Scout’s World: Film Titles that Create a Sense of Character and Place

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All images: Stills from To Kill A Mockingbird film titles by Stephen Frankfort (1962)

The publication of Harper Lee’s second book, a previously undiscovered manuscript that was written before To Kill A Mockingbird has created a storm of publicity; it has been hard to escape news of the book, Go Set A Watchman, this week. After reading many reviews and opinions, I do not think I want to read the new/old book, at least for now. Mockingbird is one of my favorite stories, both the book version and the 1962 film adaptation that won 17 Academy Awards, including best actor, best supporting actress, best picture, best director, art direction, best cinematography and best musical score. The movie stars Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout, two of the most indelible characters in 20th century American literature.

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Most every quarter at Portfolio Center, I teach a class that deals extensively with visual storytelling. While most of my students are designers, I have welcomed writers, photographers, art directors and illustrators. It is always a thrill to watch students discover a design vocabulary and a flexible visual language. A favorite tools for getting my classes to think about how to tell a story visually involves focusing on film titles. Think about it: many film titles are encapsulated stories. The best titles, like those of Saul Bass, have so much to teach designers and storytellers of all types.  So I decided this was the week to show my new Summer class one of my favorite title sequences: To Kill A Mockingbird designed by Stephen Frankfort.  Frankfort has said that his goal in creating the titles was “to find a way to get into the head of a child.” Not only does this sequence take me into the head of this child, Scout, but it takes me into her heart and her life. They do an unparalleled job of pulling me into a story with a sure understanding of place, mood and character.

Not only does this sequence take me into the head of this child, Scout, but it takes me into her heart and her life. They do an unparalleled job of pulling me into a story with a sure understanding of place, mood and character.

We begin looking down at a box on a table, as the musical score fades away. A child’s hands are on the lid of the old cigar box and our viewpoint is at the same level to start. As her hands lift the cover of the box a child begins to sing a wordless tune. Our viewpoint gradually lowers into the box, a collection of treasures and talismans. The pace is slow and meditative as we scan over the child’s collection: well-used crayons, their paper wrappers fuzzy with handling, a medal, a key, a bent safety pin, a stray jack, a pocket knife on a small chain and a pocket watch with a frayed ribbon attached. There is a male and female figurine a pocket mirror etched with flowers and a border, a worn and bitten pencil, marbles and some coins. We are viewing this collection through Scout’s eyes. While the objects may seem used or even abandoned, it is clear based on how carefully we pan over each piece that these random seeming pieces add up to create a sense of place, security, joy and innocence. All the while we are seeing each object through Scout and they represent her world.  She begins coloring, black crayon on white lined paper and continues to sing happily as she draws looping waves and then a mockingbird. Again we see a close-up of the pocket watch, it’s ribbon tie faded into fringe.

Then in stream of consciousness play, Scout sets a black and white marble in motion and we take an an unplanned tour through the treasures in the box. When the black and white marble collide, we hear a happy note: “bing” almost like the gong that sounds during meditation.  As she tears through the bird with a whoop, a jagged river of white develops between the remaining parts of the bird as the film fades up through the white space. Frankfort’s titles end and the movie begins.

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Every frame of this sequence is composed perfectly and can stand alone as a lovely photographic document. Frankfort was a pioneer in macro (close-up) photography. Since his time many films and titles have used extremely close-up images, but here the camera provides a loving gaze and offers a clear view into the eyes of a young girl’s innocence and strength that seems real and true. In his book, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes, the French semiotician and philosopher illuminated the twined concepts of studium and punctum. While studium denotes the cultural, language and political interpretation of an image, punctum denotes the personally touching detail in an image: that which pricks or pierces and thus creates a direct relationship with the object or person within the photograph. Punctum is highly subjective, but we know it when we feel it. The object that moves me most of all in this set of titles is the pocket watch with the frayed flowery ribbon, so often handled and loved.  For me, that threadbare ribbon is punctum.  The watch and fraying ribbon stand for the child’s innocence, a state we the viewers know cannot last.

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Watch the titles for yourself at:

http://www.artofthetitle.com/title/to-kill-a-mockingbird/

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