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The Cinematic Retro-Title Thing


The rebirth of the designed title sequence has seen some really interesting titles emerge. This rebirth, which probably started with Kyle Cooper's titles for Seven in 1995, coupled with the beginnings of desktop digital video (such as After Effects, Avid and Flame),1 has seen some of the most inventive titles emerge since the heyday of titles – the 1950s and 60s: the era of Bass, Brownjohn, Ferro and Binder.

Specifically, one area of cinema: the 'retro-film' is enjoying a particularly savvy approach to title design. Some of these title designs are historically accurate but do more than merely convey the period setting of the film they're introducing – they knowingly borrow and reference original film title designs from the era they attempt to reproduce – and do so beautifully. The title sequences for Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven and Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can (both from 2002) being two great examples of this ironic, Po-Mo 'knowingness'.2

The titles of Far From Heaven in their use of 50s brush-stroke style lettering and the support type (listing the actors and their roles – at the beginning of the film) are eerily historically accurate and coupled with Elmer Bernstein’s lush, swelling score, duplicate the titles of this era exactly (and I mean: exactly). In fact the entire film, in every facet of its being mirrors and obsessively reproduces the art direction, production design and the cinema of an earlier era – to a degree that is rarely seen. Haynes' film is a loving emulation of the cinema of Douglas Sirk - (Sirk's melodrama All That Heaven Allows being this film's main model). All this plus a compelling 'contemporary'3 story told via a 50s scenario makes an astounding piece of highly crafted cinema.

Catch Me If You Can's titles remind one of DePatie-Freleng's titles for the Pink Panther series of films (and ubiquitous other 60s films, especially those of the caper/comedy genre of that era). A quite remarkable animated sequence outlines the narrative of the film via a highly stylised 'groovy 60s' graphic approach. (I have to confess to buying the DVD just to watch the opening titles on high rotation – they're more interesting than the movie they introduce – or at least, the titles hold up to repeated viewing).

Far From Heaven utilises quite extraordinary production values and art direction. With its 'expressionist' rendering of affluent Connecticut suburbia, in the autumn, in the 50s, coupled with its subject matter: gay 'coming out' and interracial relationships, this film is a dizzying spectacle of (intense Technicolor) colour, music and emotion.

Catch Me If You Can, doesn't quite use art direction in quite the same way – for one, it's noticeably more monochrome and conventional in its mis-en-scene – and is intended as 'pure entertainment'. (What also separates Catch Me If You Can from Far From Heaven is the acting. Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven is truly outstanding: her characterisation is rich, multidimensional and complex. Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Catch Me' simply cannot match her intensity – and he's not really meant to – his is the 'fun' movie).4

I wonder if the titles in the new film about the life (and death) of Peter Sellers reflect or emulate some of the great title work done for the films he was in? Dr Strangelove and the Pink Panther series (to name a few) all had interesting, memorable and evocative title designs.

1. Peter Hall (1999).
"Title Wave".
ID Magazine.
March/April 1999.
New York, Beachhead of Delaware, p60.

2. These films are also examined in:

Deborah Allison (2004).
Catch Me If You Can, Auto Focus, Far From Heaven and The Art of Retro Title Sequences.
Senses of Cinema, University of Melbourne.

Where the above writer finds the titles for Paul Schrader's Auto Focus very effective, I find them predictable and less imaginative with a very familiar 'clip art' approach to their design being used. A background of op-art geometric patterns, 60s type and generic 'Playboy' graphics of 'swinging young strip-joint women' of that era creates a title sequence that sets the mood and tone for the film, but isn't particularly inspired in its use of visual language. (Really interesting film though...).


The title designers of the films mentioned here are:
Far From Heaven: Custom Title Design;
Catch Me If You Can: Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas for Nexus Productions;
Auto Focus: Ken Ferris.

See the title designs here:
Catch Me If You Can: http://www.nexuslondon.com/main.html
Auto Focus: http://www.apple.com/trailers/sony/auto_focus.html

3. Whilst Sirk's melodramas touched upon issues of hypocrisy, race, gender and sexuality back in the 50s (as Far From Heaven does too) – the issues explored in Haynes' film (gayness, interracial relationships/sexuality) are those that could not have been openly discussed back then – but the manner in which they are explored in Far From Heaven is what makes the film remarkable. Haynes' film has been created in the exact same 'spirit' as Sirk's films (it's as though Sirk has made the film from the grave) – and this clever move is what makes Far From Heaven so compelling, so unusual and such a rich cinematic experience.

4. And – no film title review is complete without ratings...
My ratings of the above film title sequences:
Far From Heaven 4/5
Catch Me If You Can 5/5
Auto Focus 2.5/5

And the films themselves:
Far From Heaven 4.5/5
Catch Me If You Can 2.5/5
Auto Focus 4/5


Another thing of interest (for designers) with Far From Heaven (as noted on Design Observer) is the depiction of 50s advertising and corporate identity. Dennis Quaid's character works for Magnatech: watch for the advertising posters that adorn the foyer to his office.


The Opening Cartoon Title Sequence for "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" can be seen at www.voodoodog.com (click FILM button).
The sequence has been Nominated for The Quantel Titles & Idents Award at The Rushes Soho Shorts Festival. www.sohoshorts.com/2004_quantel_idents.htm

Thanks Noel. The title sequence links 'all things Sellers' together very nicely... especially like all the people with 'that' nose and those glasses! Nice.

Animation Director Paul Donnellon, VooDooDog™ will be live on "The Big Picture" 15.00-17.00 (GMT)Sunday 18th July 2004 on BBC London 94.9FM and online at bbc.co.uk/london
The topic is the Saul Bass Exhibition opening this weekend at the Design Museum, Tower Bridge, London, UK.
Paul will be discussing the Saul Bass inspired Opening Animated Title Sequence for "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" which he created.
The sequence can be viewed at www.voodoodog.com

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