Beyond Saul Bass: A Century of American Film Title Sequences

By Deborah Allison.

Back in 1928, Herbert C. McKay wrote a filmmaking manual which offered the following advice: ‘The main title group with the first title may be made as elaborate as one desires as few spectators stop to read them anyway aside from the simple title of the film’ (McKay 1928: 165). During the many decades that have passed since then, countless filmmakers have risen to this challenge. In doing so they have discovered an enormous range of ways in which to engage their audiences during the time in which the credit titles appear. From the elaborate novelty work of Maytime (Tay Garnett, 1930) to the elegant but striking compositions of Three Godfathers (John Ford, 1948), and from Fritz Freleng’s playfully self-reflexive animation for The Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1964) to Richard Morrison’s deliciously macabre prelude to Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton, 2007), filmmakers have found numerous methods by which to entertain us during the opening credits and to whet our appetite for the film to come.

It would seem that scholarly interest in film title sequences is flourishing at present, if the dozens of students emailing me in relation to their dissertations can be considered any measure. At the same time, the current popular understanding of titling history has a lot of catching up to do. Until very recently (indeed, still today) talking and writing about title sequences has almost invariably gravitated towards the work of a handful of acclaimed designers such as Saul Bass, Maurice Binder and Kyle Cooper. This auteurist focus – propagated by newspapers and web sites as well as a range of semi-academic magazines and journals – has given rise to some significant misconceptions about the history of film titling, occluding the wide array of styles and sensibilities found in the many anonymously designed pieces.[i] It has moreover encouraged a rather limited system of value judgements as to which sequences are worthy of our attention – one that I wish to challenge. The most notable result of such an approach has been the obscuring of sequences made before 1954. This was the year that marked Bass’s entry into the field with his title design for Carmen Jones (Otto Preminger). So often have ill-informed journalists promulgated the myth that only from this point forward did film titles begin to incorporate anything more ambitious than a couple of pleasing decorations that it has gained an unfortunate popular acceptance (e.g. Blackburn 1996: 4, Thompson 1998: 19). As we shall see, the history of film title sequences is far more complex and diverse than we are so often given to believe.

My purpose in writing this article is threefold. Firstly, I wish to illustrate some of the fantastic array of choices that filmmakers have made in order to get us excited about their upcoming films. Secondly, I endeavour to show some of the ways in which cultural, technological and industrial factors have come together to shape the historically changing ways in which they have chosen to do so. Finally, through pursuing these ends, I hope to reinstate into popular acceptance the value and pleasures of just a few of the many thousands of forgotten and under-appreciated sequences from the first half of the twentieth century in particular. In so doing, I aim to foster a better understanding of how designers and directors have envisaged and sought to contribute to the ways in which we experience cinema.

Tracing a history of opening title sequences from the silent period through to the present day we are able to see how the stylistic norms of different cinematic eras have often followed distinct evolutionary lines. In particular, we can observe an increasingly manifest desire to use title sequences in order to do more than simply provide a list of credits. The different elements of the title sequences examined – image, sound and lettering – all come together to shape our expectations of the film to come and often do so in ways that echo broader filmmaking tendencies and trends. An overall pattern is distinct: one which leads towards longer, more complex sequences that increasingly resemble the style and content of the main part of the feature film but which also serve to present ever greater amounts of non-credit information in ways that are sometimes oblique. Straightforward statistical analysis thus shows that stylistic norms have shifted through the years from dominantly plain backgrounds to the use of appropriate still pictures, thence to moving images and finally to action sequences that contribute significantly to the film’s backstory or to its main narrative drive. At the same time, a host of other smaller cycles and groupings can be discerned, which sometimes break away from the dominant trends. Some of these are short-lived historical cycles; others span wider periods of time and are associated instead with films that fit into particular cinematic groupings. In either case, the incidence of sets of title sequences with distinct collective features is invariably part and parcel of broader variations and changes within mainstream American cinema.

Before embarking upon a chronological survey of the history of American film title sequences, it seems important to emphasise that – irrespective of their degree of fit with wider groupings and trends – the majority of title sequences have been carefully tailored to fit the particular film that they introduce. Let us take, by way of example, The Women (George Cukor, 1939). Adapted from a popular stage play, this comedy drama featured a star-laden ensemble cast of deliciously bitchy characters. Its title sequence incorporated a series of vignettes of its principal players, each preceded by the image of an animal deemed emblematic of their character’s disposition and whose facial shape or expression often resembled that of the actor. Indicating that the film had been cast to type, it thus compared Joan Crawford to a leopard, Joan Fontaine to a lamb, and Marjorie Main to a horse!

With this example in mind, it is perhaps also worth briefly expanding upon just a few of the ways in which individually tailored features have tended to exist within some kind of standardised framework. There is, in particular, a degree to which the title sequence for The Women typifies its period of production, as the 1930s was the era in which the presentation of a series of actor/character vignettes was at its popular height. Like most sequences of its time, it seeks to whet audience appetite for the coming film without direct recourse to narrative action. Structurally, the sequence stands alone: it does not advance the plot, it contains no dialogue or sound effects, and it fades to black before the main film begins. Where it does differ from conventions of the 1930s is in its length, being of far greater duration than any other example I have found from this era. The sequence also contains features characteristic of its genre: like most other comic films, its choice of image and music sets a light and humorous tone. Finally, embellished by images of its host of well-known players it illustrates – like Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932) – the quality on which MGM most prided itself: that this was the product of a studio that boasted ‘more stars than there are in heaven’.

Film genre and production studio have often been associated with particular stylistic features in film title sequences, just as they have in movies more broadly. It is, for instance, unlikely to come as a great surprise that film musicals have tended to feature songs during their opening titles more often we find in other genres, with examples to be found in Thin Ice (Sidney Lanfield, 1937), Babes on Broadway (Busby Berkeley, 1941) and Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952). In an earlier article I have shown how title sequences in westerns, such as Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939) and Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann, 1950), have featured action and movement far more than have those of other genres (Allison 2008). We can see from these examples that generic norms operate in opening title sequences to rapidly introduce what are arguably the genres’ primary pleasures. The association that we sometimes find between title sequence features and their production studio is the product of a slightly different dynamic however. Although such common features may sometimes contribute to the unique requirements of the film at hand, their main purpose is more often to promote the studio itself as a producer of calibre. The Warner Bros. studio, for instance, often chose to propel its logo into the limelight through its greater than average willingness to allow filmmakers to tamper with it. Variations and assaults upon their famous trademark can be found in films so diverse as The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz, 1938), where it is rendered in an elaborately illuminated style reminiscent of a medieval manuscript, Robin and the Seven Hoods (Gordon Douglas, 1964), in which it is riddled by machine gun pellets, Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974), in which it is burned to cinders, and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Joe Dante, 1990), where Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck fight for possession of it.

Above all, though, many styles of titling are strongly associated with the era in which the film was produced. Through the decades, we are often able to observe a refining of process that tends be characterised in critical terms as ‘development’ or ‘evolution’: a pattern of change that is both linear and cumulative. As I have already suggested, as time went on title sequences became more and more likely to include live action footage, sound effects and dialogue: the same kinds of ingredients as the main part of the film. Not all stylistic changes have been linear however; sometimes relatively short-lived cycles have come and gone. This has normally come about when designers have copied the innovation of a celebrated title designer. Sequences designed by Saul Bass in the 1950s and 1960s, such as The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955) and Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960), and by Kyle Cooper in the 1990s, such as Se7en (David Fincher, 1995) and The Island of Dr Moreau (John Frankenheimer, 1996), have given rise to waves of shameless imitators. In other cases, fashions for a particular style have arisen because they have been deemed appropriate to a certain type of film that exists as a production cycle. For instance, title sequences for the sci-fi, horror and exploitation films of the 1950s are often characterised by the melodramatic excesses of a crashing score and huge credit lettering. We can find examples in When Worlds Collide (Rudolph Maté, 1951) where roaring flames and explosions of fire wipe away the words of the main title, It Came From Outer Space (Jack Arnold, 1953) in which the main title is of enormous size and appears to project forward out of the screen thanks in part to the movie’s 3D technique, and Forbidden Planet (Fred. M. Wilcox, 1956), which in similar fashion appears to project its letters forward from a central point in the lower background, capitalising in this case upon the dramatic potential of the CinemaScope image.

The history of film titling that I present here draws its material from a sample of roughly 3,000 opening title sequences from American feature films of the sound period (discussion of the sampling and statistical methods used can be found in my doctoral thesis which was based upon a slightly smaller survey of 2,636 title sequences [Allison 2002: 22-8]).

Although outside the scope of my main survey, I preface it with some material on silent movies compiled largely with the aid of secondary sources. While difficulties in accessing archive materials prevent me from doing justice to opening titles in silent cinema, I feel it is important to highlight some of their innovations. I have organised my account chronologically, dividing it into six periods of unequal duration: silent cinema; sound cinema to 1939; 1940-54; 1955-74; 1975-94; and 1995 to the present day. The placement of these divisions is not without a degree of arbitrariness, I will admit, but it is also governed by my perception of a series of steps in the progression of title sequence design, according to one or both of two principles. The first is the relative conformity of key characteristics and the second is linearity of stylistic change. Such groupings are naturally clumsy, since significant variations exist within each group while other characteristics bridge the end of one time period and the beginning of another. They are intended to help provide an overview and I have endeavoured to highlight variations and subgroups in my discussion. It is perhaps worth noting also that some of these divisions correspond to those made by other historians of American cinema. For instance they might be seen to roughly match or to further subdivide what Douglas Gomery has identified as the ‘four fundamental eras in the history of Hollywood as industry’ (Gomery 2000: 25). These are the rise of Hollywood from the late nineteenth century to the coming of sound, the studio era of the 1930s and 1940s, the television broadcasting age beginning with the rise of television in the 1950s, and the era inaugurated by the coming of the feature film blockbuster in the mid-1970s (Gomery 2000: 21-3).

Auspicious Beginnings: Credits in Silent Cinema

The very earliest films had no opening or closing credit sequences. The earliest ‘author’ credited in films appears to have been the production company. According to Earl Theisen, the first credit titles appeared in 1897 when Thomas Edison used a two-inch strip of film to display his name and copyright (Theisen: 1936: 12). Other producers followed suit. Instead of placing the credit on a separate title card at the beginning or end of the film, however, many production companies of this era responded to widespread film piracy by incorporating their logos into the main body of the film. An international phenomenon, the technique was perhaps most famously deployed by the pioneering French director George Méliès, with his Star Films logo plainly visible on the sets of such films as Les Aventures de Robinson Crusoe (France, 1902) (illustrated in Robinson 1993: 36) and Le Royaume des fées (France 1903) (illustrated in Abel 1998: 74-5). Although it may strike today’s audiences as a rather peculiar practice, the incorporation of such an overt mark of authorship and ownership would certainly have seemed less disruptive to viewers of early non-narrative films than to audiences of later years. Only once the ‘cinema of attractions’ gave way to a cinema of cogent narrative space and logic would such a mark have come to seem inappropriate. By the time this occurred, other important factors had already come into play.

Several elements combined to extend the number of credits presented and this escalation encouraged production companies to group them at the beginning and/or end of the film. The evolution of the star system was probably the most important, although the first documented credit to an individual was that of André Heuzé, a writer for the French Pathé Frères production company in 1906 (Robertson 1985: 157). The first actor to be credited in the United States is reported to be G. M. Anderson, star of a series of Bronco Billy Westerns from 1908. This prestige is doubtless linked to the fact that Anderson also wrote and produced the films and was part-owner of their production studio, Essanay (Robertson 1985: 157). In 1912, the writer’s name began to appear in American film credits. Janet Staiger explains, ‘the industry argued that this practice encouraged submissions from famous writers and decreased possibilities of plagiarism’ (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson 1985: 321). Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, the number of credited personnel escalated rapidly as feature length narratives became a popular cinematic form and the evolving studio system ensured that the prestige of the personnel involved was maintained through recurrent associations with quality products for which they would be credited.

As opening titles and inter-titles became increasingly significant features of silent films their presentation came to be afforded greater importance. The first wave of stylistic flamboyance occurred in the late 1910s. David Bordwell claims that ‘art titles’ were common by the 1920s and cites The Narrow Trail (William S. Hart, 1917) as an early example. By 1923, he is able to locate an example of moving background images in The Merry-Go-Round (Rupert Julian and Erich von Stroheim, 1923) and, the following year, an instance of animation in the title sequence to The Speed Spook (Charles Hines, 1924) (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson 1985: 26). By 1928, Herbert McKay was one of several writers instructing amateur filmmakers in the mechanics of creating a large repertory of ‘novelty’ and ‘trick’ titles as a way of dressing up both inter-titles and opening credits. Although he indicated that similar techniques might be used for either type of title, he expressed a belief that the more ostentatious decorations should be reserved for the opening titles where they would not prove a distraction from the unfolding narrative. Many of the titles he suggested combined a notion of topical propriety with a spectacular demonstration of the mechanical/magical trickery of the cinematic apparatus. For example:

The Metal Legion: The screen is seen covered with black granules. These granules shift and pull together and soon the granular form is changed to a crystalline form, the structure being needle-like. These needles rise on end and march in martial ranks to a common heap, where they merge with the rest of the mass. Soon these masses take the form of letters and soon the letters are clear-cut and distinct.

The Volcano: Smoke rolls up across the screen in dense clouds. Letters become faintly seen through the smoke. The smoke fades as the letters become more and more distinct and finally the letters are formed of curling, rolling clouds of smoke illuminated with weird light while the background is black.

The Sandstorm: An Arab encampment is seen in the desert, a sandstorm comes up and whirling sand fills the air, this swirls about and finally dies down. The camp has disappeared, the sand has been ranged in dunes which form the letters of the words. This is a most mysterious effect and one which always excites admiration’ (McKay 1928: 183).

McKay’s manual testifies to the levels of production time and technical ingenuity that were applied to the manufacture of some titles in this period. This can be read as indicative of their perceived importance. In citing his advice, it is not my intention to suggest that such experimentation was in any way the norm for films titles of the late silent period. Across the years, the titles of amateur and independent short films have, like their main content, been characterised by innovation and formal experimentation more often than mainstream commercial product. What I wish to emphasise is that some level of innovation and diversity did exist in film titles of this period and that the application of ingenuity and skill to title design was not purely a post-Carmen Jones phenomenon.

That’s Entertainment! Sound cinema to 1939

With the coming of sound, experimentation with the technological possibilities of cinema was almost immediately extended from image to soundtrack. The Terror (Roy del Ruth, 1928), usually regarded as the second all-talking picture, also became the first without a single title. Instead of a conventional title sequence, its credits were spoken aloud by the star, Conrad Nagel (Hardy 1985: 40). Spoken titles did not of course become the norm although a handful of later examples can be found and there are even some films with titles that are wholly or partly sung, such as the musicals Sweet Rosie O’Grady (Irving Cummings, 1943) and Meet Me After the Show (Richard Sale, 1951). Journalist Grady Johnson claims of spoken titles that ‘the industry abandoned that technique when it realised people seldom remember what they hear’ (Johnson 1955: X6). The desire to move away from the aesthetic of title cards also led to the production of a couple of films that used only end credits. Barry Salt cites The Bellamy Trial (Montana Bell, 1929) as one such example (Salt 1992: 189). Johnson suggests that the speedy termination of this experiment derived from the exhibitors’ practice of omitting end credits in order to turn the performances around more quickly (Johnson 1955: X6).

Aside from the brief dalliance with spoken credits, title sequences of the early sound period had much in common with their immediate predecessors. In line with the currently popular stereotype applied to this era, most were relatively simple, tending to place their titles over a plain background or else over or besides one or more still pictures. As the decade progressed, pictures displaced the popularity of plain backgrounds. Many of them pointed to narrative or generic features through one or more relevant motifs. Early examples of this technique include Half Shot at Sunrise (Paul Sloane, 1930), which places its titles over the image of a First World War battlefield, thus using the sequence to help establish setting. In similar fashion, the titles for Morocco (Josef von Sternberg, 1930) appear over a scenic image that describes the film’s locale in a broadly iconographic sense while at the same time illustrating an archway that appears several times during the course of the film and through which Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich) will make her final exit at its conclusion. Dracula (Todd Browning, 1931) finds a slightly different motivation for the image it uses: a gleaming-eyed bat lurking behind a spider’s web points up the film’s generic credentials. Irrespective of visual style, opening title sequences of the 1930s were almost invariably accompanied by instrumental music. And yet, despite a general preference for simplicity, we continue to find a significant amount of novelty work: as attempts to dispense with opening titles waned, visual innovations continued and these sequences invariably remain a pleasure to watch.

Grady Johnson lists a plethora of effects used during this period:

‘The name of the picture appeared in flaming letters, in floating lilies on a pond… carved in wax and melted, machine-gunned into the side of a building, coiled in rope or twined in growing vines, on plate glass windows that were broken, or in the dirt spray of skidding automobiles’ (Johnson 1955: X6).

As these examples signal, the novelty sequences of the 1930s often centred upon the inscription of main titles onto physical objects, or else the utilisation of objects in such a way as to reveal or destroy those titles. Amongst the films that display the act of revealing or erasing titles are Her Man (Tay Garnett, 1930), where waves wash away titles scraped into the sand; The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932), where a revolving set reveals the main title on the side of a model pyramid; and Maytime (Robert Z. Leonard, 1937), where some of the credits are carved into a tree trunk and others appear as blossom floating on a stream. It was to such sequences as these that Saul Bass paid tribute in his own opening credit sequence for That’s Entertainment Part II (Gene Kelly, 1976), a fact that acquires considerable irony when one considers how often the widespread celebration of his other works has been used to justify the dismissal of the sequences of the thirties and forties (see Allison 2006).

Such novelty designs normally drew their inspiration from the film’s subject matter or location. This was also true of most films that used still pictures to illustrate their titles. Some title designs were based on other criteria however. During this period, several of the major production companies developed house styles for their title sequences. These highlighted studio authorship and, in this sense, adopted a similar role to the logos that normally preceded them. They emphasised consistency rather than difference and, in so doing, displaced the more usual primary function of introducing salient features of the individual picture (although star credits maintained this role to some degree). The relationships between house styles, production company logos, and the films introduced varied from studio to studio. For instance, between 1933 and 1935, Twentieth Century-Fox often employed a style that referenced neither their logo nor the individual films. It involved an unusual lettering style which was, like the background, filled with a distinctive abstract pattern. It can be seen in Advice to the Lovelorn (Alfred Werker, 1933), Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (Roy del Ruth, 1934) and Les Misérables (Richard Boleslawski, 1935) amongst others. By contrast, a style used by MGM between 1938 and 1940 made specific reference to the famous studio logo through its use of a lion’s profile as a title background. Examples can be seen in A Christmas Carol (Edwin L. Marin, 1938), Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939) and Comrade X (King Vidor, 1940).

The most well-remembered house style is almost certainly one used by Warner Bros. as a regular feature from 1932 to 1935 and occasionally thereafter. Looking back, it seems emblematic of not only the output of the Warner studio but a whole period of filmmaking. These title sequences centred on a series of brief portrait shots of the cast, with both actor and character names superimposed. Split-screens were often used for the lesser players and the shots were separated by wipes. This appears to be the only style introduced during the 1930s that relied on technological development. Barry Salt reports that the optical printers needed to produce this effect were available for studios to purchase from 1930 and a regular use of wipes had been established by 1932. Warners, he notes, used significantly more wipes than any other studio (Salt 1992: 210). We can therefore think of title sequences such as Three on a Match (Mervyn Le Roy, 1932), The Mayor of Hell (Archie Mayo, 1933) and Fashions of 1934 (William Dieterle, 1934) as being consistent with the broader studio style. At the same time, using footage of the cast pointed to features of the individual films introduced.

Irrespective of their content and design, almost all title sequences of the 1930s were autonomous, free-standing segments that were clearly separate from the subsequent footage, in terms of both sound and image. Even where motion photography was used, as in Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd, 1933) with its horseback riders, or Condemned Women (Lew Landers, 1938), which centres its title sequence on prison scenes, the material almost never participated in the chain of narrative events that began to unfold after the titles ended. Pre-title sequences were virtually unknown in these years, although 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (Michael Curtiz, 1933) provides one noteworthy exception. Yet rather than using its pre-title sequence to begin the narrative action, as later films would do, it used it to explain the etymology of the main title and to give it impact: 20,000 is the sum total of the sentences allotted each of the inmates seen silhouetted during an impressively mounted opening montage.

A further feature that 1930s title sequences shared was their brevity. On average, they lasted for just 56 seconds, with The Women representing the only sequence in my sample that exceeded two minutes in length. Even that film’s two-minutes-and-56-seconds sequence is just a fraction of the length of those found in later years when films such as Martin (George A. Romero, 1978), Kansas City (Robert Altman, 1995) and Jerry Maguire (Cameron Crowe, 1996) would have title sequences more than nine minutes long. The concision achieved by title sequences of the 1930s owed a great deal to the routine clustering of many credits onto each title card. This practice can be observed in such pictures as Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (Robert Z. Leonard, 1931) and Ladies in Love (Edward H. Griffith, 1936). As we shall see, once this practice gave way to a spreading out of credits that caused titles sequences to run for longer, the implications for their design were considerable.

Picture Perfect: 1940-1954

These years showed both continuity and change from the previous decade. Still pictures remained the most popular type of background image, increasing their dominance as some previously competing styles fell out of fashion. Plain backgrounds were used less and less, as filmmakers became ever keener to use the films’ opening moments to introduce significant themes or motifs. At the same time, the more ostentatious titling styles lost their popularity. By the late 1930s, some low-budget features had reportedly spent up to one third of their production costs on the opening title sequence (Johnson 1955: X6). Gladwin Hill cites the reputed amount of $10,000 spent upon the enormous electric sign that forms the main title of The Great Ziegfeld (Robert Z. Leonard, 1936) – a far princelier sum at the time than it currently represents (Hill 1953: X4). For obvious reasons such expenditure came to be thought of as inappropriate. Moreover, elaborate titling styles were often very much at odds with the aesthetics of the films they introduced. The 1940s and early 1950s are significant as the period in which many functions of title sequences that we now think of as standard were most effectively integrated with the narrative economy that characterises a high proportion of studio era films. That is, by advertising some of the films’ main pleasures, they encouraged the audience to develop precisely the kinds of expectations that the individual films were designed to satisfy. Indeed, in forging ever closer links between the title sequence and what came after, these years would see the beginnings of a rapidly escalating trend in which many title sequences ceased to be structurally self-contained and began to extend the titles into the main narrative action.

Through the 1940s and early 1950s the average length of title sequences rose significantly. This can largely be accounted for by the spacing out of credits, so that key personnel such as the director and producer were increasingly allotted title cards of their own. This change was precipitated by the growing strength of unions, such as the writers’ and directors’ guilds, who successfully negotiated more prominent credit positioning for their members. Their demands included specifications about lettering size, onscreen duration, the acceptability or otherwise of sharing a card with other credits, and the order in which credits must appear. Although some credits continued to be negotiated individually and were enshrined in a filmmaker’s own contract, in most cases they were the product of collective bargaining. Agreements between major production companies and unions tended to be renegotiated every three years. This allowed for some changes in credit rules to occur although most of the conventions with which we are now familiar were firmly in place by the early 1940s. The only significant disruption to the rights for which the unions pushed came in the 1950s as the HUAC investigations focused upon the film industry, at which time the blacklisting of hostile witnesses and the omission of their credits became common practice. One victim was the actor Howard Da Silva, whose credit was removed from Slaughter Trail (Irving Allen, 1951) (New York Times 1951). The Screen Writers’ Guild blacklisted some of its own members, refusing to extend to them the rights for which the union had fought so hard. Friendly Persuasion (William Wyler, 1956) has no screenplay credit at all, a fact that has been attributed to the blacklisting of writer Michael Wilson (Mayersberg 1967: 124). A host of other 1950s films, such as The Defiant Ones (Stanley Kramer, 1958), resorted to the use of pseudonymous names (Dowdy 1973: 43-4).

The increasing length of title sequences had substantial implications for their visual design. With hindsight, some of the ways in which designers responded seem almost inevitable, and yet other choices are more surprising. The most obvious effect of spreading out the credits whilst not, at this stage, significantly increasing their numbers, was to make visible a great deal more of the background space. This, in turn, encouraged creative use of this space and, during this period, we find the regularity with which plain backgrounds were used sank to less than half that of the 1930s. In the early 1940s, almost two thirds of title sequences used still images of some kind, during what would be this style’s most popular period ever. Many such sequences employed just a single image. These were often motifs specific to the narrative, such as the eponymous bird in The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941). Others made use of elaborate series of images, which often described characters or narrative situations, as is the case with the cartoons of Presenting Lily Mars (Norman Taurog, 1943) and Grounds for Marriage (Robert Z. Leonard, 1950). Others yet employed generic imagery so that, for instance, images of dancers opened the musicals Song of the Islands (Walter Lang, 1942) and Dancing in the Dark (Irving Reis, 1949). Yet despite such efforts to find appropriate imagery with which to open films of the 1940s and early 1950s there is little evidence of willingness to spend the kind of money on title sequences that we sometimes observed in earlier years.

One possible reason why inexpensiveness and relative simplicity were preferred at this time – in contrast to the novelty work of the 1930s or the styles that would emerge from the mid-1950s onwards – is the reportedly popular practice of projecting the opening titles onto closed theatre curtains (Kirkham 1994: 16). Whether this was a cause or effect remains questionable however. Yet another explanation suggests itself for the relative visual simplicity and lack of technological sophistication that characterised the majority of Hollywood film titles at this time. We may hypothesise that it was born at least in part of a movement towards a style that many writers have seen as characteristic of the ‘classical’ era; that is, the avoidance of drawing attention to any technical artifice that was not in itself a marketable commodity. And yet, while this interpretation doubtless has some merit, it is hard to regard it as fully satisfactory since it suggests a more substantial change in artistic vision between 1930s and 1940s Hollywood than there is evidence to support. Perhaps the only true answer lies in David Bordwell and Janet Staiger’s observation that ‘the classical style has not changed in a cumulative or additive fashion’ (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson 1985: 247).

While still pictures continued to prevail during this period, a significant minority of films were beginning to explore techniques that have come to dominate title design to the present day. By incorporating diegetic moving images and, occasionally, diegetic sound these sequences forge closer narrative and stylistic links with the main part of the film. In introducing narrative elements from the very first, they also served to launch the action with a greater immediacy than other types of opener. It was a trend that would take a firm hold within a relatively short period of time. In the early 1940s, just ten percent of title sequences incorporated some degree of narrative action. Ten years later this figure had almost trebled and so on until the early nineties saw two thirds of films using this technique. The use of pre-title sequences, which normally presented a short episode of action before the titles began, also grew significantly during this period. Examples include Fixed Bayonets (Samuel Fuller, 1951) and The Glory Brigade (Robert D. Webb, 1953), which both preface their title sequences with dramatic incidents. Such changes provide further indications of a growing desire on the part of filmmakers to introduce narrative elements from the film’s very outset.

Although the popularity of action-based title sequences grew rapidly during these years, the move to incorporate diegetic sound happened more slowly. One of the first title sequences to combine diegetic sound with narrative action was Destry Rides Again (George Marshall, 1939), which depicted a tumult of unchecked lawlessness in a small Western town. Most films, though, continued to limit the acoustic accompaniment to non-diegetic music and the use of dialogue was virtually unknown in title sequences of this era. A very rare instance can be found in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (Gordon Douglas, 1950), where titles unfurl over images of a busy law court. We see and hear the judge entering and banging his gavel to herald the title, ‘Cagney Productions’. A voice announces that the court is in session. The gavel bangs again for the final director credit, after which the hearing proceeds. Even here the use of speech is very minimal. The fact that it was not widely adopted until much later can probably be attributed to a reluctance to place spoken and written words in competition with one another. Even in the contemporary cinema, where titles are commonly situated alongside action and dialogue, many sequences are designed to avoid presenting titles and important dialogue simultaneously.

In the range of title sequences made in the 1940s and early 1950s, we can see that changes in the dominant styles took some surprising turns. While most sequences had a much slicker look than those of the 1930s, they displayed less technical ingenuity. At the same time, a narrative and stylistic direction barely hinted at in the 1930s emerged as a dominant trend that would escalate in later years. The desegregation of sound and image, style and action, between the title sequence and the main part of the film is a dominant feature of American filmmaking from the 1960s onwards. In this earlier period, there exist discernible movements towards such unification, haphazard though they be. Title sequences entailing some level of narrative action, such as Meet John Doe (Frank Capra, 1941), I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) and Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton, 1947) predate countless other less progressive sequences. Indeed, whilst the beginning of an undeniable trend is clear, there is no evidence of clear consensus on the part of the filmmaking community. The late 1950s and 1960s would in fact give rise to even greater stylistic diversification.

Bass, Bond, and Beyond: 1955-1974

Alongside auteurist prejudices, perhaps the main reason why film and design history has tended to overlook opening title sequences of the 1940s and early 1950s is that the key trend of this era was towards a relatively subtle, self-effacing sensibility. In developing their potential as a tool with which to guide audience expectations of the experience to come, many had taken on forms that were so closely entwined with the main part of the feature that they lend themselves poorly to being enjoyed without it. It is not entirely surprising, therefore, that these sequences are seldom selected to be shown as clips in lectures on titling history, or uploaded onto internet pages of ‘great’ title sequences. Yet this attitude does them grave disservice. For film scholars seeking to understand American cinema’s aesthetic history, moreover, the trends and cycles of titling style can often prove useful indices of the tides, waves and undercurrents of wider cinematic changes.

Title sequences of the mid-1950s to mid-1970s, and especially this period’s first ten years, have attracted far more critical interest than earlier ones, but the styles for which this era is most famous – abstract animation and other aesthetics drawn from outside the domain of mainstream cinema – are actually representative of just a small minority of films. Richard Avedon’s striking collage for Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1956), the elegant simplicity of Wayne Fitzgerald’s slow-motion shower of diamonds in Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959), James Pollack’s off-kilter animation for The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock 1963) and, in the UK, the designs of Maurice Binder and Robert Brownjohn for the James Bond movies provide just a handful of the most acclaimed examples of such technique. These designers’ attention-grabbing sequences captured the interest of critics and filmmakers alike and many examples of their work are still renowned today. Yet the amount of attention such designs have received occludes the fact that the emergence of this trend was far less statistically significant than other developments. In other words, the cycle encompassed only a small proportion of films and lasted for a relatively short period of time. Meanwhile, a fantastic array of other stylistic developments arose from a host of more pervasive changes in popular American filmmaking. These changes ranged from the breakdown of the studio system and the ‘classical’ style to the burgeoning popularity of widescreen cinema and to the increasing synergy between the film and music businesses and consequent rise of the pop music soundtrack. While overtly authored experimental animations most certainly deserve to be celebrated, ignorance of the other trends perpetuates a false and impoverished understanding of the range of ways in which filmmakers responded to the new technical, industrial and cultural challenges of the era.

The most common titling styles throughout this period furthered the dominant trends that had emerged during the previous fifteen or twenty years. Title sequences continued to get longer, reaching an average length of almost two-and-a-half minutes by the early 1970s. A growing proportion were centred on narrative action and many incorporated diegetic sound effects and, later, dialogue. The use of pre-title sequences also increased, as did their average length. In title sequences of this period we can therefore detect two contrasting impulses. On the one hand we can observe the growing dominance of title sequences that move to integrate themselves, as far as possible, with the main body of the film. By such means, these sequences meet their obligation to credit cast and crew but, at the same time, they divert attention away from the act of direct address that the credit lettering represents. On the other hand there is strong evidence of an increasing attraction to experimentation and innovation, a sensibility which may also be thought of as being of great importance to this era of American cinema more broadly. Sequences of this school flaunt their technique. In doing so, they draw attention to an activity that is at the core of what title sequences do: directly addressing the audience. It is hard to watch a sequence such as Elinor Bunin’s stylish opener for the asylum-set melodrama Lilith (Robert Rossen, 1964) – in which soft and hazy images of fragile butterflies become entrapped by harsh black bars that multiply to form a spider’s web – without reflecting upon the ways it courts one’s complicity in preparing for the ensuing viewing experience. Common to each of these schools of design we can also see the emergence of a number of subordinate trends, such as the growing use of theme songs and the movement towards asymmetrical placement of the credit titles. Sometimes attributable to industrial or technological causes, at other times these cycles and trends result from the widespread copying of critically and/or commercially successful formats.

Of the new cycle of stylistically flamboyant title sequences the most widely documented have been those designed by Saul Bass. If I have often taken issue with errors and elisions in the critical history of title sequences, here I must bow to convention in recognising the pioneering nature of his series of collaborations with the director Otto Preminger. Through these sequences we can observe many of the ways in which styles drawn from other media began to exert substantial influence on titling aesthetics. The arenas of advertising and graphic design – which occupied his professional background – can be seen as especially important in this respect, but links to avant-garde cinema also emerge. Bass’s work was so highly regarded that many contemporary designers sought to emulate his style. Others drew from his work an inspiration to experiment, even though their own styles and techniques were not in themselves derivative. Observant of the critical plaudits that such sequences often drew, directors and producers became increasingly keen to afford their designers the opportunity to make such explorations. As a result, there occurred a fashion for self-consciously flashy titling work for which the designers themselves were often credited onscreen. This is the first time that we can unequivocally trace a titling design trend to an individual.

Saul Bass has invariably been the main focus of attention in histories of film titling, yet the encouragement offered by Preminger should not be undervalued. The director’s existing enthusiasm for creating interesting titles using unconventional techniques is plainly evident in such earlier features as Whirlpool (1950) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). The sensibility, if not the style, of Bass’s early title designs for Preminger is not without context or precedent therefore. Indeed their partnership provides a fine example of the way in which fortuitous collaboration so often gives rise to ideas and products that seem to far exceed the sum of the collaborators’ individual input. Unlike earlier, almost invariably anonymous, title designers however, Bass received on-screen credit from the start and his reputation was elevated by increasingly widespread recognition of distinct and consistent authorial traits. This is not to say that all his work looked superficially similar – although in the late 1950s he was particularly fond of animating silhouettes cut from paper as in The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955) and Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959) – but rather that his diverse techniques emerged from a clearly formulated conception of the ideal purpose of title sequences: in his own words, to ‘symbolise and summarise’ the film (Kirkham 1994: 16). Whether he used animation, live-action, special effects, or a mixture of all three – as in The Big Knife (Robert Aldrich, 1955), Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) and North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) – each sequence was designed around one or more important motifs bearing strong thematic links to the film being introduced. Each sequence differed in style from the main part of the film, standing alone in a structural sense. It is a quality that has lent them well to display outside their original context – in lectures, museum exhibitions, gallery installations and so forth – thereby reinforcing Bass’s reputation even while some of the films his work supported have quietly slipped into obscurity.

While Bass placed a central importance upon the search for a key image representative of each film, many of his contemporary imitators were less concerned with such a quest than with the inspiration they drew from his visual stylishness and use of mixed media. Bass himself was very dismissive of such projects:

‘Producers, film-makers and title-makers began to regard the titles as a personal tap-dance that they did before the film began. All sorts of showing off went on… I find it disturbing to see titles that I regard as fashionable, idiosyncratic performances of novelty for novelty’s sake. We saw a lot of pyrotechnics and fun and games that didn’t necessarily support the film’ (Kirkham 1994: 16).

It is ironic that what we might call the ‘YouTube effect’ has all but eliminated the original context and purpose of individual title sequences, placing value on the very qualities that Bass so roundly criticises.

The creation of titles that upstage the film – ironically, Bass’s own sequence for Walk on the Wild Side (Edward Dmytryk, 1962) is often heralded as a classic example – has normally been regarded as a cardinal sin. Nevertheless, the string of flashily ‘authored’ title sequences that were emerging by the early 1960s is of profound historical interest, variable though their success as film introductions may have been. The interest lies in their exemplification of an aesthetic that was shortly to become a characteristic of many American films of the 1960s. Richard Corliss notes that designers such as Saul Bass, Wayne Fitzgerald and Maurice Binder were using ‘all the resources of cinema in their three-minute “films”: animation, live-actions, split-screens, strobe and slow-motion photography, still photos and drawings, archive material, any and all combinations of the above’ (Billanti 1982: 60). Techniques used frequently by experimental filmmakers of the period, but which were seldom features of mainstream cinema, were now drawn into commercial films by means of the title sequence. Maurice Binder’s abstract designs for Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963) and Arabesque (Stanley Donen, 1966), Pablo Ferro’s daring split-screens for The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, 1968) and Don Record’s pop art montage for How Sweet It Is (Jerry Paris, 1968) are just a few examples. This forum for the wide dissemination of abstract and avant-garde cinema allowed significant additions to be made to the repertoire of mainstream filmmaking even if, as Bass suggests, such sequences did not always sit well with the films they were intended to support.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, another notable, if not especially prevalent, design practice had emerged. An increasing use of parody and pastiche signalled an increasingly widespread project of examining and reworking the heritage of title design. These techniques were used to various ends. Irreverent parodies often achieved comic effect, as in Wayne Fitzgerald’s design for Cat Ballou (Elliot Silverstein, 1965), where the Columbia logo’s demure Lady Liberty stripped off her toga to reveal the costume of a gun-toting cowgirl. Many films pastiched the styles of previous years to signal a period setting: The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973), for instance, used the whole gamut of old-style features, ranging from an obsolete version of the studio logo to the placement of credits on turning book pages – a style that had all but disappeared after the 1940s ended. Foregrounding and reworking classic features of title design style signalled a growing self-awareness in the field. This can be seen as emblematic of American filmmakers’ increasingly wider knowledge of and reference to the heritage from which their work emerged.

As I indicated earlier, although self-consciousness and ostentation are more strongly associated with the 1950s and 1960s than they are with other eras of title design, they did not dominate the field at this time, when the strongest design trend was the increased reliance on narrative action. During these years, other features emerged that had no strong alignment to any school of visual design. For one thing, the use of title songs more than doubled from twelve percent in the early 1950s to thirty percent by the late 1960s. As I have argued in some detail elsewhere, their increased popularity appears to owe much to the Oscar success of the theme to High Noon (Fred Zinneman, 1952), within the Western genre at least, and to the growing realisation of the benefits of cross-promoting music and film more generally (Allison 2003). A visual innovation was the move towards asymmetrically positioned titles. Broader industrial reasons would seem to lie at the root of this trend too, as they emerged shortly after the American film industry moved to adopt widescreen formats. Indeed, most of the earliest uses of decentralised titles can be found in widescreen films, such as Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956) and I Married a Woman (Hal Kanter, 1956). It therefore appears that designers embraced them in direct response to the need to find new frame compositions that would suit the wider image formats. The general pattern of change that we see between the late 1950s and early 1970s, then, is a splitting-off in two main directions. The most statistically significant followed on from earlier years. This was the trend toward the narrative and stylistic integration of title sequences with the main part of the film. The most critically noted, on the other hand, was a reversion to free-standing credits, stylistically flashy and, unlike the novelty work of the 1930s, overtly authored. Some title sequences, such as the one designed by Don Record for Prime Cut (Michael Ritchie, 1972) skilfully melded both trends; here a lengthy action sequence plays a crucial role in launching the plot, yet it is filmed in a far more stylised way than the main part of the feature while its subtle yet effective animation of the credit lettering is both stylish and witty.

The cultural, technological and industrial factors that give rise to such a complex nexus of stylistic directions in film titling worked similarly upon the American cinema more broadly in an era that is often thought of as one of particular upheaval and reinvention. The history of title design in this period can thus be regarded as not just a lot more complex than is normally acknowledged but also as an effective case study of the mechanisms underlying aesthetic changes that would prove to be of both short and long-term significance.

Beginnings and Endings: 1975-1994

This was an era in which long strides were taken in redressing what had widely come to be seen as the excesses of earlier years, with filmmakers for the most part eschewing excessively long or complex opening title sequences. Yet as so often before, many of the most notable stylistic changes were rooted in technical and industrial factors.

We have already seen how changes in credit rules through the late 1930s and 40s gave rise to longer opening title sequences which encouraged in turn some more inspired usage of the time during which these titles unfurled. Toward the latter part of the 1970s, by which point legal stipulations obliged filmmakers to include an ever-increasing number of names, the opening credit roll was starting to become quite untenable. Facing a backlash against seemingly interminable opening titles, repositioning the majority or credits to the end of the film must have seemed like an ideal solution. This time around contractual obligations would discourage exhibitors from cutting them off as they had reportedly done in the 1920s (Writers’ Guild of America 1995: 261). The result of this shift was a temporary fall in the average length of opening titles, which, unsurprisingly, had a significant knock-on effect upon their design. Just as had been the case with short title sequences in the past, narrative material was included less often and, concomitantly, many sequences also reverted to a stand-alone format. Plain black backgrounds enjoyed a new-found popularity, often in conjunction with striking computer-animation of the main title itself. This was a feature that reflected both the strengthening sway of new computer technologies and their graphic capabilities – with early and influential examples to be found in Superman (Richard Donner, US/GB, 1978) and Alien (Ridley Scott, GB, 1979) – and the increasing importance of instantly recognisable logos as cross-promotional merchandising became ever more heavily relied upon to increase the revenue streams associated with blockbuster and family movies in an age of huge entertainment conglomerates. Ghostbusters II (Ivan Reitman, 1989) is one film which has no written titles at all at its beginning. The logo from the first film, animated so that the ghoul holds up two fingers to represent sequel status, acts as the main title in conjunction with the hit-record theme song. Yet if Ghostbusters II successfully establishes an appropriately comedic, feel-good tone while referencing an established narrative and generic template, what many other such sequences arguably did less well than their predecessors was to subtly nudge audiences into the psychological space where they would be most positively receptive to the film ahead.

From the late 1980s onwards, a slightly different pattern starts to emerge, however. Again, we can understand this in relation to the shifting structures of the American film industry. The erosion of the studio system as a vertically integrated oligopoly had given rise to increasingly complex film financing arrangements, which, through the eighties and beyond, would involve the participation of multiple organisations in the production and distribution of most films. The names and logos of these companies could not be tucked away at the end of the picture as so many individual credits had been but would instead be placed at the very, very start of the film. Yet rather than placing all opening credits alongside this group, many filmmakers of the period would opt to insert an often lengthy narrative sequence between this and another later credits cluster. The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987), King of New York (Abel Ferrara, 1990) and The Getaway (Roger Donaldson, 1994) all offer good examples of this technique. Such action interims between the two credit groups served to maintain the earlier popular tradition of using a pre-title sequence to launch the narrative as quickly as possible. In this respect, little had changed from earlier years except that a group of titles preceded the pre-title sequence (which might now perhaps be better dubbed a ‘mid-title sequence’) as well as following it.

Critical consensus seems to be that the 1980s and early 1990s contributed relatively few notable innovations in the history of film titling. Undoubtedly the most important, however, were the fledgling moves towards the computer generated motion graphics that would be more rigorously exploited in the years that followed and, in particular, those films such as Superman which made the moving letter forms a central part of the sequence’s visual design. Less significant from a teleological point of view, but often intriguing and at times highly entertaining, was the trend toward parody and pastiche which had begun to emerge in the late 1960s and early 70s and which would become increasingly widespread. In particular, alteration and incorporation of production company logos was rife. Examples include Tarzan the Ape Man (John Derek, 1981), in which the MGM lion utters the hero’s trademark cry instead of his customary roar, as well as Strange Brew (Dave Thomas, 1983), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984), Coming to America (John Landis, 1988), The Burbs (Joe Dante, 1988), Scrooged (Richard Donner, 1988), and Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton, 1990).

Despite a continued smattering of interesting and innovative sequences that served their movies well, the relative insipidity of titling norms during this period might lead us to the conclusion that film titles are at their most provocative when the dominant cinema is in a state of flux caused by new technologies, industrial changes or influences from other national cinemas. Indeed, a couple of the design features that did emerge can be attributed to those very factors: the bipartite clustering of titles came in response to industry restructuring whilst the animation of letterforms was closely linked to the increasing sophistication of computer graphics. In the years that followed, title design responded to the growing exploitation of computer capabilities across a range of visual media and by the mid-1990s a new wave of interest in title design was in full flow.

The Shape of Things to Come: 1995 – Present Day

The current revival of critical interest in title sequences began to gather speed during the early 1990s. Once again, Saul Bass was at the vanguard when, after a long hiatus, he was lured back into title design work. Most notably, he and his wife Elaine created four celebrated sequences for director Martin Scorsese. These were Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993), and Casino (1995), which was Bass’s final sequence before his death in 1996. The sequence that really got people talking, though, was made by a relative newcomer. This was Kyle Cooper’s design for Se7en. The popularity of this particular sequence hinged upon its use of ‘MTV aesthetics’, the origins of which lie much further back in the structural/materialist work of American avant-garde directors such as Owen Land. Its style spawned a host of imitators, both in film titling and in other fields of graphic design. In particular, the scratchy, jumpy typography it used became almost ubiquitous for several years afterwards. Indeed, the sequence rapidly acquired a significance that extended beyond film titling, and even the film industry at large. This was acknowledged by the New York Times Magazine, which lauded the sequence as one of the most important design innovations of the decade (Muschamp 1998: 61).

Cooper was just one of several title designers to develop a profile in the 1990s. The continued work of older designers such as Wayne Fitzgerald, Pablo Ferro and Dan Perri was supplemented by striking work from Robert Dawson, Nina Saxon, Deborah Ross, Randy Balsmeyer and Mimi Everett, to name but a few. Yet while the cult of individual creativity still holds sway when discussing film titles, especially in popular film journalism, other factors have become increasingly significant in shaping the titling aesthetics of the late 1990s and early twenty-first century. One is the multiple fields of design in which many of these workers are employed. For instance, Daniel Kleinman who has directed the title sequences to the James Bond films from GoldenEye (Martin Campbell, 1995) onwards, had previously worked in the music video industry. This background is very evident in his titling work, perhaps never more than in his sequence for Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode, 1997). Kyle Cooper has directed commercial campaigns for several prominent companies including AT&T and Reebok (Shepter 2005). Imaginary Forces, the company that he co-founded in 1996, has also worked extensively in interactive design. Such a cross-fertilisation of styles and ideas between these various design fields has undoubtedly contributed to the high degree of experimentation that can be observed in contemporary title design.

The increasing sophistication of computer software has encouraged and facilitated stylistic experimentation, permitting the creation of effects that would not have been achievable previously. The manipulation of typography has, as previously noted, proved especially appealing to designers in these years, with examples to be seen in Sphere (Barry Levinson, 1998), The Avengers (Jeremy Chechik, 1998) and Hollow Man (Paul Verhoeven, 2000). In each of these sequences, the lettering is designed to participate in the theme of the film. For example, Hollow Man – an update of The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933) that addresses the scientific manipulation of the body’s makeup – animates its title lettering to resemble cells floating around in the blood stream while the choice of translucent letters partakes of the invisibility motif.

New technologies have also meant that exciting sequences can be produced more cheaply than before. Using sophisticated but relatively inexpensive computer software, some companies have chosen to specialise in low-budget design bringing striking opening titles within the price range of any independent filmmaker. Courtesy of Bureau, for instance, the relatively small-scale [Safe] (Todd Haynes, 1995) has been provided with an opener every bit as effective as Bureau’s design for the considerably more commercial American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000). At the opposite end of the scale, the re-emergence of an attitude that regards title sequences as interesting and enjoyable viewing material in their own right has led to the replication of a situation seen back in the 1930s. This is the investment of vast amounts of time and money in title sequences, the main purpose of which seems to be to showcase innovation and skill. One of the most notable is Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999). Its title sequence, showing an anatomically accurate journey through the human brain, reportedly took a team of designers the best part of two years to create (Makal 1999).

The newest wave that we are currently seeing, however, is films that have virtually dispensed with the opening title sequence. This strategy goes much further than earlier movements to deflect attention from the credit titles by placing them over action scenes. Moreover, this development has occurred very rapidly and has become extremely widespread in a short space of time. Since 2000, forty percent of the films I’ve surveyed have opening title sequences of less than thirty seconds in length. This compares with thirteen percent in the late 1990s, and never more than seven percent in any five-year period before that. Although films have occasionally done this before – Around the World in Eighty Days (Michael Anderson, 1956) lacked even a main title, and is famous for having an unusually lengthy animated end credit sequence designed by Saul Bass – only recently has it begun to happen regularly. In many ways this is not a surprising development. Throughout cinema’s history, periods of intense experimentation and flamboyance in title design have invariably been followed by a backlash in which relative simplicity was favoured for a while. Yet far from heralding the death of the title sequence, the growing interest in film titles shown by today’s design students suggests that, far from becoming a thing of the past, we can look forward to seeing a great deal more creativity in the future. In the meantime, with films like Watchmen (Zack Snyder 2009) continuing to thrust original and eye-popping titles onto our screens we have no legitimate reason to press fast-forward.

Deborah Allison is a London-based cinema programmer. She holds a doctorate in Film Studies from the University of East Anglia, and her writing has appeared in more than a dozen books and journals including Film Criticism, Film Quarterly, Senses of Cinema, Screen, Scope and The Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film.



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Allison, Deborah (2002), Promises in the Dark: Opening Title Sequences in American Feature Films of the Sound Period, Norwich: University of East Anglia.

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Johnson, Grady (1955), ‘Credits ledger: film title-making is inventive business’, New York Times, 16 October, p. X6.

Kirkham, Pat (1994), ‘Looking for the simple idea’, Sight and Sound vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 16-20.

Makal, Katie (1999), ‘Digital Domain animates Fight Club titles’, Design in Motion 24 November.

Mayersberg, Paul (1967), Hollywood The Haunted HouseHarmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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[i] A notable exception is Solana and Boneu (2007).

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