Spring 2001

Overtures and psychotic symphonies

Joel Karamath
Motion graphics [Full Text]

Title sequences of the 1950s and ’60s grabbed moviegoers with psychological insights, orchestral violence and some lessons learnt from the early pioneers of animation, for whom motion graphics, sound and story were inseparable. By Joel Karamath

Title sequences have reached an unprecedented level of attention, with vast numbers of design studios dedicated to television and cinema motion graphics. Yet the history of the contemporary title sequence stretches back a generation or more, when Saul Bass and Maurice Binder laid the foundations for the modern form, and even earlier, to the short cartoon films of the 1920s and ’30s.

Bass’s titles for director Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) emerged at a time when popular music was consolidating its position as the dominant art form of the twentieth century. The musical impact of both films reflects the zeitgeist of the post-war era that marked the advent of commercial television and advertising – the engine room of consumer society in the us. Television advertising, like the title sequence and the radio ad before it, was defined by music. Yet the influence music had in shaping visual culture on the screen predates this golden age of consumerism.

Sound had always been a goal for mainstream cinema: even in the days of the silent era, sound was unavoidable, complementing and enlivening the screen action via a cinema pianist or, occasionally, a full orchestra. Warner Brothers’ first “talkie” The Jazz Singer in 1927, was a famous success, but it could be argued that the first truly successful marriage of sound and image came with the animated shorts produced soon afterwards, and typically shown as part of the exhibition programmes (feature, b-movie, newsreel, cartoons) to which audiences flocked at that time. One only need look at the names the studios gave their productions to see their debt to music: Merry Melodies, Happy Harmonies, Loony Toons, Silly Symphonies.

Max Fleischer, MGM, Disney and Warner Bros relied heavily upon music for the structure of their short cartoons. Disney’s first major success Steamboat Willie (1928) was Mickey Mouse’s debut in a skit that derives much of its humour from the surreal visualisation of musical cues. In one instance Mickey turns the tail of a goat to the accompaniment of a barrel organ, while in another he plays a cow’s teeth to the sound of a xylophone. When he pulls the string of the boat’s whistle, the instrument forms a mouth and blows.

The most prominent use of music as a catalyst for character and plot visualisation stemmed from Warner Bros, one of the most productive studios (known as “Termite Terrace”), with a huge staff that included some of the greatest animators of all time. Throughout the studio’s heyday in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950 the prime focus point for artists such as Jones, Avery, Freleng and Clampett would often stem from the sound department, where specialist Mel Blanc created the voices for Bugs, Daffy, Porky et al, and composer Carl Stalling (who had previously worked for Disney on Steamboat Willie) scored the music. While Blanc largely delivered voiceover dialogue and jokes to a script, Stalling was engaged at all stages of production: the interaction between his music, producers such as Leon Schlesinger and animators such as Chuck Jones resulted in a unique body of collaborative work.

The avant-garde films of that time were produced by visual artists who treated the new medium of film as an extension of their respective disciplines: artists such as Man Ray, Ferdnand Léger, Dudley Murphy and Len Lye worked to existing music or silence. Stalling and, similarly, Scott Bradley, head of music at mgm, had helped to create something that was, like the Bollywood musical and the pop promo today, much more than film with musical interludes. It was a specific form, just as grand opera is distinct from opera, or pantomime from dramatic theatre; something that Hollywood would not begin to amend, with the shift from non-integrated to integrated musicals, for over a decade. Further still, these cartoons were products in which the music was both non-diegetic score and diegetic sound effect at the same time, compounding their innovative uniqueness.

Through its publishing division, Warner Bros had an extensive music catalogue, affording the animation studio access to some of the most popular tunes of the day. So it was also the first to seize upon the opportunity of promoting its records visually. The sight of Tom (of Tom and Jerry) crooning Louis Jordan’s “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” marks a marketing strategy that predates MTV by decades. The immediate artistic and commercial success of the animated short in integrating sound, vision and movement supports historian Eric Hobsbawn’s assertion that with the “failure of modernism” advertising and cinema became the true avant-garde.

Stalling retired in 1956 just as television was beginning to usurp the big screen. As genres such as the newsreel and the short moved to the small screen, animation suffered a drastic drop in funding. The elaborate music arrangements of Stalling and Bradley, hitherto scored individually for each production, were replaced by cheaper generic mood pieces, sterile melodies dropped in behind impoverished visuals.

THE START OF A FRANCHISE

As television heralded the demise of quality mainstream animation, cinema began to find a new outlet for the amalgamation it had spawned: the title sequence, which set the mood and provided audiences with a taste of the narrative to come. For the movie-going audience, the title sequence filled a gap left, after the demise of the old exhibition package, by the absence of newsreels and animated shorts.

The way in which this symbiosis between title sequence, score and story can be used to establish motif and character traits is exemplified by the James Bond series (nearly twenty “official” Bond films), started by Dr. No (1962). The Bond title sequence and theme tune are two of the most instantly recognisable cinematic signatures. Despite the obvious impact and lasting impression of Binder’s work, the highly complex mixing and layering of his sequence for Dr. No almost renders the Modernist ethos of his mentor, Saul Bass, redundant: it foreshadows a postmodern tendency to mix and match.

The congested complexity of the Dr. No titles is simplified on subsequent films in the Bond series by separating the original sequence pattern into two individual entities. The opening sequences for From Russia With Love and Goldfinger separate two musically led graphic segments with an opening action scene (unrelated to the movie’s plot) that reduces the harsh juxtaposition of competing graphic images and music of Dr. No . The use of very specific title songs in the Bond movies, as with Goldfinger, also created a separate (and marketable) product.

THE COLLABORATIVE AUTEUR

The postwar period saw a marked shift in film scoring, when composers such as Elmer Bernstein and Bernard Herrmann began to develop a dramatic style that Bernstein described as a move towards a more “emotional . . . inner psychological state”, which relied not so much upon a series of themes as “creating atmosphere”, often without resolution. The brutal violin shrieks of Herrmann’s score for Psycho stand out as one of the most memorable sounds in the history of cinema. Herrmann began his film career with Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) and died shortly after completing Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). At the hub of an exemplary career in the movies was his eleven-year, eight-film partnership with Alfred Hitchcock. Herrmann’s conception of cinema was an interpretation based upon the balance between sound and image: “The moment that you do a story on film, music becomes almost imperative . . . It is in the nature of cinema that it needs music, theatre doesn’t need music really.”

Herrmann’s statement certainly rings true in relation to the role of the title sequence and is best shown by his work with Saul Bass for Hitchcock, at the end of the 1950s. The collaboration between the three men, though short-lived, was extremely fruitful. Hitchcock is often spoken of as the auteur’s auteur and while there is no doubting his influence on everything he touched, it is equally important to acknowledge the contributions of his regular production crew: Robert Burks’ cinematography, George Tomasini’s editing and the costumes of Edith Head. As much as anything else, Hitchcock’s genius lay in his ability to relay his messages to and through others, most specifically through the work of Bass and Herrmann.

Their first film titles together, Vertigo (1958), provide a perfect example of Hitchcock’s communicative powers, with Bass and Herrmann working separately through the director, Herrmann later scoring to Bass’s visuals. The final construction, like the movie itself, is a slow-moving and uncannily evocative piece that transcends the sum of its melodramatic and repetitive parts.

Vertigo, often considered Hitchcock’s finest work, was quickly followed a year later by North by Northwest, another thriller based upon identity, though not nearly as dark or brooding as Vertigo. Cary Grant’s lead makes play with a witty and romantic script by Ernest Lehman. Bass, Herrmann and Hitchcock conjure an opening score and title sequence that work as a mini-prologue to the film, engaging the audience with related plot themes from the outset. Herrmann’s score is simple and to the point, reflecting the juxtaposition of humour and suspense in the movie with a mixture of high and low notes (flutes to timpani) that represent the opposing forces at work in the film. It has a lighter tone than his score for Vertigo, including a “Gershwin-esque” homage to New York where the film starts, and an exhilarating theme for the chase that covers half of the us.

Bass’s titles are equally engaged with the plot through the use of an animated grid: the names of the stars and production staff follow each other vertically on and off the screen in a game of cat and mouse, prefiguring the precarious positions in which the main characters find themselves. A final twist comes when the grid fades into a shot of a skyscraper, its windows reflecting the street below, a distorted vision of an everyday scene that primes us for a tale of mistaken identity.

VIOLENT HORIZONTALS

Vertigo may be Hitchcock’s most critically acclaimed work and North By Northwest one of the most entertaining but Psycho (1960) is his most notorious, ushering in a new era of film-making and spawning the “slasher movie”. Made on a low budget, in black and white without major stars, it is one of the most influential and imitated ever. Despite several radical changes in production methods, he hired Bernard Herrmann as composer and Saul Bass for the titles. (Bass is also credited as “pictorial consultant”.) Psycho has a special place in twentieth century culture, honoured by several “sequels” with the late Anthony Perkins, a much-derided scene-for-scene 1998 remake (in colour!) by Gus Van Sant and an installation by artist Douglas Gordon, whose 24-hour Psycho clicks slowly through each frame of the original movie.

The film’s content is anticipated in the opening title sequence by the violent music (a string chamber orchestra that Herrmann chose to reflect John L. Russell’s monochrome cinematography) and the slices made in the block capitals of the director’s name, closely followed by the pattern made by slicing a series of vertical bars.

The pinnacle of Bass and Herrmann’s collaboration with Hitchcock would come with one of the most memorable scenes in movie history. The condensed montage of shots in the shower scene – which took the best part of a week to film, placing the camera in over 70 positions – is on screen for little over a minute. It was storyboarded, shot and edited by Bass, who also had to persuade Hitchcock to include Herrmann’s score: the director had originally intended to screen the scene without music (see extract on p41). Less than halfway through the movie, they created a cinematic climax that has never been bettered.

ALL THE ANIMALS COME OUT AT NIGHT

Psycho marked the apex and the conclusion of the collaboration between Hitchcock, Bass and Herrmann: the three were never to work as a team again. Bass and Hitchcock (whom Bass said had “taught him the art of film-making”), would fall out, some say over their differences on Psycho. Hitchcock’s next picture, The Birds (1963), featured a title sequence by James Block and electronic music by Oskar Sala. (Herrmann acted as a consultant.) A few years later he would be removed from his position as the composer on Torn Curtain (1966) by Hitchcock, never to work with the director again. All three continued to produce good work, but never quite reached the symbiosis of their work on Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho. Bass went on to produce two of his most outstanding creations, Walk on the Wild Side (1962) and Nine Hours to Rama (1963), soon after the split from Hitchcock, yet these movies highlight the pitfalls of working outside the confines of a tight team. Both sequences are superbly crafted entities (working with scores by, respectively, Elmer Bernstein and Malcolm Arnold) that work as separate narrative interpretations and represent their films’ stories in miniature. Yet Bass’s titles are considered by some critics to be more memorable than the films.

Herrmann’s final score for Taxi Driver symbolises the gothic sleaze of mid-1970s New York. Without overtly graphic titles, the saxophone-led cues intensify the glaring montage of traffic signals, street signs, cinemas, theatres and storefronts in Manhattan, while the more orchestral passages glance back to the emotional turmoil of Scottie in Vertigo. The parallel nature of Herrmann’s work to Bass and Hitchcock on Vertigo was best summarised in reference to a composition made over twenty years later. When Martin Scorsese was asked about the importance of Herrmann’s score for Taxi Driver, he said: “It provided the psychological basis throughout . . . a vortex that never comes to completion. Just when you think it’s finished it starts all over again.”

Both Bass and Herrmann worked best with visionary auteurs brave enough to let them interact with their work on a intellectual, physical and emotional level, enabling them to create work that not only complemented but raised the films on which they collaborated to new levels of emotional richness.

Dr No

Title sequence from Dr. No, 1962. Design: Maurice Binder. Music: John Barry and Monty Norman. Animation: Trevor Bond. Director: Terence Young. Producers: Harry Saltzman, Albert R. Broccoli. © 1962 Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation.

In Dr. No Maurice Binder sows the seeds for what was to become the classic Bond opening: a white circle appears on the screen, to the accompaniment of primitive electronic music – simple bleeps like test tones. The circle manifests itself as the spiral of a gun barrel (or the iris of a lens) in which “Bond” is focused. He beats his would-be assassin to the draw and with a single shot turns the screen red. This screen fills with flashing multicoloured dots (animated by Trevor Bond) that finally form the title of the film and serve as an accompaniment for the main actors’ credits. The third segment of the titles introduce the cavorting silhouettes of go-go dancers that later became a Bond hallmark. Here they are intended to evoke the “exotic” Caribbean, where the film is set, and London in the swinging 1960s. There is then a dissolve to the fourth and final segment as the dancers fade into the silhouettes of three “blind” men loping across the screen from left to right, which in turn dissolve into the live footage of the same three characters, soon to be revealed as vicious assassins, as the story begins.

The four sections of Binder’s opening are paralleled by four distinct soundtrack segments. In the first part, Binder’s dot logo is seen accompanied by high-pitched electronic test tones (which, like the dot, establishes a link between Bond, the film and the onset of the computer age). A gun shot then ignites the dot-matrix spectacular, introducing the title of the film, in the second segment, along with Monty Norman’s Bond theme, arranged by the hastily recruited John Barry with its long, chromatic string line and twanging guitar. Stage three uses an exotic bongo rhythm for the dancing figures, which then develops into a calypso version of “Three Blind Mice”, a tentative first use of the Bond device of using a theme song linked to the story (“Diamonds Are Forever”, “The World Is Not Enough”).

Goldfinger

Title sequence from Goldfinger, 1964. Design: Robert Brownjohn. Music: John Barry. Director: Guy Hamilton. Producers: Harry Saltzman, Albert R. Broccoli. © 1964 Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation.

By the time of Goldfinger, which had a budget at least five times that of Dr. No, the James Bond title formula was firmly established. The short opening iris segment is largely copied from Dr. No, except that it dispenses with the electronic bleeps and uses the John Barry version of the Bond theme throughout. A four-minute plus action scene follows that establishes Bond’s credentials as a resourceful spy and “ladykiller” – glimpsing a would-be assailant in a lover’s eye in mid-clinch, he spins round so that the girl takes the blow.

The pre-credit sequence works as a mini-Bond movie that re-establishes the 007 persona for fans and provides a swift introduction for newcomers. Robert Brownjohn’s credit sequence shows scenes from the movie projected on to a woman’s golden-painted body (the villain’s nubile assistant is sadistically murdered by “epidermal asphyxiation” early in the plot) to the accompaniment of Barry’s theme song, with lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse sung by Shirley Bassey. This was the first Bond movie to feature a full-blown song over the titles – From Russia With Love uses an instrumental version of the theme song. Goldfinger could be seen as the first complete Bond sequence, as well as the aesthetic pinnacle of the franchise, setting a template for the series that, though often imitated, has rarely been surpassed.

Vertigo

Title sequence from Vertigo, 1958. Design: Saul Bass. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Director: Alfred Hitchcock. © Universal Studios.

In Vertigo, the acrophobic protagonist Scottie (James Stewart) obsessively recreates Madeleine, for whose suicide he feels responsible, in the person of the living Judy (Kim Novak). Bernard Herrmann scored the “Prologue” music to Bass’s visuals, constructing an uncannily evocative piece that far outweighs the sum of its parts. Indicative of what David Toop described as the “intellectual” impact of images and text in relation to the “emotional” content of music, the sequence manages to convey issues inherent in this slow, complex film through simple means.

As the studio logo fades we hear a harp initiate a repetitive melody which is taken up by the violins. Bass’s images enter at a point where low strings have just introduced a sense of foreboding. Bass crops Novak’s face tightly, employing what film-maker Barney Cokeliss described as a “cinematic blazon”, a technique later deployed to great effect by Scorsese at the start of Taxi Driver, when Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is introduced through the window and rearview mirror of his taxi. With his Vertigo titles, Bass suggests the notion of a constructed woman, giving us fragments rather than a whole. Herrmann’s melody continues, but is interrupted by a Wagnerian surge of horns, as credits for the lead actors, director and title appear, before returning to its melancholic cycle.

Appropriately enough for a film about image and identity, the title appears over a full frame of Novak’s eye. As we are drawn into the centre of her iris a small, animated vortex begins to spiral and grow until it engulfs the whole screen, undergoing a series of colour changes. This spiralling icon, coupled with the repeating melody, provides a theme that runs throughout the movie: that of revisiting and re-inventing the past. The spiral represents Scottie’s vertigo, the coil of hair on a woman’s head in an oil portrait, a bouquet of flowers and the winding wooden staircase of the bell tower from which Madeleine falls to her death. Bass’s colour changes for this graphic are equally significant. The icon first appears in Novak’s eye tinted red before trawling through the spectrum, a cue to the importance Hitchcock gives to colour throughout the movie as Scottie, the ultimate fall guy, is sucked into an emotional void.

Psycho

Title sequence from Psycho, 1960. Design: Saul Bass. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Director: Alfred Hitchcock. © Shamley Productions.

Psycho will always stand as one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces but there can be few of his films which have had such a direct, creative input from outside sources. Without Herrmann’s score, Psycho would be something completely different, something less, while Bass picks up all the themes that are established in the opening credits, right through to the midpoint climax of the movie. Paul Hirsch commented that “the extreme emotional duress is due entirely to the music”. What we see is not just heightened by the music – it is taken to another level. The shrieking violins are the externalisation of Norman Bates’s internal angst. Hitchcock’s brief to the composer, for a light jazz score, was thankfully ignored.

As with Vertigo and North By Northwest the score sets up a repetitive momentum that keeps bringing us back to the same place over and over again, but unlike the two previous films, there is no genuine respite. The introduction is abrupt and jumps in almost with a climax; everything about the score is an attack. The repetition does not take us around in a circle but is a constant onslaught, wave after wave that cannot be resisted. Visually, the violence to come is relayed in the opening sequence by horizontal slashes that rip through the pure white titles and credits on screen. As in The Man With The Golden Arm, solid white bars appear but they offer little defence from this attack. The Powers of Ten-style zoom into the doomed heroine’s bedroom window implies that this is just one of many stories in this particular naked city.

First published in Eye no. 39 vol. 10, 2001

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