Thursday, December 18, 2008

Semester Paper

Whether chatting with friends while on the screen, or being pinched to an illegible size to make way for commercials, the title sequences of movies have largely become ignored; so much so that many forget they were once an art form. This is why the sequences are either plain san serifs over a black background or mildly artful fonts over relevant landscapes. However at one point, these sequences were just as iconic as the movies they ushered in. Of course one of the greatest masters of this lost art is Saul Bass.

Bass started life in New York, the Bronx to be specific. He was the first American born generation in his family. Bass was always rather creative and could always be found drawing something. “Bass studied at the Art Students League in New York and Brooklyn College under Gyorgy Kepes” (Meggs). This introduced Bass to the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivist styles that later permeated his more famous works. Bass went on to do the expected apprentice phase of his career, but found New York to be too constricting and moved to Los Angeles in 1946. After finally opening his own studio in 1950, Bass was introduced to his work on films when asked to do the poster for the 1954 movie Carmen Jones.

Obviously, Bass began as a graphic designer. He created many of the most prolific brand marks of the past fifty years. Such icons are the Kleenex logo, Girl Scouts of America logo, and the original AT&T Globe. Eventually, Bass began branching out into the movie title branch of design where he made his mark as the father of modern movie title design.

Bass’s first title work was on the movie Carmen Jones. Once he had created the movie’s poster (as previously stated), those in charge were so impressed that they hired Bass to do the entire title sequence. He then created the iconic opening sequence for the drug film The Man With the Golden Arm. “a note was stuck on the cans – ‘Projectionists – pull curtain before titles’… Preminger wanted his audience to see The Man with the Golden Arm’s titles as an integral part of the film” (Meggs). Such a thing was unheard of, the audience would never sit for this tedium—yet Bass turned what would have been a boring sequence into an elegant artform.

The Man With The Golden Arm

From here, Bass only became more prolific. He worked on such monumental films as Vertigo and Psycho for Alfred Hitchcock. The now familiar image from Psycho of the extreme close up of a woman’s face spiraling from the blood wash was Bass’s doing. Some of the concepts Bass played with might seem cliché to the casual observer, however it is important to note that when Bass created these sequences, they were bold and unique. Essentially, Bass was so much the cornerstone for American cinema that he became the source of clichés, the force that all other artist feigned to duplicate. Hitchcock was very freeing for Bass as he allowed the designer influence in the actual movie and not just the titles and advertising. As a result, the now infamous shower murder scene was created.

*Somewhat Graphic, do not watch if squeamish*

Psycho Shower Scene

There is seldom a more beloved movie than West Side Story. People need only see the white figures on a black fire escape plastered on a red background to recognize what movie it is. Even the opening sequence, violent yet endearing has survived as a cultural icon. This is inherently Bass’s talent; he can create works that are truly timeless. Generations of movie goers embrace his work.

West Side Story Closing

Bass was truly an all around artist. He directed the film Phase IV and even contributed a poster to Los Angeles Olympic Games. “Saul Bass really has done it all. Films. Packaging. Products. Architecture. Corporate identification. Graphics. His work surrounds us” (Brown). It is not so much that Bass has done all these things, but that he’s done them well; a goal many designers fail to come even close to achieving. By branching out to so many specializations and committing to them, Bass accumulated many new experiences and techniques that he was able to bring to his title sequencing.

Even in his later years, Bass found new connections and kept on working. He collaborated with renowned director Martin Scorsese on several films including Goodfellas and Cape Fear. For Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, Bass created the sequence of blossoming rose petals. For Casino, Bass created a “hauntingly macabre one of Robert De Niro falling through the sinister neons of the Las Vegas Strip … to symbolise his character’s descent into hell” (Meggs). What is so fascinating about this concept is that the sequence no longer introduced the movie, but contributed to it by establishing a character and his internal struggles. Bass intertwined his art with the movie’s plot.

A year after this final project with Scorsese, Bass passed away of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in Los Angeles. The art and movie world lost a hero of the trade. The New York Times honored Bass as “the minimalist auteur who put a jagged arm in motion in 1955 and created an entire film genre…and elevated it into an art” (Meggs). Even though he has passed, Bass will never actually be gone. If Marshal McLuhan is to be believed media are extensions of oneself. Therefore all of the iconography that Bass has created, his titles, his sequences, his logos and his posters, is truly a fitting legacy for this prolific artist.

bass on titles

Works Cited
Brown, David R., “Saul Bass”, AIGA the Professional Association for Design, 164 Fifth Avenue New York NY 10010 , 212 807 1990, 2008,
Philip B Meggs, Six Chapters in Graphic Design: Saul Bass, Ivan Chermayeff, Milton Glaser, Paul Rand, Ikko Tanaka, Henryk Tomaszewski, 1997 Gerry Rosentwieg and Saul Bass, The New American Logo, 1998,

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