Mar 18, 2016

Five Things I Learned from Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design

Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design
Jan-Christopher Horak
University Press of Kentucky, 2014

Saul Bass is perhaps the only title sequence designer to have achieved superstar status among movie fans. His innovative take on the credits for films like Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) are almost as celebrated as the films they announced. In some cases, like with the mesmerizing cascade of bells in the opening of Otto Preminger's Saint Joan (1957), they were better than the film; a fact occasionally noted by critics, and which could inspire a cool reception from offended filmmakers.

Aside from credits sequences, Bass' posters, marketing campaigns and even his participation in aspects of making films were both controversial and highly influential. His style is still revered today, as can be seen in the very Bass-like design of titles and promotional materials for productions including Mad Men, Dexter, Catch Me if You Can (2002) and Django Unchained (2012). The influence was not only in the appearance of the sequences, but also in the way they engaged viewers from the first frame and prepared them emotionally for what was to come.

In his study of Bass, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive Jan-Christopher Horak examines the designer's cinematic career, influence and work in great detail. He also touches on the designer's early advertising designs, and how they evolved into the iconography that would sell films in much the same way he'd promoted other, less glamorous products. Horak addresses Bass' authorship, acknowledging his role as the leader of a creative team that was critical to his success, including Art Goodman, his wife Elaine Bass and most of all Herb Yager.

In addition to its thorough history of Bass' career in the film industry, the book is heavy on analysis, both technical and intellectual. There's lots of talk of "x-y axes" and "upper left quadrant" and each moment of Bass' title sequences is examined for various meanings. It's a volume best suited to design fanatics and academics, and I found myself glassing over as I waded through some of the details, but as a movie fan I learned many interesting tidbits about Bass.

Here are a few of the good ones:

1. Marketing films was only a part of Bass' decades-long career. His design studio is responsible for some of the most famous logos in advertising history, including images for Girl Scouts of America, Lawry's Seasoned Salt, United Way and Quaker Oats. Many of them are still in use today.

The Girls Scouts of USA logo is one of Bass' most enduring designs

2. Creating title sequences was a labor of love for Bass. They were expensive money losers, time-consuming and kept the designer from focusing on more lucrative work. Still, they were his lifelong passion. While there was a period where his style was out of vogue, he designed sequences for directors like Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas [1990], Cape Fear [1991], Casino [1995] and The Age of Innocence [1993]), John Singleton (Higher Learning [1995]) and Penny Marshall (Big [1988]) up until the final years of his life. This is a great compilation of Bass sequences from the early years to his final triumphs:

3. Movie posters were much more cluttered before Bass. They tended to be crammed with as many photos, credits and artist's renditions as possible. The designer had worked on film publicity for a few years when he changed all that by designing an elegantly simple poster for The Man With the Golden Arm which featured a graphic of a crooked arm, the names of the stars and a few colored blocks. Eventually the studio got nervous about the lack of glamorous faces and slapped a few photos of stars Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak and Eleanor Parker around the design, but his bold vision made a significant impact:

The more cluttered studio version of the poster

4. In the pre-digital days of its production, Bass and his team used manual means to create the high tension titles for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). They painted dozens of six-foot aluminum bars, which they then pushed at precisely planned distances and speeds. The sequence required several takes, as the bars would not always track smoothly.

5. Bass made the short film Bass on Titles, in response to designers and film fans who were curious about his methods. It packed a few screenings at film festivals upon its release in 1977. While Horak notes that it is as much, if not more a promotional effort than an educational one, it is nevertheless interesting to hear the designer talk shop:

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

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