Celebrating the Art of Title Design – 15 Memorable Title Sequences
In my last post, a repost of my checklist of what makes a great Oscars telecast, I discussed my disappointment with the Academy for their lunk-headed refusal to create a category for best title design. I consider title sequences an art unto themselves. The best ones not only set the mood for a film, but they’re often more inventive than the movies they introduce. The following are some of my personal favorites over the years.
This list is by no means comprehensive. There are likely some that I’ve forgotten and many I haven’t seen, but every one of these is work of wit and imagination. Many of them can be seen on the glorious web site artofthetitle.com. Not only does this site feature numerous title sequences available for viewing in-full, it’s packed with in-depth articles about how they were made as well as profiles of legends of the field, such as Saul Bass, the Greenberg brothers, and Dan Perri. If you’re a movie buff, this site is an absolute must.
I’ve only included titles that appear before the film. I’m not a fan of the post-movie sequences that have become increasingly common, particularly in the superhero genre. Designed titles serve the film best when they’re placed at the beginning. There’s nothing like a great pre-movie title sequence to prime the audience for the story to come.
15. The Boss Baby
This delightful sequence is the best thing about this subpar animated feature from Dreamworks. Set to Fred Astaire’s version of Cole Porter’s “Cheek to Cheek,” from Top Hat, one of the very best films of Hollywoods’ golden age of musicals, these whimsical titles imagine the title character being prepped for the stork at the baby factory. His ride on a conveyer belt provides the opportunity for some clever visual gags. It’s charming, light-hearted fun. See it on Netflix and you won’t have to pay to watch the rest of the movie.
14. Napoleon Dynamite
The loopy and very dry Napoleon Dynamite is not everybody’s cup of tea, but its title design is deliciously offbeat. Set to the White Stripe’s endearingly childlike “We’re Going to be Friends,” plates of food, candy wrappers, pencils and erasers, and various other items relevant to high school life, bear each title as a set of disembodied hands places them in front of the camera. Like the movie itself, it’s both charming and sweetly peculiar.
13. The Wild Bunch
Many films eschew separate title sequences and instead choose to incorporate them into the action at the film’s beginning, but rarely so effectively or inventively as in Sam Peckinpah’s classic western The Wild Bunch. Four unsavory looking horsemen slowly ride through a small town, pleasantly interacting with townspeople on their way to commit a dirty deed. As they ride, the moving images sporadically freeze frame into black and white images resembling newsprint, each listing a title. The sequence gives Peckinpah’s violent revisionist western a sense of historicity that’s in sharp contrast to the mythological underpinnings of classic Hollywood westerns.
12. Star Wars
There’s no more Iconic title sequence in American movies than Dan Perri’s titles for George Lucas’ Star Wars and its various prequels and sequels. The film’s title and three paragraphs of wonderfully corny, Saturday morning serial exposition, sail through a star field on a horizontal roll accompanied by John William’s equally iconic main theme. All these years later, it still generates tremendous excitement, while creating nostalgia for the depression-era cheese that inspired it.
11.Catch Me if You Can
John William’s memorable jazz-like main theme is expertly matched with sophisticated animated design in this wonderful sequence. Vertical lines rise and fall as shadowy figures weave in and out, creating an air of playful intrigue for Steven Spielberg’s entertaining account of the life and crimes of famed fraudster Frank Abagnale. It’s proof that animated titles don’t have to be cute or humorous to be effective.
10. The Shape of Water
Mesmerizing and dreamlike, the titles for The Shape of Water, generate a palpable sense of the magical that Guillermo del Toro’s creepy modern fairy tale doesn’t quite live up to. A woman sleeps on a floating couch in a room filled with water as tables and chairs dance around her to the wry whimsy of Andre Desplat’s fanciful main theme.
9. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
This bit of utter lunacy is silly from the start and only gets crazier. Beginning as a satire of foreign film subtitles, the credits list the cast with silly mock Swedish translations at the bottom of the screen. “With” is translated to “wik”. “Also with” becomes “alsø wik”. Soon legitimate credits are peppered with various “moose” credits like “Miss Taylors’ mooses by” and so on. A favorite of the late 70s midnight movie stoner crowd, both film and titles are uproarious, even without mind altering substances.
Less is more in the spooky titles for this classic sci-fi horror film. A slow pan of the dark side of a large ringed planet is accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s creepy atonal drone. A small blue vertical bar appears in the upper middle of the screen, gradually changing to white. Soon another bar appears on the left, then the right, then another, and another, eventually spelling out the movie’s title. The Greenberg brothers, Richard and Robert, were the most influential producers of title sequences from the late 70s through the early 90s. This is arguably their most famous and influential work. Low-key and ominous, it’s a harbinger of the terrifying two hours to come.
7. From Russia With Love
The James Bond series is a veritable treasure trove of memorable title sequences. All of them owe a debt to the titles for From Russia with Love, the second, and possibly, the best film in the franchise. While it lacks the technical wizardry of later Bond titles, this one, like the film itself, created the sexy template for all Bond films to come. Cast and crew titles are projected on a belly dancer’s body, often to humorous effect. Her bare midriff writhes and squirms, her breasts shimmy, and her hips gyrate to John Barry’s sassy theme. The title for “newcomer” Daniela Bianchi, is especially funny.
6. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
This cheeky 80s Disney fantasy begins with a smartly conceived animated sequence that comically imagines the perils of our title characters as they navigate the treacherous world of suburbia in miniature. They frantically outrun various household items including a vacuum cleaner, a toaster and an electric fan. Some of these perils have a specific connection to the titles they display – an old-school typewriter holds a sheet of paper with the writing titles, a phonograph record displays the name of composer James Horner, and a dog’s tag names the film’s editor as the animal bites away its own fur. Horner’s memorable main theme playfully threatens in the exuberant lead-in to this entertaining family film.
Anyone who grew up in the 60s and 70s remembers those hokey high-pitch ads for musical anthology albums containing highly edited versions of hit songs, many released by K-Tel, the Canadian company that also gave us the Veg-O-Matic. This classic title from Robert Altman’s groundbreaking Nashville, parodies those ads, but instead of hyping songs, a breathless auctioneer-like announcer introduces the large cast of stars. The stars of the film famously wrote their own songs (including Keith Carradine’s Oscar winning “I’m Easy” ) the titles of which unceremoniously scroll by as album cover caricatures of the stars are flashed center-screen. Sometimes Altman’s epic American tapestry is so dry you can miss its wry takes on the blatantly commercial country music scene of the 70s. But the titles are there to remind us what it’s all about.
4. Touch of Evil
Robert Altman famously imitated this single-take title sequence in the memorable opening to his scathing critique of the creativity-strangling Hollywood system, The Player. But he was clearly inspired by the legendary titles that open this classic, directed by Orson Welles. Welles’ camera pans, tracks, and cranes through several city-blocks as it follows its two leads, Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, to an explosive moment. The average viewer may not be aware of what they’re seeing here, or of the incredible timing required to pull it off, but cinephiles will wet themselves with glee.
Bernard Herrmann was arguably the greatest film composer of all time. His hypnotic arpeggios and haunting motifs for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, frequently cited by critics as the greatest film score ever, melodically spin and swirl in this memorable Saul Bass sequence. The camera moves in close on Kim Novak’s right cheek, then to her nose, eventually landing on one of her eyes and zooming in to her pupil where a purple Spirograph-like design appears. As we move into the dark void, various colored circular patterns spin about in a vertiginous marriage of form and content.
2. Raging Bull
This black and white title sequence for Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, Raging Bull, with title design by Dan Perri, is pure visual poetry. Robert Deniro, as boxer Jake LaMotta, warms up in the ring, bouncing and jabbing the air in slow-motion to the hauntingly beautiful intermezzo from the Pietro Mascagni opera Cavalleria Rusticana. The composition within the wide-screen format is simple and powerful. Deniro is on the left behind the ropes, while the rest of the frame is filled with out-of-focus spectators at the bottom third of the frame, the gray space above them divided by the horizontal lines of the ropes and accented by the occasional lightbulb flash. It’s a great example of how even the simplest concepts can be powerful in the hands of a visionary director.
Saul Bass’ titles are vertically and horizontally assembled and then ripped apart to the stabbing, screaming violins of Bernard Herman’s most famous and most imitated score, in the legendary title sequence to Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic of human duality. Unconventional orchestrations were one of Herrmann’s hallmarks. In Psycho, they sharpen the sonic knives of his murderous strings, leaving little doubt the audience is about to experience something intense and horrifying.
Enter the Void
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Gone with the Wind
North by Northwest
The Pink Panther
Got any more to add to the list? Please comment. I would love to hear them.