YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


The Lost Art of Evocative Film Titles

March 30, 1997|Steven Smith | Steven Smith is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The works of Russ Roberts, Mel Archer and Rocco "Rocky" Longo won't be found in America's art museums--but their meticulous lettering and scenic paintings are exhibited daily nonetheless, on television and movie screens around the world.

Roberts, Archer and Longo are three of the unsung artists whose lavish title sequences set a mood of anticipation on such films as "Ben-Hur," "My Fair Lady," "Mutiny on the Bounty" and hundreds more.

Now, the golden age of movie titles is getting its first formal tribute courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with its gallery exhibition "Roll Credits! Glass Title Paintings From Pacific Title."

Sixties roadshow titles like "The Sound of Music," "Camelot" and "The Music Man" dominate the collection, partly because relatively few earlier titles survive. Most were painted on sheets of glass that, once photographed, were scraped and repainted.

But whether it's the sprawling lettering of "How the West Was Won" or the modest, slanted type-style of "Aliens From Spaceship Earth," the titles "immediately give you a graphic style that throws you into a particular genre," notes academy exhibitions coordinator Ellen Harrington. "They give you the visual cues that prepare you for what you're about to see."

They also tell the visual history of one of Hollywood's oldest family businesses. Today, Pacific Title creates by its own estimate 80% of U.S. film title sequences; founded in 1919 by animator (and future "Looney Tunes" maker) Leon Schlesinger, the company was bought in 1933 by an industrious employee, Larry Glickman, and has remained in his family ever since.

Rocky Longo, now 86, was among Glickman's nearly three dozen staffers, a team of designers, display artists and ad men, who together could fashion an entire movie title sequence in a single day.

Longo recalls the approval process that took him to meet with such clients as Jack Warner, who closely followed the lettering choices and background designs on his films.

"He'd say, 'I've got a big screen up there--fill up the picture! I want the public to see those names!' I loved having to come up with original ideas. I spent many sleepless nights trying to dream them up, but that was the fun."

A particular favorite: the stop-motion sequence that heralds 1962's "The Music Man," in which wooden figurines spell out the stars and title.

Warner Bros. "was thinking of hiring the USC and UCLA bands to go out onto a field and do formations--but that was so expensive, they decided to go with the toys. We moved them one step at a time under fluorescent lights, one peg at a time, on a carpet made of rubber." (Longo's lettering for "The Music Man's" end title can be seen in the academy display.)

Starting in the late '60s, the painstaking process of glass painting gave way to more simple optical methods, and more recently, to computers. "Now we're down to three artists and a machine," says Pacific art director Jimmy Zelinger, who rarely gets to design the kind of opulent main title typical in the '40s, '50s and '60s.

"These days, directors and producers want small titles," Zelinger adds with a resigned laugh, "because they don't want to interrupt the [film's opening] scenes--like they're special or something!" Echoes Pacific title designer Jay Johnson: "People now want to jump right into the picture. But if a title sequence is designed correctly, that's part of the movie as well."

Past styles can sometimes resurface, like a recent commission involving the 1950 Fox drama "Broken Arrow." Originally, blacklisted writer Albert Maltz was denied screen credit; more than 40 years later, Maltz's widow and the studio hired Pacific to create a new title card for Maltz, in the ornate style of the original credits sequence.

"We had to hand-letter it on glass," Zelinger recalls, "and re-create the background as well. We didn't have any of the original glasses to judge by, but it had to be matched to just the right size."

Today, Pacific divides its business between title designs and its $6-million digital effects branch, which has doctored visual elements on such films as "Schindler's List," "Forrest Gump" and "The Flintstones." The creation of title sequences is more collaborative than ever, with outside designers often creating sequences on computer, then bringing them to Pacific to be realized on film.

"As machines have come in, schedules have come down," says Pacific President Peter Hubbard, who is the grandson of Larry Glickman. "Now people say, we need a main title or an end title in five days, sometimes three." A more complex sequence, like the jarring, backward-rolling titles of "Seven," can take as long as two weeks.

A contemporary credits sequence can cost between $20,000 and $200,000, but it's tougher to put a price on the vintage glass now seen at the academy. The auction house Butterfield and Butterfield recently appraised their individual worth at between $2,000 to $5,000, although their collectible value is likely much higher.

Los Angeles Times Articles