By Samia Jahangiri
The last century saw a revolution in the world with the advent and expansion of modern technology. In the world of graphic and motion design, this allowed creatives to explore new art styles, aesthetics, and techniques in producing work that communicated with the audience in a more impactful way. However, the creative revolutionization resulting in much of the most quintessential motion graphic work we recognize today, can arguably be attributed to two names: Saul Bass, and Kyle Cooper.
With a career spanning over fifty years, and accolades ranging from Academy Awards to Honorary Doctorates, Bass was first born to Jewish immigrants in 1920, in the Bronx. His early training was spent taking classes at Manhattan’s Art Students League of New York, prior to being taught by Hungarian-born artist and designer György Kepes at Brooklyn College. Bass formally begun his career in Hollywood in his twenties creating graphic design and print marketing. It was not until he had an opportunity to collaborate with the Austrian-American theatre and film director Otto Preminger, that Bass became the creative force we now identify him as being.
Having previously created graphic works for Preminger such as Champion (1949) and Death of a Salesman (1951), in 1954 he created the poster for his film Carmen Jones. A feat in itself for featuring an all-black cast, Bass provided the film with branding that was equally revolutionary. His poster for Carmen Jones is striking in its use of color, where Bass contrasts warm tones of oranges and reds against black, with cutout style illustrations and titling. The childlike simplicity with which the presented information is accessible to its audience, conveys a striking message about the movie and its impact. On the basis of this design, Preminger commissioned Bass to create his first title sequence – and Bass did not disappoint. In the 1978 educational documentary Bass on Titles, he says is his own words, “At one point, …Otto and I just looked at each other and said: ‘why not make it move?’ It was really as simple as that.” This creative direction and method of messaging was reflected in his curation of the title sequence: the simple illustrative combination of a black rose overlaid on a red burning flame, whilst title cards fade in and out over the image in white. The imagery evokes feelings of betrayal, anger, love, and lust – themes core to the film. Without showing the main characters, we can already assume what the relationship dynamic between them is likely to be, allowing us to emotionally prepare for the visual journey we are about to take.
His 1955 works for The Seven Year Itch and The Man With The Golden Arm were groundbreaking in their approach to the title sequence as independent works of art, as well as in rethinking the relationship between the title sequence and the movies they preceded. To many, these are considered the first works in Bass’ “signature” style. The title cards for The Seven Year Itch are memorable for their collage of warm toned color blocks which playfully reveal the credits. It nods to the quirky comedic romance of the film which also gave us the historic image of Marilyn Monroe, standing over the subway gate in a white dress. This sequence alongside Carmen Jones and The Man With The Golden Arm amongst others, also boasts hand-rendered title lettering with a Harold Adler, a frequent collaborator of Bass. We see the influence of Bass’ humorous use of color paired with dynamic typography to this day. Pixar’s Monster’s Inc. (2003) pays homage to Bass in its own title sequence with bold color blocked shapes, and a collage of doors opening and closing revealing the title credits much like The Seven Year Itch does.
Bass was also a pioneer of using symbolic imagery in cinematic motion graphics. The crooked arm symbol for The Man With The Golden Arm’s advertising campaign and animated title sequence is just as striking today as when it was first designed. With a color palette limited to black and white, Bass beautifully conveys the theme of film noir with white bars juxtaposed over a black background ending with the descension of the now-iconic crooked arm. The simplicity with which Bass was able to encapsulate the stylistic qualities of the film as well communicate the recurring theme of drug abuse, it further inspired generations of motion graphic designers to treat title cards as multipurpose. A highly revered and revolutionary title sequence designer in his own right, Cooper cites The Man With The Golden Arm as an influence on his own approach as a designer. He is quoted as having said
“‘The man with the golden arm’ woke everybody up and said: “This is what the potential is for main titles. You thought this was just a throw-away kind of thing where we just put the type up and no one really designs it.” And Saul Bass said, “Hey, wait a minute designers, directors, here’s an opportunity for us, to take advantage of this real estate at the beginning of a movie and use it to help tell the story or just use it to make something real interesting or beautiful,” and everybody woke up.” – Cooper in the documentary “Saul Bass, Title Champ.” (2008)
Credited with upwards of three hundred and fifty title sequence designs to his name since 1988, Kyle Cooper is the motion graphic designer who has rejuvenated the art of title sequencing in the last three decades. He trained with the infamous Paul Rand whilst completing his MFA at the Yale School of Art before beginning his professional career at R/Greenberg Associates (now R/GA) in 1988. It was here that he produced much of his initial work such as The Laser Man (1988), his first title sequence, and most notably Se7en, in 1995. It was not since Bass that title sequences had attracted such attention. According to Wired, Cooper cites Bass’ work, alongside Stephen Frankfurt’s title cards for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) amongst his greatest influences, and we see his motion design serve as a radical harmonization of graphic storytelling with modern technology.
His breakthrough work for David Fincher’s cult classic Se7en shows reverence to the dramatic styling of works such as Psycho (1960). But aside from his thoughtful use of color, type, and imagery; Cooper’s experimentation with modern technology allowed Se7en to become the cinematic masterpiece we recognize it as today. Cooper uses clip fragments to take the audience inside the mind of a serial killer. He layers frames over one another with vignettes and flickering title cards of hand etched typography, which create an atmosphere of ominousness and foreshadowing as we follow an anonymous pair of hands sifting through photographs, objects, and diary entries. The sequence was assembled by hand in order to allow the abrupt randomness of the shots to flow effortlessly, something that would not have been possible with just the use of digital editing techniques. This was aided by Cooper’s use of storyboards in generating and organizing ideas, and we see many of these stills referenced throughout the course of the movie.
The same year, he produced the title sequence for Dead Presidents incorporating the same montage technique of compiling together film, image, type, and sound to create a sequence much like he did for Se7en. What allows the work of artists such as Bass and Cooper to withstand the test of time is their ability to use the title sequence to tell the backstory of the film, setting up narrative elements to clarify things that happen later in the film. The second half of the sequence contains a burning $100 bill, evoking a similar emotional reaction to Bass in his Carmen Jones title sequence some forty years earlier. Except where Bass enhanced the image of the flame with a rose, Cooper juxtaposes shots of the brightly flaming bank note with darker and cooler-toned takes of Larenz Tate, the African American main character, in white face paint with a beanie and gun. The imagery contains powerful connotations of racial tensions and institutionalized distrust, communicated to the audience with Cooper’s use of cinematic and creative direction.
“The opening sequence to Mission: Impossible takes its cue from the 1960s television show, which always begins with a fuse being lit as a trigger for action sequences.” Here, a tight frame is used to accentuate sparks and a flame being contrasted against a stark black background. Again, we see Cooper showcase his ability to pay homage to the past by elevating these concepts with the use of modern technology. Scenes from the film flash in and out rapidly, peppered with metallic type cards shimmering with dynamism; a fuse sparks concluding in a visual blast that brings us the trademark bold italic serif type reading: Mission: Impossible. Like a vestibule does in architecture, the title sequence serves as a hallway between our reality and the alternate reality that cinema brings us. Cooper’s creative direction accomplishes this successfully from early on in his career, by the impact and consequent influence that his works on movies such as Se7en and Mission: Impossible have today.
With the ever-developing world of modern technology, what allows Cooper to stand today as one of the finest motion graphic designers is his ability to evolve as a creative in accordance with the changing world around him. The turn of the twenty first century brought us more of Cooper’s archetypal works, such as Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, and the now-iconic title sequence to the mockumentary Tropic Thunder (2008). The opening shot of Dawn of the Dead (2004) is a mass act of worship with transitions to gory images of zombies, blatantly communicating the message that holy war has brought upon the apocalypse. The title sequence appears to create a montage using actual war-torn found footage and newsreel, fragmented with similarly edited film footage of the actors as the Infected. Though obviously filmed at different times, Cooper uses modern method of post-production to ensure that the aesthetic is the same across all the clips, only contrasting it when he feels necessary. For example, the film’s title cards are sporadically dispersed throughout the opening credits; bold serif lettering in red “bleeds” into a black background, and this is complemented with the occasional graphic of blood transfusing. Without having seen the film, the audience can already understand the premise of the story, as well as some context to what the remaining plot entails.
Clocking in at just under six minutes, Cooper’s title sequence for Ben Stiller’s 2008 movie Tropic Thunder set yet another precedence for the potential opening credits could hold in storytelling. The satirical comedy-action mockumentary communicates all said elements of the film before it begins. It opens with an invented energy drink advertisement, followed by fictitious movie trailers all with the intent of introducing us to the main characters and their personas. Staying true to the mockumentary style of the film itself, the use of fake promotional material acknowledged the marketing tactics through which the film was promoted in reality and informs the audience about its character dynamics. This then transitions into a voiceover reading excerpts from a biography shown on-screen in a typewriter font, which fades to shots of military men flying over a dense Vietnamese jungle as the title credits are stenciled around them in white san serif type. With the dynamic transitioning between incredibly diverse shots, and the editing techniques which allow it to seem like movie trailers one would see in a theatre setting, the audience enters begins film experience with the right emotional and mental preparedness for what the film will entail, and is equally as appreciative of Cooper’s witty brilliance and attention to detail with the title sequence.
In the early evolution of his career, we see Cooper’s stress on reproducing the physical manifestations of the horror genre rapidly shift focus onto its more “spiritual” collusions. As early as his work on Se7en, Cooper adapted his creative visions with technology. In the 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau, John Frankenheimer requested Cooper to create title sequencing that evoked a sense of “cellular violence.” The consequent result was 400 discrete shots condensed into a two-and-a-half-minute clip comprised of stock photography, illustrations, and animation – aged and of poor quality – edited together seamlessly through digital technology. His understanding of the power of bringing together organic and digital design techniques echoes that of Bass in his work as both a motion and graphic designer.
Bass’ graphic design work was equally as important as his contributions to the field of moving image. He created the promotional poster for the 8th San Francisco International Film Festival in 1964. The poster layout shows the same thorough understanding of type and image hierarchy, as well as color theory. Bass elects to segment the page with two black rectangles; one consists of a lavender slab serif typeface weighted at the top of the page, balanced out by the second rectangle which contains collage-like illustrations of film strips in the colors of various nations hanging like tassels. Without the need of the text, the imagery alone communicates the context of the events. In his iconic style, Bass’ film poster for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining (1980) amplifies his brilliance as a graphic designer. As he had done for several prior movies such as The Man With The Golden Arm (1955) and Anatomy Of A Murder (1959), Bass employed logos to trademark the film. Horak noted Bass’ almost exclusive preference for red-orange backgrounds with black logo designs as they drew the viewer in, in his biography of the designer. The Shining’s poster is striking in its use of color, with clever use of black typography contrasted against a bright yellow background. Now a commonly implemented method of film poster design, Bass decided to have all the typography except the title of the film condensed at the bottom of the poster, to leave enough space to allow the logo to be the center of attention.
The effective and eye-catching logos Bass designed for Hollywood worked equally as well in a corporate environment. From telecommunications, to tissue companies such as Kleenex, many of the most recognizable logos we identify can be credited to Bass. In 1969, Bass rebranded Bell Systems (now AT&T) with a sleek monochrome bell graphic that stood out against many of the designs of the era which showcased stylized typography with color blocked shapes behind them for legibility. In his Bell Systems redesign pitch video, accessed from the AT&T archives, he elaborates on his decision to elect a symbol-logotype form for the trademark over the monochromatic or logotype form. He accurately concluded that either of the later two would firstly require the interpreter to be able to read the language it was written in. Furthermore, he found the logotype alone came with the risk of either sacrificing attraction, or legibility, in favor of the other. As Bell Systems was a conglomerate of corporations, the simple bell logo design served as a uniting symbol between the companies. When Bell Systems formally rebranded to AT&T in 1986, Bass was again commissioned to brand the organization – a logo of which a variation is still in use today.
Another high-profile client of Bass’ was renowned director and producer Alfred Hitchcock, with whom he worked on Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960). Although not the most successful marketing campaign with its audience, the title sequence and promotional poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 classic Vertigo encapsulate many of the techniques and aesthetic decisions that drove Bass’ most memorable works as a designer and filmmaker. Bass possibly drew inspiration from the 1928 manipulated photograph “Elevator Shaft” by O. Firle to unite spiral shapes with the theme of basophobia. He uses this swirling vortex design to connect the main character with his fear of heights. In classic Saul Bass style, the poster showcases the large black silhouette of a man, who appears to be falling into a white geometric spiral. The imagery is contrasted against a hot orange background and is balanced out with Harold Adler’s hand rendered slab serif typography at the top and bottom of the poster.
An icon of the film noir genre, Bass’ title sequence for Vertigo is a worthy exemplification of his ability, technique, and visual processes. He brings in the kinetic typography for titling he is well recognized for having invented as title cards with the typography outlines in a white serif, and incorporates it into a visual journey curated through close-ups of Kim Novak and motion graphics. The end result is a hauntingly beautiful optical illusion that draws the audience to fall into the bottomless vortex of Novak’s pupil, only for the vortex to disappear into her eye. We can appreciate Bass’ knack for abstraction in his creative process, allowing the viewer to use their imagination to involve themselves in the story. He brings together his creativity in using color to evoke a myriad of emotions, as well as experimental methods of film production to give us one of the most iconic title sequences of the twentieth century.
Similarly to the optical illusion Bass used in his direction of Vertigo’s opening credits, Cooper’s title sequence for Steven S. DeKnight’s 2018 science-fiction film, Pacific Rim: Uprising, applies a similar technique of fractal zooming paired with energetic jump-cuts to suck the audience through a visually compelling dynamic journey into the film. Entirely animated in both 2D and 3D, the title sequence follows vector paint splatters as pan enticingly over the designs of several gigantic humanoid Jaegers, whilst the title credits appear periodically alongside them in a glitching pixelated font. Not only is Cooper successful in creating a striking and bold design with his creative and artistic direction, but the bright warm tones juxtaposed with the cool dark metal of the machines all shifting in and out of focus with the paint splatters create an exciting and celebratory introduction to the film. As a whole, the work co-created with the director Olga Midlenko (who did the title sequence for Neil Burger’s Limitless (2015)), commemorates Coopers unification of traditional storyboard techniques with modern technological developments, such as 3D rendering software for animation and scene transitions. It further nods to the contribution the digitization of design plays in the world of graphic art through it’s typeface selection, with vector generated fonts.
In addition to the idoneous decisions regarding the purposeful aesthetic behind their work, both designers valued the role that sound played in postproduction. By using the appropriate effects, soundtrack, or score, our visual understanding of the message they are trying to convey through their work is enhanced through the clever use of audio. The most memorable example of this may be Bernard Herrmann’s score for the 1960 film Psycho in accompaniment with Bass’ minimalist animation of white and grey bars, and broken type. Paired with Herrmann’s score, Bass’ creative direction allowed him to convey contextual information regarding both the theme and plot of the film, giving us an opening credits sequence that seven decades later is still considered the epitome of suspense and terror. Cooper employs a similar technique in using sound to create an equally suspenseful and discomforting title sequence for Frankenheimer’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996). To complement his violent montage of cells under microscopes; human irises, lightning, and fragmented title cards, Cooper aligned the frames with changes in the title sequence’s audio. Where we hear thunder, we see lightning strike, and so forth. Although not erratic enough to be considered jump-scares, as the sequence flips through over 400 distinct shots, it successfully builds anxiety and anticipation for the oncoming film.
The meticulous detail with which both Bass and Cooper curated their works, shows the thoroughness of their understanding in the title sequence creation process. Consequently, where they fall short in their delivery, it is equally as noticeable. Having won the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) in 1968, Bass’ Why Man Creates is an animated short documentary exploring the existence and nature of creativity. Where the documentary is successful in its design and use of playful imagery to make an entertaining watch, it lacks substance through Bass’ own directorial work which seems – for lack of a better word – corny at times. Through eight distinct sections (The Edifice, Fooling Around, The Process, Judgment, A Parable, Digression, The Search, and The Mark), the documentary explores the evolution of man’s creativity since the beginning of time, and concludes with the notion that we reflect internally unto ourselves, and externally on the world in an attempt to understand why we create. Peppered with sarcastic humor that does not always deliver, Why Man Creates nevertheless does a great job of showcasing the evolution of human knowledge through time. However, where it rightfully earns its place in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, certain elements of the production, such as the editing and transitions to not stand the test of time with their appeal. This is exemplified in the section titled “Fooling Around,” where Bass experiments with various special effects which today seem very dated, but because of the decade it encapsulates – the 1960s, it only adds to the documentary’s value in the history of graphic design.
This critical appreciation of these works allows us to appreciate the brilliant minds that oversaw their creative direction, whilst remaining conscious of the fact that with their humanity comes inevitable imperfection. In the case of Cooper, and his title sequence for the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, this translates through cultural ignorance and insensitivity. A memorable work of motion graphic with the imagery and typography the title sequence ties together, the opening credits for Dawn of the Dead put forth a political commentary that criticizes capitalism and the absurdity of religion. Regardless, it is arguably the first shot that leaves the most lasting impact. Using what appears to be war-torn newsreel footage, the opening shot juxtaposes a clip of Muslims in congregational prayer with mutated zombies. While the apocalyptic nature of the film has religious undertones, it unnecessarily drags Muslims and Islam into the film’s message despite not being relevant to the film’s plot. This echoes the anti-Eastern, and anti-Islamic message propagated across most Western mass media, and the fear of the “other.” The impact this has on an already impressionable and intuitively prejudiced audience is one that subconsciously brands one specific faith and consequent group of people as savage and backwards. Although the title sequence is brilliant it its own right, the blatantly ignorant messaging that this shot puts forth to its audience is far too problematic to overlook. When paired with its historical timing during the ongoing Iraq War (20 March 2003 – 18 December 2011), this single shot manipulates American propaganda into the audience’s mind, is inexcusable on behalf of the millions of innocent Iraqi lives taken through this war, and is further reflective of a much greater and more systemically implemented problem across all United States media. For a creative as well established and purposeful with his work, Cooper lets his more diverse audience down not by the brilliant execution of his work, but rather through a conceptual decision made pre-production.
The careful though processes that both artists went through in creating their design concepts paired with the excellent visual outcomes have served as sources of inspirations for generations of artists to come. For example, a magnificent work of motion graphics in itself, designer Tom Kahn’s title sequence for Gaspar Noé’s experimental art film Enter the Void (2009) takes many creative directional cues from the works of Bass and Cooper. Much like Bass’ 1963 title sequence for the problematic film Nine Hours to Rama, Kahn’s sequence for Enter the Void focuses on the importance of pairing clever typography with carefully selected sound in order to communicate the theme and subject of the film it precedes, and the dynamism with which the sequence flows is reminiscent of Cooper’s more recent works such as Dawn of the Dead (2004) and Tropic Thunder (2008). Kahn elects to incorporate a myriad of recognizable typefaces paying homage to famous title and poster designs from presidential campaign posters to the Marvel logo, all warped and restyled to fit in with the theme of Noé’s film without sacrificing legibility. This technique of purposeful typeface selection can be credited to the typographic revolution Bass started in the world of motion graphics from his films as early as Carmen Jones (1954), which was more recently reconfigured and adapted with modern technology with the works of Kyle Cooper.
Another work that in my humble opinion beautifully highlights the creative legacies left behind by the groundbreaking works of Bass and Cooper, is Jamie Caliri’s work on the title sequence for the 2004 film Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. The sequence is evocative of the cut-out style Bass used in much of his earlier works such as Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and the stylization of imagery integrated with text in his children’s book Henri’s Walk to Paris (1962), however, in keeping with the film’s ominous theme Caliri chooses to limit his work to a muted cool-toned color palette. In keeping with the traditions set by Bass himself, the title sequence to the film aims to sum up the first three books on which it is based, including Easter-eggs throughout as references. The flow of the sequence takes cues from Cooper’s 2005 production of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in the way that the artist uses various textural elements in his designing and clever transitional techniques that allow one title card to seamlessly flow into the next, in a way that also nods to the era in which the film is supposedly set. The end result is a harmonious marriage between the impactful design techniques set by his predecessors, paired with the use of current technology – much like how Cooper continues to do so in his ever-evolving works.
From the minute details in Cooper’s work, to Bass’ more modernist designs, both artists in their own rights redefined how title sequences drew their audiences into the world of the films they are about to watch. The aesthetical qualities of their work brought together content in the appropriate context, allowing for the viewer to piece together critical thematic and subjective information about the movies, coming to their own conclusions about the emotional connection they feel with the film. Circling back to Cooper’s work for Fincher’s film Se7en (1995), in the modern era, this prove to be a turning point in the history of title design. From the grimy close-up shots of fingernails, to the type scratched directly onto film paired with a soundtrack by the Nine Inch Nails, Cooper seamlessly integrated technological developments into his work in a way that allows them to stand the test of time. The use of subliminal imagery and with transitions such as cross-dissolves, hard cuts, and flash frames has allowed the title sequence for Se7en to be as admired and mimicked 25 years on, the same way as when it was initially released. In his own words, “How a title sequence articulates itself visually and aurally should be a consequence, dictated by content.” Given the fact that we as the audience do not see the killer in the film until approximately the 40 minute mark, yet have been inside his mind prior to the film’s commencement, it is safe to say that Cooper executes his concept exceptionally well. Nevertheless, for as great of an influence that Cooper has had on modern title sequence design, even he acknowledges that his work would not have been possibly had Bass not paved the way for the generations of designers to come after him. Bass’ work was more than just minimalist and modernist design; across all his artistic platforms, Bass created conscious and well thought out branding that was recognizable to the professionals within the industry he worked in, as well as to the untrained eye because of the cohesiveness of his work. Bass understood the ideology that “less is more,” and as a consequence he often used strong, clear structural forms as the foundation of his works, limiting himself to selected design elements, colors, and techniques as the artwork called for. The renowned director Martin Scorsese says of the artist, “Bass was instrumental in redefining the visual language of title sequences. His graphic compositions in movement, coupled with the musical score, function as a prologue to the movie; setting the tone, establishing the mood comma and foreshadowing the action. His titles are not simple identification tags but pieces that are integral to the work as a whole. When his work comes up on the screen comma the movie truly begins.” In the worlds of both graphic design and motion graphics, there are few artists that stand out as well as Bass, who have work as easily recognizable and memorable as his. Bass’ legacy could not be any greater in the way that decades after his demise, his finest works continue to inspire and challenge creatives to create collaborative spaces between the artist and their audiences to not only consume the content that they are producing, but to be an active part of the meaning and process.