Death of the Title Sequence

 

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Since my return from Philadelphia I’ve been listening to Film Score Monthly’s groundbreaking release of the music of Superman. The FSM “Blue Box” contains eight compact discs containing the complete original scores from all four Christopher Reeve Superman films (1978-1987) and the music from the short-lived 1988 Superman cartoon series. It’s a remarkable achievement by such a small record label, who specialize in the music of the movies. The rich history of the Superman films and their music is documented in an accompanying 160 page book — a must-have for any fan of the series or the music of John Williams.

Superman: The Movie remains the quintessential superhero film and the comic book adaptation against which all others are judged. While director Richard Donner has had other successes — namely The Omen and the Lethal Weapon franchises — his most accomplished work remains Superman. The expensive and exhausting production of the original 1978 film has been documented elsewhere, most recently in the 12-DVD box set released by Warners in 2006 to celebrate their “year of Superman” that coincided with the release of Brian Singer’s Superman Returns. I’d like to focus on a few smaller aspects of Donner’s work, namely the music and the main titles.

Listening to the music of Superman: The Movie by John Williams, I recall being six years old and hearing the soaring march for the first time. The Superman theme — which includes a brilliant three-note phrase that seems to call out “Sup-er-man!” — is the music of flight. It is visceral and transparent, and most important, it soars. Perhaps most interesting is the “balletic preparatory” music that precedes the introduction of the fanfare and, by corollary, Superman himself. It’s a dotted triplet rhythm that is carried by the low strings and sets a variety of action sequences in motion. It’s used to great effect during the first big reveal, when Clark Kent transforms into Superman on the streets of Metropolis to save the life of Lois Lane, who dangles off a building roof. There’s something about that “preparatory” phrase that is very John Williams. It’s dead serious, yet playful, and entirely cinematic. It reassures the audience of Superman’s imminent arrival in the same way that the shark motif in Jaws warned of imminent danger. The moment when Clark tears open his shirt, revealing the Superman shield, is effective because of this musical lead-up.

Part of the original film’s appeal is the opening title sequence — designed by R. Greenberg and Associates — that features the full musical fanfare and march in Dolby Stereo. Donner’s intent was to immerse the audience in the world of Metropolis and the mythology of Superman without losing a sense of verisimilitude — the quality of appearing real. This was also manifested in the film’s marketing campaign, which utilized the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly.” As such, the film itself begins in a movie theater with the curtains closed. The frame-within-a-frame reveals another frame when the curtains part (like in those old picture palaces) and a screen appears, followed by the noise of an old projector.

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The appearance of the date “June 1938” is followed by a black-and-white faux newsreel narrated by a small child, who explains that during the Great Depression, not even the great city of Metropolis was spared hardships and despair. The child turns the pages of an Action Comics book and the camera focuses on a sketch of the Daily Planet. The newsreel then dissolves to a live-action version of the Daily Planet building at night, and the camera arches beyond its roof and into the heavens.

Though music has been playing in the background up until this point, it’s been nondescript. A timpani roll formally introduces the beginning of the title sequence and the film-proper. The first title, that of producer Alexander Salkind, appears to move beyond the old-fashioned movie screen (whose ratio is approximately 1.33:1) and into the theater space. As the blue letters invade the theater space, the screen widens to the full Panavision width of 2.35:1 and the side curtains move beyond the limits of the frame.

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The music continues to swell, building off of the preparatory phrase, until the S shield fills the screen with a red glow.

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The remainder of the title sequence repeats the innovative 3-D effect for each name and credit, giving the impression they are flying past the audience.

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The starfield background is occasionally interrupted by a cosmic anamoly or starburst, which is timed to the music. Or, should I say, the music is timed to the image. Either way, it works beautifully to convey the grand spectacle to follow. In his original review of the film, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther expressed his distaste for the sequence when he wrote that the “opening credits … are so portentous they could be announcing the discovery of a new mouthwash…”

Little did he know that the main title sequence was slowly fading from view. In the years since Superman: The Movie, studio executives and filmmakers have moved the bulk of credits to the end of the film. My own research reveals that by the early 1990s, most Hollywood films held the “main” credits for the end, reversing a long history of studio filmmaking that announced up-front who was responsible for the film you were about to see. Some have attributed this move to audience polling during advance screenings. Studios risk losing the audience’s attention during long, cumbersome title sequences. Even Steven Spielberg has noted that he prefers the end credit system, since it enables him to start the film without disruption or pause.

This is ironic since Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can opens with one of the most entertaining title sequences in recent memory. Indeed, the animated titles pay homage to a by-gone era of studio filmmaking, when title songs and sequences became as famous — or even more famous — than the films themselves. Here I’m thinking of the Pink Panther and James Bond series, which incorporated complex animation and choreography to open each installment.

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While Catch Me If You Can appears to be the exception, a number of studio films continue to place the main titles at the beginning of the film. They are noticeably translucent, tucked at the edges of the frame, in order not to detract from the introductory scenes that, no doubt, are establishing character and plot. The Devil Wears Prada opens with a montage sequence showing Andy and other women preparing for an early morning job interview. The sequence is set to the up-tempo KT Tunstall song “Suddenly I See,” which glues the whole thing together, and sets a rhythmic tone for the film to follow.

Some films have even crafted intricate and visually interesting end credit sequences. The second and third Bourne films showcase an array of graphics that interact with crew names. The use of Moby’s “Extreme Ways” works not only a musical signature for all three films (they all incorporate this song over the end credits), but it provides the quick tempo and catchy melody that turns ordinary credits into an arresting credit sequence. See the credits here.

Other films have dispensed with opening titles altogether. After studio logos, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor opens on the image of a sunset and gets down to business without even announcing the title of the film. Batman Begins opens with an elaborate sunset shot filled with swarming bats that form the shape of the bat signal. No title, just the shield. I admit there’s an immediacy to this technique, since you are instantly plunged into a fiction without the presentational aspects that have shaped our collective notions of movie structure.

More recently, 3:10 to Yuma, Michael Clayton, and No Country for Old Men offer their respective titles at the start of the film, but nothing more until the closing credits. This is by far the most common technique utilized by current filmmakers: state the title and get on with it.

For a while, especially in the 1960s, the title sequence was an emerging art form. Saul Bass is a legend in the field, producing the titles for Psycho, Anatomy of a Murder, Vertigo, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and my personal favorite, Casino. In addition to Superman, R. Greenberg and Associates created the titles for Home Alone and The Untochables. And, of course, Maurice Binder’s Bond sequences are among some of the finest and trashiest ever produced.

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The novelty of these sequences lies in their ability to set a tone, create a visual and sonic signature, and synthesize the iconographic elements of a given film. The best ones can emerge as standalone set pieces, while others simply serve as introductory “warm ups.” It’s not surprising, then, that the Superman sequence began with a ritual that has also faded from our movie-going habit: the grand theater with a proscenium and curtains that reveal the screen.

Instead, we now get more commercials in front of the feature, smaller screens, and movies that are all too willing to cut to the chase.

What are your favorite title sequences?

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105 thoughts on “Death of the Title Sequence

  1. I can’t believe no one has mentioned the opening credits from “Juno” yet. I read that the process of making those opening credits, which included photocopying and hand coloring each individual frame of film that was shot to get the sort of sketchy, vintage effect took just as long as it took to make the entire film. Plus, the song choice sets the tone for the movie as well.

  2. There are no titles, not even the name of the movie at the top of The Assassination of Jesse James by… perhaps cos its so long.

    I think its no longer as necessary, if you want to know who did what in a movie, you can check imdb.

    The titles for Eternal Sunshine are interestingly about 20 minutes into the film.

  3. For very different reasons, I highly rate: The Exorcist (red lettering against a black screen, nothing new, but when you add the strings in the background they become real unnerving). Mission: Impossible (you get the whole film sped up underneath the credits – now that’s bold!). Out Of Sight (titles appear over freeze framed and soft focus shots of Clooney crossing the road – cool, breezy, hip… very much like the film itself). Goodfellas (say no more).

  4. I always loved kubrick’s title sequences. from the sexually metaphoric brilliance of the dr. strangelove titles, to the simple yet incredibly effective titles of clockwork orange.

    but my all time favorite is from full metal jacket. music playing, cue classic italic white letters on black background- warner bros. pictures presents, a stanley kubrick film, full metal jacket.

    fuckin awesome

  5. You guys may be talking about solely movies, but the title sequence for Dexter is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It manages to make things like cooking breakfast and tying your shoes look very serial killer-ish

  6. MARS ATTACKS!

    The problem, though, is that the distraction of the names flying prominently by almost ruins the sequence, which is beautiful and entertaining enough to deserve the screen time all by itself.

  7. best title sequence of them all occurred at the end…AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. every year at Oscar time that movie gets trashed as one of the worst winners. humbug. i can’t think of many modern films that rival it for pure entertainment. the end titles are classic and a hoot.

  8. also…..CITY SLICKERS was terrific. funny, animated, inventive, and accompanied by Marc Shaiman’s rousing score.

  9. Come on, people!! North by Northwest, Psycho, all simple yet elegant introductions to brilliant films!! For purposes of good form, though, I must admit that the music is what sets these apart from the rest

  10. In addition to MARS ATTACKS! I would add ED WOOD to my list of favourite title sequences and coming to the music perhaps “Sleepy Hollow”, too although the font used for the titles isn’t too original.

  11. I’m showing my age, but I loved the opening to “Dead Man”. A credit sequence that takes it’s time, plus the unnerving Neil Young score, never fails to send a chill up my spine. I also vividly remember the non-credit opening to “Robocop”. Took me by surprise…I sat in the theatre “waiting” for the movie to begin, ’cause few dared to open a movie back then without any credits!

  12. I can’t believe nobady has mentioned them, but Quentin Tarantino’s opening credits are some of the best ever. Reservoir Dogs strut, Pulp Fiction’s Miserlou/Jungle Boogie, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, and Death Proof all have amazing title sequences.

    and just as good, a very recent example, is Rodriguez’s opening title sequence for Grindhouse. Rose McGowan’s go-go dance is amazing

  13. For an extremely minimal title, not even sequence, look at Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. The title in simple lettering down in the corner (preceded by nothing by the USA Films logo), the weird sounds in the background that turn out to be a video game, then the hard cut to the Mexican desert and Benicio del Toro drawling the first line of the film. I like the opening of There Will Be Blood in much the same way.

  14. Kudos to Nancy (L.A. Confidential) and especially homer16b (Dead Man). I’d like to add the title sequence for “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai.” Jarmusch picks a low-key rhythmic hip-hop to play over Ghost Dog’s driving through the dark city streets in a sleek, black car. The music perfectly evokes the melancholy and the urban zen of the lonely hitman.

    And thanks to Ben-Jammin for his brief analysis of “The Fugitive” credits. Besides “Se7en,” “Psycho,” “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” and “Goodfellas,” the title sequence for “The Fugitive” (if it can even be called a title sequence) is just a tour de force of propulsive, economic storytelling: the murder, investigation, police interrogation, courtroom scenes, and incarceration are all covered within maybe 10 minutes and without feeling like something has been left out. By that point, you’re so engrossed in the thing that when the death row inmates are shuffling onto the Corrections Bus and the thin blue credits reappear, you realize how little time it has taken for the director to work his magic. It’s also rather interesting upon repeated viewings to see what image the director chooses to place his name over and what image he chooses to place the screenwriter’s name over, etc.

  15. The opening credits in three musicals and one ballet film: 1) 1962’s “The Music Man”, in which a miniature animated band forms the composer/librettist/lyricist’s name as well as the title, and then goes on to form huge musical instruments against which all the other names appear 2) the opening credits of “Oliver!” showing what appear to be 19th-century engravings, 3) the opening credits of the 1936 “show Boat”, in which paper cutouts on a moving turntable carry banners containing the opening credits, and 4)the opening credits to Rudolf Nureyev’s ballet film “Don Quixote”, which show the credits set against 19th-century French artist Gustave Doré’s famous illustrations of the mad knight.

    I also love the opening credits in the Peter Sellers Inspector Clouseau movies.

  16. Twin Peaks, both the movie and the show; actually David Lynch also excellent title sequences, yet another credit to his directorial talent. The simple and seemingly obvious Blue Velvet opening really sets the tone for the film, as do the stunning Wild At Heart opening. Lost Highway has some of the best opening credits ever seen, and Mulholland Dr.’s entire opening quickly pulls you into the film. He’s also done great things with closing credits in Wild At Heart and INLAND EMPIRE. Everything about David Lynch is so great, he’s my favorite director. Good point about Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino as well, I love those directors… maybe I’m drawn to directors who make memorable title sequences. Oh yes, and the film Stay has a beautiful, elaborate final credits sequence that gives you background information to the movie.

  17. Great post! – I was watching “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” the other day, and about 15 minutes in I realized there were no opening credits. Weird – but not necessarily bad. ANYWAY – When I read you post, I could only think of another website I’ve been to where the host is posting the ‘Title Card’ of every movie. It’s pretty impressive – especially in regard to the different uses of color, size and shape the powers that be decide to treat their title with – and how often the title card is different than what we know from the advertising material. Check the site out, it’s pretty good.

    http://www.shillpages.com/movies/index2.shtml

  18. A director reveals a lot about his ego depending on what image he decides to put the “Directed by” credit over. In “Sleepy Hollow” the director places this credit over an epic, foreboding shot of the Van Tassel manor overlooking a dark field with an eerie scarecrow at the bottom of the frame as Johnny Depp’s Ichabod Crane approaches at dusk. I think Tim Burton has earned this mighty Gothic tableau. I can’t think of any directors off the top of my head who have placed their credit over an image that clearly shows how self-important they are.

    In another impressive title sequence, Sam Mendes impressed me with choosing to put the final credit, his own, over a shot of an apprehensive boy, in “Road to Perdition.” This strikes me as an admission that Mendes has no illusions about his fairly unfledged run as a film director.

    I did not like “Mission: Impossible 3” but the one shot I remember from it is J.J. Abrams putting “Directed by J.J. Abrams” over a shot of a dog panting in the front seat of a car while watching Tom Cruise enter a drugstore.

  19. has anyone seen ‘Funny Games U.S’ they put the end credits at the begonning which was a bit weird when i watched it

  20. Lord of War had good opening credits, you got to see how a bullet was made, shipped, loaded, and fired, ultimately ending up in some poor guy’s head.

  21. Another cool R Greenburg sequesnce utilizeing the same technique as Superman (although very different in tone) is Total Recall. There’s even a little satire in the fact that all the rest of the names (including the title) fit nicely in the ‘wake’ of Arnold’s giant screen credit.

    Another one I like is Brannagh’s Dead Again with the titles mixed with flashbacks and newspaper headlines that set the whole film up. The whole things FEELS like Hitchcock, without specifcally refrencing any Hitchcock sequence I can remember.

    I always feel that Bladrunner’s Titles, while simple are extremely powerful and mood setting.

    And all the Alien films, save the 4th one, have excellent opening credits.

    Great article. Fun discussion.

  22. How can nobody say Barbarella!!!! Jane Fonda rolling around in zero gravity taking her close off is priceless!!!! here it is in all it’s glory!!! please to enjoy

  23. Thanks for all the comments! I’m glad this topic is of interest to so many of you.

    Fincher’s work seems to get a lot of votes, and his title sequences definitely stand out for me as well. I also completely forgot about the innovative credits of Lord of War. Mr. Matinee’s suggestion of Tarantino is also well placed. With Tarantino, I always thought saving his “Directed by” credit until the end of his films was effective.

    And I also agree with Randall’s suggestion of Bullitt. Great titles and film.

  24. Don’t forget Men in Black, definitely one of the more entertaining title sequences. Another of my favorites, Grosse Pointe Blank, comes to mind as it does a good job of setting the mood of the film.

    As for the decline of the title sequence in general, I’d blame the big-budget blockbuster phenomenon. There’s simply too many people involved in a movie these days, and if you start having to pick and choose which of the 250+ egomaniac actors and crew members get top billing a lot of feathers will get ruffled. So better to just have stuido logo, and quick credits for the director and maybe a couple well-known producers/actors for name recognition.

  25. CopThis: A lot of the rationale is based on the fact that the Director’s Guild of America controls what credit can be displayed in the “head credits” or main titles. Which is why George Lucas was fined for not using a traditional main title sequence for Star Wars. Lucas then cut ties with the Guild to avoid future fines.

    The Guild defines what is an “artistic” credit or a “technical” credit. Cinematography, music, direction are considered artistic, while sound editing/design is a technical credit.

    With the proliferation of non-title openings, it seems that the Guild has eased their stance on the issue since 1977.

  26. While some title sequences are great, like say, SEVEN, I am glad to read the title sequence is dying. I am an independent filmmaker and have never used opening titles in either one of my feature films. I just prefer to get the movie going. I have noticed more and more that they are disappearing, and I am glad. They are such a waster of time.

  27. My top 20 (off the top of my head) favorite Opening Credits:

    1. Jaws/Jaws 2
    2. Vertigo
    3. Terminator 2
    4. Halloween (original)
    6. Fight Club
    7. Superman: The Movie
    8. Signs
    9. Psycho (original)
    10.Spiderman 2
    11.Legend
    12.The Fox And The Hound
    13.The Faculty (okay, so it’s more of a character role call, but still loved it)
    14.Beetlejuice
    15.The Warriors
    16.Superbad
    17.The Bride Of Frankenstein
    18.Seven
    19.Insomnia (Nolan version)
    20.Catch Me If You Can

  28. I liked the title sequence from ‘Fight Club’. I think it was the jarring music and quick cut shots that made it stick in my brain.

  29. I can’t believe someone mentioned “Real Genius”… they are WONDERFUL starting credits. And the ending, set to Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is almost surreal in it’s beauty, considering this was ostensibly a college comedy flick.

    Agreed on the fact that end credits are getting more action. I remember “Traffic”‘s quite well… the movie just ended with that baseball game and the credits started. I thought the end of “Michael Clayton” did a similar thing (and of course Gilroy and Soderbergh are friends.

  30. *delicatessen [excelent]
    *blue velvet [simple and great]
    *stranger than fiction [at the end of the film]
    *ed wood [and all tim burton’s fims]

    just to name some

  31. The title sequence to the 2003 film “Irreversible” is really cool: it scrolls the credits backwards, as if on rewind, and then when it reaches the title the camera does a nice spin before going to black again, this time with one name on the screen at a time, accompanied by a percussive pedal tone. Amazing intro, watch it here:

  32. August 15, 1979.
    Ziegfeld Theater, NYC.
    Apocalypse Now.
    No credits…at all.
    They were in a booklet handed out after the movie ended.
    (I still have two dozen booklets.)

  33. the star wars trilogy……Lucas got fined from the director’s guild for putting the credits at the end of the movie….I believe it all began with him, since Superman came out the next year…..

  34. For what it’s worth, the opening credit sequence to Spike Lee’s 25th Hour is capable of bringing me to tears.

    Spike always has good opening title sequences, as do Tim Burton and David Fincher, as some people have mentioned.

  35. All I know is I hate credits that play over the action….either save them or do a title sequence..too distracting during action scenes….

  36. Oh, one last thing……check out YouTube to see What If Sal Bass did the Credits for Star Wars….its really funny watching Bass’ take on what his version would have looked like…

  37. Juno, Closuer by Nine Inch Nails (the video side), Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and that’s all I can think of at the moment.

  38. I agree with you 100% about the marriage of imagery and music creating a powerful title sequence for Superman (BTW, greatest theme music EVER). I’d also say the same thing happens successfully, albeit with a different tone, for another movie: Halloween II. The gradual closing in on the pumpkin which falls away to reveal the cobweb encrusted skull inside, accompanied with building dread by John Carpenter’s iconic 5/4 theme music. Very dark, very creepy . . . too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to that.
    I also loved Spike Lee’s early movies during my college years, which were the socially-conscious years, of course. The opening sequences for Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever and Malcolm X very much did their job in setting the tone for each film and building your anticipation for the story to begin, with a combination of the right kind of music (hip-hop, jazz, R & B or orchestral) set against very vibrant, very urgent imagery.
    Interestingly, two of Stephen Summers’ movies, Mummy Returns and Van Helsing, have title sequences at the end of those films, which I found very odd and incongruent, though the sequence art in both cases is fabulous (movies themselves not so much, but there you are).

  39. Kudos to FaithfulWeb for mentioning “The Naked Gun”!! I forgot how howlingly funny it was!! (especially the ‘birth’ scene!) And a nod to JM for mentioning “Irreversible”. It bought back a memory of the credits to “Kiss Me Deadly”…definately worth a look & quite unusual for 1955!!

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