Saul Bass was born on May 8, 1920, in the Bronx, New York, to Eastern European Jewish immigrant parents. He graduated from James Monroe High School in the Bronx and studied part-time at the Art Students League in Manhattan until attending night classes with György Kepes at Brooklyn College. He began his time in Hollywood during the 1940s doing print work for film ads, until he collaborated with filmmaker Otto Preminger to design the film poster for his 1954 film Carmen Jones. Preminger was so impressed with Bass’s work that he asked him to produce the title sequence as well. This was when Bass first saw the opportunity to create something more than a title sequence, but to create something which would ultimately enhance the experience of the audience and contribute to the mood and the theme of the movie within the opening moments. Bass was one of the first to realize the creative potential of the opening and closing credits of a movie.
Bass became widely known in the film industry after creating the title sequence for Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). The subject of the film was a jazz musician’s struggle to overcome his heroin addiction, a taboo subject in the mid-’50s. Bass decided to create a controversial title sequence to match the film’s controversial subject. He chose the arm as the central image, as the arm is a strong image relating to drug addiction. The titles featured an animated, white on black paper cut-out arm of a heroin addict. As he expected, it caused quite a sensation.
For Alfred Hitchcock, Bass provided effective, memorable title sequences, inventing a new type of kinetic typography, for North by Northwest (1959), Vertigo (1958), working with John Whitney, and Psycho (1960). It was this kind of innovative, revolutionary work that made Bass a revered graphic designer. Before the advent of Bass’s title sequences in the 1950s, titles were generally static, separate from the movie, and it was common for them to be projected onto the cinema curtains, the curtains only being raised right before the first scene of the movie.
Bass once described his main goal for his title sequences as being to ‘’try to reach for a simple, visual phrase that tells you what the picture is all about and evokes the essence of the story”. Another philosophy that Bass described as influencing his title sequences was the goal of getting the audience to see familiar parts of their world in an unfamiliar way.
He designed title sequences for more than 40 years, and employed diverse film making techniques, from cut-out animation for Anatomy of a Murder (1958), to fully animated mini-movies such as the epilogue for Around the World in 80 Days (1956), and live action sequences. His live action opening title sequences often served as prologues to their films and transitioned seamlessly into their opening scenes.
Toward the end of his career, he was rediscovered by Martin Scorsese who had grown up admiring his film work. For Scorsese, Saul Bass (in collaboration with his wife Elaine Bass) created title sequences for Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993), and Casino (1995), his last title sequence. His later work with Scorsese saw him move away from the optical techniques that he had pioneered and move into the use of computerized effects. Bass’s title sequences featured new and innovative methods of production and startling graphic design.
Saul Bass designed emblematic movie posters that transformed the visuals of film advertising. Before Bass’s seminal poster for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), movie posters were dominated by depictions of key scenes or characters from the film, often both juxtaposed with each other. Bass’s posters, however, typically developed simplified, symbolic designs that visually communicated key essential elements of the film. For example, his poster for a Man with a Golden Arm, with a jagged arm and off-kilter typography, starkly communicates the protagonist’s struggle with heroin addition. Bass’s iconic Vertigo (1958) poster, with its stylized figures sucked down into the nucleus of a spiral vortex, captures the anxiety and disorientation central to the film. His poster for Anatomy of a Murder (1959), featuring the silhouette of a corpse jarringly dissected into seven pieces, makes both a pun on the film’s title and captures the moral ambiguities within which this court room drama is immersed.
He did great work for Stanley Kubrick, Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder among other. His last commissioned film poster was created for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), but it was never distributed. His poster work spanned five decades and inspired numerous other poster and graphic designers. Bass’s film posters are characterized by a distinctive typography and minimalistic style.
In some sense, all modern opening title sequences that introduce the mood or theme of a film can be seen as a legacy of Saul Bass’s innovative work. In particular, though, title sequences for some recent movies and television series, especially those whose setting is during the 1960s, have purposely emulated the graphic style of his animated sequences from that era. Some examples of title sequences that pay homage to Bass’s graphics and animated title sequences are Catch Me If You Can (2002), X-Men: First Class (2011), and the opening to the AMC series Mad Men.
Check out some iconic Saul Bass opening titles HERE