Pablo Ferro, who died last month after more than 60 years in graphic design, had such an impact on cinema that we've all felt it at one time or another, despite the fact that he never directed a single feature himself. Rather, he made his mark with title sequences and trailers, each of them exuding no small amount of then-revolutionary and still difficult-to-imitate style. Having emigrated from Cuba to New York at the age of twelve, Ferro taught himself to animate before finding his first freelance work in illustration and then his first real job in advertising. For his commercials he developed a signature style of rapid cutting, a new aesthetic made to sell new products, and that impressed many who saw them, including a certain Stanley Kubrick, then at work on Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
"He said we could sell the movie as a product," Ferro remembers Kubrick telling him in an in-depth three-part interview at Art of the Title. "I said that would be great." The resulting trailer's interplay of image, sound, voiceover, and especially text looked like nothing that had ever come before, and even it turned out not to be Ferro's most memorable contribution to the film.
That honor belongs to the opening credits above, which layer Ferro's signature hand lettering — an element requested by clients again and again throughout the rest of his career. ("He asked me what I thought about human beings," Ferro remembers of Kubrick in the interview. "I said one thing about human beings is that everything that is mechanical, that is invented, is very sexual. We looked at each other and realized — the B-52, refueling in midair, of course, how much more sexual can you get?!")
Four years later, in 1968, Ferro would use cutting-edge split-screen image techniques to craft an even more visually stunning opening title sequence for Norman Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair, a masterpiece of style made to open a film itself celebrated as a masterpiece of style. Ferro describes it as an experience "where it was a challenge to make it both simple to watch and understand, and fitting for the film. I was lucky that the costumes and the cinematography had the look of, like, a bizarre magazine. The whole film felt like a theatrical show."
Later that same year, another set of Ferro-designed titles would open another Steve McQueen-starring thriller, Bullitt, which needed each and every one of its visual elements to reflect the daredevil sensibility, albeit a controlled one, at its core. Ferro got a bit wilder when he worked for Kubrick again, cutting together the trailer below for 1971's A Clockwork Orange. Though reminiscent of his Dr. Strangelove trailer in its use of onscreen text — "SATIRIC," "BIZARRE," "FRIGHTENING," "METAPHORICAL," and "BEETHOVEN," among other suitable descriptors — it dispenses entirely with voices, those of the film's characters or otherwise, relying entirely on the intricate layering of music and image for its considerable effect.
"Every frame is perfect with the music and it tells you the whole story at the same time without saying a word or reading words aloud," as Ferro himself puts it. "I could see why nobody imitated it — it takes a lot of work."
With all this on his résumé, it makes sense that more work continued to come his way until the end, including trailers and titles for Stop Making Sense, Beetlejuice, Men in Black, and L.A. Confidential, all of which, and much else besides, you can see in the Art of the Title retrospective video below. Though Pablo Ferro himself has gone, his influence on film will no doubt last for decades and decades to come.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.