Summer 1999

Mr Roughcut

or: how graphic designer Pablo Ferro learned to split the screen, cut the crap and tell the story (in the time it took to run the titles)

As an attack on cold war hysteria, no comedies were more biting than the late Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 doomsday film, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, in which an over-zealous US general, Jack D. Ripper, launches an A-Bomb attack against the USSR. This send-up of nightmare scenarios depicted in the anti-nuclear war dramas Fail Safe and On The Beach fiercely lampooned the era’s hawkish fanaticism, suggesting that the world was close to the brink of the unthinkable.

The film’s frightening absurdity was established in the very first frame of the main title sequence designed by Pablo Ferro. As the ballad “Try a Little Tenderness” plays in the background, B-52 bombers engage in mid-air coitus with their refuelling ships underscoring the subtext that sexuality is endemic to human endeavour, especially the arms build-up. Overprinted on these frames the film’s title and credits are full-screen graffiti-like scrawls comprised of thick and thin hand-drawn letters, unlike any movie title seen before. The sequence brilliantly satirised the naïve pretence that America was protected from nuclear attack by over-sexed flying sentries. It also contrasted beautifully with the film’s concluding montage, edited by Ferro, which shows atomic bombs detonating to the accompanying refrain “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when . . .” from the World War II hit.

This was not the first time that a movie title sequence added narrative dimension to a film. During the brief history of modern film titles, which began in 1954 with Saul Bass’s for Carmen Jones, a handful of designers (among them, Maurice Binder, Steven Frankfurt and Robert Brownjohn) established film identities by compressing complex details into signs, symbols and metaphors. By the time that Ferro made his 1964 debut, the stage (or rather the screen) had already been set for ambitious artistry. Although the Dr Strangelove titles were a distinct departure from Bass’s animated symbolic geometric forms in a German Expressionist manner, it was consistent with the experimental film-within-a-film concept that gave title sequences momentary independence while serving the practical needs of a motion picture. Moreover, it launched the long career of Pablo Ferro as title designer, trailer director and feature film-maker.

Ferro was born in Cuba in 1935 and emigrated to New York City when he was twelve years old. He quickly became a huge film fan and aficionado of UPA cartoons and soon earned a reputation for directing and editing scores of television commercials. After graduating from Manhattan’s High School of Industrial Art, Ferro began working at Atlas Comics in 1951 as an inker and artist in the EC horror tradition. A year later he began learning the ropes as an animator of UPA-style cartoons and worked for top commercial studios, including Academy Pictures, Elektra Films and Bill Stern Studios (where, among other things, he animated Paul Rand’s drawings for El Producto cigars). In 1961 he founded the creative production studio, Ferro Mogubgub Schwartz (later changed to Ferro Mohammed Schwartz. After Fred Mogubgub left, Mohammed was a mythical partner used only to retain the cadence of the studio name). As a consummate experimenter, Ferro introduced the kinetic quick-cut method of editing whereby static images (including engravings, photographs and pen and ink drawings) were infused with speed, motion and sound.

In the late 1950s most live-action commercials were shot with one or two stationary cameras. Ferro took full advantage of stop-motion technology, as well shooting his own jerky footage with a hand-held Bolex. Unlike most TV commercial directors, Ferro maintained a strong appreciation and understanding for typography and in the late 1950s he pioneered the use of moving type on the TV screen. He had a preference for using vintage wood types and Victorian gothics not only because they were popular at the time, but because they were vivid on television. In 1961 he created an eclectic typographic film sequence for Jerome Robbins’ play Oh Dad Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You In the Closet And I’m Feeling So . . . Sad, an innovative approach which, similar to a film title sequence, preceded the opening curtain and announced the different acts within the performance.

After seeing Ferro’s commercials, Kubrick hired him to direct the advertising trailers and teasers for Dr Strangelove and convinced him to resettle in the UK (Kubrick was based near London until his death in March 1999). Ferro was inclined to be peripatetic anyway and, ever anxious to bypass already completed challenges, he agreed to pull up stakes on the chance that he would get to direct a few British TV commercials, which he did.

The black-and-white TV spot that Ferro designed for Dr Strangelove employed his quick-cut technique – using as many as 125 separate images in a minute – to convey both the dark humour and the political immediacy of the film. At something akin to stroboscopic speed words and images flew across the screen to the accompaniment of loud sound effects and snippets of ironic dialogue. At a time when the bomb loomed so large in the US public’s fears (Barry Goldwater ran for President promising to nuke China) and the polarisation of left and right – east and west – was at its zenith, Ferro’s commercial was not only the boldest and most hypnotic graphic on TV, it was a sly subversive statement.

Dr Strangelove was key to Ferro’s eventual shift from TV to film. And working with Kubrick was the best possible introduction to the movie industry since this relationship bypassed the stultifying Hollywood bureaucracy. Ferro was free to generate ideas and Kubrick was self-confident enough to accept (and sometimes refine) them. For example, once the sexual theme of the opening title sequence was decided upon, Kubrick wanted to film it all using small aeroplane models (prefiguring his classic spaceship ballet in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Ferro dissuaded him and located the official stock footage that they used instead. Ferro further conceived the idea to fill the entire screen with lettering (which incidentally had never been done before), requiring the setting of credits at different sizes and weights, which potentially ran counter to legal contractual obligations. But Kubrick supported it regardless. On the other hand, Ferro was prepared to have the titles refined by a lettering artist, but Kubrick felt (correctly) that the rough-hewn quality of the hand-drawn comp was more effective. So Ferro carefully lettered the entire thing himself with a thin pen. (Only after the film was released did he notice that one word was misspelled: “base on” instead of “based on”. Ooops!) Incidentally, Kubrick insisted that Ferro take “front credit” rather than “back credit”, a rare and significant deviation from movie industry protocol.

Immediately after Dr Strangelove, Ferro created the main title sequence for Basil Dearden’s 1964 Woman of Straw starring Sean Connery and Gina Lollobrigida. He was referred by famed production designer Ken Adams, who was responsible for Strangelove and many of the James Bond movie sets. This now forgotten film offered Ferro a unique opportunity to experiment with a totally different technique that involved using high-contrast film which reduced all middle tones to solid black and white, which he then bathed through red filters. He further used intense close crops, overlays and in and out fades, focusing on a few symbolic elements – a wheelchair, a woman and a man (Connery). By overlaying positive and negative images, he created tension between the realistic and the abstract.

Today this technique is one of the most common conceits used as openers for dramatic TV series, but back in 1964 it was new to the silver screen. Although akin to experimental art films of the late 1950s and early 1960s that extended the vocabulary of abstract expressionism to celluloid, Ferro actually drew his inspiration directly from his own black and white TV commercials. One in particular was a 1963 commercial for US Steel in which the entire spot involved extreme close-up details of stainless steel sinks and drains. Ferro was fascinated with the tolerance of the eye for discerning representational shapes before they became totally abstract. Within the commercial television world he was among the few to push his commercial art so close to the edge.

In 1964 Ferro launched Pablo Ferro Films and created a landmark TV logo for Burlington Mills where he introduced multicolored stitching animation, which is still used by the textile giant. Additionally, he took on more trailers and TV spots for films; his first under this shingle was for A Fine Madness. He also created a multi-screen film for the Singer Sewing Machine pavilion at the New York World’s Fair that included two projectors playing in sync with each film using twelve separate images creating a multi-screen effect – the first time that this was accomplished with movie projectors.

His next opening film title sequence did not materialise until 1966 when Norman Jewison hired him for The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, a cold war comedy about a USSR “invasion” of America by a lone Russian submarine crew. Jewison wanted Ferro to devise a logo for the film that would somehow evoke Paul Revere’s famous call to arms, ”The British are coming . . .” Ferro scoured type books for the most appropriate lettering until he found a Russian typeface where the ‘R’s were reversed (today, this is a common trope). “But something was missing,” Ferro explains. “I asked a friend of mine, [illustrator] Charles B. Slackman who suggested that I put a hammer and sickle in place of the G. After that it was perfect.” Jewison loved it, but the studio did not think it was funny and tried hard to kill it. Jewison nonetheless stuck with it and Ferro began designing the main titles as duelling Russian and American flags – fighting one another to occupy the screen. Using quick cuts, punctuated by a vibrant soundtrack and a dominant bath of red over the huge screen, Ferro raised both the tension and expectation that expressed the film’s comedic plot.

Ferro’s titles for The Thomas Crown Affair, also directed by Jewison in 1968, introduced multi-screen effects for the first time in any feature motion picture and defined a cinematic style of the late 1960s. Jewison had seen a Beech-Nut Gum commercial in which Ferro used the multi-screen technique and wanted it done for his own title sequence. Yet towards the end of editing the movie Jewison realised that the title and the film itself was much too long. He was desperately searching for a way to edit out much as twenty minutes when Hal Ashby, the film editor on Thomas Crown, suggested that Ferro take a stab at editing a key sequence using the same multiple screen technique in order to speed up the narrative flow. “Hal said ‘Don’t cut it out, cut it up,’ ” Ferro explains about the novel way in which he used contiguous frames to compress the action, which became the stylistic character of the film. Ferro cut a key scene known as the “polo sequence” into twenty or 30 simultaneous frames reducing the time from six minutes to around 40 seconds. But in addition to compression, certain important character traits were brought out by the way in which he designed and paced the multiples. By focusing on clothes, for instance, Ferro underscored the wealth and sophistication of the people in the specific scene.

“Jewison and Ashby went ‘Wow!’ ” recalls Ferro who then was then told to cut the scenes, including two robbery sequences, the polo sequence and the main title, to the exact time that was necessary. The Thomas Crown Affair won an Academy Award and served as a model for other films of that era such as the documentary Woodstock. It also convinced Steve McQueen, who starred in and produced the film, to hire Ferro to provide the titles for his next movie, Bullitt, which launched an uninterrupted 30-year string of title and trailer commissions.

Titles, however, are only one aspect of Ferro’s movie-making interests. For his next film commission, Midnight Cowboy (1969), directed by John Schlesinger, he not only designed the main title sequence but was second unit director and editor of the “bedroom-TV scene”, in which Jon Voight’s character, a young Texas stud who wants to be a high-class gigolo in New York City, tries his hand as a male hustler and realises this is not his proclivity, so he beats up his client. The second unit director is responsible for shooting establishing shots and other incidental material and occasionally for directing scenes that do not employ the top stars. Ferro stumbled into this job when he realised that there was not enough useable original film footage shot in Texas to make a main title sequence, which needed to show Voight leaving his home town to come to New York. Taking measures into his own hands Ferro took a camera to the closest rural town he could find in New Jersey and shot additional “filler” footage which he seamlessly edited along with the original.

During the subsequent years Ferro devoted all his time to film-making. In addition to main titles for such classics as Harold and Maude (1972), Bound for Glory (1976) and Being There (1979), all directed by Hal Ashby, he also directed trailers for A Clockwork Orange (1972), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), O Lucky Man (1973), Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Zardoz (1974), where he continued to rely on his quick-cut method to compress and enhance plot lines. The Clockwork Orange trailer, though a perfect one-minute summary of Kubrick’s disturbing adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s book, was actually rejected by the studio because Ferro used a pivotal rape scene from the film – lasting but a split second of screen time – which the studio head felt was in bad taste (although it was never edited out of the film). Ferro also directed and edited his own short films, including Five Minutes Late (1970), as well as doing some acting in Robert Downey (Sr.)’s films, Greaser’s Palace (1972) and Jive (1976). All this was more or less done from his studio in New York until 1979 when he decided to permanently move to Los Angeles where, despite his aversion to Hollywood glitz, the film business – his business – was centred.

To compress his following career path would necessitate one of Ferro’s multi-screen special effects. For after he established a small studio near Hollywood, he professionally branched out as supervising editor for Michael Jackson’s 1983 music video, Beat It and co-directed with Hal Ashby the Rolling Stones’ concert film, Let’s Spend the Night Together, where he introduced time-lapse photography sequences. In 1987 he directed, produced and edited The Inflatable Doll, a crude yet curiously effective black and white film about a man who sells rubber female companions; and in 1992 he directed his own feature, starring George Segal and JoBeth Williams, Me Myself and I.

He has continued to make main titles for a litany of important directors, including Tim Burton, William Friedkin, Jonathan Demme, John Carpenter, Barry Sonnenfeld, Richard Benjamin and his old assistant, Michael Cimino for such films as The Addams Family, Married to the Mob, Philadelphia, Mrs Winterbourne, Good Will Hunting, Men in Black and most recently for the latest version of Psycho (a Modernist sequence of surging linear forms done as an homage to Saul Bass).

Although he has reprised his signature style from Dr Strangelove a few times since 1964, as in Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads 1984 concert film, the 1993 Addams Family Values and the 1997 Men in Black, which all employ his distinctive hand lettering more or less refined, Ferro’s work is not always immediately identifiable. He is concerned less with establishing a personal identity than with making a good film. One of his most engaging recent title sequences, edited with his son Allen Ferro, for the 1995 murder farce To Die For, directed by Gus Van Sant, gave him an opportunity to test how far he could develop the film’s leading character in the few minutes prior to the start of the action.

The protagonist, played by Nicole Kidman, is a woman who desperately longs to be a TV newscaster at all costs (including murder) and convinces her schoolboy lover to kill her husband, so she will be free to pursue her career. Through a brief montage of fictional tabloid newspaper and magazine covers and a few minutes of word bytes and graphics, Ferro paints a portrait that would ordinarily take considerably more pages of dialogue to achieve in a typical narrative form. “I wanted to set up her identity so well that you knew this person before you met her,” says Ferro. Cropping in tightly on the various headlines and logos, as well enlarging photographs to abstract dot patterns, Ferro indicates the whirlwind sensational media attention that underscores Kidman’s character.

Not all Ferro’s title sequences are as emblematic as the ones discussed here. Not all of them are as successful, either. After all, a title designer is at the mercy of the budget, studio, producer and director. And Ferro has run afoul of all at various times. However, when the chemistry works with directors such as Kubrick, Ashby, or Demme -- when Ferro is able to make titles that both compliment a movie and stand alone as short films -- what distinguishes his from others in the field is resolute playfulness. His best work is always somewhat raw in ways that make whatever he has done curiously more compelling. Now in his sixties, Ferro has not lost any of his passion, sense of adventure, or desire to push the media forward and backward. After all these years he’s retained the same spirit that he had when he was drawing comics for Atlas, animating for Elektra and designing those sexy titles for Dr Strangelove.

First published in Eye no. 32 vol. 8, 1999