During his 40-year career Bass worked for some of Hollywood's most prominent filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. Among his most famous title sequences are the animated paper cut-out of a heroin addict's arm for Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm, the credits racing up and down what eventually becomes a high-angle shot of a skyscraper in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, and the disjointed text that races together and apart in Psycho.
Bass designed some of the most iconic corporate logos in North America, including the Bell System logo in 1969, as well as AT&T's globe logo in 1983 after the breakup of the Bell System. He also designed Continental Airlines' 1968 jet stream logo and United Airlines' 1974 tulip logo which became some of the most recognized airline industry logos of the era.
Saul Bass was born on May 8, 1920, in the Bronx, New York, United States, to Eastern European Jewish immigrant parents. He graduated from James Monroe High School in the Bronx and studied part-time at the Art Students League in Manhattan until attending night classes with György Kepes at Brooklyn College. He began his time in Hollywood during the 1940s doing print work for film ads, until he collaborated with filmmaker Otto Preminger to design a film poster for his 1954 film Carmen Jones. Otto Preminger was so impressed with Bass's work that he asked him to produce the title sequence as well. This was when Bass first saw the opportunity to create a title sequence which would ultimately enhance the experience of the audience and contribute to the mood and the theme of the movie within the opening moments. Bass was one of the first to realize the creative potential of the opening and closing credits of a movie.
Film title sequences
Bass became widely known in the film industry after creating the title sequence for Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). The subject of the film was a jazz musician's struggle to overcome his heroin addiction, a taboo subject in the mid-1950s. Bass decided to create an innovative title sequence to match the film's controversial subject. He chose the arm as the central image, as it is a strong image relating to heroin addiction. The titles featured an animated, white on black paper cut-out arm of a heroin addict. As he hoped, it caused quite a sensation.
For Alfred Hitchcock, Bass provided effective, memorable title sequences, inventing a new type of kinetic typography, for North by Northwest (1959), Vertigo (1958), working with John Whitney, and Psycho (1960). It was this kind of innovative, revolutionary work that made Bass a revered graphic designer. Before the advent of Bass’s title sequences in the 1950s, titles were generally static, separate from the movie, and it was common for them to be projected onto the cinema curtains, the curtains only being raised right before the first scene of the movie.
Bass once described his main goal for his title sequences as being to ‘’try to reach for a simple, visual phrase that tells you what the picture is all about and evokes the essence of the story”. Another philosophy that Bass described as influencing his title sequences was the goal of getting the audience to see familiar parts of their world in an unfamiliar way. Examples of this or what he described as “making the ordinary extraordinary” can be seen in Walk on the Wild Side (1962) where an ordinary cat becomes a mysterious prowling predator, and in Nine Hours to Rama (1963) where the interior workings of a clock become an expansive new landscape.
He designed title sequences for more than 40 years, and employed diverse film making techniques, from cut-out animation for Anatomy of a Murder (1958), to fully animated mini-movies such as the epilogue for Around the World in 80 Days (1956), and live action sequences. His live action opening title sequences often served as prologues to their films and transitioned seamlessly into their opening scenes. These “time before” title sequences either compress or expand time with startling results. The title sequence to Grand Prix (1966) portrays the moments before the opening race in Monte Carlo, the title sequence to The Big Country (1958) depicts the days it takes a stage coach to travel to a remote Western town, and the opening montage title sequence to The Victors (1963) chronicles the twenty seven years between World War I and the middle of World War II, where the film begins.
Toward the end of his career, he was rediscovered by James L. Brooks and Martin Scorsese who had grown up admiring his film work. For Scorsese, Saul Bass (in collaboration with his second wife, Elaine (Makatura) Bass), created title sequences for Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993), and Casino (1995), his last title sequence. His later work with Martin Scorsese saw him move away from the optical techniques that he had pioneered and move into the use of computerized effects. Bass’s title sequences featured new and innovative methods of production and startling graphic design.
Screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi said of Saul and Elaine Bass, "You write a book of 300 to 400 pages and then you boil it down to a script of maybe 100 to 150 pages. Eventually you have the pleasure of seeing that the Basses have knocked you right out of the ballpark. They have boiled it down to four minutes flat."
In some sense, all modern opening title sequences that introduce the mood or theme of a film can be seen as a legacy of Saul Bass's innovative work. In particular, though, title sequences for some recent movies and television series, especially those whose setting is during the 1960s, have purposely emulated the graphic style of his animated sequences from that era. Some examples of title sequences that pay homage to Bass’s graphics and animated title sequences are Catch Me If You Can (2002), X-Men: First Class (2011), and the opening to the AMC series Mad Men.