It’s a new era for movie title design

Alex Bigman

This weekend, the 2016 Oscars will honor motion picture industry artists across 24 categories. Sadly, for the 86th year in a row, no graphic designers will be among them.

In film, graphic design’s time to shine is the title sequence. This was a more central aspect of movie-making during the the silent film era, when all dialog had to be presented as text.

The Academy first acknowledged the importance of this graphic element in 1929, honoring The Red Mill – which impressed viewers with its elegantly readable typeface and Art Deco-style capitals – with an award in the new category of “best title design.”

But then sound came along and the role of graphic titles shrunk to the opening credit sequence. Consequently, the newly established category disappeared as suddenly as it arrived.

Happily, title design had a bona fide renaissance in the 1960s, owing partly to the new ubiquity of color film and partly to a vibrant graphic design culture hitting its stride. Saul Bass‘ modernist credits for Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) and Maurice Binder‘s jazzy sequence for Dr. No (1962) changed the game forever.

Yet they received no recognition from the Academy, nor have any of their successors, like Pablo Ferro, Richard Greenberg or Kyle Cooper.

Today, graphic design’s biggest moment during the award show is the commissioned introduction sequence for the Best Picture category nominees. For the past two years this meta-sequence has been admirably well-executed by the designer Henry Hobson.

His 2014 sequence (above) replicated the look of colorful, retro movie posters, down to the fine print beneath the title. In 2015 (below), he ditched the poster motif, instead creating a series of animated frames that riff on a particular element of each film’s aesthetic.

As the quality of these meta-sequences illustrates, Hobson is part of a new generation of designers that, like their 1960s forebears, have revitalized title design through the employment of new tools. This time those tools are digital, and the result is nothing short of a title design renaissance.

Many people consider David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), with design work by the creative agency Imaginary Forces, as the film that rejuvenated title sequence design.

Significantly, this was also the year in which the James Bond franchise brought in new blood: Daniel Kleinman’s credit sequence for GoldenEye was a landmark use of computer generated imagery.

Subsequent milestones were Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2004), with its flawlessly executed retro appeal, and Blue Valentine (2011), with its dim, moody illumination of still images by fireworks.

Since then, the floodgates have really opened, not only in film but in television, which is currently experiencing its own golden age. Just take a look at two standouts from 2015, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (a film) and The Man in the High Castle (a serial TV drama).

There are many, many other top-notch title sequences being produced today that deserve recognition (a great resource for finding them is the website Art of the Title).

While it does not look like they will be getting it from the Academy any time soon, that certainly won’t stop designers and design enthusiasts all over the world from finding ways to show their appreciation.

What movie title design sequences have impressed you recently? Share in the comments!

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