Saul Bass: “Symbolize and Summarize”

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Casino title sequence, 1995

 

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West Side Story, 1961

A genius in the world of graphic design, Saul Bass was a master of every element of the art form.  He produced iconic work in the fields of logo designs, posters, movie title sequences and even movies themselves.  Today, many of his logos are still being utilized and his style is widely imitated; after all, it’s impossible to improve on perfection.

 

3The Champion, 1949

 

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Vertigo, 1958

 

Bass was born and raised in New York City, and his parents were encouraging of his artistic interests from a young age.  After high school, he worked as a freelance designer while attending night classes at Brooklyn College.  There, he was mentored by György Kepes, a Hungarian designer and educator who was a proponent of Bauhaus and Gestalt psychology.  Both Bauhaus and Gestalt theories focus on a functional minimalism and recognize the value and significance of symbolism, and as such, their influence on Bass’ work is obvious.

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Album cover for Frank Sinatra, 1956

 

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Spartacus, 1960

At the end of the 1940s, Bass moved to California and got his start in Hollywood by designing print advertisements for films.  In 1954, he created the print advertisement for Otto Preminger’s film “Carmen Jones,” and Preminger was so pleased with the result that he invited Bass to do the title sequence for the film as well.   This provided Bass with the opportunity to prove his theory that title sequences could be an integral part of the film and add to the viewer’s understanding of the movie.  Prior to this, title sequences were usually boring and static; most movie theaters didn’t even bother to open the curtains which covered movie screens until after the opening title sequence.  However, Bass realized that they could be employed to add another dimension to the movie-going experience and create a mood of anticipation for what was still to come.

 

7Ocean’s Eleven title sequence, 1960

 

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Exodus title sequence, 1960

With the success of his work on “Carmen Jones,” Bass was asked to do more title sequences, and due to his pioneering approach, he changed the standard completely.  Suddenly, the curtains were opened from the start, and viewers eagerly engaged with the film from its first moments.  In explaining his goals in creating this innovative method, Bass said, “My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set the mood and the prime underlying core of the film’s story, to express the story in some metaphorical way.  I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it.”

 

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Saint Joan, 1957

 

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Bunny Lake is Missing, 1965

Making use of “kinetic typography,” or moving text, Bass’ opening sequences set the mood of the film and provided information for the viewer.  With their utilization of typography and minimalist graphics to portray emotion and action, Bass successfully imparted his design philosophy of “symbolize and summarize” to great effect.  As the book Saul Bass: a Life in Film & Design states, “His designs shaped complex ideas into radically simple forms that offered audiences a set of clues, a sort of hermeneutic key to deeper meanings under the surface of the movie.”

 

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It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, 1963

 

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Anatomy of a Murder, 1959

Bass’ most well-known title sequence which illustrates this ability is in another Preminger film, “The Man with the Golden Arm.”  To present the movie which tells the story of a heroin addict, Bass uses a series of moving white abstract lines on a black background which eventually combine into a single arm, representing the subject matter of the film.    At the time, Hollywood typically portrayed drug addicts as worthless, low class drug fiends.  Bass’ off-kilter lines combined with the jarring music soundtrack signaled viewers that Preminger’s film would not offer the standard interpretation of drug addiction, and it also indicated that there would be no preconceived judgments made about the protagonist’s moral character.

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The Man with the Golden Arm title sequence, 1955

 

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The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955

Bass went on to create numerous other title sequences for popular films and was often asked to produce the accompanying promotional material as well.  By utilizing symbols as representations of each film’s key elements and reproducing them in all aspects of the film’s advertisements, Bass created a method of branding a film with a recognizable identity, just as companies are typically branded today.

 

15Love in the Afternoon, 1957

 

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North by Northwest title sequence, 1959

As time passed, Bass established successful working relationships with several filmmakers and as a result, his involvement in films increased.  This is most apparent in his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock.  Bass’ title sequence for “North by Northwest” features moving text projected onto the side of a skyscraper, while the opening of “Vertigo” starts with a close up of a woman’s eye which then transforms into a swirling circle of colors that represent her troubled state of mind.  For “Psycho,” not only did Bass provide the title sequence and movie poster, he also received credit as “pictorial consultant” for his storyboard work on the iconic shower scene.

 

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Vertigo title sequence, 1958

 

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Storyboards for Psycho shower scene, 1960

In addition to his noteworthy work with Hitchcock, Bass also created animated title sequences for several films and provided end credit pieces as well.  In addition, he experimented with live action title sequences, such as in “The Big Country,” a western directed by William Wyler.  Depicting the story of a family and their life in the Wild West, Bass’ title sequence acted as a prologue which set the scene for the rest of the movie.  Inspired by his success, Bass went on to direct short films, and even won an Academy Award for his 1968 short film, “Why Man Creates.” His involvement in film reached its apex when he directed the science fiction film “Phase IV” in 1973.  Although it has been called a “science-fiction masterwork,” the film saw little commercial success.

 

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The Shining, 1980

 

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The Big Country, 1958

However, Bass’ talents were not limited to the realm of film.  He also successfully designed numerous company logos, many of which are still in use today.   His ability to distill complex ideas into a singular image which provided a recognizable and dependable branding symbol for a company resulted in logos which remain timeless.  In an informal analysis done in 2011, it was found that the average life span of a logo designed by Saul Bass was 34 years, and the most common reason for a logo’s demise was the shuttering of the company.  In reference to his logo designs, Bass said, “I find corporations almost as fascinating as people.  Every company I have ever worked for has a unique aura.  The secret and the challenge are learning how to express and make comprehensible the subtext.”

 

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Logos designed by Saul Bass

The logos created by Bass are characteristic in their simplicity and clarity.  Each logo is easily connected to the company it represents and is strong, precise and minimal in composition.  Bass favored bold colors and easily utilized flowing lines to infer movement while making use of negative space to great effect.  Bass believed that, “The ideal trademark is one that is pushed to its utmost limits in terms of abstraction and ambiguity, yet is still readable.  Trademarks are usually metaphors of one kind or another.  And are, in a certain sense, thinking made visible.”

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A comparison of original logos by Saul Bass and their later, updated versions

 

Towards the end of his career, Bass was again pulled into the world of film at the request of director Martin Scorsese.   Bass and his wife created the title sequences for four of Scorsese’s films, beginning with “Goodfellas” and ending with “Casino,” which Bass completed a year before his death.  Each sequence shows that even at the final stages of his career, Bass was still a master of the genre.  In “The Age of Innocence,” to portray the setting of upper class New York society in the late 1800s, Bass utilized a symbolic blooming rose, interspersed with overlays of intricate lacework to imply the rigidity and importance of tradition within the upper class social strata and the strict rules which govern it.  In comparison, “Casino,” set in the mobster world of the 1980s in Las Vegas, opens with its main character being detonated in a car bomb explosion.   His body is then flung into the fires of hell which slowly transform into the gaudy, bright lights of Las Vegas, which is often referred to as a city of sin.

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Cape Fear title sequence, 1991

 

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The Age of Innocence title sequence, 1993

The fact that so many of Bass’ creations remain in use and that his style is so widely imitated, make it obvious that the work he did still resonates with the world today.  Truly a master of his art, Bass proved that even simple graphics can be imbued with meaning, while raising the standards for what we should expect from good design.  By creating title sequences which utilized symbolism and metaphor, and logos which implied emotions and qualities, he showed the public that advertisement and promotion could be innovative and refined and have a deeper meaning than just trying to sell a product or promote a film.

 

25The Fixer, 1968

 

26Return from the River Kwai, 1989

 

27Grand Prix, 1966

 

 

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