Being a graphic designer, I appreciate the title sequences of movies. In fact it is one of my favorite parts about watching a movie. In my motion graphic design class we studied the art and designs of Saul Bass’ title sequences. In Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Bass was able to use geometric elements mixed with typography and the perfect music score to convey the theme of the movie, drug addiction, without creating discomfort for the audience. Bass went on to create a plethora of title sequences, as seen in films such as Alfred Hitchock’s “North by Northwest” (1959), and “Psycho” (1960). Other great title designers soon followed. Maurice Binder, creator of the James Bond sequences, and Stephen Frankfurt who did the sequence to Robert Mulligan’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) all serve as inspiring examples of magnificent title design. Saul Bass revolutionized the title treatment by turning the title into moving images. From that point on the title sequence has evolved into an art form of its own.
With the advancements in technology, sequences now use 3D rendering software and motion graphics to tell the initial story at the beginning of a movie. Knowing that this was my passion, I was determined to learn the 3D rendering software, Cinema4D, in order to push my own skills as a designer. This was what I thought title design was. This was all I knew.
It was a couple weeks into the semester, and I was doing my job as an assistant teacher in the class on the history of film. I got to class early to draw the curtains to make sure the room was completely dark. The screen was pulled down and the projector was on waiting for the movie to start. The lights went off and the screen lit up. These giant black letters filled the screen: G-I-L-D-A. My eyes widened with awe at seeing the giant letterforms projected on the screen. While it didn’t animate and move like the titles I was used to seeing, the sheer scale of the letters sent goosebumps down my arms. The words faded to a dramatically lit game of dice, where the camera was positioned on the ground so it looked as if the dice were being thrown at me. A voice with a wiseguy attitude started to tell a story as the camera panned up to meet the eye level of the men crouched around a pile of money on the floor. The high contrast black and white images, interesting camera angles, and stylized frames (figures going in and out of darkness) were so fresh and new to me. I had never seen anything like this before. This was Film Noir. I felt like I was five years old with a handful of popcorn in my lap. I was completely mesmerized again.
After class I got into my car and immediately downloaded the song “Put the Blame on Mame,” that Gilda, played by Rita Hayworth, sang in one of the scenes. The whole way home I had it on repeat. I envisioned the dramatic letterforms followed by the beautiful imagery that flowed throughout the movie.
I wanted to learn everything about Film Noir. I renewed my Netfilx account and started checking out three DVDs at a time. I read articles and books, anything I could get my hands on. What was fascinating about Film noir was that it is not a genre, but a style, and a blend of a variety of genres—romance, crime, and drama. Film Noir thrived during the ’40s and ’50s. Inspired by German Expressionist films of the ’20s, Film Noir employed low-key lighting and unbalanced compositions to create a style that departed sharply from the gentrified Hollywood movies of the era. The morally ambiguous characters and pessimistic storylines, symbolic of Film Noir, was in tune with what was going on in the world during this time - coming out of the Great Depression and ending of World War II.
I looked at other historic movies of this era. The title treatment was breathtaking. While the letters themselves could be comical and, in some cases, awful, the full screen scale of them was so inspiring to me. The title treatment of these movies spanned across multiple genres - romance, crime, and drama, just like the style of Film Noir. As I examined all the different movie titles, I noticed that they told a story of their own.
I used the actual title of the movies and wrote a script emblematic of classic Film Noirs. The story is a dark tale of a lost soul, a pessimistic protagonist who is seeking redemption for losing the love of his life in a car crash. Narration is a key feature in Film Noir, and I knew that I wanted my story to be told by a deep voice filled with regret and sadness. My brother, who was there with me during my first movie experience, and who is also a movie fanatic, always does impressions of different characters (you should hear his imitation of Christopher Walken). I explained to him what I wanted for my story, and after some back and forth discussion, he finally nailed it. It was such a reward for him to be a vital factor in my thesis project. This gave us the chance to connect over something we both love - movies.
The entire thesis process has been a fascinating journey. Through this exploration I was able to tackle a multitude of disciplines: writing a script, creating hand-designed letters, 3D rendering, lighting, animating, and even sound editing. I have gained a newfound respect for designers, sound editors, and especially the film industry. It took looking back in time to find admiration and inspiration in something I had lost hope in - the magic of movies.