Movie Title Sequences

Roman Mars(RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

“If I was a flower growing wild and free all I’d want for you to be my sweet honey bee…”

RM: So the teenage girl named Juno is walking down the street, with the half-empty one gallon jug of Sunny D citrus beverage in one hand. She passes a tree and everything becomes animated. It’s kind of a lo-fi, unpolished xerox copy animation, inspired by punk rock music fliers.

RM: So how long did you have that main title music from Juno stuck in your head? It’s still there isn’t it?

Gareth Smith (GS): You know what? They’re still using it in some commerical these days, and when I heard it, I just got flashbacks. It was crazy.

“If I was a flower growing wild and free all I’d want for you to be my sweet honey bee…”

RM: The title sequence immediately establishes Juno’s quirky world view.

RM: You cut your title sequences to music, so you must live with these songs for months at a time, right?

GS: Yes. As a title designer, it’s very important that the music you use in a sequence is something that you love, that you really enjoy working with, because it can be rough otherwise.

GS: My name is Gareth Smith and I am a film title designer.

RM: Gareth and his partner Jenny Lee did the titles for Juno and Up in the Air, among others.

Ian Albinson (IA): My name is Ian Albinson and I am the founder and editor-in-chief of Art of the Title, a webite that curates title design.

RM: Ian’s site is awesome.

IA: It’s a completely different set of people that do the work.

RM: That do title sequences.

IA: People don’t always realize that. And always seem kind of surprised that, oh, someone actually thought about this and someone actually gets paid to design and work on something so separate from the film, yet something so connected to the film.

RM: Fundamentally, a title sequence is a presentation of a legal document to the audience.

GS: It’s a list of names of the crew and actors and everything who are associated with a film.

RM: And then there’s the more interesting and artistic reason for the title sequence.

GS: Which is establishing tone and perhaps a story line.

RM: But there are rules.

GS: When you’re doing a studio film, the designer or the company will get a document that’s maybe tne to fifteen pages long.

RM: If you just wrote out the text of the title sequence, it could fit easily on a single page.

GS: But of course it’s this fifteen page document, and beside each title, there’s several paragraphs of text about how each title needs to be treated.

RM: Like maybe in some sequences, the lead two actors require their names to be bigger than the other titles.

GS: And they’ll actually list in the document the exact percentage size that it needs to be bigger than the other titles in the sequence. So it’s very specific, and as a designer it gets very frustrating and challenging to deal with this because it feels very limiting to need to have every single title in the sequence be exactly the same size.

RM: When it comes to innovation and influence in title design, there are two word you need to know. Saul. Bass.

IA: He was a major benchmark in terms of realizing that you could have good design in a title sequence.

GS: When Saul Bass came along, he was a designer that started to work on more promotion for films, and then started to bring his illustration and design style to films. He worked with Hitchcock on a number of pieces.

RM: If the title sequences of Saul Bass don’t immediately spring to mind, do yourself a favor and google Anatomy of Murder or Man with the Golden Arm or Psycho or Vertigo. So good.

GS: What I love about some of his earlier title sequences, if you look at them, they’re basically animated film posters.

RM: But a lot of that Saul Bass style faded away in the 80s.

IA: You know, in the 80s or the 90s you started to get the branding idea with films. And so a lot of title sequences weren’t so much title sequences, but were just sort of the logo of the film. And so you’re creating the brand for the films, where you have Back to the Future, where it’s a very iconic logo design and you have a lot of that in late 80s and early 90s. You didn’t see as many complete opening sequences or title sequences, be them stand-alone or sort of intricated with the film.

GS: Which is not done very much these days. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but there aren’t a lot of films where there’s just a big logo that you see on the poster, you know?

RM: But then we hit the second major benchmark. The movie Seven. It’s titles were created by Kyle Cooper.

GS: He sort of re-introduced the idea that the title sequence could be its own thing. Which is what Bass did decades earlier.

RM: But the title sequence of Seven works as both a stand-alone vignette and a vital introduction to the grimey and obcessive feel of the movie. The serial killer in Seven doesn’t appear until 2/3 of the way into the film, but you really get to know the killer right here in the first two minutes. Kyle Cooper took us inside his head

GS: The most memorable title sequences are really the ones where, you know, there’s a great movie after it. If Seven was put infront of some terrible movie that no one saw, it wouldn’t have moved on to influence a generation of title designers after it.

RM: One of Ian Albinson’s favorite title sequences is another Kyle Cooper creation. The Island of Dr. Moreau. It was the one that kicked Ian in the head and made him start noticing titles in the first place. But if you were smart, you probably didn’t see The Island of Dr. Moreau. And you don’t know how cool the title sequence is. But every human on earth over the age of 20 knows the name of Gareth Smith’s favorite title sequence.

GS: The TV title sequence for Cheers. I can watch that endlessly. I remember liking it before I was a designer or had anything to do with design. So I was trying to put my finger on why I like it and of course a great theme song on that title sequence makes a big difference, but it just has lovely typography, very simple, lovely typography. And the editing of the sequences is fantastic. It just captures the entire tone of the television show in 30 seconds to a minute.

RM: Cheers is a montage of historical drawings and photographs of people enjoying themselves in bars.

GS: And what they do underneath each of the title cards of the actors is that they actually find a historical image that does sort of suggest that character in the television series. The reason I enjoy it is warmth and friendship. And that really comes across in that title sequence. There are a lot of fans of film title design out there. I was trying to figure out why that is and I feel like film title design, more than other sorts of design, has a longevity, because it is comitted to film. Because, you know, a lot of design is commerical or prints and it kind of is designed to exist for a week or two weeks. And just to vanish from the face of the planet. Whereas film design, you really do have to think about “what is this going to look like in 25 years?” You hope that the movie you’re working on is going to be one of the movies that”s going to be seen many years from now, you know? And it has to kind of hold up over time.

RM: 99% Invisible was produceds this week by me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW 91.7, local public radio in San Francisco, The American Institute of Architects in San Francisco, and the Center for Archtiecture and Design. For videos and links to all the titles we talked about in this episode, as well as a kickass montage of kickass titles, edited together by Ian Albinson, go to the website. It’s 99percentinvisible.org.

Comments (10)

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  1. arthur manzi

    You’re right, the titles for “Catch Me If You Can” are brilliant. Here are some of my favorites:

    Preston Sturges’s “The Palm Beach Story,” which encapsulates at breakneck pace the backstory of the movie we’re about to watch and is crucial to the way it ends.

    Alexander MacKendrick’s “The Sweet Smell of Success,” which is set to a brassy, down ‘n’ dirty soundtrack and follows the distribution of a “large metropolitan daily” from loading dock to Times Sq sidewalk, where a copy is picked up by the main character. Perfect segue.

    Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” which presents the cast and titles as a cheesy late-night advertisement for an anthology album, complete with whirling, cheesy graphics and snippets of each tune.

    Carol Reed’s “The Third Man,” featuring an abstract, intimate portrait of everyone’s favorite character in the movie: Anton Karas’s zither.

    Also
    “The Grifters”
    “Fight Club”

  2. Brandon

    Listening to this podcast, I finally put my finger on something. I knew “Frasier” was a solid show (more my parents’ taste than mine; I still like “Cheers” more), but why did “Frasier” always leave me cold? Was part of it it’s relatively sterile title sequence compared to “Cheers”? Roman hits the nail on the head when he says the title sequence of “Cheers” had “warmth.” I remember hearing that sitcom title sequences in the 90s got shorter, to get people watching a show quicker, and to give them less time to flip to another channel (an example they gave was “Wings” having its title sequence shortened a few years into its run), so maybe “Frasier” was victim of that too. To have “Frasier” opening with a title card and some Jazz, then a fade in with credits over the scene, even though that sort of intro is commonplace now, it (subconsciously) felt impersonal and generic, even more so compared to something as iconic and personal as “Cheers.”

    Granted, “Cheers” and “Frasier” were different shows, the former (to me) was about lovable losers coming together like family, the latter in comparison about actually having to deal with your biological family. But since Frasier and Niles were both stuffy and pretentious in their own ways, was the impersonal title sequence of “Frasier” actually fitting to the show, whether intentional or just a product of shortened 90s sitcom title sequences?

    In any event, thanks for a great podcast! I definitely reassessed the role that title sequences play in setting a mood (that we’re often not even aware of consciously), and this podcast inspired me to check out Kyle Cooper’s site prologue.com–whoa. Now even the title sequence for “Home Alone” takes on new layers!

  3. Carolyn

    I’m surprised nobody has mentioned the “Bond” films! They’re absolutely beautiful.

  4. Ian

    The title sequence for The Watchmen was brilliant. It introduced us to the history of the universe it takes place in, one which has some parallels with ours but some differences. Seeing the “flower power” picture re-created but with a massacre as the shot fades away makes the universe of watchmen frighteningly real and disturbing.

  5. myspiritanimalischuck

    Some recent faves from film, television, conferences, and re-imagined
    (Random order)

    True Blood
    https://vimeo.com/5860619

    Skyfall
    (Can’t find a full version on Vimeo.)

    Touch
    https://vimeo.com/35749520

    By Any Means
    https://vimeo.com/75293910

    Les Bleus De Ramville
    https://vimeo.com/35372404

    Semi-Permanent 2013
    https://vimeo.com/61765258
    (Love)

    Detectives
    https://vimeo.com/63729336

    Inception (re-imagined)
    Guillermo Rodrí­guez
    https://vimeo.com/26002004
    (Love)

    20000 Leagues Under The Sea (re-imagined)
    Maximov
    https://vimeo.com/24089339
    (Love)

  6. Susan

    Mad Men. Possibly the greatest title sequence for a television show ever. (No offense to Cheers.)

    Thanks for the episode and all the links. Never saw Catch Me If You Can, so it was a pleasure to see the title sequence!

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