Celluloid type

Film isn’t just about moving images and spoken language – the written word, too, can have a strong impact on the big screen. Quentin Newark reflects on some key ways in which typography and graphics have been used in cinema

This month, in a season called Paper Movies, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is screening key films and holding a series of seminars exploring the relationship of typography, graphic design, photography and film.

Type has played a leading role in film’s short history. In the first jerky black-and-white comedies and weepies of the 1910s, words emblazoned on a black screen helped us to understand what we were seeing. Words spelled out what the characters were saying, and more than that, typography acted as the hinge linking two filmed sequences. While the hero was on a train hurtling along to save his lover, ‘Meanwhile’, she was being tied to the train tracks. When sound was added to film, spoken dialogue was often used to fulfil this role of connecting scenes, but type still framed the action by starting the film – giving us the film’s title and the names of the actors and makers – and finishing it – type would declare ‘The End’.

As film matured through the 1930s it split into genres: horror, noir, social dramas, police procedurals, westerns, and so on. The lettering of the film title, in tandem with music, would signal the film’s content and mood. It was ragged 3D sans serif letters with screaming violins for Frankenstein (1931), and jaunty brush letters with clarinet for The Love Parade (1929). In this period, most titles were hand-drawn by specialist designers – scenic and title artists – within the studios themselves.

The segregation of film genres with appropriate lettering carried through into movie posters, which had to attract the right kind of audience to each film. Film posters are explosions of colour and energy, which are either – if you agree with art critic Clement Greenberg – the height of worthless kitsch or – if you agree with me – a true high point of graphic art. The film poster designers use every form of graphic device known to man in their efforts to make a simple sheet seem like an emotional experience equal to the film itself.

The 1960s saw great changes in the use of type, and the advent of the title sequence, a kind of visual overture. The great proponent was Saul Bass, who created miniature films, integrating the type with animated graphic devices like angled bars and swirling vortexes. He intercut film and graphics, and even filmed his own metaphoric versions of the story to follow. In Edward Dmytryk’s A Walk on the Wild Side (1962), Bass translates the plot of one prostitute struggling with another to keep the love of her man into a sequence in which a black cat prowls through the dark streets and wins a fight with another cat. The racy theme is complemented with the quietest typography.

Bass created a new profession – the film title designer. He was the first to be named for title design in the credits for Otto Preminger’s movie Carmen Jones in 1954. He introduced the idea that titles could be independent of the film and of a wholly different style, but still encapsulate its core themes. He inspired figures like Pablo Ferro, who drew the crazed handwritten titles for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964), Richard and Robert Greenberg – the eerie slowness with which the letters appear at the start of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) – and Kyle Cooper.

Cooper might one day be as significant as Bass. He has created one film title sequence for the David Fincher serial killer movie Se7en (1995), which became a cause célèbre because of its frenetic nastiness, and he was responsible for one of the great pieces of cinematic design: the introduction to Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (1997).

Gattaca is a story about genetic perfection, in which the character played by Ethan Hawke has to mask his genetic imperfection with an elaborate ritual every morning of fingernail paring, hair combing and eyelash plucking, so that not one flake of skin can give him away. The sequence has the titles – in which the letters of everyone’s DNA code, G, A, T and C, are highlighted – transposed over blue abstract images. As the sequence progresses, we realise that we are watching Hawke’s fingernail clippings and facial hairs tumbling to the ground, vastly magnified. The sequence then smoothly switches to show us his ritual at a more recognisable scale. Not only is it beautiful to look at, it perfectly draws out the film’s ideas of waste, physical vulnerability and obsessiveness, and it melts into the film itself.

What of the future? We have not yet explored the possibilities pointed out by Hungarian painter and photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy of the Bauhaus back in the 1920s, who saw film as the perfect art of the future – being a combination of photography, graphics, painting and architecture. He experimented with projecting on to clouds, and built a rotating machine, filled with mirrors, punched metal and shimmering steel, which filled any room with dancing light. One designer who took a cue from Moholy-Nagy was Robert Brownjohn, who made the Goldfinger (1964) title sequence featuring film flickering across a gold-painted girl. Where might this take the rest of us?

Paper Movies starts at the V&A on Friday 3 August, with various screenings and discussions taking place over four weeks

Hallam Foe
Titles by David Shrigley and Slinky Pictures
David Shrigley’s new piece for the film Hallam Foe, directed by David Mackenzie and released later this month, is an example of a standalone short film title sequence. It works as a story, even if you don’t see the subsequent film. The South Park-like animation of a selfish and indestructible baby bird, which hatches itself from an egg and flies around, mirrors the exploits of the hero – a boy who thinks nothing of disrupting other people in his quest to understand his mother’s death.

The Number 23
Titles by Imaginary Forces

In Joel Schumacher’s latest US agency film, Jim Carrey plays a character obsessed by the number 23. He sees it everywhere, and it seems to mean something significant. The title sequence, by Imaginary Forces, is similarly focused. It simply repeats the number, again and again and again, hammered out by a typewriter over a backdrop of bloodstains.

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