Chapter 38 - Saul Bass, and the Art of Film Title Sequence & Film Poster

Saul Bass was born in the Bronx district of New York in 1920. His strong  passion for drawing was evident from his early childhood. Bass studied at the Art Students League in New York and Brooklyn College under Gyorgy Kepes, a Hungarian graphic designer who had worked with László Moholy-Nagy in 1930s Berlin and fled with him to the US. Kepes introduced Bass to Moholy’s Bauhaus style and to Russian Constructivism.

After spending several years as a free-lance designer,  Bass moved to Los Angeles in 1946 and founded his graphic design firm Saul Bass and Associates in 1950. His artistic talent was noticed by Otto Preminger who  invited him to design the poster for his 1954 movie  Carmen Jones. Until then, film posters  were mostly made of a crude juxtaposition of photographic scenes from the movie and some collaged colored portraits of the stars of the film, but Bass instead used a dramatic composition of Dorothy Dandridge posing at the center of poster in black and white with her red accented skirt. Preminger liked the poster and asked Bass to create the film’s title sequence too. Bass work for Carmen Jones illicit two other film title commissions in 1955, one for Robert Aldrich's The Big Knife, and the other for Billy Wilder's The Seven Year Itch.

Preminger also commissioned him to do his next two films; Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Encouraged by the reception of his work,  Bass demonstrated his bold and stunning creativity for these projects. Using, photographs of the actors in primary grayish colors of blue, red and yellow in a tense and fragmented  composition of irregular black rectangular surfaces, surrounding an ominous crooked black paper-cut-out of a heroin addict’s arm Bass created a masterpiece of agony and tension for The Man With Golden Arm. It is said that;  when Preminger's movie arrived at US movie theatres in 1955, a note was stuck on the cans - "Projectionists – pull curtain before titles" -- Until then, the lists of cast and crew members which passed for movie titles were so dull that projectionists only pulled back the curtains to reveal the screen once they’d finished. But Preminger wanted his audience to see The Man with the Golden Arm’s titles as an integral part of the film.

Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

Man with the Golden Arm (1955) - the German version
Titles for Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

For Preminger's  Anatomy of a Murder, Bass minimized his composition into two irregular  rectangle surfaces in red and orange, juxtaposed vertically, with the top one in orange  incorporating a fragmented corpus, containing the title of the film and the name of the director in an compositionally integrated typeface, and the red rectangle underneath  simply showing the name of actors.     Bass's philosophy behind such designs was "symbolize and summarize."

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

The Man with the Golden Arm,  established Bass reputation as the master of film title design. In 1956 Mike Todd asked him to design the title sequence for Around the World in 80 Days, Bass produced a striking mini animation for the sequence, which was placed at the end of the movie. Thus, when the spectators  getting ready to leave, the titles came on, and almost always, the entire audience  set down again to  watch the magnificent short animation.

Film Title for Around The World In 80 Days, 1956

In just over four minutes long Bass’ titles for his 1963 It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World was his longest sequence, second only to West Side Story in 1961. Featuring a cartoon-drawn globe as the main character for representing a Mad Mad Mad world, with a backdrop of carnival-themed score by Ernest Gold Bass crates a delightful and witty title sequence for director Stanley Kramer’s humorous look at life. The animation techniques used by Bass in Mad World were heavily influenced by a new movement in the cartoon industry that favored a modern, stylized aesthetic over the then-dominant school of Disney hyper-realism. He also took advantage of a new animation technique called ‘holding,’ which involved splitting characters and environments up into several layers and selectively recycling them during photography. Originally used as a money and time saver at big commercial studios, it was exploited by the new school for its inherent quirkiness, with the fast turnaround as an added bonus. Bass took this one step further, playing his visual ‘holds’ off Gold’s soundtrack, creating a tango between the audio and the visuals that gives the sequence its own distinct pulse. Among the several talented animators who contributed to the sequence was Bill Melendez, an established Disney & Warner Bros. animator who was also Charles Schultz’s exclusive go-to on the Peanuts franchise until his passing in 2008.

In 1958 Bass designed the title sequence and poster  for Otto Preminger's keen-eyed adaptation of the Francoise Sagan novel "Bonjour Tristesse". He captured the essence of the movie which was placed among the top 10 films of the year in Cahiers du Cinema's year-end critics' poll (with Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer all voting). Bass poster were a striking simple poster which in the words of Martin Scorsese  was "an emblematic image, instantly recognisable and immediately tied to the film".

"Bonjour Tristesse", Preminger's film adaptation of the Francoise Sagan novel, 1958

When Alfred Hitchcock saw Bass' work he immediately recognized his extraordinary talent for visual communication design.  In fact, Bass was the creator of the stunning, riveting  title  sequence of   Vertigo (1958) his first work for Hitchcock, in which he shot an extreme close-up of a woman’s face and then her eye before spinning it into a sinister spiral as a bloody red soaks the screen.

For North by Northwest his next  Hitchcock commission in1959, Bass reduced the façade of a skyscraper into a grid of vertical and diagonal lines, over which the credits swooped up and down, preparing the audience for a classic Hitchkaockesque suspense.

The Title Sequence  for North by Northwest

Bass' title sequence for Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, tries to capture Norman Bates’ split personality and conflicting psyche by brushing across the screen a number  vertical bars in a frenzied pace. And, by this device he  creates again a Hitchkaockesque masterpiece of visual suspense.

The Title Sequence  for Psycho. 1960

By the end of his life, Bass had created over 50 title sequences for Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, John Frankenheimer and Martin Scorsese. He established the trend for  the opening title sequence of films with animation and using graphic designs. In 1974. Bass returned to commercial graphic design. His corporate work included devising highly successful corporate identities for United Airlines, AT&T, Minolta, Bell Telephone System and Warner Communications. He also designed the poster for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Among other films that Bass produced titles for are  Broadcast News (1987), Big (1989)  War of the Roses (1990), GoodFellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1995),  Casino (1995). In the early '90s, Bass was honored with an exhibit at the Visual Arts Museum in New York. He passed away from Hodgkins' lymphoma on April 25, 1996.

“In these titles I came to grips with what I think is the most challenging aspect of any creative endeavor and that is to deal with ordinary things. Things that we know so well that we ceased to see them. Deal with them in a way that allows us to understand them again. In a sense it’s making the ordinary extraordinary. For instance: Nine hours to Rama is about the nine hours which preceded the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. By taking a clock – an ordinary object – an subjecting it to an unrelenting examination I hoped to create an intensification of one’s awareness of each moment.— Saul Bass

The title sequence for "It's Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World".

Go to the next chapter; Chapter 39; A History of Film Title Sequence

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