The contributions of American designer Saul Bass (1920-1996) initiated a revolution in the film advertising industry. Where motion picture advertising was once an unrefined and artless trade, Bass endowed the craft with the sophistication of a bonafide art form.
In the world of Saul Bass, letters walked, and roses turned to raindrops; analogous correspondence between unrelated objects was a way of life. He was a master of presentation and communication. He extracted simple and unassuming moments in time, raising each to the level of great art. With his great knack for exposing a magic meld between image, typography, and motion, he held seasoned filmmakers in awe as repeatedly he captured the naked essence of a two-hour feature-length film and condensed the emotion of the drama into a brief title track of two minutes or less. Bass possessed a heightened sense of expression and an ability to convey atmosphere, theme, and story line through the preliminary title sequence of a feature film. For four decades he grabbed the attention of the movie going public, holding spectators riveted to the silver screen, eager to follow the title track into the substance of the plot. As an advertising designer he endowed similar extensions of form and perception to products other than motion pictures. With deftly coordinated combinations of advertising and product packaging, he transformed the corporate image into a cohesive personality, poised to seduce the consumer.
Bass was born in New York City on May 8, 1920. He learned his way around the big city and developed a sense of sophistication that accompanies life in a world-class metropolis. From 1936 through 1939, in preparation for a career in graphic design, he studied modernism at New York's Art Students League under the direction of Howard Trafton. Bass worked also as a freelance designer during that time. Near the end of the Second World War, and still freelancing, he enrolled at Brooklyn College where he studied with Gyorgy Kepes in 1944-45. In 1946 he moved to Los Angeles, California, where he established and operated a more permanent business venture, a design firm called Saul Bass and Associates.
Bass entered the film industry in 1954 when he developed the advertising campaign for Carmen Jones, an Otto Preminger production. The central image devised by Bass for that movie was a simple but evocative rose in flames. The image served as a cohesive motif for the film promotion and led to a successive assignment from Preminger. He was asked to create the promotion motif for a 1955 Frank Sinatra film, called Man with the Golden Arm. Bass developed a graphic symbol for the film's advertising promotion by designing a logo that was shaped like an arm and intended to represent addiction. Preminger approved the logo and requested bass to create the title track sequence for the movie as well. As devised by Bass, the film's title track initially called for a series of animated rectangular shapes that marched into position to form an arm. The arm, continually distorted, accented further the movie's central theme of drug addition. The design of the arm developed into the basis of an advertising campaign, although the smoothly animated quality of the sequence, as it was originally designed, was eliminated from the final track. Interestingly, it was a tug-of-war relationship between Bass and Preminger that resulted in the final version of the movie opener with disjointed animation of the arm. While Bass argued that the sequence fell flat without animation, Preminger stubbornly opposed the idea. The final compromise, staccato-like movements as the arm segments maneuvered through the visual progression, quickly earned a spot in the annals of classic moments in American film.
Decades later, critics concurred that the title sequence of Man with the Golden Arm revolutionized the film advertising industry by selling the film, as a unique and individualized commodity. A new concept emerged, which aligned the title sequence with a symbolic representation of the movie. Prior to the arrival of Bass and his ideas, the title track served little more purpose than that of an announcement posted on a bulletin board. Every new sequence by Bass was an artwork of itself, and a microcosm of the full-length feature to follow. Pamela Haskin said of Bass in Film Quarterly, "His titles are integral to the film. When his work comes up on the screen, the movie itself truly begins." Bass's ingenious use of morphs grabbed filmgoers instantaneously with a micro summary of the story line of the film to follow. The laconically morphing flower-turned-teardrop at the opening of Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse left the audience mesmerized in 1957.
In 1958 the opening sequence of William Wyler's Big Country marked a further evolution for Bass in his unique craft of filming title shots. Bass acted on an inspiration to set the scene of the feature film by creating a video prologue to the movie proper. It was an interesting notion and one that proved highly successful. In the opening moments of Big Country he introduced the premise that the main character left his home for the wide open space of the American West and simultaneously defined the extreme remoteness of the location wherein the story takes place.
Among the more memorable title shots by Bass was an ingenious cacophony of text and graphic fills that introduced Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest in 1959. That same year, when Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder appeared, the Bass-produced title sequence hit hard, with a cartoon-like silhouette of a segmented human body.
After a decade of honing his vocation, Bass's life and career quickened in the late 1950s, when he met and hired Elaine Makatura, an artist and composer. Over the course of several years the two developed an intimate professional relationship, a collaborative effort that endured for over 40 years. As the 1950s merged into the 1960s, Saul Bass and Associates developed title designs for over one dozen films, while critics rained relentless praise on his creative output.
Bass, with his distinctive touch of emotion, created an unsettling display of parallel lines ad infinitum, which served to crank up the audience tension in the opening moments of a 1960 Hitchcock production, a classic horror thriller, called Psycho. The following year brought the acclaimed musical drama West Side Story. With deceiving simplicity, the story unraveled to a disturbing climax. It was at the end of the film that Bass seized the moment of listing the credits in graffiti, to mesmerize and calm the audience from the impact of the story. In 1962, Bass conceived another major mini-hit and film-land classic in presenting the skillfully orchestrated cat fight that consumes the brief preliminary moments of the title sequence of Edward Dmytryk's story of urban vice, called Walk on the Wild Side. In the 1964 title sequence for The Victors, Bass grabbed the viewer with a montage of historical images—with the final image shifting from the potpourri of the montage to become the first scene of the film proper.
Seemingly limitless in creativity, Bass found expression in short film sequences beyond the movie openers, closing credits, and advertising logos that brought him to prominence. His mastery of the understated film short led film directors to consult him in the filming of climacteric moments in movies. In that regard, his input to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was among the most reverberating and dramatic. Bass received recognition in the credits listing with regard to his direction of the filming of the terrifying murder in the shower. Although the entire scope of his role in the filming remained a topic of dispute decades afterward, indisputable was the notion that the scene became an established classic of horror film hysteria and mesmerized generations of movie viewers. That same year, in 1960, Bass assisted Stanley Kubrick in filming the final battle in Spartacus. Later, in 1966, Bass was largely responsible for the filming of the car racing scenes in John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix. Bass used the opportunity to bring the audience to reflect on the race from the first person point of view of the drivers.
Bass, as might seem inevitable, went on to direct complete films, mostly of the genre known as "shorts." In his first such foray in 1962 he produced a film called Apples and Oranges. Six years and five productions later, Bass won an Academy Award for his 1968 short, Why Man Creates. Two others of his films received Academy Award nominations in 1977 and 1979 respectively. In all, Bass and Makatura introduced a steady output of film shorts to the international film festivals throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and for much of the 1990s. They directed a feature length science fiction film in 1973, called Phase IV.
Bass developed title cuts for four of Martin Scorsese's films: Good Fellas in 1990, the ominous Cape Fear in 1991, The Age of Innocence in 1993, and Casino in 1995, which was Bass's final movie title completed before his death. The Casino opener depicts an explosive reverie, wherein actor Robert De Niro transcends earth and symbolically dives into hell. With the surreal imagery Bass created an atmosphere of unscrupulous depravity and greed, intended to characterize the aura of Las Vegas that reveals itself as the movie unfolds. Bass movie title art established clearly and succinctly the theme and emotional premise of each film, and it became clear to film promoters that audiences appreciated the underlying appeal to their sophistication.
Bass and his design firm, which was renamed Saul Bass/Herb Yager and Associates in 1978, earned honors and distinction beyond the film industry, for a variety of corporate designs and promotional campaigns. Major corporations such as American Telephone and Telegraph, Rockwell International, and Warner Communications were numbered among his prominent clients. His logo designs for the Girl Scouts of America, United Airlines, and others were readily recognized in the United States and abroad. For Bass, every project was a concerted effort at cohesive packaging, in keeping with his singular appreciation for detail. Memorable creations from his design repertoire included the 1983 U.S. postage stamp commemorating art and industry, publicity posters for five academy award ceremonies, and the poster designs for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Bass collected an impressive assortment of international honors from both the advertising and movie industries. He was named Honorary Royal Designer for Industry from the Royal Society of Arts of London in 1964, and he received an honorary fellowship from Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem in 1984. Prestigious art institutes such as the Philadelphia College of Art and the Los Angeles Art Center College of Design awarded honorary doctorate degrees to Bass. He held a membership in the Sundance Film Institute in Utah and served as an executive board member of the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado.
Exhibitions of his work appeared at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 1981, at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris in 1982, and at the Zagreb Film Festival in Yugoslavia, in 1984. In 1987, as a professor at the University of California in Los Angeles department of art, he was named a Regents Lecturer for 1986-87, and a retrospective of his work appeared on exhibit at the school. Collections of his work are displayed internationally—at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, at the U.S. Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in Amsterdam at the Stedlijk Museum, and in Czechoslovakia at the Prague Museum. His writings appeared internationally in publications such as Graphis of Zurich, Switzerland; Film Dope of London; and Banc-Titre of Paris, as well as American Cinematographer of Hollywood and Cinema of Beverly Hills. G. Nelson published a book on Bass, entitled Saul Bass, in 1967. Bass earned listings in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers in 1985 and 1991, Conran Directory of Design in 1985, and Who's Who in Graphic Art in 1982.
Bass died in Los Angeles on April 25, 1996, of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. His wife-and creative partner, Elaine Makatura, survived him. The couple had been married for 35 years; they had two children, Jennifer and Jeffrey.
Film Comment, April 1997, p. 72.
Film Quarterly, Fall 1996, p. 10.
Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1996, p. 22.