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Film title design is rarely lauded, yet it can be an art form all of its own and sets the entire tone of the movie. Paul Murphy focuses on five current title contenders


Balsmeyer & Everett

Spike Lee’s latest film Clockers opens with stylised photographs of murder victims la vintage Steven Boccho, while a camera-pan reveals the titles based on crime-scene tape. The team behind the sequence is Randy Balsmeyer and Mimi Everett, who founded Balsmeyer & Everett Inc in 1986 after becoming frustrated with the commercialism of R/Greenberg, where Balsmeyer worked in animation, direction and motion control and Everett in opticals.

Their client list reads like a who’s who of cinema – Woody Allen, Robert Altman, David Cronenberg, Paul Schrader, The Coen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch and, of course, Spike Lee. “Spike occasionally has a strong idea of what he wants, other times we decide,” explains Balsmeyer. “On Clockers Spike knew he wanted the staged photos of the bodies so we were more stylists than conceptual artists. We saw the film without the titles and realised the housing projects didn’t look that violent, so the title sequence makes the lurking fear apparent. It’s a very contradictory sequence, with a violent subject treated in a surreal, almost hypnotic manner, using really unusual film stocks and both digital and optical treatments. But in his new movie Girl 6 which we’ve just finished, the creative decisions were all ours,” he adds.

The pair have just finished the titles for Striptease and are working on visual effects for Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, digitally creating two big choreographed dance scenes. “New technology will affect our work massively,” says Balsmeyer. “Four years ago we got into 3D animation and bought our first Silicon Graphics station, thinking it could be interesting, and within two years it went from a luxury to a necessity. But we try not to be attached too closely to particular techniques, we deal with the nature of the film and what we want to see first, then work out what we need to achieve it,” he adds.

Surprisingly, given that they often work with a director on a number of projects (they’ve done eight films with Spike Lee), Balsmeyer & Everett don’t have a housestyle. Neither do they feel that graphics and visual effects are opposite activities: “The two feed and inform each other. An inspired design without the means to execute it is just so much hot air – and ambitious special effects without purpose or design are not worth the film they’re printed on,” says Balsmeyer.


Kyle Cooper, RGA/LA

Kyle Cooper’s titles for Seven were described as a “masterpiece of dementia” by Owen Gliebman, and, according to some cinemagoers, were actually better than the film itself. The 33-year-old Cooper, who as creative director at RGA/LA has designed 70 main titles in his eight years at the digital studio, disagrees: “The titles were very much part of director David Fincher’s film; the two shouldn’t be seen as separate entities.” Cooper and Fincher both came up with ideas for shots and the overall feel of the sequence.

Cooper was inspired by Fincher’s “sophisticated and Postmodernist sensibility, a sensibility more in keeping with European work such as Jeunet and Carot’s work on Delicatessen than US projects, which tend to be a lot more commercial”. Fincher had an original concept based on the music, which was unusual. “About 80 per cent of the time I don’t know what the music will be, but the process is better served by having the music first. On Seven it set the mood and led us to the introduction of the killer’s mind in the titles. This created an anxiety about the killer, who you don’t actually see until quite late in the movie,” explains Cooper.

Eschewing digital techniques in favour of traditional ones such as layers of opticals, over- exposure, double exposure and 2-frame cuts, Cooper designed a scratchy, hand-drawn typeface juxtaposed with footage of the killer constructing his notebooks. “The ideas for the shots were very much a collaborative effort with Fincher, for example he came up with the killer cutting the word “God” out of a dollar bill while I came up with the shot of the tea bag, which is a recurring theme throughout the movie… there’s a bit where the killer’s gluing pictures of murder victims into a scrapbook and he’s having a cup of tea, like he’s at work and doing his job,” says Cooper. In all Cooper shot 10 000ft of film, which was cut on the digital editing system Avid by the film’s editor Angus Wall.

Currently working on the title sequence for Mission Impossible, Cooper “got into the business because of RGA founder Richard Greenberg’s titles for Altered States and The Dead Zone”. His print background (he studied under Paul Rand at Yale University School of Art and did stints with Apple Computer and Wang Laboratories) is something he is happy to extend to film. “My print work was always trying to capture a moment in time, but with film I have time to get an idea across. Motion and sound allow you to create an emotional quality which is hard to achieve through a still frame… of course, there are photographs that can do that, but you have more variables in film,” says Cooper.

“Multimedia packages are causing a revolution. I think their increased use will draw more and more good print designers into using sound and movement, whether in broadcasting, multimedia or film. And hopefully people will be inspired by more and more good work, which will encourage them to push boundaries. Seven raises the bar a bit, because ultimately it’s a well-executed piece of graphic design,” he adds. But Cooper sounds a final cautious note: “As the execution becomes faster and less expensive, clients may muddy the water through their desire to make more and more changes.”

Flower of My Secret

Juan Gatti

Stvdio Gatti in Madrid is home to four designers whose output has included visual effects and titles for five films by Spanish director Pedro Almodòvar, graphics work for fashion designers Martine Sitbon and Azzedine Alaia and art direction on a number of music videos, including Les Negresses Vertes.

Behind this impressive client list is Juan Gatti, an Argentinian who set up the consultancy in Madrid in 1985. In 1988 he began his successful and long-running collaboration with Almodòvar, using collages to design the titles for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It attracted compliments from his peers, including Randy Balsmeyer of New York-based graphics and visual effects group Balsmeyer & Everett, who says: “It’s one of those things where somebody obviously started without standard preconceptions and said ‘I’ve got this idea, let’s do this’.”

Gatti’s most recent work with Almodòvar was on the film Flower of My Secret, where he used Flame and Paintbox to create animated colourful type and backgrounds and worked on elements of the film itself. “The great thing about working with Pedro is that I’m usually brought in at the script stage because I always do several graphic elements that are used in the film’s shooting,” says Gatti.

Currently putting the finishing touches to the packaging and art direction for the Paloma Picasso perfume ad campaign in Paris and having just finished work in the US on a film about Hollywood and homosexuality, The Celluloid Closet, Gatti is excited by the work emerging from America. “I thought the film titles for Seven were really interesting,” he enthuses.


Saul and Elaine Bass

Everybody knows the work of American designer Saul Bass. From Carmen Jones in 1954 to last year’s Casino, Bass has worked on more than 40 films as title designer, and more than anyone else has defined the production of film title sequences. Even if you never made it to the movies you would know his work as a “straight” graphic designer – corporate identities for BP, AT&T, Minolta and Warner Communications are among his many credits.

Prior to Bass, the opening credits were the bit of the movie that didn’t matter – they had no impact on your understanding of the story and how it was told. At the time film titles were often projected on to the screen’s closed curtains. When Otto Preminger learnt that this was happening to the Bass-designed credits of The Man with the Golden Arm he attached a note to each print instructing the projectionist not to run the first reel until the curtains had opened.

After a quiet period from the mid-Sixties to the late Eighties, when he concentrated more on his own film-making projects, the fact that Bass and his wife Elaine, with whom he now works, are back in the picture is largely due to the stunning work produced for Martin Scorsese’s Good Fellas, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence and most recently Casino.

The Basses’ sequence for Casino captures the sheer neon luxuriousness of the film and its Las Vegas setting. Picking up from the opening live action of the film (Robert De Niro gets into his car, turns on the engine and the car blows up), it slips seamlessly into the almost abstract credits sequence. It is as if the film were being played out in metaphor. At the start of the sequence the figure of De Niro rises in slow motion carried by the force of the explosion only to fall past the Las Vegas lights as it ends. It colours the viewer’s perception of everything that follows.

This was a shot of De Niro’s stunt-double jumping from a crane, played backwards. It runs at the usual 24 frames-per-second, having been shot at 360 frames-per-second. The backgrounds were edited to extend the explosion and the two sections were then super-imposed on to each other.

At a British Design and Art Direction’s President’s Lecture last year, Saul Bass said approaching a film was all about reducing the concept to its simplest terms. This is as true today as it was when he produced his first opening credits.


Jason Kedgley and Dylan Kendle, Tomato

When the titles for Trainspotting were designed no one knew what the music for the opening sequence was going to be, and yet Trainspotting has the most stunning start of any British film in years. Originally, the film’s director Danny Boyle and the producer, Andrew Macdonald, had approached the band Underworld and it was through this contact that London consultancy Tomato became involved (two of Tomato’s founders are members of the band).

After an initial meeting to discuss how the titles would fit in with the mood of the film, the designers on the project, Jason Kedgley and Dylan Kendle, saw a cut of the opening 12 minutes without sound and came up with a 30-second idea for the titles.

“Although we didn’t know what the music was going to be, we always knew that whatever we did had to be in keeping with the sheer energy that’s set up at the start, and we were always thinking of dirty, messed up graphics,” explains Kedgley.

They originally planned to edit the titles on Flame, a sophisticated 3-D on-line digital editing system, but the sheer cost would have been too much for the budget.

The solution was that the sketches from the meetings with the production team were tried in Macromedia Director, a multimedia software package that supports QuickTime, on a Macintosh to see how graphical moves would work.

Finally, flat artwork was rostrumed into a much cheaper Henry suite and all the digital work was completed in a couple of hours and quickly delivered on disc. The end result is incredibly similar to the manipulations on the Macintosh.

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