Saul Bass is a name most of you won’t know. But every one of you have seen his work. Probably a lot of his work.
“For the average audience, the credits tell them there’s only three minutes left to eat popcorn. I take this ‘dead’ period and try to do more than simply get rid of names that film-goers aren’t interested in. I aim to set up the audience for what’s coming; make them expectant.” — Saul Bass
Saul Bass was a graphic designer and filmmaker. He used his creative vision to direct short subject films and served as a creative consultant on numerous feature films. His greatest visual accomplishment was creating the opening titles for many films from the 1950s to the 1990s. I’ll name you some later. He also designed movie posters, record album covers, promotional materials, trade ads, billboard designs, press kits, architecture, television commercials, product design, furniture, floor tiles and even book covers.
“Thinking made visible.” – Martin Scorsese, repeating Bass’ own description.
One of his biggest businesses was creating the logos and trademarks for companies and organizations, many of which you will recognize. His full range of design products included trade ads, billboards, letterhead, annual reports, packaging, napkins, gift wrapping – virtually anything expressing organizational identity.
Saul Bass and his company were in high demand. When you hired Bass, he didn’t just sketch out a drawing and hand it back. He researched the company, the products or services, and the customers. He reviewed market research, product research and the company’s strategic plan.
“We look for the essence,” Bass said. He left no stone unturned to understand the company, its culture, and what the company produced.
When I started my research for this blog, I only knew about Bass’ film work. My eyes grew big as I learned about the rest of his career. Bass began his art career after World War II, when graphic design emerged as a tool that advertising, television, film and industry desperately needed as the post-war economy was booming. American culture was evolving and graphic art, or commercial art as it was called, was translating what people felt, wanted and embraced into other forms of art and commerce.
At the time of his death at age 75, he was chairman and creative director of Bass/Yager & Associates design firm. For much of his career, Bass worked with wife Elaine, his adviser and creative partner. Her name is not generally referenced but her contribution to their output was a big part of his legacy.
Bass opened his own graphic design firm in 1946, but it wasn’t until 1954 that he worked on his first film project. While Bass had long worked on film advertising and publicity campaigns, he didn’t work with filmmakers or their films. That changed when Otto Preminger hired him to work on Carmen Jones and later to design the opening titles for The Man With the Golden Arm. Bass not only provided opening and end titles, he provided a trailer, posters, trade and newspaper ads and an album cover. He would do 13 title sequences for Preminger films.
From there he worked on films for Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho), more films for Preminger (Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus, Advise and Consent, In Harm’s Way), Stanley Kubrick (Spartacus), Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot, Love in the Afternoon), Stanley Kramer (The Pride and the Passion, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) and many other A-list directors.
Using his extensive storyboards (drawings of each film frame), Bass advised Kubrick on the visual creation of the battle sequence between the slaves and Roman army for Spartacus. For director John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, Bass directed most of the race scenes, from his detailed storyboards, he inter-cut multiple cameras and split screen images into dazzling sequences. This film, from the titles to the races, has some of Bass’ best work. It contains some of the best film sequences ever produced.
Bass’ relationship with Alfred Hitchcock was even more interesting than his work with Preminger. In addition to designing the titles, Bass drew the detailed storyboards on which the shower scene in Psycho was based, although it has been a subject of intense debate through the years about whether Bass was involved in directing Hitchcock’s most famous film sequence. He also drew the storyboards for the famous scene where the detective is murdered on the stairs as he falls backward. Whether he directed these scenes or not, his creative vision formulated the look and structure of those scenes, no matter how the camera was set up or how the film was cut. Hitchcock put his stamp on the Bass vision.
As a logo designer, Bass’ company was hired to work for some of the biggest and most visible organizations in America. Here are the more well-known of his work:
Quaker Oats, United Airlines, Minolta, the Girl Scouts of America, Dixie cups, Frontier Airlines, United Way, General Foods, Bell and later AT&T, Geffen Records, Kleenex, Lowry Foods, Alcoa, Fuller Paints, Celanese, Continental Airlines, Rockwell International, Warner Communications, Avery, Hanna-Barbera, Boys Clubs, Kibun, YWCA and The Getty Center. The average lifespan (as of 2019) of a Bass designed logo was 34 years.
In the early days of television, his company was hired to create and produce title graphics, animated previews and even short films. This led to designing commercials for products, other television shows and companies. Bass did something quite transformative – putting motion to designs and still images – which sounds rather basic, but had never been done. He would use the motion technique for his upcoming film title graphics.
In her magnificent book of Bass’ art and history, daughter Jennifer Bass wrote, “Saul believed that a film, like a symphony, deserved a mood-setting overture, and used ambiguity, layering and texture as well as startlingly compact imagery to reshape the time before the film proper began.”
In the early 1960s, Bass turned to creating promotional films. For the 1964 World’s Fair, he directed films From Here to There for United Airlines and The Searching Eye for Eastman Kodak, to be shown in their pavilions and seen by thousands of visitor each day. In 1968, the Basses made the short film Why Man Creates, which won the Academy Award for Short Feature.
Long after his death, Saul Bass has continued to influence the look of film, including the creation of title sequences and film art. Like an architect, painter, poet and writer, his artistic style clearly established its own medium. His work was instantly recognizable and communicated thematic and emotional content in a bold yet minimalist style. This style has been copied by many, usually as a homage to Bass’ work.
The title design of Catch Me if You Can, the title graphics of Conan on TBS, the film poster for Burn After Reading, the titles for Mad Men – these were all done in the Bass style.
Others have imagined popular films in the style of Bass.
In his later years, Bass had mainly moved away from film titles, until Martin Scorsese approached Elaine and Saul Bass to do the titles sequence for Goodfellas (1990). This led to three more Scorsese films: Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, and Casino.
“His designs, for film titles and company logos and record albums and posters, defined an era. In essence, they found and distilled the poetry of the modern, industrialized world. They gave us a series of crystallized images, expressions of who and where we were and of the future ahead of us. They were images you could dream on. They still are.” – Martin Scorsese
[scroll to the bottom for a short feature of Bass’ film career]
The work of Saul and Elaine Bass from imdb.com
1998 Psycho (title designer)
1995 Century of Cinema (TV Series documentary)
1995 Casino (title designer)
1995 Higher Learning (title designer)
1993 The Age of Innocence (title designer)
1992 Mr. Saturday Night (title designer)
1991 Preminger: Anatomy of a Filmmaker (Documentary) (title designer)
1991 Cape Fear (title sequence)
1991 Doc Hollywood (title designer)
1990 Goodfellas (titles)
1989 The War of the Roses (title sequence)
1988 Big (title designer)
1987 Broadcast News (title designer)
1979 The Human Factor (titles)
1976 Six Characters in Search of an Author (TV Movie) (main title design)
1976 That’s Entertainment, Part II (Documentary) (main credit titles: new sequences)
1975 Rosebud (title designer)
1974 Phase IV (title designer)
1971 Such Good Friends (title designer – uncredited)
1968 Why Man Creates (Documentary short) (titles – uncredited)
1966 Grand Prix (title designer)
1966 Seconds (titles)
1965 Bunny Lake Is Missing (title designer)
1965 In Harm’s Way (title designer)
1963 The Cardinal (titles)
1963 It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (title designer)
1961-1963 Alcoa Premiere (TV Series) (title designer – 7 episodes)
1963 Nine Hours to Rama (title designer)
1962 Advise & Consent (titles designer)
1962 Walk on the Wild Side (titles designer)
1961 Something Wild (title designer)
1961 West Side Story (titles)
1960 Exodus (title designer)
1960 The Facts of Life (title designer)
1960 Spartacus (design consultant) / (main titles)
1960 Ocean’s 11 (title designer)
1960 Psycho (pictorial consultant) / (titles designed by)
1959 Anatomy of a Murder (title designer)
1959 North by Northwest (titles designed by)
1958 The Big Country (titles designed by)
1958 Vertigo (titles designer)
1958 Bonjour Tristesse (title designer)
1958 Cowboy (titles designed by)
1957 The Pride and the Passion (title designer)
1957 Saint Joan (title designer)
1957 The Young Stranger (title designer – uncredited)
1957 Edge of the City (title designer)
1956 Around the World in 80 Days (title designer)
1956 Attack (title designer – uncredited)
1956 Storm Center (title designer)
1956 Johnny Concho (title designer)
1955 The Man with the Golden Arm (title designer)
1955 The Big Knife (title designer)
1955 The Night of the Hunter (publicist – uncredited)
1955 The Shrike (titles designer)
1955 The Seven Year Itch (titles designed by)
1954 Carmen Jones (titles designer)