3 Killers

Sunday, August 4th, 2013 | Blog, Theory

Three Killers. Three title sequences. Here’s a short little essay I wrote for my title sequence unit at Academy of Art University.

Psycho (1960)

Saul Bass was an established name and had already produced two title sequences for Alfred Hitchcock when the director came to him with a new controversial script. Bass, like his other graphic design contemporaries, was beginning to take ownership of his design work, signing it and bringing awareness to the public for the new “Modern” style of design. Hitchcock hired Bass to design a title sequence for Psycho as well as enlisting his expertise to add signature visual and structural touches to the picture. Bass claimed one of his duties was to “strangify” the Bates residence, which he accomplished by a series of time-lapse photographic techniques. Probably the most famous contribution to Psycho by Bass was the shower scene in which Vivian Leigh is slain. This shocking and technical sequence was meticulously storyboarded and worked out by Bass.

Perhaps because of the trust felt between Hitchcock and Bass, Bass was confident to produce his most minimal and modernist title sequence to date. Starting with a simple grid structure, main titles moved in and out of the grid along with kinetic fill shapes describing the horizontal and vertical form. The type, a simple Sans-Serif, is purely communicative and crisp. The only other animation convention was also simple– shearing the type along the grid, making and breaking the letterforms back and forth.

This simplicity of the approach enriches the work in many essential ways. While the audience is invited to literally read the tiles, they are asked to read the meaning of the work the way an art critique might an abstract minimalist painting. The term “reading between the lines” becomes a literalism. The themes of Psycho are decidedly adult and psychoanalytic: psychosis, murder, sexual relationships, maternal complexes, and split personality. The metaphor of a grid (“order”) being made and then broken (“fracture”) could speak to all of these in a simple and concise way, without revealing a single plot point to the audience.

Structurally, the sequence reveals hierarchy to the audience through clever use of duration and repetition. The credit of “Alfred Hitchock” is repeated twice, book-ending the sequence. Hitchcock was clearly the name and draw of the picture, to the point that he alone did the promotion for the film and appeared on advertising materials as opposed to the stars. Bass indicates this in repetition, scale, and what can only be described as treatment- as credits increase in importance, they actually receive more distressing and slicing as opposed to less. This approach forces the audience to look and attempt to read that which is unreadable, and additionally, requires the typography to be held for additional duration. This extended duration indicates importance. Main actor credits receive one level of “slicing” while co-starring receive none- to limit the duration on screen. This seemingly counter intuitive approach to legibility in typography speaks both to the structural differences when type is brought to time-based media, as well as points the way to the upcoming post-modernist approach to typography beyond the Swiss style.

Technically, the animation was produced with frame-by-frame animation produced with a traditional animation team (led by William Hurtz) and animation stand technology. However, titles were also shot by cameraman Paul Stoleroff. This multimedia approach showed a sophistication on Bass’ part to orchestrate multiple media to a cohesive whole, and also to the multi-disciplinary nature of future motion graphics practioners.

One reason the sequence encourages the audience to so throughly dig their nails into the cinema seat cushion must also be attributed to the relentless and driving score. Bernard Herrman, who scored all of the Hitchcocks’ pictures, deserves credit for the tone set, from the staccato clips and aggressively directed playing of the strings instruments that ratchet up the tension. Bass keyed in on the tempo instructions in hand written direction on Hermans’ score: Molto Agitato (Extremely Agitated). With the title of Pyscho Prelude the piece is as simple in title as the economy of the visuals. Hitchock and Bass originally wanted a modern jazz score, but Herrman was convinced that a string quintet would be more effective. Because of the low budget of Psycho, Herrman scored the film entirely with strings to save money on a full orchestra. The stripped down instrumentation proved a stroke of brilliance, as Herrman experimented with varying the texture and timbre to maximum effect, resulting in some of the most memorable film scoring in cinema’s history.

This sequence was produced while Bass was in the height of his popularity and influence on the form of the title sequence itself. Bass produced more then 60 sequences over the course of this lifetime, and the period of the early 60’s is easily categorized by historians as the “Bass Era”. Title sequences became more and more elaborate during this period, mini productions in and of themselves. As derivative work began to crowd the marketplace and with the cultural revolution of the late 60’s, Bass’ work began to fall out of fashion by the next decade. The 70’s and 80’s are defined by what author Michael Betancourt refers to as the “Logo Period” in title design. The logo period reduced the film to a single “brand” and showed cinema’s reaction and competition with television for audiences. By 1995, the large scale title sequence was seen as decidedly a throwback and old fashioned.

However, a second psycho emerged.

Seven (1996)

Psycho was not just a landmark in title design, but lead the way for the slasher genre. Under the Hollywood code, images that seem shockingly inconsequential to a modern audience were forbidden from appearing on screen. Pyscho may be remember for many complex themes, but will probably not be remembered as the first Hollywood film to dare display a toilet on screen.

With the elimination of the Hollywood code, filmmakers like Hitchock opened the floodgates to a genre of films that displayed increasing amounts gore and violence, and it seems astonishing that the “grind house” films of the 1970’s came such a short few years after the relatively tame Psycho. Modern audience three decades after Psycho were steeped in the language of the killer in film and anesthetized to the image of onscreen violence.  What else could possibly frighten or upset audiences? For director David Fincher and title designer Kyle Cooper it seemed a connection came from Pyscho’s power. Simply, that the unseen can be more unsettling then the seen.

In Seven, the audience is introduced to a grimy, poorly lit and constructed space, filmed entirely in close-up on a table top with macro photography. We are introduced to an unseen figure, going about painstaking work, cutting, writing, and constructing a series of journals. However, it’s clear that this character is working on an all together different job then one an audience member might hold. Shots showing the word “transexual” are highlighted. The word “GOD” is daintily cut and removed from a dollar bill. Broken fingers and razor blades are flashed on screen.

Superimposed over the montage are the credits themselves, barely legible and distressed. The credits appear to be hand made, and many of the artifacts of incorrectly composited film are visible. Much of what is considered a mistake or undesirable effect when optically compositing two pieces of films together is instead sought after: scratches, mis-alignments, and over/underexposure. Kyle Cooper, the title designer of the sequence who worked at creative house R/GA Digital Studios at the time explained it thusly:

“Fincher and I decided to use hand-drawn [type] mixed with Helvetica, and he was very excited by it. He knew that he wanted it to be drawn by hand, because it was from the mind of the killer, and I was taking that further, wanting it to be like the killer did the film opticals himself.”

Many parallels can be drawn between Psycho and Seven. The obvious connection is thematic, however, there are many connections in construction as well. Hierarchy is established with sequence. The primary importance of the show title stands like a tentpole in the middle of the sequence, with lead actor and production credits cascading from it in importance in either direction before and after. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, the two stars, are given specialized treatment with their closeness in proximity to the main title, and also share no screen real estate with any additional photographic imagery. Whereas in Psycho the convention of the breaking up of the letterforms was a clean slice in line with the weapon of choice of Norman Bates, the killer John Doe in Seven has far more grotesque mutilation on his mind. The type treatment reflects this mutilation and, once again, the more illegibility treatment the type receives, the more it shows importance.

This “glitchy” style typography reflected much of the visual language of the design of the time, paralleling the work of David Carson and design studios The Attik and Tomato. Glitch becomes an important idea in contemporary art circles and a convention audiences also have become very familiar with. Glitch can be read many ways, but essentially represents a simple idea: that our own technology is not infallible. The glitches that we see in the creative process also show up in the “clean” digital process and are often used by designers to great effect.

The “glitchiness” of the sequence extends to the electronic score. A remix of Trent Reznor’s “Closer” by Coil (Danny Hide), the vocals are excised and twitted, and the sounds are glitched and run through multiple levels of degradation and digital processing. The only truly audible singing from Reznor comes at the end of the sequence, “You bring me closer to God.” as director Fincher’s title slams on screen in layers of feedback and reverb.

Kyle Cooper realized he could add substantially to the narrative of the film without giving away any of the major plot points. Like Pyscho, Seven features a mid-story plot twist that shocked audiences, and creating a sense of dread and contributing to the story in a nearly non-informational way was important. Like Psycho, the audience brings their own sense of preconceptions, perceptions, and fears to the proceedings, and they are invited to read into the mind of the killer without being spoon fed his motivations.

Seven and Cooper are largely credited with the resurgence in the interest in the form of the title sequence in the near two decades after it landed with audiences. Cooper formed two companies, first Imaginary Forces, and then Prologue Films, both of which have significantly contributed to creating a second renaissance of title sequence design. It’s interesting that Seven is also largely associated with the other major shift in design that happened around the same era. The shift to the computer and working digitally has allowed for incredible amounts of experimentation, form, and options with much less time and effort. While Cooper (and everyone) works digitally post Seven, the intent of the sequence was to be built by hand, modified by hand, and focus on the work of the hand.

In fact, audiences are once again so familiar with many of the conventions introduced in Seven that the “new” has had to find new places to flourish. Much of the creative and challenging work that once only resided in the domain and prestige of cinema now exists in an unexpected space: Television.

Dexter (2006)

As media consumption habits shift with technology, so to does the creative possibilities and outputs. Television was widely perceived as the inferior to Cinema in terms of budget, prestige, and artistic importance. However, with the advent of flat screen cinema style home theaters, and an importance of on-demand media brought on by the rise of video on and over the internet, much creative work is being produced for television productions and for internet endeavors.

Dexter, an American television series, centers on the character of Miami based crime analyst Dexter Morgan. So comfortable are contemporary audiences with the killer on film and in media, that the show presents a simple twist. The killer is now the protagonist, and we as the audience are asked to follow and relate to the killer — who kills other killers.

The title sequence for Dexter imbibes and remixes a rich history of the killer on film with more then a dose of humor. Once conventions are established, they become derivative, and once they are recognizable as such by an audience, they are ripe for satire. While the tone of the show Dexter is still relatively dark and suspenseful, a playfulness and nonchalance accompanies the violence. The title sequence sets the expectations for the violence of the murder act in the everyday with a strange lightness and brilliance.

The sequence, created at the studio Digital Kitchen for the showtime network was created by a team as is the case with much creative work produced contemporarily. The Creative Director and accepting the Emmy award for the work was Eric Anderson, who also edited the final product. After a long creative process, the designer Lyndsey Daniels who worked on the project had a simple sequential idea of showing the audience Dexter’s morning routine. The sequence was boarded and pitched, with an animatic cut to Bernard Hermann’s Psycho prelude to Showtime networks, who produced Dexter. Violence can be found everywhere, in plain site, in the mundane, and in the ordinary, and Dexter explicitly lays this out for the audience to reflect on.

The piece has a decidedly different structure then Pyscho and Seven. Here, the principles all share screen real estate with the images, and the story that builds through imagery is incredibly important, rendering the type almost secondary. While the main show title has a photographic bloody treatment, the title of the show Dexter takes back seat to the character of Dexter, the man. The color red is important- all titles are colored a blood red and the color red is splattered all over the frame as a blood splatter effect might occur in a slasher film. Whether the substance spilled is hot sauce or moquito blood matters little, what is essential is that the color occupies the mind of the viewer and the violence associated with it. Some conventions have been translated all the way from Pyscho. The glitch is present here- the glitch of sudden jump cutting in the live action shots, as seen in Seven. But the type subtly glitches as well- changing sudden position, framing, and visibility.

The aural component is also essential in understanding the sequence. Here, an almost goofy, amiable, and alternatively instrumented tune plays back like a calliope at a carnival. With influences of latin rhythm instruments, mandolin, banjo, harmonium, upright bass, and dozens of other sounds and textures, the tempo and pace is downright lazy. Composer Rolfe Kent creates a true side-show sounding piece. Perhaps more important then the music is the sound design. Every action on screen is accented and explained with sound. A slicing of an orange becomes large and violent. The tightening of a shoe is seen as an obvious allusion to strangulation with the exaggerated sound of the flexing lace. This continues a trend in modern motion graphics, that sophisticated sound design is as essential to the communication as any visual element presented. Kent ensures that his music and sound choices play off one another with complex dissonance, the same dissonance and shifting allegiance the audience feels toward supporting the killer as the protagonist.

As Dexter finishes his morning routine and walks out the door to work in a slowed shot, we finally get a full look at the man. The music ends. The picture cuts to black. A single triangle is dinged.


Art of the Title

The history of Motion Graphics

Saul Bass:A life in Film and Design