Three lessons in design from Saul Bass

As a lover of type, image, storytelling, and the design of information I always pay attention to film titles. Do you? Technically, the titles are a legal document, presented to the audience in a sequence, usually the first few minutes of every film. The titles offer a list of the actors, the crew, and everyone associated with the making and distribution of a film.  While the titles are a legal necessity they have evolved a greater purpose, taking on a critical role in storytelling and design. The best title sequences establish storyline, tone and mood.

Saul Bass (1920-1996) is the designer most often credited for this shift from legality to artistic statement. Bass was a graphic designer responsible for well-known corporate logos  including the AT&T bell logo in 1969, AT&T’s globe logo in 1983 as well as marks for Continental and United airlines. He and his wife, Elaine (a director and producer), created film titles for directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger.

I often use film titles in my classes to talk about design and storytelling. I thought I would share three of my favorites (there are many) that make use of the fundamental principles of design. They are terrific examples of how the smart use of these basic principles create enduring and engaging design.

Grand Prix (1966): Repetition: 

I have to admit, I have never been a fan of Formula One or any auto racing, but this opening sequence rivets me every time. Bass created this sequence for John Frankenheimer’s film, Grand Prix. While this is not one of Bass’s most famous title sequences, it is thrilling and puts the viewer right down on the track as preparations commence for the race. The titles are set in simple san serif type and are inter-cut with split screen repetition of the minutes and seconds immediately preceeding the race. Time speeds up and slows down as we hear the sounds of beating hearts, revving motors and countdown to the race. It always makes me feel like I have been plunked down in mid-60’s Monte Carlo.

The repetition really works its magic and helps me take my place on the track. It is brilliant at evoking all the pre-race preparation: the mechanical checks and re-checks.

Grand Prix film titles by Saul Bass.

As Ian Albinson, founder of and Editor of Art of the Title writes:

“You can practically smell the burning rubber and taste the exhaust. Accompanied by the ever-intensifying roar of Gordon Daniel’s Oscar-winning sound design, Bass utilized sporadic slow motion and almost imperceptible looping to stretch the final few seconds before the green flag drops in an eternity of tension.”

North by Northwest (1959): Line and Grid

Bass’s work for Hitchcock’s movie was his second title sequence for the director, created a year after he designed the titles for Vertigo. The sequence for North by Northwest (1959) uses a series of intersecting lines, a grid, to set up the story. As the credits appear, they are locked to the grid. We begin with a green screen that is quickly filled with this grid of intersecting lines. This part of the sequence is strictly graphic. Then green screen fades into an moving image of the side of a Manhattan skyscraper, with the window frames recreating the same grid we saw in the graphics. The last segment shows people rushing along the sidewalks and streets, streaming by each other quickly but never intersecting. The frantic music behind the rapid sequence sets up the cat and mouse game that is North by Northwest.

This sequence is credited with bringing a clean, simple yet sophisticated style, or Modernism to mainstream movie titles. With the simple use of line and grid, Bass sets the pace for Hitchcock’s movie. According to Albinson:

“Bass had experimented with graphic animation techniques as far back as The Seven Year Itch in 1955, but the title cards themselves had always remained static. North by Northwest is often credited as being the first sequence to use kinetic type — or simply, type in motion. It is also one of the first examples of situational type in film, where the text is integrated into the environment by matching its perspective.”

North by Northwest titles by Saul Bass. (1959)

Anatomy of a Murder (1959): Cut paper forms, mass, scale and fracture.

For this 1959 gritty crime drama directed by Preminger, Bass uses the graphic design principles of mass, scale, and segmentation to set up the story. We begin as a body is quickly assembled, roughly cut from black paper on a simple grey background, a somewhat ragged version of the cut paper figures Matisse created late in his career. The title appears in slightly uneven block lettering. The body is then disassembled into parts and the parts are segmented further as the names of the cast and crew appear. The pieces of the body are pushed into place like puzzle pieces. The scale of the parts shifts along with Duke Ellington’s syncopated jazz soundtrack.

Anatomy of a Murder titles by Saul Bass. (1959).

Using the simple elements of cut paper, scale and fracture, Bass created a title sequence that almost 60 years later is still influencing designers and filmmakers today.

For More Information:

To learn more about movie title sequences, listen to this terrific episode of one of my favorite podcasts: 99% Invisible, a tiny radio show about design with Roman Mars.

For links to the individual title sequences in this post please visit Ian Albinson’s terrific website, Art of the Title (see specific links below):

Grand Prix:

North by Northwest:

Anatomy of a Murder:

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