Partly educational and promotional, influential title and graphic designer Saul Bass directed and produced this short where he discusses in simple medium and close-ups his reasoning behind some of his best and most arresting film title sequences, followed by mostly unedited titlw clips.
Bass is clearly reading from a prepared cue card just to the camera's right, but he's very informative and makes it apparent that title design is a marvelous and extremely rewarding craft when it nails a film, prepares an audience, and the designs are left unblemished by studio interference.
Most of his work was done for independent director-producers, which included Otto Preminger, Stanley Kramer, Martin Scorsese, Robert Aldrich, Stanley Kubrick, John Frankenheimer, Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, and Alfred Hitchcock.
Naturally, being 1977, Lee, Stone, and Scorsese don't figure in the selected clips of Bass' work, but neither does Hitchcock, which is perhaps deliberate because, unlike Preminger, another director-producer for whom Bass designed many titles and title logos, Hitchcock's persona dominated each film, and Bass clearly wanted to showcase more diverse work in genres like musicals (West Side Story), comedies (Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), dramas (Nine Hours to Rama), and action/soap operas (Frankenheimer's Grand Prix).
On the down side, the clips are ringy, full screen versions of widescreen films (West Side Story, Grand Prix, and Mad World were all in wide formats), if not taken from 16mm TV prints, and it hurts to see them so bruised and cropped when today almost all of the excerpted films are available on DVD.
Bass, who died in 1996, was and will remain one of the most revisited title designers because he had an incredible knack for evoking a film's powerful elements within a compressed period, and with individual shots that were no different than commercial ad photographs; you could easily frame any shot because its composition, lighting, colours, textures, and overlaid text or lines are so striking – heavily evident in Grand Prix' lengthy title sequence.
Bass admits his approach to title design also changed over the years, as he seemed to enjoy moving from logos to short credit sequences to virtual mini-movies that had their own striking content, often functioning as a mood intros to the imminent drama or horror.
Seconds, with his morphing imagery of an old man being recomposed to a younger man, is a work of art, and the editing and imagery in Grand Prix has an orgiastic relationship with the revving innards of performance racing cars.
Rama, on the other hand, matches logos and script with closer inspections of a pocket watch, and Bass' images of brassy gear movements are enhanced by the Indian percussion music; as the instrumental textures thicken, Bass focuses on extreme close-ups of less complicated geometric objects: a wheel, a gear, and ultimately grainy macro shots of a clock hand's tip.
Again, going against cliché and the expected, Bass films the hand's slow movements that are barely perceptible, but infer that Rama, with its focus on the last hours of Mahatma Gandhi's life, will deal with the converging nuances of a thickening assassination plot.
The remaining title samples are for Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm and In Harm's Way, Edward Dmytryk's Walk on the Wild Side, William Wyler's The Big Country (with its close-ups of smoldering carriage wheels and exhausted horses), and Carl Foreman's The Victors (mostly a mix of WWII footage that reveals Bass' impressionistic mini-movie technique, which he later applied in the opening for his lone feature film, Phase IV in 1974).
Saul Bass didn't design as many film credits as expected (around 58 between 1954 and 1995), but through the interest of, if not because of filmmakers who wanted to distinguish their films from the banal studio product, and explore title designs wholly different from the standard title cards, turning pages, or overlaid text on slow-panning shots.
Like Why Man Creates, Bass' Oscar-winning documentary short from 1968, Bass on Titles is available from Pyramid Films, but fans can avoid the steep price by snapping up Ecstasy, Vol. 11 of the Short series from Warner Bros., since it includes over 15 short films; it's still the same old ¾” video transfer, but the compilation disc is better value for one's money.
Note: further interview material regard Bass' collaborations with Preminger is also present in Preminger: Anatomy of a Filmmaker, a 1991 documentary included on Disc 2 of Warner Bros.' The Cardinal (1963).
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan