The Film Before the Film: An Introduction to the History of Title Sequences in 10 Minutes

Some watch the Super Bowl for just the com­mer­cials. Oth­ers watch films for the title sequences that book­end a movie. Title sequences can be “engag­ing or wild­ly enter­tain­ing … or sim­ply drop dead beau­ti­ful.” They can “ooze with visu­al poet­ry and sophis­ti­cat­ed imagery,” or they can put the audi­ence in the right mood for the movie, or close it in the right way, writes the web site For­get the Films, Watch the Titles.

But it has­n’t always been this way. Dur­ing the ear­ly days of cin­e­ma, title sequences were often crude and infor­ma­tion­al. That start­ed to change with the advent of sound film, when title sequences took on aes­thet­ic dimen­sions they had­n’t known before. By the 1950s and 1960s, they became a high art form, espe­cial­ly in the hands of the icon­ic graph­ic design­er Saul Bass. The his­to­ry, phi­los­o­phy and aes­thet­ics of the title sequence — espe­cial­ly the open­ing cred­its — all get cov­ered by The Film Before the Film, a short, infor­ma­tive film born out of a research project at the Berlin­er Tech­nis­che Kun­sthochschule. It runs 9 to 11 min­utes, depend­ing on whether you count the clos­ing title sequence!

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.