The Look of Saul Bass

By  · Published on September 26th, 2016

Saul Bass was a graphic designer in both the advertising world and the film world. He’s been on my mind since I took a look at Brad Gullickson’s take on what the Poster Posse is doing with Magnificent Seven poster art. You may or may not know that Saul Bass created the original poster for The Magnificent Seven with the blood-red hash marks.

I don’t have an art or art history background, so I’m not the right person to get into a detailed critique of his style and what he’s brought to the field. What I can say is that his work is full of striking colors. He had a clever way of breaking up the space of the posters that gave you something to look at in every portion. His composition was simple, but only because it was a clever reduction of very complex thought. Amongst other things, he was also a typographist. And his letter work was wonderful for it. For my money, Bunny Lake is Missing is a great example of him bringing all his talents to the art table.

The block with the missing child is phenomenal. The image gives you the feel of construction paper floating over a white background. The child has the quality of being sketched and cut out by a child. But, the slight cut in the edge gives the hint of an adult’s hand. But, then the title treatment looks like it was written by a child as well, but that isn’t quite right. I love the letter by letter fade from black to grey to cream that gives the feel of vanishing. It’s really powerful stuff.

Poster artist. Typographer. Graphic Designer. Advertising. But, also title sequence creator. And that’s what I want to draw your attention to. This sequence he did for Anatomy of a Murder is a really nice introduction to not just the idea of the title sequence, but his contribution to the field. This piece brings together a Duke Ellington score with the title work of Saul Bass. The segmented body is an elegant play on the title of the film. And the poster work he did to tie into it is just phenomenal. I’m deeply fascinated by these aspects of filmmaking.

In 1955, Saul Bass brought Elaine Makatura to his production team. By 1960, she was directing title sequences on her own. Bass and Makatura were married in 1961. It’s so easy for women to be washed from the credit line that it is important you understand that Elaine Bass not only has an award-worthy career of her own, but that she was a co-creator for most of the title sequences produced by “Saul Bass” from that point forward. It was his THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN poster art got me thinking on the subject. His art is iconic and literally industry-defining. Elaine Bass was an integral part to the long term success of his production house for a lot of projects that mostly bear just his name. From my understanding, anything he did title sequence wise from 1960 forward was probably done in close collaboration with Elaine. Here’s something they designed together.

I love how they shot graffiti. The slow zoom up to these walls covered in messages until they centered on the details relevant to that card. I think it’s a clever way to work with the feel of the movie and provide an interesting exit from the movie for the viewer. The closing shot on the END on the street sign is perfect. One of her directorial efforts is the gorgeous decay of Roman art for an introduction to Spartacus. In fact, there’s a really cool story at The Art of the Title where it talks about how they achieved that crumbling look. She covered herself in black gloves and cloth so as to become invisible against the black background and carefully crumbled their statues so it would appear on camera that they were simply falling apart. These are the challenges the title sequence designer has to overcome. What a clever idea! And to be able to execute it practically in-camera just blows my mind.

In the video below, produced by Scott McGee for TCM, Kyle Cooper makes this point more artfully than I could. But, I’ll paraphrase by saying that the title sequence should not be a throwaway segment of a film. With proper attention to detail and some cleverness, the title sequence should credit all the minds who came together to make the film and prepare you by framing the experience you are about to have. They’re amazing pieces of art that should tell their own story. Saul Bass tended towards a short story approach with his sequences. If being gifted three minutes of time to tell a story, identify the creators, and prime the viewing experience sounds daunting, well. Yer right. These creations are quite labor-intensive. A lot of the work mentioned below involves stop-motion photography and hand cutting of paper to achieve the desired effects. Viewers and filmmakers tend to take these few minutes for granted. Please take a few minutes of your time and check out what Saul Bass brought to the table.

What are some of your favorite title sequences? Hit me up on Twitter @WBDass to chat about it.

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.