Avenging Conscience (1914) is typical of the era with a black background and white lettering with small serifs. A simple line border frames all the necessary information.
More illustrative film title cards were inspired by and reflective of the various art and design movements of the era, such as Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Expressionism.
The title card for Our Hospitality (1923) has slightly more decorative lettering as well as an outline inspired by the sinuous, flowing and curving lines of Art Nouveau popular between the 1890s and 1910s.
Illustrators would attempt to evoke the genre or subject matter of the film through the letterforms.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1923) followed a deranged hypnotist who uses a troubled sleepwalker to commit a series of murders. For the German version of the film, sharp, angular typography is used evoke the disturbing subject matter, also echoing the work of German Expressionist illustrator Josef Fenneker.
Sound entered the cinematic world in 1927 and by 1929 Hollywood studios were producing nearly all talkies as well as musicals. In fact, sound saved Hollywood in the 1930s as movies, with all their manufactured glamour, provided audiences with an escape from the hardships of the Great Depression. Movie producers invested in big budget films with a growing commercial awareness of advertising and overall packaging.
Studios engaged sign painters and those familiar with advertising art who had knowledge of typography to work on film title design. Consequently, like those influenced by Art Nouveau and Expressionism in the 1910s and early 1920s, film title cards of this era reflected modernist design with geometric forms, lines and angles and an overall modern look.
Film title design conveyed the tone of a movie through communicative and expressive lettering and layout. Common tropes included ribbons and flowery letters for romance films, ‘wanted’-style typography for Westerns, and lettering designed to look hasty and incompetent for the ever-popular slapsticks.
Letters laid out on irregular angles and on a diagonal across the screen is intended to convey almost foolish humor of the classic slapstick Horse Feathers (1932), featuring the Marx brothers.
Film title artists used fancier lettering and lettering effects in the 1930s, including mixing fonts; using two-tone lettering; adding drop shadows to set letters apart from the background; and incorporating images that represented the main characters or setting of the film.
Both the Annie Oakley (1935) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) film titles use a variety of these effects with decorative lettering, italics and two-tones. Additionally each has a character silhouette in the background – Annie Oakley with her gun and Sherlock Holmes with his iconic pipe.
By the mid-late 1930s, film titles started serving a narrative function and were designed to prepare the viewer for the mood and story of the film.
The My Man Godfrey (1936) and Show Boat (1936) film title sequences both establish a mood for the film by integrating typography with storyline. In My Man Godfrey the camera pans across the names displayed like neon signs on city buildings, while Show Boat features a revolving model of cut-out figures that support overhead banners presenting the film’s credits.
It’s time for a brief intermission. While we change the reel, please enjoy a snack from the snack bar.
Hollywood studios ramped up the cinema experience in the 1950s as the advent of television threatened the industry. They created movies as big and colorful as they could, with historical epics, travelogues and musicals projected on the new super-sized screen formats such as Cinemascope, VistaVision and Cinerama.
Television companies employed professional graphic designers to create their opening sequences and advertisements and seeing the success of television, filmmakers adopted the same strategy. Graphic designers created title sequences with a new sophistication that served the story and the director’s vision and intent.
Saul Bass, one such legendary designer, created what are still some of the best title designs. “For the average audience, the credits tell them there’s only three minutes left to eat popcorn… I aim to set up the audience for what’s coming; make them expectant,” says Bass.
For The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) Bass used an image of distorted, disjointed arm to convey the story of a drug addict with strips that represent heroin needles. Bass says his intent was to create a mood that conveyed “the distortion and jaggedness, the disconnectedness and disjointedness of the addict’s life.” Similarly, his title design for Psycho (1960) parallels the visual tension of the film itself. With a series of moving white bars, “he artfully sets the tone by asking the viewer to read between the lines — quite literally — but he also asks that we read into them,” says designer Ben Radatz at Art and the Title.
As film titles broke free of their prescriptive predecessors, designers employed a variety of animation techniques to add movement and choreography to title sequences.
Bass used stop-frame techniques for the film title of The Seven Year Itch (1955), revealing and concealing names and titles hidden underneath a panel of colorful squares.
In Vertigo (1958), a haunting musical score accompanies Bass’ sensual close-ups of Kim Novak and spirographic imagery designed by artist John Whitney from commercial animation studio UPA.
Graphic design during this period – and subsequently film title design – maintained an aesthetic defined primarily by symbolic geometry, clean typography and bold graphic forms.
Bass’ title sequence for the original Oceans Eleven (1960) is classic Vegas with lots of noise and color. Inspired by Vegas’ bright lights, Bass created a dot motif to evoke the imagery and signage of the Strip.
Typography and imagery became heavily connected during film titles of this time with type embedded in physical objects, mimicking shapes and forms, and being fully integrated into the design of the title sequence.
Bass uses abstract orthogonal lines in North by Northwest (1959) that, over the duration of the film title, are revealed to be the exterior of a New York City skyscraper and the typography follows the lines and angles of the building.
A new generation of filmmakers hit the scene in the 1960s and introduced movie-goers to new subject matters and styles. Their auteur style of filmmaking was accompanied by what is considered to be the high renaissance of film title design.
The new belief that graphic design would sell saw the mid-century advertising revolution fuel sophisticated film title sequences and the advent of iconic images and logos derived from these sequences.
The film sequence heralding James Bond’s debut on the silver screen in Dr. No (1962) features the iconic gun barrel shot that has been used in successive films and adopted as a logo for the character.
Friz Freleng designed the film title sequence for the original Pink Panther (1963) and remarkably the animated pink feline shot to stardom in its own right, soon featuring in a series of short animated films, its own television show and becoming more popular than the film series for which it was created.
In the 1960s film title design departed from the clean and geometric forms of the 1950s to a more relaxed, whimsical and quirky style that included hand illustrations.
Ken Mundie illustrated the colorful, erratic and expressive title images for The Great Race (1965) that move across the screen like travel slides.
Ronald Searle’s illustrated film title design for Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) is as quirky as the slapstick movie itself presenting a epic car rally and cast of oddball characters.
Filmmakers and title designers incorporated more motion photography in opening sequences, reflecting the auteur theory of filmmaking at this time.
Stephen Frankfurt’s opening sequence for To Kill a Mockingbird (1963) features extreme close-ups that merge and fade into one another. In black and white, they introduce a main character without showing her face, in order to, says Frankfurt, “find a way to get into the head of a child.”
The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) tells the story of a married woman who zooms off to see her lover. The opening film title leads the viewer of on a motorcycle ride down the highway with the movement and angles of the title credits reflecting the movement and vision of the bike rider.
Pablo Ferro is recognized as one of the masters of film title design with a career starting in the 1960s and spanning four decades.
His opening sequence for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) uses stock photos overlaid with loosely handlettered titles. Apparently the design was last-minute (spot the spelling mistakes) but Kubrick liked the frames and put them in the final version.
Ferro became famous for the revolutionary multi-screen technique he employed in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), used to introduce viewers to the multiple sides of the story.
From a recession in the 1970s to the rise of VCR in the 1980s and development of independent cinema in the 1990s, movies and film titles were driven by creative experimentation and computer-aided design.
Computers and software – especially personal computers and the introduction of the Apple Mac in 1984 – revolutionized film title design giving many artists and designers access to experiment. Although that’s not to say they weren’t equally inventive in the pre-digital age. Peters describes how film titles during this era “situated a point of view within an illusion of space and imagery and manipulated typography to be dimensional and move in ways that are physically impossible.”
Richard Greenberg designed the opening sequence for Flash Gordon (1980) combining cinematography, graphics, typography, comic strips, illustrations, animation techniques and special effects.
With a diminishing importance of credit information, designers no longer concentrated on text and paid more attention to overall effects. Some used a montage technique to condense space, time and information.
Pioneering Spanish graphic designer Juan Gatti designed the title sequence for the black-comedy drama Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). He used a series of still images montaged together with block colors in a style reminiscent of Funny Face (1957) featuring magazine images from Harpers Bazaar.
The 1990s was the decade of grunge and the style was seen in the music scene, fashion industry and design world.
Kyle Cooper’s film title design for Se7en (1995) features a grungy typography, which he hand-etched into black surface scratchboard and manipulated and distressed during the film transfer process. It was then deconstructed during post-production for a final layer of disruption.
William Lebeda, creative director of The Picture Mill, Hollywood, describes film titles in recent years, saying, “they are really becoming more integrated with the film, and they’re doing multiple jobs in that they are doing more narrative work, not just setting the mood and establishing the stage for the story that you’re about to see.”
Catch Me If You Can (2002) has mid-century style illustration with saturated color, elongated silhouettes and playful typography to convey the movie’s 1960s vibe.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) uses sophisticated illustrations and a black and red color palette to capture the narrative of the story.
The title sequence for The Panic Room (2007) is reminiscent of My Man Godfrey and North by Northwest with credits and titles angled across the architecture of a building. David Fincher says this was to give a sense of where the story takes places. “You’re downtown, you’re midtown, you’re traversing the park, you’re moving to the west side.”
Like Bass’ Oceans Eleven title, Enter the Void (2007) is bright, colorful, oversized and reflective of the cast of characters and the mood of the film. The appropriated typefaces are accompanied by a strobe effect and LFO’s “Freak.”
Illustrations and vintage magazine imagery is used for Manhattan (2014), which tells of the wartime nuclear program. Will Perkins writes, that “with oblique references to other famous intros, the Manhattan opening stands firmly amidst the framework of the history of title design” and “brings new meaning to the term ‘nuclear family.”
Disparate black and white illustrations, images and photographs are used in the opening for We Are The Giant (2014) to succinctly convey the film’s Arab Spring subject matter.
The title sequence for Marco Polo (2014) borrows from calligraphy and mimics traditional Chinese painting, setting the scene Marco Polo’s journey to meet the Kublai Klan.
Halt and Catch Fire (2014) is about the conception and rise of the personal computer and its title sequence is an ever-moving interface of computer-generated images in tones of bright red.
For an excellent catalog of film title design inspiration check out the Art of the Title website, and next time you watch a film pay close attention to the film title and think about both its graphic techniques and how it sets up the mood and story of the film.
And in the meantime, enjoy this great video that illustratively profiles the master designers who revolutionized title design.