Thursday, May 1, 2008

Credit Mayhem Part 1

On the surface opening credits are nothing more than a vehicle to deliver the mandatory information. With a straight delivery of credits the only excitement that can be drummed up is from the action going on behind the credits (if there is any at all) or from the names themselves. Still there are some movies who choose to make more of a statement in the opening credits. To use the credits as an opportunity to set a tone for the entire movie. To me, not dressing up the opening credits is like going to a party without a really cool hat. Sure no one will notice if you don't wear the cool hat, but if you were to wear the really cool hat, people would say that it's a nice addition.

There are lots of great credit sequences out there and I've only highlighted a few. This is not meant to be a "best of" just a random sampling. I will judge these opening credits as all opening credits should be judged: The tone that the credits set, do the credits help tell a story, the technique used, and is it style over substance (does the technique get in the way of delivering the credits).

North By Northwest

The tone that the credits set: From the moment that the lines are drawn and Bernard Hermann's fantastic score kicks in, you get the feeling that this movie is going to move at a frantic pace. And North By Northwest delivers. Rank: 8

Do the credits help tell the story: While the credits definitely help set the tone, they don't really fold into the story. But in their defense, I will say that they don't need to. North By Northwest's strength is in its ability to throw you into the middle of the story. So while the credits may not give any backstory, they do their job perfectly. Rank 7

The technique used: The opening is simple enough with bright colors and architectural-like renderings, but as the credits go on, the lines give way to a live-action skyscraper. What's interesting in the presentation is that the type retains the same perspective as the building giving the illusion that the credits are actually appearing on the side of a building. I wasn't alive in 1959, but I have to believe that technique was pretty damn advanced for the time and it's still impressive today. Rank 9

Is it style over substance (does the technique get in the way of delivering the credits): Not one bit. The frantic-ness of the music and design and the the perspective of the type never takes away from the presentation of the credits. Rank 9

Overall Ranking: 8.25


The tone that the credits set: This is kind of an odd selection because these opening credits actually come at the end of the film so it's hard to say that they help set a tone for the film. What I will say is that these credits compliment the comic book-like violence that filled the movie. Rank: 9

Do the credits help tell the story: No doubt everyone went to see 300 because of non-stop killing and these credits help tell the story of a series of great battles with lots and lots of blood. Rank: 8

The technique used: What appears to be layers and layers of different silhouetted stills. The technique is very now and in the moment. As a milestone for technology, I think this is very good, but as an example for the ages, I don't believe so. Rank: 8

Is it style over substance: I feel sorry for the people listed in these credits because they will be lost to splattering blood and non-stop camera moves. Rank: 5

Overall Ranking: 7.5


The tone that the credits set: Evil, that's the tone. Random images flash on and off the screen and scenes go in and out of focus. The entire sequence is shot like some kind of illegal film that you shouldn't be seeing. I remember seeing these credits and wanting to leave the theater because I didn't believe I was mentally prepared for what lay before me. Rank: 10

Do the credits help tell the story: Once you've seen the film, the credits make perfect sense in giving us shades of the diabolical killer at the center of the movie. Rank: 9

The technique used: As with most of Fincher's work, these credits are a nice melding of new and old techniques. You never feel as if you're watching something that was born from a computer although it may have been. It feels as if it were shot by an amateur in the basement somewhere and the titles were literally scratched into the film. Rank: 9

Is it style over substance: Not at all. The credits work seamlessly with the overall design yet they don't blend in so well that you don't pay attention to them. The flicker technique also helps to bring attention to them. Overall, this is a nice execution that works well with the film and also stands alone as just a really creepy Nine Inch Nails video. Rank: 9

Overall Ranking: 9.25


The tone that the credits set: The flyby technique used to present each credit seems somewhat random, but it flows nicely with the opening car scene. The truth is, the opening scene that's sandwiched in these credits is so powerful you could shoot kids handwriting on a kitchen table and that would suffice. Instead, they gave an interesting treatment to credits without making them so interesting as to take away from the opening. Rank: 7

Do the credits help tell the story: The credits bookend the opening vignette that ends with Henry Hill's famous line "as far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster." That vignette in a nutshell is mob life and the credits do their job by providing some space before and after to give that scene the weight it needs. So I would say that while the credits are somewhat straightforward, they help in setting up the movie. Rank: 7

The technique used: A Scorsese film will always err on the more classic side as these credits do. There's nothing flashy about them, but they have always stuck with me. I like the moving technique and for some reason or another it seems to work with the entire film. The credits zooming through the screen makes sense. Rank: 9

Is it style over substance: The general presentation of the credits does not take away anything, however I can't say the same for the opening scene. After multiple viewings, the opening doesn't seem as shocking as it once did which gives you ample time to take in the credits. But upon viewing for the first time, my guess is that the entire second part of the credits were lost on most of the audience. Rank: 8

Overall Ranking: 7.75

The Naked Gun

The tone that the credits set: Get ready for ridiculous fun. That's the tone that's set. And let me just say I'm embarrassed that I just wrote the phrase ridiculous fun. Rank: 9

Do the credits help tell the story: As far as comedy goes, there's not a deep story here to tell so the answer is no. But for this type of movie, you're not really looking for the credits to do much. The fact that they are a funny bit in and of themselves is a real treat. Rank: 7

The technique used: No doubt a small hood with a police siren on top is attached to the camera. Nothing fancy, but there's no need for fancy when you've got a good solid idea - which this is. Rank: 10

Is it style over substance: Not terribly. The credits are front and center. I will say with the environments constantly changing, the credits seem more like a nuisance than anything which is probably a bad thing. Rank: 8

Overall Ranking: 8.5


The tone that the credits set: It's hard to tell on this. Let's say I were to go back and kill the brain cells that remember Halloween and this opening and I were to see it again and had no preconceived notion of this movie, would I think that this opening credit sequence was spooky? Good question. But since I do know what I know I will say that there's creepiness in simplicity. Never before and possibly never again will a simple jack-o-lantern be so terrifying. Of course the music helps a lot. Rank: 9

Do the credits help tell the story: No real story to tell here. It's more important to set expectations with atmosphere which is exactly what this does. Rank: 7

The technique used: A simple push in on a jack-o-lantern. Very simple and very effective. Rank: 8

Is it style over substance: Absolutely not. The tone is set but it takes nothing away from the big and bold credits that run on the right side of the screen. Rank: 9

Overall Ranking: 8.25

Want more Mayhem? Check out Chase Mayhem, Fight Mayhem Part 1, Monologue Mayhem and Montage Mayhem.


Emily Blake said...

You forgot Spiderman 2 where the entire plot of the first film is told through those beautiful drawings.

Anonymous said...

Special mention should probably go to "Panic Room", which, in my opinion, pays homage to "North by Northwest" - only taking it to the next level.

View the 'Panic Room' opening sequence.

Adam Ross said...

Hitchcock had some of the best credits sequences. North by Northwest and Vertigo are legendary, but the ones for Marnie and The Trouble With Harry are very creative and must have looked amazing in theaters.

PIPER said...


I have a part 2 next week which will feature Panic Room.

Damian Arlyn said...

Great piece, Piper. If you don't mind, I'd like to publicly agree with a couple of your choices and then, without trying to "step on your toes" in your upcoming sequel piece, mention a few of my own picks.

First off, I want to admit that as a kid I never really paid much attention to main title sequences (aside from the "Pink Panther" and "James Bond" movies, of course, because they each had their own unique way of unfolding the credits), but as I got further into my teenage years I began to look at films as art as well as entertainment and I began to notice how individual elements in a film can be excellent in themselves while contributing to the product as a whole. Thus, things like the tools of movie publicity (posters, trailers) as well as the elements of cinematic "language" (editing, cinematography, music) became more interesting to me. This was about the time I began to become fascinated with opening credits and evaluating them based on their own merits as well as their synchronicity with the films in which they belonged.

In a time now where more and more filmmakers are either moving the main titles to the end of the movie (a la 300) or unceremoniously "dumping" them on top of a story that's already begun (just about any romantic comedy) the concept of opening credits as their own unique form of artistic expression and/or storytelling, which is how they used to be thought of, seems to be fading. Thus, fine examples of main title sequences are very important and worth paying attention to.

You mention a few great examples, Piper. North By Northwest is a great one, having been created by the Saul Bass, the artist who designed many other opening credits (including a few more for Hitchcock; my personal favorite Hitchcock credit sequence is actually the hauntingly hypnotic Vertigo with Psycho and North by Northwest tying for a close second).

Seven is also one of my personal favorite main-title sequences. As you said, it perfectly sets the tone for what the viewer is about to see but it also functions as a sort of "stand-alone" experience. They're ugly, chaotic, jumpy, disorganized and just generally unsettling while at the same time being incredibly thrilling, powerful, provocative and (in their own way) quite beautiful. I also happen to think that the credits of Seven are highly influential because they sort of "rewrote the rules" of what you can do during credits. You might have noticed that after Seven the sort of dirty, grungy aesthetic was adopted for a number of other films and TV shows (not to mention their publicity).

Incidentally, Seven's credits were designed by an artist who has been credited as "almost single-handedly revitalizing the main-title sequence as an art form": Kyle Cooper. I personally consider him the "Saul Bass" of today. Even if don't know the name you are almost certainly familiar with his work since he's designed the credits for over 150 films (including Zathura, Mimic, Donnie Brasco, the Dawn of the Dead remake, the first Mission: Impossible and the aforementioned Spider-man 2). Cooper claims that the source of inspiration for him even getting into this field was the opening credits of To Kill a Mockingbird (another of my favorites).

Sometimes simplicity is very effective: after the opening "Tradition" number in the movie musical Fiddler on the Roof, we see a long, unbroken shot of a silhouetted fiddler standing atop a roof (on the right side of the frame) playing his instrument while the sun sets in the left side of the frame. Over the course of several minutes the credits roll in the space between these two symbolic images.

The Naked Gun credits are always fun. Matthew's mentioning of Panic Room is very apt. Here are few more that I happen to love:

-Superman: John Williams' triumphant theme plays as we soar through space and the letters fly straight at us leaving bright blue light trails behind them.
-Batman: Danny Elfman's moody music is heard as the camera weaves its way through a massive stone structure that (as the end) is revealed to be the bat symbol.
-Catch Me If You Can: Spielberg's homage to the 60's with this ultra-cool piece animated to the strains of Williams' jazzy tune.
-Much Ado About Nothing: They don't get more rousing than this! Patric Doyle's music thunders as men and women joyously bathe and dress themselves in preparation for their big meeting.

Looking back at my comment I realize it's probably way too long. So, sorry about that, Piper. I just love talking about opening credits sequences. Again, great article. :-)

PIPER said...


appreciate the comment.

Without spoiling Credit Mayhem 2, I will say that a lot of your mentions will be included.

whitney said...

This is an excellent post! Part of my thesis is on 300 and I think those closing credits are the best part of the far. In fact, they might be the only good part and the only part not in slow motion.


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