The importance of title sequences in the movies

As The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo reminds us, a powerful title sequence can have a huge impact. Here’s Ryan’s celebration of a resurgent art form…

David Fincher’s version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo opens with a booming, teacup-rattling title sequence, in which hideous forms – some technological, others biological – ooze in and out of black oil and fire. Cut to the howls and thunderous riff of Trent Reznor and Karen O’s cover of The Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin, it’s an aggressive statement of intent, as though Fincher’s violently stamping his authority on a property that was only adapted for the screen two years ago.

Fincher’s no stranger to opening his films with a dazzling display of sound and imagery. Images of pain and suffering are compiled by nimble, evil fingers to the music of Nine Inch Nails at the beginning of Seven. Fight Club opens with a high-speed race along neural pathways to the shriek of The Dust Brothers’ main theme.

Great though these examples are, the title sequence has, for many years, become an increasingly ignored art form. As filmmakers have clamoured to launch audiences into the first scene – often without any credits at all – the title sequence has gradually, it seems, fallen out of favour.

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Nevertheless, some filmmakers, including Fincher, have continued to open their film with attention grabbing title sequences. Over the course of his long career, director David Cronenberg has continuously used them to often startling effect. 1983’s opening to The Dead Zone, designed by Wayne Fitzgerald, was beautiful in simplicity, with images of its rural Maine setting cut to the sombre pace of Michael Kamen’s score. eXistenz’s titles, designed by Rob Pilichowski, focused on strange textures of paint, bark and reptile skin.

These are but two examples of Cronenberg’s repeated use of title sequences, and provide a handy illustration of why they’re so important. Whether we’re watching a movie at home or in the cinema, our experience will almost certainly have been prefaced by a bombardment of adverts or external distractions. A title sequence acts as a bridge between the outside world and the imagined one in the film, and allows the filmmaker to ease the viewer into the rhythm of their movie. In the majority of Cronenberg’s films, this rhythm is methodical, like the slow tick of a metronome, or a scientist clicking through a collection of slides.

In the case of a James Bond movie, its famous use of titles is precisely the opposite: its gun barrel sequence, as designed by Maurice Binder for 1962’s Dr No, acts as a fanfare. Then the raucous music, vibrant colours and dancing silhouettes kick in, preparing the audience for a heightened realm of sex, intrigue and violence. The Bond films have changed much over the past 40 years, but their use of titles as a means of establishing tone and pace have remained broadly the same.

Binder continued to design Bond titles almost until his passing in 1991 – Licence To Kill was, sadly, his final contribution – and also provided memorable openings for such films as The Grass Is Greener, The Billion Dollar Brain and The Mouse That Roared, which all featured an effective collision of graphics, sound and colour. 

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The most famous designer of film title sequences, though, is surely Saul Bass. Having mastered the art of eye-catching poster design, Bass turned his talents to title design in the 50s, beginning with the controversial drama, The Man With The Golden Arm. Bass’ work then came to the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, who hired him to create the unforgettable sequences for North By Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho.

In each instance, Bass used typography, contrasting colours and simple shapes to remarkable effect. With little more than a few animated lines, married to Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable theme, Bass created one of the most striking title sequences ever, and one that perfectly matched Hitchcock’s back-to-basics approach to filmmaking.

In the 90s, Martin Scorsese repeatedly employed Bass as his title sequence designer. Bass’ first, for Goodfellas, appeared to reference Psycho quite openly, with its economical use of moving type. His next, for the director’s remake of Cape Fear, used typography, colour and imagery to extraordinary effect – it may, in fact, be one of the most disturbingly understated title sequences ever made.

The Cape Fear sequence also carries echoes of what, for me, are two of Bass’ finest works in the field – his titles for Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film noir The Big Knife, and 1962’s Walk On The Wild Side. In both instances, we’re confronted with a single, striking image (the face of a grieving man in the former, a prowling black cat in the latter), beautifully framed and balanced against his carefully positioned typography. It could be argued, in fact, that these sequences are better than the films they accompany.

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The influence of Bass’ simple, direct usage of type and imagery continues to be felt. The opening titles of 2010’s claustrophobic thriller, Buried, were a homage to the late master. And bringing us back almost to the present, the appropriately 60s-style titles for X-Men: First Class, designed by Simon Clowes, are a playful exploration of both Bass and Maurice Binder’s styles.

The recent use of entertaining title sequences in films like X-Men: First Class and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are encouraging to see because, I’d argue, they’re more important to our cinema-going experience than ever. As adverts become ever louder, longer and greater in number, and audiences often spend several minutes chattering or fiddling with mobile phones, it’s vital that some sort of tonal cushion lies between them and the feature we’ve paid to see.

Whether they’re loud and aggressive, or quiet and soothing, title sequences are the cinematic equivalent of an opening curtain in a theatre – and, as the films mentioned in this brief celebration hopefully prove, the movies simply wouldn’t be the same without them.