Saul Bass’ unique and eye-catching designs changed cinema and the way audiences viewed title sequences forever. He truly was a trailblazer.
“When I first came into the field, there were no design schools,” said Bass. “As a matter of fact, in those days, what we do was not called design. It was called commercial art.”
Saul took a night class in painting and essentially taught himself the skills that would later launch him into the public’s eye. But the journey wasn’t without hard work and persistence.
He said, “I decided somebody in New York needed a designer like me. I mean, I didn’t see myself as God’s gift to anybody but I said, ‘Somebody needs somebody like me who can do what I do.’ Whatever it was I could do.”
Bass went from office to office every day looking for a job, and after about three months, he found a position which offered him $20 a week. Part of his work included creating film symbols for advertisement campaigns. And this was when his big break happened.
He said, “During that period, I happened to be working on the symbols for Carmen Jones and Man with the Golden Arm for [director] Otto Preminger. And at one point in my work, Otto and I just looked at each other and said, ‘Why not make it move?’ It was really as simple as that.”
But it wasn’t just making the captivating images move that made Bass’ designs integral to the films. He was doing something deeper too.
“I had felt for sometime that the audience involvement with the film should really begin with the very first frame. You have to remember, that until then titles had tended to be dull credits, mostly ignored or used for popcorn time. So there seemed to be a real opportunity to use titles in a new way. To actually create a climate for the story that was about to unfold.”
For example, with Man with the Golden Arm, Saul created a jagged arm image which symbolized the “disjointed existence of the drug addict”.
Bass also had the opportunity to work with director Alfred Hitchcock when making Psycho, a transformative experience.
“Hitchcock really took me under his wing for that film and gave me what amounts to an intensive short course in filmmaking,” said Bass. “He was really wonderful.”
Bass developed the storyboards for several scenes in the film, including the shower sequence, which Hitchcock even let him direct himself. The two also worked together on Vertigo and North by Northwest.
As Saul continued to develop his title card technique, he moved toward incorporating more realistic, live action images that would accent the content of the film, such as in Seconds. In this sequence, the “destruction” and “reconstruction” of a human face plays off the movie’s central theme.
He also experimented with longer title sequences, such as with West Side Story – where the end sequence allows the audience to decompress from the tragic ending – and with making the title sequence a prologue, such as with Grand Prix or Big Country.
Eventually, Bass branched out and began directing scenes for other films, commercials, and even his own projects. His short film, Why Man Creates, won an Academy Award in 1969.
“I want to make beautiful things,” Saul Bass said, “even if nobody cares.”
Thankfully, people cared and appreciated his genius work.