In elementary matte titling over a pictorial background, two identical mattes of the printed and designed title cards were produced, one printed black on white and the second white on black. When the first was exposed in an optical printer against the background footage the director or producer wanted used under the titles, what resulted was an image of the background with the text initially represented as a blank area in the image corresponding to the precise shape of the lettering on the title card. The second matte was then printed optically over the picture, with its white (or sometimes colored) text now perfectly registered with the blank areas of the picture. This second optical pass printed or colored in the words of the title, frame by frame. The main title of Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), for example, unfolds over a screen-sized matchstick blind slowly being raised on picture windows that look out on a Greenwich Village courtyard (the largest and most complex set ever constructed on a soundstage to date, dramatically revealed to an eager audience when the matchstick curtain "goes up"). Matte titling was a laborious process demanding extremely precise registration of mattes and background plates.
Nowadays, virtually all feature film titles are produced on the graphic designer's computer, using a graphics or animation program, and then transferred directly to 35mm film. This procedure has made possible the design of increasingly dazzling and optically challenging main title sequences, such as Gary Hebert's main title for The Bourne Identity (2002), with its superimposed, horizontally racing type. Ironically, it is possible to design title sequences in such a way that viewers become so stunned and incapacitated by what they see that they cannot read the credits.
Main credits need not be legible or even visible. In The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942), Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut, 1966), and M * A * S * H (Robert Altman, 1970), the opening credits are read by an offscreen voice; in Uccellacci e uccellini ( Hawks and Sparrows , Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1966), they are sung. Nor is credit information invariably superimposed upon a graphic background in what appears to be a simple textual overlay. In One from the Heart (1982), Francis Ford Coppola (b. 1939) re-creates the fabled casinos of Las Vegas in miniature, placing the opening credits on their neon marquées as the camera gently glides past. In Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994), the camera lovingly pans over a decrepit environment containing refuse and old signposts on which the main credits have been painted as a part of the scene. A similar technique is used with main titles embossed on road signs that float above tinted aerial shots of New York in Jungle Fever (Spike Lee, 1991) and on urban signage in Hollywood Homicide (2003). In West Side Story (1961), Saul Bass's main title, involving considerable aerial photography as well as tracking shots on the street, is designed with the use of graffiti on neighborhood walls. The main title of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) is choreographed as a dance routine. Credits can zoom forward on the screen (the main title for Superman ) or backward (the receding signatures of the principal cast in the end credit of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country , and the receding text in the main title crawl for Star Wars ). An interesting variant on the movement of text is the top-to-bottom front credit roll of Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
Not every mainstream fictional feature film has an elaborate and optically stunning main title. Since Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen (b. 1935) has insisted on the same credit sequence for every one of his films: title information printed in white on a plain black ground. Credits often imitate the style, tone, symbolism, or precise imagery of a film; in spoof films, the credits are often spoofs themselves—for example, in the end credits of the Airplane films (1980, 1982), viewers can spot "Worst Boy: Adolf Hitler" (a parody of the Best Boy credit, which goes to the cinematographer's chief lighting assistant). End credits in Class of Nuke 'Em High (1986) acknowledge not only a gaffer (a cameraman's lighting assistant) but also a goofer and a guffer; and not only a key grip (the person responsible for handling the camera) but also a key grope. The end credits of Hot Shots! (1991) contain a brownie recipe.
In experimental films, such as those of Stan Brakhage (1933–2003) or Bruce Elder, it is the norm for the filmmaker to accomplish, or at least be intensively involved with, most technical aspects of production and thus to have what may be termed a "personal" relation to the film. This is nicely exemplified by the scratched or hand-painted credits used by Brakhage. In Normal Love (1963), Jack Smith uses title cards that seem homemade, even embodied: the credits are composed of awkward squiggles of dark fluid, possibly blood, intertwined with various grasses on a pale background.
The title name credit of a film is the producer's to determine. When film distribution rights are sold internationally, as is normally the case in the twenty-first century, a film name may be changed to facilitate distribution abroad. A few significant examples: Les Deux anglaises et le continent (Truffaut, 1971) became, for release in the United States, Two English Girls , thus omitting reference to a young man from France (nicknamed "le continent") for an audience who think of a "continent" not as a person but as a place. Antonioni's Professione: Reporter became The Passenger (1975). The British film, A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell, 1946) was imported to America as Stairway to Heaven ; Du Rififi chez les hommes (Jules Dassin, 1955) became, simply, Rififi . American film titles crossing the Atlantic in the opposite direction are equally changeable: The Errand Boy (Jerry Lewis, 1961) in France became Le Zinzin de Hollywood .
Main title design typically aims to be eye-catching, enigmatic (and therefore alluring), graphically exciting, and allusive, if not part of the story itself. In Walk on the Wild Side (Edward Dmytryk, 1962), to the sound of Brook Benton (1931–1988) crooning the title song, the camera shows a sleek and streetwise black cat striding across the frame in linked slow-motion shots, symbolizing the tough, no-nonsense femininity of Capucine (1931–1990) and Jane Fonda (b. 1937) and positioning the story in the vulgar "gutter of life." By contrast, for the main title of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the opening credits appear in plain, stark white letters against a cosmic scenario in which the sun, the moon, and the earth align at the moment of an eclipse. This is animated as if seen from an extraterrestrial perspective of shocking proximity, while the galvanizing opening bars of Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra are performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker. The credit sequence for 2001 became both legend and the stuff of considerable affectionate parody. A similarly cosmic theme is struck in the main title of 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002), in which various graphic shots of the twin towers of light that shone nightly in New York in tribute to the victims of September 11, 2001, become background for the modestly sized principal credits. This chilling sequence prepares us for a stark tale of a sad and troubled city filled with sad and troubled characters.
Kyle Cooper's title for Se7en , produced with rapidly shifting type and several layers of integrated design superimposed upon one another, as well as large-grain photography and image fragmentation, has come to symbolize the new wave of screen titling that began in 1990. Hard to decipher and tensely poetic, the title projects a dark foreboding to the audience. In an economical pre-title sequence, we encounter Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) dressing himself for work in the morning, attending the scene of a murder, and meeting his new partner, Mills (Brad Pitt), a slightly contentious younger man. "I want you to look, and I want you to listen," Somerset tells him. We then see him preparing to sleep, a metronome clicking beside his bed as the background fills with sounds of offscreen, argumentative voices. A clap of thunder cuts to the main title sequence, which is composed of shots glimpsed only briefly so that reading the overlaid text and the image behind it presents a challenge. A notebook, a razor blade held in fingers, blood in water are shot in macro close-up and held onscreen far too briefly to be thoroughly "read." The text is composed in what appears to be handmade scribbles whose letters sometimes jiggle and shift. Photographs are cut and pasted into a notebook, apparently badly spliced film is mixed with hand-scratched film and multiple exposures, and the musical track vibrates rhythmically with sounds that occasionally seem artificially speeded up. All of this gives us much to see and much to hear, yet at the same makes it difficult to sort out the fragments and to establish meaning. Since the film is about detectives decoding the signals left by a particularly elusive and brutal serial killer, the opening sequence functions to prepare the ground for the narrative and to establish the dark modality of the story.
Often, main titles are so fanciful that they stand alone as films-within-films. Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can (2002) opens with a charming animated main title sequence recalling both the 1950s graphic titling designs of Saul Bass and the 1960s animated main titles used for Jerry Lewis's The Family Jewels (1965), here set to the accompaniment of John Williams's jazzy tarantella. For Daredevil (Mark Steven Johnson, 2002), the film treatment of a comic book saga of a blind superhero, the main title is designed to resemble the dark and highly saturated color printing of comic book art: skyscrapers are seen at night, their various windows suddenly lit up with the principal credits in simulated Braille.
Touch of Evil (1958) opened in its first commercial release with main title cards superimposed by the studio over a much-celebrated four-minute-long sequence: a detective (Charlton Heston) and his new wife (Janet Leigh) walk through the streets of Juarez toward the US border station, while street traffic slowly swirls around them. One car is a flashy convertible, in the trunk of which a man hid a bomb in the film's first moment. The couple trades pleasantries with the border guards as the car purrs beside them. They circle the car nonchalantly. "There's the sound of a clock ticking in my head," says a woman riding in the front seat. Nobody listens to her. The car glides on. Just as the titles end, the newlyweds' romantic conversation reaches its peak, and they kiss. Boom! —there is an explosion as their lips touch. We cut to see that the car has blown up. The director Orson Welles himself regretted that the studio put titles over this sequence, because it was meant to stand independently, and the titles were to appear at the end of the movie. In 1999, on the instigation of Jonathan Rosenbaum, the restored film was released according to the director's intentions.
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