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Saul Bass & the Art of Title Design

August 31st, 2008 · No Comments

The following essay was written in connection with a retrospective of Saul Bass’ work at the George Eastman House in Spring of 2008. This web version has been modified slightly from the original.

The first thing you will see in this article is work by Saul Bass for which he is infrequently, or sometimes incorrectly, credited. The shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is one of the most famous and iconic sequences of all time; Saul Bass is responsible for designing the storyboard for this sequence. This essentially means that he pre-configured the graphic structure for the scene, frame by frame. There is an overblown controversy that Bass claims to have directed the sequence (and indeed, he has made the claim on television and in interviews), but it is a claim that remains contentious (Janet Leigh has denied the claim on numerous occasions).

However, it’s insignificant who directed it because in this context, we’re more concerned with form and composition, than acting style – and if you compare the scene to the original storyboards, the underlying graphic structure is immediately evident. As is the case in Grand Prix and Spartacus, Bass is credited as pictorial, or visual consultant for Psycho, in addition to title designer. For the shower scene, it was Bass’ intention to create a “bloodless” murder, and he uses ingenious visual effects to achieve this.

I’ve broken up the scene into a slide show so that you can study it frame-by-frame. The sequence barrels by so rapidly that it’s difficult to absorb all the visual information unless you look at it in stills.

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The shower scene is composed of 50 cuts in just over 2 minutes. The quickness of the cutting mimics the slashing of Norman Bates’ knife. The first noticeable visual device is his use of water from the shower head. The water is shot vertically, diagonally, and straight on – all in isolated close-ups – so that it creates a violent visual counterpoint (this is a technique some theorists might compare to Eisensteinian dialectics). Notice how there are two spouts of water, not one, like in most showers; this is a camera trick that allows the water to be foregrounded from nearly every angle. Next, you get a series of images that are fractions of Janet Leigh’s body – her hands, her face, her legs, her stomach – all of which are visually suggestive of dismemberment (the isolated hand motif is a favorite of Bass, and also appears in The Victors and Man with the Golden Arm). Check out the dead-on shot of looking up into the water spout. This is unusual because A) it’s something you could never do in a shower — looking directly into the shower head and B) it looks like a human eye. The whole scene is voyeuristic, and this hovering specter only compounds the deviantly voyeuristic tone. Lastly, you get a shot of water spiraling down the drain that dissolves to Janet Leigh’s terror stricken, bolt-open eyes. The camera spirals and pans out from her face, which is actually an optical still, not running film. Before the camera pans away, a single drop of water falls from her forehead. This is another counterpoint of extremes – the rush of water versus the single droplet. The disembodied eye and the spiral is a juxtaposition that reappears in Vertigo, when the eye in the credits dissolves to John Whitney’s computer generated spirographs. However, there is a key difference between the two. In Psycho, the spiral dissolves into the eye. In Vertigo, the spiral emanates out of the eye. The semantic difference is paramount – one suggests the dissolution of fear, the other, the projection of fear.

The credits for Psycho are a series of contrasting horizontal and vertical lines, not unlike the contrasting lines of water in the shower, and like most of Bass’ work, it is a strikingly reduced and radically simplified concept of the film. Although this approach to graphic art was not new to print design or the fine arts, it was brand new to Hollywood movies. Posters and credits up to this point had been highly sensational and pictorial based. The overarching graphic tendency for posters was big, bold and laden with star names, with illustrative, often exagerrated representations of those stars. Bass reduced the visual components to the absolute minimum and relied predominately on understated symbols and graphic illustrations. As Bass expressed in an interview in 1995, “The idea of having a film expressed within the framework of one single, reductive statement was a very daring notion in the 50s.”

This daring notion is best represented by Saul Bass’ work on Man with the Golden Arm, directed by Otto Preminger and released in 1955. Bass did 11 films for Preminger, and while it was a vitriolic relationship, it was also an extremely productive one. They first worked on Carmen Jones together in 1954, but Bass was only contracted to work on the posters. According to legend, Preminger liked the posters so much that he further contracted him to design the title sequences. At this point, Bass had been restricted to print, and had no experience in the world of motion graphics. It was a heavy job for a rookie.

Their next project, Man with the Golden Arm, had even higher stakes. The subject was riskier, and the talent bigger. Bass created an image of a mangled arm to represent the life of a strung-out junkie. The arm is a simple two-dimensional rendering in silhouette, illustrated with great economy, but its brilliance is that – even with such minimal detail – it is still an extraction of the visual essence of the film, and captures the tone of the story. At certain theaters, the icon was such a hit that the arm replaced the actual title on the marquee. Here you can see how Bass applied corporate branding to the packaging of a movie. The symbol of the arm created an identity for the film that was immediately recognizable, and packaged all the ideas of the film into a single logotype.

While the industrial influence is apparent, Bass also brought the sophistication and elegance of the fine arts to the screen. His work for Anatomy of a Murder is reminiscent of the paper cutouts by Matisse, the big blocks of color frequently used in the backgrounds of his posters are not unlike paintings by Mark Rothko, and the credits for Bonjour Tristesse are similar to the colorful line drawings by Picasso. While Bass drew from these former masters, he applied his own signature touch, generally identified by a bit of wit, humor or lightheartedness – even in a dead-serious movie like Vertigo, his design brings lightness to the picture.

Bass had also been exposed to the Bauhaus philosophy during his early years in New York City, where he studied with György Kepes, a Hungarian born painter who worked with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and was later an instructor at the New Bauhaus in Chicago. His flair for modernist design can be seen in the sleek titles for Grand Prix in 1966, where he used the typeface Helvetica in the credits. Even though Helvetica is now pervasive in our visual language, it was – at the time, a cutting-edge typeface, and was in the vanguard of cool European design. If not the first, Grand Prix was among the foremost to apply the clean, geometric typeface to a credit sequence. In previous credit sequences, Bass used other sans-serif types, mostly “Venus Bold Extended” or “News Gothic Bold,” unless he designed the type by hand.

venus bold extended

news gothic bold

anatomy typeface

Beyond title sequences, Bass also did television spots, corporate logos, (like AT&T, Minolta and Girl Scouts), and also “classroom,” or essay films. Why Man Creates is an essay film made with his wife Elaine, that explores the motivation behind creativity and won the academy award in 1968 for best documentary short subject. In collaboration with Kodak, Saul & Elaine made a film in 1964 called The Searching Eye, for exhibition at the World’s Fair of that year. Essentially it’s a mini-documentary about “intelligent vision,” and how the eye functions. Bass actually fancied himself to be a filmmaker even more so than a graphic designer, and referred to himself as such in interviews. His sole feature debut, Phase IV, released in 1974, was met largely with indifference by reviewers. The NY Times had this to say about the science fiction film, “The adversary—in this case, it’s the familiar, highly coordinated and indomitable ant—is less a threat than a problem created by a concept and a script that is initially spellbinding but then quickly turns into mystifying vacillations between fact and largely unconvincing fiction.” That said, the film has found a new appreciation with contemporary audiences and is slowly being dredged out from a critical moratorium. The online film site, Not Coming to a Theater Near You has not one, but two glowing reviews of the picture.

Saul Bass worked with many of the giants of Hollywood filmmaking: Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Stanley Kubrick, John Frankenheimer, Billy Wilder, Robert Wise, William Wyler… but in the late 70s, he turned more to corporate branding, and reduced his output of title designs. (After doing the poster for Kubrick’s The Shining, and titles for Ridley Scott’s Alien, there was an 8 year lapse before he would do another movie). His career was restored in the 90s when Martin Scorsese approached him to do some titles. Together, they made Cape Fear, Age of Innocence, Goodfellas, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, and finally, Casino, his last film before he died. Casino was a film set in the 70s and 80s, with graphic ideas Bass had perfected in the 50s and 60s, but the film was released in 1995. Despite the chronological whiplash, the credits are powerful and timeless, and a testament to the longevity of Saul Bass’ style.

Bass was an artist reluctant to acknowledge his influences, and was cagey about discussing work that he liked. In one late video interview, after being pressed by a graphic design professor, he admitted to being an admirer of Paul Rand – “He was so goddamned good,” he said. He has also cited Lester Beall and Will Burtin as influential designers. It is much more common to hear contemporary graphic designers cite Saul Bass as an influence than to hear him speak of his lineage. And indeed, the Saul Bass legacy is perpetuated in culture – both high and low – by a host of knockoffs and imitations. Once you recognize his style, replicas start popping up everywhere you look. But not just in movies. On the west coast, there is an oil-change chain called EZ LUBE, and their logo shows a dangling arm, very much in the style of Man with the Golden Arm, only the hand is holding an oil dipstick.

~Michael Neault

The program included:

Video:
NATIONAL BOHEMIAN BEER
MATTEL’S BABY TENDER LOVE
IBM ANIMATION
FRANK SINATRA SHOW
OLIN MATHIESON
SPEEDWAY 79′
SUN DETERGENT
MILLAR GOOSEBERRIES
ANDY WILLIAMS TV SHOW
THE YOUNG STRANGER (J. Frankenheimer, 1957)
WALK ON THE WILD SIDE (E. Dmytryk, 1962)
KITY channel 11 – Saul Bass Interview

16mm:
WHY MAN CREATES (Saul & Elaine Bass, 29 mins)

35mm:
ANATOMY OF A MURDER (Otto Preminger, 1959)
MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (Otto Preminger, 1955)
SECONDS (John Frankenheimer, 1966)
NORTH BY NORTHWEST (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
VERTIGO (Alfred Hitchcock,1958)
ADVISE & CONSENT (Otto Preminger, 1962)
SEVEN YEAR ITCH (Billy Wilder, 1955)
BONJOUR TRISTESSE (Otto Preminger, 1958)
SPARTACUS (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)
OCEAN’S ELEVEN (Lewis Milestone, 1960)
GRAND PRIX (John Frankenheimer, 1966)
CASINO (Martin Scorsese, 1995)

A note on the selections: Saul Bass made over fifty credit sequences, and an – as yet – uncatalogued number of short films and television spots. For this program, we limited ourselves to what was available on 35mm film in the George Eastman House archive, and in projectable condition. It is a generous selection, but does omit some classic titles, such as West Side Story, Around the World in Eighty Days, Exodus and Bunny Lake is Missing.

This program would not have been possible without the assistance of: Charlie Allen (Chief Projectionist at George Eastman House), Inés Toharia Torán (George Eastman House), Patti Doyen (Vault Manager), May Haduong (Academy Film Archive), Brian Meacham (Academy Film Archive), Roger Remington (for providing the Bass posters in the lobby), Charles Bigelow (for consultation on the typefaces), Dan Wagner, Kris Merola, Lynn Dell, Jim Malley, and Jennifer Bass.

Works Consulted
Haskins, Pamela. “Saul, Can You Make Me a Title?” Interview with Saul Bass. Film Quarterly, Autumn 1996:12-13.

Solana, Gemma and Antonio Boneu. Uncredited: Graphic Design & Opening Titles in Movies. London: Index Books, 2007.

Taylor, Rumsey. “Titles designed by Saul Bass.” Not Coming to a Theater Near You, 2008. http://notcoming.com/saulbass/index.php

Tags: Essays & Articles

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