Alejandro González Iñárritu’s most recent film, ‘Birdman’, is built upon one seemingly continuous shot, filled with choreographed scenes and hectic action. The movie, in short, follows an actor famous for a superhero franchise, who is now the writer, producer, director and star of a play on Broadway – and he is having a breakdown. This theme of falling apart and coming back together again is somehow anticipated in the opening titles. These are purely typographic, and reveal each word character by character, in alphabetical order: each letter fills in on screen to the drumming of Antonio Sanchez, which is enough to prepare the viewers, setting the right mood of expectancy for what it is going to happen. Iñárritu gave these titles an ulterior layer of meaning: they are, in fact, ‘borrowed’ from Jean Luc Godard’s film, ‘Pierrot Le Fou’ (1965). French New Wave films deliberately communicated a sense of personality through fragmented takes and jump cuts, qualities that were reflected in Godard’s use of type in the 60’s. The subtle ruggedness of letterforms appearing on screen contributes to the films entire identity. Each word appears to be handwritten or cut out, yet, the type always remains flat and legible; artfully synchronised words frame the initial shots of the film.
Perhaps the most famous title sequences to exploit the potential of the type have been created by Saul Bass. The type is the protagonist in the sequences, supported by minimal and often geometric illustrative elements, it follows a rigid grid, using two or three different colours. ‘North By Northwest’ (1959) begins with a green screen with blue lines crossing each other, creating a diagonal pattern that matches the windows of a New York skyscraper, while white type slides up and down this grid. All those elements fit together flawlessly, but rather than just being decorative, they help introduce one of the main themes of the story: crossroads and intersections, as indicated in the title itself.
These are only two examples taken from a larger number of movies which benefit from skillfully designed title sequences, by almost exclusively using typography. It goes to show that, sometimes, letterforms can almost act as sound does in film, supporting the moving image and emphasising what frame of mind the audience should be in. Typography plays a huge role in defining the identity of a product, but often in films it is used merely as an embellishment, sometimes failing to complement the rest of the action. Cleverly chosen type and choreographed animations can elevate the first impression of a film, particularly if the same treatment is applied to the promotional material. When the studios are successful in making the graphic nature of the advertising and the titles feeling cohesive, then the result is often iconic.
Flaminia Rossi