Saul Bass Inspired Sequences
It was the 16th anniversary of Saul Bass' death yersterday, but still even today his influence can be seen in many designs and animations. There is no doubt that many of his title sequences have a very distinctive visual style and a simple but aesthetically pleasing handmade look to them, my favorites being The Man With The Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder. When I look at his work, I can't help but see similarities to the earlier constructivist movement from Russia in the early 20th Century.
The sequence that initially jumps to mind when thinking of animations that borrow from Bass' distinctive style is Catch Me If You Can. This is a movie set in the 1960's (when Saul Bass' popularity was at a high), so taking influence from him seems like a logical choice to make. Not only does this capture the look of some of his work, but it also sets out to achieve one of the things that Bass found the most important when creating a title sequence
“My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set mood and the prime underlying core of the film’s story, to express the story in some metaphorical way. I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it”
What Bass is saying is that each title sequence just isn't something pretty that acts as a way to showcase names, it is a unique opportunity to deliver another story to the audience. It could act as a prologue to the films narrative, a device to set the mood of the film or hint at plot twists that are only noticed when you watch it again (something that I find very satisfying), or a piece that runs alongside the main plot that sets the audience up for what is to come. Keeping this in mind, it is easy to see how important a well designed title sequence is for a film.
In this article I will look at some of the work that has been influenced by the great designer. Saul Bass' work not only contributed to the look of these animations, but his philosophy and approach to creating a story to go alongside the main feature lends itself to many of them as well, as you will see. Scroll to the bottom to view embedded videos.
Catch Me If You Can has a title sequence that stays true to this philosophy, and on Art of the Title you can see an in depth interview with Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas on their techniques and processes.
Being such a successful and prolific designer, his style has been replicated many times. Here are some of my favorite animations that take inspiration from his work.
I want to look at the fantastic prints and title sequence homage that followed, but first I want to mention the original sequence that had a very different approach.
Dexter is a widely acclaimed TV series about a blood spatter analyst for Miami Metro Police Department who is also serial killer. I think it is a great show but always made me feel slightly uncomfortable for a few reasons. Firstly, the current title sequence follows Dexter on his morning routine but close cuts and crisp sounds turn normal things like shaving or cutting an orange into something that makes the viewer feel uneasy - it is clear that it is taking a normal routine and using it to mirror and suggest his murderous activities. I have to skip past it every time I watch an episode, I just can't bear to watch. The other thing that makes me uncomfortable is the fact that Dexter is very much portrayed as a good guy who can't help but kill. His character is very likable, trying to fit in but still confused about his urges to murder. It is a strange feeling to be rooting for a character who is a serial killer. This feeling is reflected perfectly in the aforementioned title sequence, his normal life constantly juxtaposed against his murderous tendencies.
The new sequence, created by Ty Mattson was based on his earlier prints for season 6 promotional material. This is instantly recognisable as being influenced by Saul Bass, and Ty himself says
"The poster series that I created for Dexter was inspired by mid-century modern design and particularly the work of Saul Bass – who developed both static graphics as well as animated title sequences... This is what I imagine the Dexter title sequence might look like if the show had aired in the 60′s."
The title sequence he created takes a different approach, more of a summary of the storyline than an insight into his mind, although it does take some of the visual devices from the original, it gives more of a clue as to what happens in the show. I love the visual style and approach of the animation, although it could look a lot more polished if the keyframing, typography and animation was given more attention.
Another older piece, created by the talented Danny Yount at Prologue. This is very much in the same vein as Catch Me if You Can - the visual identity again has a very similar look to it and the approach is to outline the film's storyline in the sequence. One of my favourite things about this approach is that you don't realise some of the references that it is making until you watch the film then revisit the opening sequence.
A beautiful mixture of 2D and 3D, with a simple colour palette and a painted, textured feel contribute to the aesthetic of this teaser trailer for the computer game, Resistance 3. This is also very reminiscent of the work of Bass and is a welcome change to the standard game footage usually used in game trailers.
Olly Moss has created the wonderfully simple cover art for the game, and Spov Design was given a brief to expand the style into a trailer that took inspiration from Saul Bass. In an interview with Computer Arts magazine, James Wignall (Mutant Hands) shed some light on the brief and the challenges faced in the creation of this piece.
"Paring the scenes back to their bare essentials, explains Wignall, was the main challenge: "Simplicity was the key," he confirms. "Another obstacle was trying to make it not look too '3D', so it was in keeping with the style-frames. We would have loved to animate the piece traditionally, but as always deadlines meant this wasn't possible.""
An excellent unofficial tribute to the film 'Drive' - although it is not intended as a title sequence, it still summarises the storyline in similar ways to other animations featured here. I feel as though it isn't quite as successful at this, it was only created as a short personal project but I would have liked to have seen more references to the storyline and portrayals of events - the designers started going down that road but seemed to cut short early and have no real conclusion. This would not be so much of a problem for a title sequence, as leaving the viewer to want more is what makes them successful - setting you up for the main feature without giving too much away.
The real strengths of this homage lies in the mood that it captures and the portrayal of the main character. The soundtrack and simple aesthetic mirrors the atmosphere in the movie and it is clear that the character is a professional and somewhat unemotional, so I feel that just those 30 seconds is a very accurate representation of the feel of the movie.
Along with the obvious similarities to the work of Saul Bass, there is a very obvious connection to the series of film poster homage by Olly Moss. This is due to the 'fan work' nature of it, and the use of simple shapes and colour palette.
This typographic animation is based on an excerpt from Bill Mahers book 'The New New Rules: A Funny Look at How Everybody but Me Has Their Head Up Their Ass'.
This differs from the other animations featured here in that it is mainly typographic, but still looks and feels very similar to them all. The piece is comparing the current NFL financial model to socialism, which is why it has been created with the Constructivist inspired look, so perhaps more was borrowed from this than the work of Saul Bass.
In summary, it is very clear that the work of Saul Bass is very influentual. The question still remains - are designers who use this style simply ripping it off? The argument will always be there and it is a fine line between an advancement of a style and plagiarism. If this is the case then perhaps Saul himself can be accused of plagiarising the constructivist-era posters. Personally I don't believe any of these designers are guilty of anything, even the ones who set out to copy the style as they all brought a new perspective and techniques.
Another thing had occured to me. Perhaps this recent influx of animations is just a trend, a throwback to a bygone era that will pass once people start getting sentimental about other things. But conversly these Bass-inspired animations have been around for as long as I can remember and the trend doesn't seem to be stopping any time soon.
The Man With The Golden Arm
Anatomy of a Murder
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Tribute to Drive
Irritable Bowl Syndrome
Catch Me If You Can
Posted: Thu 26th Apr 2012
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