Saul Bass and Cinebash

05/1/2018

The theme of Cinebash 2018 is simple:, step into the world of Saul Bass.

Even if you don’t know the celebrated graphic designer’s name, you know his work, which continues to resonate long after his passing 22 years ago. Arguably best known for his film title designs for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, and Billy Wilder, the range of his work encompassed branding, marketing and poster design, and even his own films.

Bass’ Early Life and Career

Born, in 1920 to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, and raised in the Bronx, New York, Bass began his work in Hollywood in the 1940s. Early print advertisements for films like Champion (1949) and Death of Salesman (1951) already showed Bass’ obvious talent.

Otto Preminger, after being so impressed with his poster work for Carmen Jones (1954), asked Bass to produce a title sequence for the film as well. It was these sequences, crafted for legends from Hitchcock to Kubrick, that most endure in the public imagination. They revolutionized what had been a drab and uninspired list of credits into an extension of the cinematic narrative, setting a visual and emotional tone for the larger film. Utilizing animation techniques even for live action films, something Bass helped make the norm for film credits, often blended seamlessly with the modernist advertising Bass was deploying in his iconic posters.

Saul and Elaine

Mention of Bass and his work seems incomplete without the inclusion of his second wife, Elaine. In 1955, Elaine Makatura joined Bass’ office, and by the 1960 opening sequence for Spartacus, she was directing and producing film titles alongside Saul.

In 1961 the two married, with their first child, Jennifer, born in 1964. Even as Elaine shifted her focus to motherhood, the two continued to work closely together for another 40 years. With Elaine, the role of the title sequence became a playground for experiments in various film styles. She deserves much of the credit for employing techniques from Bunraku (a type of Japanese puppet theater) for Spartacus, to time-lapse photography in The Age of Innocence (1993).

Later in their career, having focused more on their own films, as well as corporate branding, Martin Scorsese reached out to Saul and Elaine. Having grown up admiring their work, he utilized them for Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1993), and Casino (1995). This gave the Bass’ a chance to play with newer computerized imagery, shifting away from the optical techniques they’d employed in their early titles, the most memorable example of which was the spirals used for Vertigo (1958).

Filmmakers in Their Own Right

The pair would make their mark with their own films, creating a series of short subjects, starting with 1964’s The Searching Eye. Their Why Man Creates (1968) captured an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.

Then there is the controversy surrounding the shower sequence in Psycho, but any Bass fan should be well versed in the debate. Did Saul Bass direct it, or did Hitchcock?

Master of the Film Poster

It’s easy to forget, given Bass’ influence on title sequences, that he began his career in marketing. Specifically he designed posters and adverts, and he continued that work throughout the five decades of his career. His work is best identified with his distinctive typography and minimalistic style.

Embracing modernist aesthetics and primitive shapes, he managed to infuse even his static imagery with a sense of motion. In his animated titles, he invented what is known as “kinetic typography”, but his type always moved and seemed to interact with the imagery around it.

Just look at his posters for Man With the Golden Arm (1955) or Saint Joan (1957). They allude, even at those early dates, to his later posters such as The Shining (1980).

Corporate Branding

Throughout his career, Bass also created logos for some of the most recognized brands in North America. He was hardly limited to the film industry, visually defining companies such as Dixie, the Girl Scouts, Kleenex, and Quaker Oats, to name a few.

Much as he did in his film titles and posters, he broke down these logos into primal shapes, and gave them a sense of movement that provoked strong emotions. The logos, simple as they often were, felt almost as if they were telling a story.

The Girl Scouts logo, for example, was designed in 1978 and is still utilized to this day. Its silhouette of a girl is cut up to look as if you’re seeing it through the reflection of a rippling pond. The result is a collective of young girls, multiple silhouettes stacked atop each other, perfectly capturing the bonds the organization seeks to instill in its members.

The impact of Bass’ work is a tangible thing. It lives on through his daughter, Jennifer Bass, tributes by fellow designers, and with nods to his work from Mad Men  and Catch Me If You Can. More recently Bass was alluded to in the title sequence for the show Feud: Bette and Joan and the lyric video for Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do”, not to mention the look for this year’s Cinebash theme designed by Marla Zafft.