At the beginnings of the cinematograph, simple title cards identified the film and the production company. Later, graphic designers and illustrators started experimenting with fonts, editing, and animation, bringing personal innovation and style. Since then, title sequences evolved to become an original form of art, playing a valuable role in movies.
Today, one of the most appreciated artists of titles is Danny Yount.
After collaborating with top film directors and producers to create some of the most recognizable tv and feature film main titles (like Six Feet Under, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes, Solo and Blade Runner 2049), he founded his studio in 2013. Prodigal Pictures, this is how he called it, is a design firm producing live-action and motion-based promotional campaigns, graphic idents, and title sequences.
Let’s take a closer look at three of his works to understand how he works and what’s the role of art titles for modern cinematography.
Six feet Under 2001-2005
Six Feet Under is an American television series created and produced by Alan Ball. It breaks some rules of conventional family drama, depicting the lives of the Fisher family who run a funeral home in Los Angeles.
While struggling with issues like relationships and adultery, characters regularly deal with death and its aftermath, using a filter of dark humor and surrealism. Danny Yount and his team took the cue from the theme music by Thomas Newman, a mixture of shuffling horns and percussion combined with a lilting clarinet, to create a complementary sequence that pairs closeup vignettes of bodies with gruesome landscapes. Yount deliberately manipulates frame rates, mingling parting hands and crowds on tombstones, a morgue stretcher with framed memories and blue skies. Yet, despite the presence of death in nearly every frame, beauty and wonder emerge.
The sequence opens and closes with the image o a lone tree on a hill, a glaring reminder of the cycle of life and death, which has now become one of the most iconic images in television history.
Kiss Kiss bang bang 2005
For this black comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, director Shane Black was visually inspired by old hardboiled detective novels, evoking a bygone age of high pop style. So Danny Yount created a 1960 ‘s-style animated main title sequence that made use of a sharp, graphic three colors style, summoning up Saul Bass’ style. The animation is perfectly synchronized to the jazzy ambiance of John Ottman’s soundtrack, reminiscing the music of Henry Mancini. Every frame in the opening breathes ‘suspense’, submersing the viewers in the crime plot of the film.
Sherlock Holmes 2009
The history of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes titles is a clear example of how the creative process works. The initial brief from Ritchie was to do a live-action shoot that involved a lot of newspaper headlines from the late 1800s. That would provide a little background for the story, and the last headline, on the top of a rack of newspapers, would lead to the first scene of the film.
It seemed a good idea to show part of the printing process of that time, using the linotype machine and woodblock type headline compositions, so they set up several shooting at a printing museum to gather material for storyboards.
After a while, they discarded the initial idea, but they kept the visual key of typing and fonts, using an Illustrated Times motif that permeates both the opening and closing title sequence.
As for the opening logo, the client initially wanted it formed out of pools of water, but Chris Sanchez came up with the idea of making them out of the cobblestones. None of them is real, though. They are perfectly crafted 3D cobblestone, using a shading system to give the feeling of watery surfaces and uneven stones. The final title sequence requested a lot of work in terms of human hands, editing, and animation. But in the end, it was worthwhile, with viewers saying put to watch it till the end as a reminder of the most significant scenes from the movie.
So, how artists balance the requests of the clients with their eagerness for innovation? “I always experiment and I always push” says Yount in an interview for “Art of the title”.(https://www.artofthetitle.com/title/sherlock-holmes/)
“That is what the client wants and it is what I am being paid to do. But if I ignore the brief, then anything I do becomes worthless to them. Or if I design something that is too abstract and self-inflated, then it becomes meaningless no matter how beautiful it is. It has to communicate and it has to be interesting and stimulating — in that order. It is funny though that we call these “creative risks” — I think the only risk you take is when you ignore the client. And if you are going to do that then you better also have their version or you may get fired from the assignment. It’s a matter of trust, that’s all. And once that is established most smart clients will give you freedom.”