Film History 101 - How Saul Bass Changed The Art Of Opening Credits Forever!

By Srikanth Kanchinadham. Posted on December 21, 2015

There was a time when the movie credits held no importance for the movie or the audience. Initially it was only meant to let everyone know about the cast and crew. This gave time for the audience to settle down. But this changed when Otto Preminger assigned the work of designing titles to an amateur graphic designer named Saul Bass. Little did he know about the abilities of this designer, who would go on to making a name for himself in the history of title designing.

Saul Bass’s first major breakthrough came with the film The Man With The Golden Arm. The opening credits for this film enticed the audience with the weirdness and complexity of its design. The film was about the taboo subject of a musician’s struggle to overcome his heroin addiction. Now, when one looks at the opening credit sequence keeping the subject in mind, it makes so much sense. The use of black and white to depict the bleak nature of the film along with the distorted arm (where the drug is injected) was captivating, as it cleverly hinted at the nature of the film before it even started.

The groundbreaking work by Bass got him the attention of Hitchcock who got him to do the titles for Vertigo. The credit sequence for Vertigo was simple, yet it did the job. This work kick-started the relationship between the two masterminds, as Bass went on to design the titles for other Hitchcock movies as well, out of which Psycho and North By Northwest are classics.For example, the opening credits for Psycho, have the text broken up in black & white bars, signifying the broken psyche of Norman Bates, the murderer.

The use of kinetic typography for the titles was innovative which distinguished Bass from the others.

This motif by Bass was well summed up by these words: “For the average audience, the credits tell them there’s only three minutes left to eat popcorn. I take this ‘dead’ period and try to do more than simply get rid of names that filmgoers aren’t interested in. I aim to set up the audience for what’s coming; make them expectant.”

His designs for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Bunny Lake is Missing and Grand Prix established Bass as the pre-eminent opening credit artist of his age. He also designed the logos for many brands while introducing new forms of posters for movies. He finally moved from the job of designing titles in the mid 60’s when Bass got married and also claimed to be bored of it.

It was not until the late 80’s, that Bass came back, as filmmakers like James L. Brooks and Martin Scorsese who had grown up admiring his work, got him to work on their films. Collaborating with his wife Elaine, Bass once again went on to design exceptional titles for Scorsese’s classics like Cape Fear, Goodfellas and Casino. The latter stages of his work saw the use of computerized effects rather than his signature optical techniques.

Modern day designers acknowledge the influence of his legacy on the field. A very notable example that pays homage to Bass’s graphic and animated sequences is that of Catch Me If You Can. His works have spanned through decades, creating designs that visually communicated the key elements of the film.

Do check this website to have a look at Saul Bass's work.


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