For our latest High 5, Camus and Slarek pick 5 of their favourite movie title sequences, very personal selections that deserve to be seen at a higher quality than the embedded videos we've managed to grab will allow | 20 March 2016
In this High 5, Slarek and Camus select five of their favourite movie opening title sequences. As ever, these have all been pulled from memory without the benefit of research, and are intended as personal choices, not a definitive list.
We've tried to include videos of the sequences in question, but the quality does tend to vary, and in a couple of cases we couldn't even get the full sequence (see the note on the titles in question). Ideally they should be seen at the highest quality on a bigger screen than some of these embedded videos allow. Being largely sourced from YouTube, several are also blighted by ads and annotations, but that comes with the territory when you're posting copyrighted material.
Although the art of title design takes in the fonts and the actual titles, my interpretation of a 'title sequence' is a self-contained mini-movie that sets up the actual movie in question unfettered by the demands of internal logic. In other words, as long as you're setting up the film and its characters, you can take your holidays in bizarroland and stay as long as you want...
1. Se7en – Kyle Cooper
In 1995, the art of the title sequence had more or less evened out and left it to Bond to trot out one fanciful effort each time at bat. And then along came John Doe, his diaries, scrapbooks, needles and razor blades. Kyle Cooper's work on the opening titles of Se7en is astounding by any yardstick and brought the art of the title sequence kicking and screaming back into relevance. To say it affected every one that came after it is not that much of an untruth. Its subject, the seven deadly sin serial killer, is simply performing his daily ritual. The images on show tease the grotesque and the actual titles are dynamic, appearing to have been scratched on to the celluloid. Director Zach Snyder once quipped that directors rarely hire Cooper because his work is better than the actual movie it's showcasing. Despite the perfect visuals and the extraordinary cutting, I have to give an enormous amount of credit to the director, David Fincher and his superb choice of cue for the sequence. Nine Inch Nails (aka Trent Reznor) remixed a version of 'Closer' (don't listen to the original with your mother) and it remains one of cinema's defining music cues getting what was in the antagonist's head into your own. Just stunning.
2. To Kill A Mockingbird – Stephen Frankfurt
It's the rolling marble that made me fall in love with this one. Both Mockingbird the novel and film have at their hearts a childlike point of view typified by Scout, lawyer Atticus Finch's daughter. In fact you could say that Finch's entire life is keeping evil at bay so his daughter can enjoy seeing the world through a very safe pair of eyes. As parenting goes, this may not be the best way to arm a child for what might be coming but it makes for a compelling narrative. The title sequence, a peek inside Scout's toy box, is an unalloyed joy. Scout opens her little wooden box while humming to herself. She starts to crayon revealing parts of the title and her industry dislodges a marble, which rolls to the right and - get this - we track with it. How the hell they managed that (oversized props come to mind) fair boggles the mind but for some ineffable reason I found this image enormously compelling. When the orchestra take up Scout's humming, we are in an emotional release of childlike wonder. Gets me every time.
3. Altered States – Richard Greenberg
In the photo-chemical days of 1980 when titles had to be optically printed onto the actual negative, anything out of the then ordinary sequence of title cards was well received. The accepted practice was 'Studio presents', 'star(s), Title, 'above the line talent' ending with 'directed by' and off we go. I can't recall how many times I have been disappointed with a movie's actual title based on the hype and expectations I had of its original presentation. Not here... Dr. Jessop (William Hurt) is in a vertical isolation tank using himself as a test subject dealing in sensory deprivation. John Corigliano's ground-breaking score starts ominously after Bob Balaban's voice over introduction and we stay on Hurt's face in the tank. From the left and right, columns appear moving toward and overlapping each other. Forewarned, you can just about make out the letters but for the first time, you are just seeing geometric shapes dance in front of you, very sedately, gracefully. The shapes part and we slowly zoom out to reveal the two words of the title made from those moving letters. It's staggeringly simple but it made a hell of an impression.
Only the first part of the sequence is included here – due to the length of the opening titles it would be nigh-on impossible to post the whole thing even under fair usage without being clobbered for copyright infringement.
4. Watchmen – Neil Huxley
Talk about setting up your world... In a series of ultra slow motion single shot vignettes, the rise and fall of the costumed super hero comes to exceptionally vivid life. There are beautifully constructed nods to our own world all the way through (I adored the kiss, playing on our memories of a very famous black and white photograph) and the way Snyder mimics some of the accompanying song's lyrics is a playful delight... The unmoving, caped hero, stuck fast in a revolving door, very dead is timed to Dylan singing "Don't stand in the door way, don't block up the hall..." Snyder said that the title design would have to have been very different as he had his heart set on 'The Times. They Are A-Changin'", a song also quoted in Alan Moore's original and seminal comic book. The characters are artfully set up, their pasts sometimes shown, revealing parts of their adult motivations and we even get a throw away Kennedy assassination, painstakingly constructed from, one assumes, the Zapruder film. Overall, it's a sequence that takes us from 1940 to the 1970s with licks of social unrest and weary cynicism but what colours! And again, the music elevates it higher than visuals alone could ever do.
5. Superman – Denis Rich
Now, this one is born of simple childlike wonder. It's 1978, and cinema is still mired (quite happily) in its photo-chemical reality and we're watching the start of a film whose tag line dares us to fault the special effects; "You'll believe a man can fly..." There is a modicum of gorgonzola to the flying effects of the actual film but this was Superman. You don't just present the word 'Superman' in Courier 36pt font. Designer Denis Rich has something all the more super in mind. We start with a child's voice turning the pages of a comic and move into one of the panes where the Daily Planet newspaper building becomes real. Up we go, past the moon to the stars, John William's main theme barely stirring... And then magic happens. The first credit creeps out of the dark in an outline font and then disappears by whooshing towards you on rays of blue light. The accompanying sound effect takes all the time you need to fall in love. But the shock of the new is just starting. Williams' main theme is now trotting carefully, cellos forming the bed of musical expectation... "Dun, dur-u dun dun dun... repeat," The principals and director follow in the same fashion and Williams is champing at the bit. There's another prolonged whoosh and the red 'S' symbol flies from behind this time and the theme swells to its horny climax almost spelling out the word 'Su-per-man' with its melody as the title flies in from behind and over our heads. I distinctly remember leaning over to my father and saying "I think this film is going to be fantastic..." That's what a main title sequence should do...
Psycho – Saul Bass
Frankly, it would have been easy enough to fill all five of my slots with titles designed by the great Saul Bass, whose credits include The Man With the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder, Walk on the Wild Side, The Seven Year Itch, The Big Knife and Spartacus. For Martin Scorsese, he and his wife Elaine designed title sequences for Goodfellas,Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence and Casino, but it was the three he created for Alfred Hitchcock for which he has become immortalised. While the Vertigo opening titles tend to be the favourite pick (in part because of the film's exalted status and the striking nature of the sequence that immediately follows), for me the geometric skyscraper lines and lettering of North by Northwest and the fractured typography of the opening credits of Psycho are even more inventive and artistically exciting. Forced at scissor point to pick one over the other, I'd have to go with Psycho, for the seamless manner in which it synchronises with Bernard Herrmann's brilliant main theme and for its graphical suggestion of the troubled mental state of the young man at its centre. The same match of imagery with top flight Bernard Herrmann music is also central to what makes the North by Northwest titles so gorgeous, of course. Oh, the pain of choosing...
Unfortunately I've not been able to track down the full sequence on YouTube to embed, so the above is low res, incomplete, and the sound is out of sync with the image. Get the disc.
Run Lola Run – Gil Alkabetz, Ralf Bohde (animators)
German director Tom Tykwer's international breakthrough film is one that seemed to explode onto the screen, and you can put this down in part to one of modern cinema's most inventive and invigorating opening title sequences. Following a pair of seemingly diverse textual quotations, introductory credits are revealed by the swing of a pendulum belonging to the sort of gothic horror clock that Guillermo del Toro probably has in his living room, which the camera then climbs to glide into the mouth of a gargoyle sitting immediately above the clock face. We then take a hallucinatory drift through a rapidly milling crowd, intermittently pausing to linger on individuals who will later figure in the story, while a philosophising voice-over ponders on the nature of human existence. A security guard with a football in his hands then cheerfully informs us that "The ball is round. The game lasts ninety minutes. That's a fact. Everything else is pure theory," in the process setting up a key theme of the film. He then kicks the ball skyward, and from a God's eye viewpoint the crowd shifts position to form the German title, Lola Rennt. This would be classy enough for most directors, but Tykwer is just getting started here. As the ball descends, the camera swoops down with it and live action switches to animation, as a cartoon Lola runs through a series of surrealistic catacombs, smashing the credits that appear above her head until she spirals into a vortex. And it doesn't end there. The main players are then introduced as criminal portraits that slam into place with metallic clangs as their names write themselves underneath in what we can presume is the handwriting of the individuals concerned (or, at least, the actors who play them). The whole thing concludes with the camera plummeting earthwards and rocketing through a window, down a corridor and right up to the phone that will kick off the story. It's a breathless, gorgeous, multi-media rush, driven thrillingly along by the heart-pounding score from Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tykwer himself.
Monty Python's Life of Brian – Terry Gilliam
When I first saw the Pythons' comedy masterpiece, it was still something of a cause célèbre and was playing only at a single cinema in London. Senior church figures and uptight conservatives were crying out for a ban, but the rest of us were drooling in anticipation. And joy of joys, it far exceeded even my lofty expectations, a super-smart satire on organised religion and the acts blindly committed in its name, it's one of only a handful of movies that have had me genuinely falling out of my seat in uncontrollable laughter. The tone for what follows is set by the riotous opening send-up of the Nativity, but it's Terry Gilliam's exuberant title sequence that really puts the Python stamp on the film. Designed and animated in Gilliam's signature cut-out style and set to a wittily written and boisterously sung biographical song, it has an invention and anarchic vigour that makes even Richard Williams' lively title animations for the Pink Panther films feel sedate by comparison.
Pi – Jeremy Dawson
As low budget, do-it-yourself indie movie title sequences go, few have the energy and invention of the one that fronts Darren Aronofsky's belting debut feature, a film I remember being wittily described on its release as "the best Jewish film about mathematics you'll see all year," a quote I have since been unable to track down (answers in any format you care to use). Designed as a graphical representation of the headaches that plague the central character Max – a paranoid mathematician searching for organic patterns in the stock market – and energised further by Clint Mansell's driving theme (music plays such an important part in the choices here), it was created by Aronofsky's friend Jeremy Dawson on his Mac using what Aronofsky assures us (on the DVD commentary) was "some simple software and just a lot of ingenuity," yet it still makes for one hell of an attention-grabbing opening. When Dawson first began work on the sequence, Aronofsky apparently told him that if it was good then it would be the main titles and if it was bad it would be the end credits. The boy did just fine.
Enter the Void – Tom Kan
If the opening titles of Pi were intended to graphically represent a headache, those for Gasper Noé's visually hypnotic, out-of-body drama seem specifically designed to induce one. Apparently reacting to negative comments about the film's length when screened at festivals without titles or credits, Noé decided that the opening titles should play as quickly as possible, and hired graphic designer Tom Kan to create "a fast-paced compilation inspired by films, flyers and neon signs to announce the tone of the film."* The first half is a relatively straightforward hop through the credits you usually find at the end of a feature, energised by the strains of LFO's Freak and Noé's signature strobing, but halfway through, the front-end credits kick in and the sequence explodes in an increasingly eye-popping kaleidoscope of typeface and colour. Imagine swallowing an entire Linotype font book whose pages were infused with LSD and you'll have an idea what you're in for here.