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Cinematography: The voice of typography


f one thinks of Typography, in the context of Cinema, one thinks immediately and obviously of the opening and closing titles used in cinema. It’s a funny and perhaps a symbolic coincidence that type in cinema is mostly positioned at “the beginning” and at “the end”. It is as if type merely announces something, seemingly saying noting on its own. Whilst the content, the story, the “real cinematic narrative” is in-between, type is the indifferent packaging that needs to be unwrapped in order to consume. Yet, even if this fact seems to be “a confirmed reality”, we would like to argue that there is still a relationship to be redefined between typography and cinematography.

Lets firstly examine what we know about the obvious presence of typography within cinema known as the title sequence. Titles in films are often designed by unknown designers -with their names not even mentioned in their own contribution to a movie in most cases. One could say that title designers in the history of Graphic Design, if there is one, don’t have such a celebrated position. However, there are exceptions. 

Everyone knows the man behind Alfred Hitchcock ‘s Psycho, Vertigo or North by Northwest: Saul Bass. He is probably so known because of his collaborations with Hollywood’s most prominent filmmakers -besides Hitchcock Bass has collaborated with Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese to name a few. In the time of Saul Bass, titles were even of lesser importance that we could think for today.

“I take this ‘dead’ period and try to do more than simply get rid of names that filmgoers aren’t interested in. I aim to set up the audience for what’s coming” Bass has confirmed. 

Saul Bass' title sequences for Alfred Hitchcock from MovieTitles on Vimeo.

Another title designer that became known for his work is Dan Perri. Even if Perri's work on Star Wars (1977) became a worldwide pop culture phenomenon it’s interesting to remark that where Saul Bass, a former collaborator of his, did have his “own” distinctive style or ethics as a designer, Dan Perri proclaims that he didn’t have a style.

This is evident in the list of title works he produced: The Exorcist (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Star Wars (1977), Raging Bull (1980), Airplane! (1980). Perhaps Perri was the forerunner of what became today’s bloodless professionalism in film titles.


Another prominent type designer for the sake of the movies is Pablo Ferro, the Cuban graphic designer who had immigrated to New York at the age of 13, became famous for his hand-drawn type for Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and his quick-cut montage technique. In one of his interviews, Ferro proclaimed surprisingly that he did his montages without sound, an attitude which was maybe inspired by Saul Bass creative agenda to experiment with numerous ways in making title sequences convey more things than merely crediting all those who have worked on the production of a movie. Ferro's work for “Clockwork Orange” would compete easily with the MTV montage speed ranges nowadays. 

Pablo Ferro: A Short Documentary from Colourmovie on Vimeo.

The title sequence is the story,” he said. “It’s the introduction to the movie. It’s telling you what kind of feeling you’re going to get into. If you fail to do that, the whole movie falls apart” he said, setting some standards for what is title design today. Thankfully, his statement attributes an imported role to typographic design within cinema.

As the introduction of synchronized sound in the movies industry led to the death of the Silent Film era typography also became, as some known “stars” from the grand “Cinéma muet”, degraded and was almost forgotten as a means of expression

In the now classic title sequence for the first James Bond adventure, Dr. No (1962), Maurice Binder affirms once again the power of a condensed experience that could be easily used for branding or advertising a film experience. It's remarkable that still in the naughties James Bond films seem to build on a creative force from the '60s. Speaking of James Bond we must mention Robert Brownjohn and his widely known achievement -per Wikipedia- for another James Bond title, full in the spirit of the 1960s pop culture, From Russia with Love (1963).

Week 4 James Bond Lecture 1 from Martin Potter on Vimeo.

In this title sequence, Brownjohn explores the materiality of typography by projecting the film credits on a body of a typical Bond girl. Robert Brownjohn seems to be inspired by the idea of filming projections by the Bauhaus artist László Maholy-Nagy. Looking to his portfolio of works Brownjohn's cinematic aspect in the way he created things was part of his way of thinking.

However to cut the long, and very occult, story short on the crossroads of Typography and Cinematography as explored in title sequences format, we could cite a last celebrated example: Tom Kan's The Void (2007). Designed by the France-based Japanese artist for Gaspar Noé's psychedelic melodrama seems to capitalize on a lot of typographic clichés but really tells a strong typographic story by itself.

Enter The Void / Opening Credits - Tom Kan - QUAD from QUAD productions on Vimeo.

But what goes beyond this brief introduction of titles by designers? And here we would like to go back to the title of this feature, “Cinematography: The voice of Typography”, and think about the role of typography within filmmaking. We have seen that generally type is used to introduce cinematic content.

Mostly at the beginning and on the ending of a film, typography is conceived as playing a supportive role, nevertheless, some title designers have really taken the opportunity to tell something within their works. Yet, thinking about the beginning of cinema circa the “Silent Film era” and long before the emergence of the so-called “talkies” almost a century ago, in 1927, typography did play a very crucial role in the movies industry. Please think of the meaning conveying role title cards or intertitles did have then. In A dog’s life (1918) Charlie Chaplin seems to have a hard time understanding that the silent movie actress Edna Purviance is flirting with him. The intertitle reading “I’m Flirting” radically sheds some light on what she is aiming to express.

A dog's life (1918) from Typical. on Vimeo.

We could argue that typography in silent films is actually performing the voice of the actors when there was none. Under this perspective, Typography played an essential role in making sense of a movie from the very beginning of Cinematography. But, as the introduction of synchronized sound in the movies industry led to the death of the Silent Film era typography also became, as some known “stars” from the grand “Cinéma muet”, degraded and was almost forgotten as a means of expression -with some exceptions. 

One of the greatest examples where typography and cinematography coexisted in a meaningful ensemble is in the celebrated work of Jean-Luc Godard. The renowned French-Swiss auteur uses Type, Image and Sound with equal respect and he is regarded by many the most typographic sensible filmmaker of all, an attitude which he may have inherited from his Swiss heritage. Godard uses type with the respect he uses images and sounds for him type is not just illustrative or introductive but constructive in the art of cinematography. The way he subverts meaning, playing with letters and words, shows that Godard sees those elements as visual content and not merely as sub scripting some cinematic grand idea.

Thinking of the 88 years old Godard, a man who is still making movies using typography as a vital element to his narrative, is perhaps thinking of cinema itself. Born in 1930, just about at the same time as the "talking cinema" emergence, Godard seems somehow to have the memory of what was the power of cinema in the era of silent film.

The renowned French-Swiss auteur Jean-Luc Godard uses Type, Image, and Sound with equal respect 

The era in which Typography was actively used to create cinematic narratives. The acclaimed director even wrote some very special English subtitles for the Cannes screening of Film Socialisme (2010). This gesture shows his knowledge of how written words give, or change, the meaning when in relation to images and sounds. For him translating the words is like translating poetry which is factually impossible -or at least needs a special effort. Translating poetry is inventing new poetry. And this is exactly what happens when we put subtitles to films. Every subtitled film is a new film.

As much as type changes film, in the case of subtitles and title sequences adding feeling and meaning to it, the film does bring feelings and meanings to typography as well. Typography and Cinematography "recharge" one another, a case which is evident in the unique use of Windsor Light Condensed by the Woody Allen. Windsor is a typeface of British origin that’s found its way, accordingly to Font Review Journal, into the “Ugly American vernacular”. What does this typeface, that’s drawing upon some sort of Art Nouveau characteristics, say to us? What did Woody Allen accomplish through selecting it?

Woody Allen: with W of Windsor (Typography homage) 2K from Glass Distortion on Vimeo.

One thing is clear, the font did have something to say even before Allen selected it. But it is troubling, at least for the typographers, graphic designers and the professionals of visual language that eventually this typeface, at its actual state, does make us think of Woody Allen’s films. Typography preexists to Cinema. One could claim that Type is the functional real and Type in Cinema the meta-real. In John Carpenter's film, They Live (1988) the main character, John Nada, wears sunglasses which reveal to him the hidden dystopian reality he lives in.

Behind the seductive colorful images, one can read in clear Barbara Kruger like typography verbs which define our era. Obey, consume, reproduce, conform, etc. In this underrated piece of cinema typography literally deconstructs the seductive cinematic illusion within a cinematic context and speaks out loud of what really is going on in the big screen.

Eventually, Typography and Cinematography are symbiotic writing systems making use of each other to express or to reflect on humane existence. The Typographer and the Cinematographer are using similar coding in the sense that both typographers and cinematographers alike work, letter by letter, frame by frame to compose reading symbols or containers of emotion. 

The End

THE FILM before THE FILM from THE FILM before THE FILM on Vimeo.

Words by Joshua Olsthoorn @ Typical Organization