Sunday, July 10, 2016

Whatever Happened To Movie Title Sequences?

My good friend, independent filmmaker Joshua Kennedy, recently sent me a preview copy of his latest film, THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. The movie gets your attention right from the beginning with a very nice title sequence. We see a book resting on a table--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Return of Sherlock Holmes--and the book is opened to reveal the credits inscribed on the "pages". It's a evocative reminder of classic cinema.

Watching this sequence got me thinking about how today's movie title sequences are sadly lacking--in fact, most movies nowadays don't even have title sequences. The audience is lucky if it even gets a title, period. More and more it seems that films are starting out "cold"--without any titles or credits whatsoever. I know I should be used to this way of starting a feature by now, but when I see a picture with no title credits it seems unfinished to me in some way.

The lack of movie title sequences may be the result of the sound bite society that we live in. Why should the audience have to sit through a bunch of title credits when they can be put right into the action? Some would say today's audiences have no time for title credits--but I find that hard to believe considering the two-plus hour length of most popular films. Even most TV shows today--which are far shorter than the average feature film--do not have title sequences, rendering the classic TV show theme song all but extinct.

For several years, typical classic mainstream Hollywood movies had rather basic titles--name of film, leading actors, director of photography, composer, writer, producer, director. But there was still room for creative experimentation, such as the fist punching through a window in MAD LOVE (1935), or the titles designed to look like Christmas cards in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. As the studio system began to go into decline in the 1950s, movie title sequences started to change as well, becoming more and more stylistic. The James Bond films, with their legendary pre-title sequences, theme songs, and expressionistic credits, made a major impact on title sequences for movies in every genre.

Title sequences can be a very important way to set the mood and the tone of a film. I'll give you an example: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. This movie has all the traditional title credits, but they don't get in the way of the sequence being shown to us. Due to John Williams' moody score and Douglas Slocombe's photography, a sense of heightened anticipation is established right from the start. Steven Spielberg doesn't even tell us what is going on--heck, he doesn't even show Indiana Jones' face--but the viewer is drawn into the tale and wants to know what is going on and why. We as viewers get all the relevant credits and a suspenseful trek through the jungle--proving that you don't have to skip the credits to get the audience interested in a story.

I know someone out there is going to say, "Hey, what about your favorite movie of all time, STAR WARS?? That didn't have a title sequence!!" Well, technically it did--we do see the title, after all. And George Lucas specifically designed the title sequence to resemble the titles of 1930s-1940s movie serials. That's far different than today's movies that skip the titles than for seemingly no other reason than the filmmakers just don't want to deal with them.

Not only do title sequences establish an emotional tone for a film--they also can establish an artistic tone for a film as well. Just look at the collaborations between Saul Bass and Alfred Hitchcock--or better yet, Saul Bass with anybody. Many times just the font used for title credits can influence the overall feel of a film. Can you imagine, say, GONE WITH THE WIND, or THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY without their title sequences?

The lack of title sequences in movies today has resulted in all the credits being shoved to the back of the film. This results in end credits lasting sometimes up to ten minutes, since because of union rules, everyone who has anything to do with the film gets a credit. Many movies now use numerous CGI effects, and the creation of those effects involves hundreds of most big-budget blockbusters literally have thousands of people working on them. I have nothing against anyone getting proper credit for their work, but if you have ever sat around waiting for a post-credits scene, you know how long some end credits go on and on. The problem with having all the credits at the end is that those credits are never as artistic as title credits, and many viewers get up and leave when the end credits start--meaning that most people never see them anyways.

I know I sound old-fashioned, but I miss the traditional credits sequences to movies. There's something about seeing an anticipated movie title up on the screen--or the name of a favorite performer or director. To me, giving someone a large credit at the beginning of the film is a sign of respect for that person's talent. (And before you bring it up, yes, I'm well aware that some filmmakers use credits as a way to assuage their massive egos.) What are some of your favorite movie title sequences? Are there some 21st Century title sequences that deserve to be mentioned?

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