A Tribute to Bass

The Academy Awards are this Sunday. In an effort not to make this post about baseball or the movie Moneyball (clearly the best movie of the year even though it included Brad Pitt), I will avoid any additional references. Instead I’ll write about something new and old. Over two years ago Paul wrote a post about his Affair with Movie Title Sequences. I was reminded of his post when I came across a link to a new website dedicated to the work of Saul Bass. Paul doesn’t have a website dedicated to his work.

In that post Paul stated that “One of the most famous title sequence designers was Saul Bass, a graphic designer and film maker who died in 1996. His work influenced (and continues to influence) a generation of designers (you’ll certainly see his influence in the Catch Me if You Can title sequence).” In an effort not to make this post about Star Wars I won’t make any additional references about the Bass tribute Star Wars title sequence. (You can see the video in Paul’s post.) Bass’ influence can be seen in movies and graphic design elements everywhere from the original AT&T logo to the Girl Scouts logo today. See if you recognize any of these others.

The website I mentioned above is an online archive of Bass’ work. Web designer Christian Annyas is created the web-page. She goes on to say, “I’ve seen a lot of movies over the years. To prove I’ve sat through at least the first ten minutes of them I started making screenshots of the titles. Then my computer crashed and I almost lost them all. To save them for future generations I created this little website.” I love it when people gives back to the greater good. It’s also an interesting way to self promote. Not that we would know anything about that. Annyas has also created an online database of other title sequences as well.

At the very least it is a great place to waste some time. As far as the Academy Awards go, I’m pulling for Brad.


Slumdog Millionaire, in a box

This confession will most likely not be a surprise to most of you. I collected comic books right up until the time I got married. My getting married later than other friends was directly related to my comic book collection. I loved reading comics as a child and as a young adult. Okay I still like them. While growing up my mother was simply happy that I was reading anything, so she supported my subscriptions and collecting of comic books. My wife did not support me in the same way, but did get behind the effort of selling them on eBay.

One of my favorite elements of comic book collecting was the organizing and preserving of back issues. I had the collection placed on acid-free backing boards, in acid-free bags, in acid-free boxes, and stored them in an archive-quality box within a room with consistent temperature, humidity, and limited exposure to light. I had them in alphabetical order by name, followed by numerical order by issue. To me, there was something reassuring about keeping the comics a certain way at that point in my life. The sad part is that I still find reassuring feelings in keeping things a certain way. Now that I put that into type, I realize how abnormal I am.

Why do things have to be a certain way? On IBD we deal with many absolutes about how things should be and the way things should be designed or produced. Rules are good, right? But in the book IBD we include a section on breaking the rules. I have this constant battle waging in my head. Part of me likes consistency and structure, the other part likes breaking the rules and stepping outside the grid or what is readily acceptable. Sometimes you just have to mix prints and plaids.

Keeping within the topic of graphic design elements in movies that Paul started on Monday, it excites me when movies aren’t a certain way. Slumdog Millionaire breaks the mold in many different ways. I’m not here to talk about the non-linear storytelling, universal ties, emotional and intellectual connections, truthful approach or amazing performances that made the movie great. The movie is great and if you haven’t seen it, rent or add it to your queue soon. I’m here to take on the unusual use of subtitles found in the movie. Wait, please don’t leave. Subtitles are an interesting topic. I’m sure of it. Especially when presented in a comic book style.

The first things that come to mind for me on the topic of subtitles is a type set in sans serif that is hard to read, in a small point size that is yellow or white, found at the bottom of the screen. I also think of really bad movies that make poor use of subtitles stand out even more. Things don’t have to always be a certain way and Slumdog Millionaire proves that point even within the typography used in the subtitles. The first noticeable change to the Slumdog subtitles is that they are not rigidly centered at the bottom of the screen, but are placed more appropriately near the person speaking. In a style reminiscent of comic book typography, minus the use of Comic Sans, the change brings the watcher’s eyes up to where the action or emotion is actually taking place. It makes it easier to watch, keep up with what is being said and by whom, and process the dialog along with the acting at the same time. It just makes sense.

As with most things, I was behind on seeing the movie and we watched it at home. If you haven’t seen it or have a copy, here’s something interesting and fun to do. Pause the movie during one of the scenes with subtitles, get really close to your television set and recognize that the director chose a typeface that has serifs. I live in a small town and what is considered fun is relative. I wish I knew why the director chose this typeface or that I had something more to add here but that’s all I’ve got. The typeface is not aggressively serifed but more passive aggressive serifed. It works fine.

Much like my comic books, things are better in boxes, but colored boxes?  The third drastic difference that Slumdog took in the realm of subtitle greatness was placing the text in text boxes filled with color. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of text in color-filled boxes. As much as I like things in boxes, in most cases I prefer type free from the confines of a box, filled with various levels of saturation. In this instance, it worked because the color helped on different levels. Primarily, the color boxes improved legibility in scenes where type could have easily been lost. Without the boxes the text would have just been difficult to read. Secondarily, the colors echoed the mood of the scene. The colors used seemed to be picked from elements of the scene and fit in aesthetically and reflected what was taking place.

I’m pretty sure I now know why Slumdog won the Oscar for best picture; it was the subtitles. I no longer read comic books, but when I’m at Barnes and Noble and tell my wife I’m headed to the graphic novel section, she has no idea that I’m perusing the comic books.