Cinematography: The voice of typography

If one thinks of Typography, in the context of Cinema, one thinks immediately and obviously of the opening and closing titles used in cinema. It’s a funny and perhaps a symbolic coincidence that type in cinema is mostly positioned at “the beginning” and at “the end”. It is as if type merely announces something seemingly saying noting itself. The content, the story, the “real cinematic narrative” is in-between, type is the indifferent packaging that needs to be unwrapped in order to consume. Even if this fact seems to be the “a confirmed reality” we would like to argue that there is still a relationship to be redefined between typography and cinematography.

Lets firstly examine what we know about the obvious presence of typography within cinema known as the title-sequences. Titles in films are often designed by unknown designers, their name is in most cases not mentioned in there own work. We could say that title designers in the history Graphic Design, if there is one, don’t have such a celebrated position. However there are exceptions. Everyone knows the man behind Alfred Hitchcock ‘s Psycho, Vertigo or North by Northwest: Saul Bass. He is probably so known because of his collaborations with Hollywood’s most prominent filmmakers besides Hitchcock he design for Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. In the time of Saul Bass titles where even lesser important that we could think for today he confirms that

“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 filmgoers aren’t interested in. I aim to set up the audience for what’s coming;”

One other “proper” title designer that became known for his work, worked with Saul Bass for a while, is Dan Perri. Even if his work on Star Wars (1977) became a worldwide pop culture phenomenon it’s interesting to remark that where Saul Bass did have a his “own” distinctive style or ethics as designer, Dan Perri proclaims that he didn’t have a style — you can see this also in the list of title works he produced: The Exorcist (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Star Wars (1977), Raging Bull (1980), Airplane! (1980). Perhaps was he the forerunner of what became today’s bloodless professionalism in film titles.

In-between those types of designers we could think of Pablo Ferro, a Cuban, that immigrated to New York at the age of 13, famous for his hand drown type for Mr. Kubricks Dr. Strangelove and his quick cut montage technique. In one of his interviews he proclaimed surprisingly that he did his montages without sound. He seemed to have taken part of those like Saul Bass that would experiment with ways to make title sequences convey more things than just who worked on the movie. His trailer for “Clockwork Orange” seems competing easily with the MTV montage speed ranges. He seems to have set some standards for what is title design today “The title sequence is the story,” he said. “It’s the introduction to the movie. It’s telling you what kind of feeling you’re going to get into. If you fail doing that, the whole movie falls apart.” A statement that attributes an imported role to typographic design within cinema.

In the now classic title sequence for the first James “Bond Dr. No (1962)” Maurice Binder is affirming again the power of a condensed experience that could be easily used for branding or advertising a film experience. Its remarkable that still nowadays James Bond films seem to build on a creative force from the 60sties. Speaking of James Bond we could not, not mention, Robert Brownjohn and his widely known achievement (according to wikipedia) for an other James Bond title again full in the spirit of the 1960s pop culture : From Russia with Love (1963). In this title sequence he explores the materiality of typography by projecting the film credits on a body of a typical bond girl. Robert Brownjohn seems to be inspired by the idea of filming projections by the Bauhaus artist László Maholy-Nagy. Looking to his other Graphic design works we could really say that a certain cinematic aspect seems to continue in his way of thinking.

However to cut short a large but still occult story of typographic design in title sequences we could cite a last celebrated example: The Void (2007). This design by the in France based Japanese Tom Kan for a psychedelic melodrama by Gaspar Noé, seems to capitalize on a lot of typographic clichés but really tells a strong typographic story by itself.
Till so far a brief introduction of titles by designers. And here we would like to go back to the title of this lecture “Cinematography: The voice of Typography” and think about the role of voice of typography within filmmaking. We have seen that generally type is used to introduce cinematic content. Mostly at the beginning and on the ending of a film, typography is mostly conceived as playing a supportive role. Never the less some title designers have really taken the opportunity to tell something within their works. But thinking about the beginning of cinema when film was purely film, in the “Silent Film era”, before the emergence of the so-called “talkies” about 1927, typography did have a crucial role. We think here of the meaning conveying role title cards or inter-titles did have. In “A dog’s life (1918)” Chaplin seems to have a hard time understanding that the silent movie actress Edna Purviance is flirting with him. The inter-title reading “I’m Flirting” does chance radically ones perception on what she is aiming to express.

We could argue that typography in silent film is preforming the voice that actors did not have. Typography in that perspective played from the very beginning of Cinematography an essential part in sense making. We all know that the introduction of synchronized sound in cinema, was causing the dead of a certain cinema, typography also became, as some known “stars” from the grand “Cinéma muet” degraded and almost forgotten as a mean of expression. Luckily there are some exceptions. One of the greatest examples where typography and cinematography coexisted in a meaningful ensemble, there where Type, Image and Sound where used in equal respect, is for us the work of Jean-Luc Godard. Perhaps the most typographic sensible filmmaker ever, not surprising that he has his roots from Switserland, Jean-Luc is using type with as much respect as he uses images and sounds, very much showing that type is not just illustrative or introductive but constructive in the art of cinematography. The way he subverts meaning, playing with letters and words shows that he sees those elements as visual content and not merely as sub scripting some cinematic grand idea.


Thinking of Godard, that still at the age of 88 years makes films, still using typography as a vital element, is perhaps thinking of cinema itself. Born in 1930 just about the emergence of ‘taking cinema’ Godard seems somehow to have the memory of what was the power of cinema in the era of silent film. The era in witch Typography was actively used to create cinematic narratives. Godard for Film Socialisme (2010) wrote very special English subtitles for the Cannes screening. This gesture shows his knowledge of how written words give meaning, or change meaning when in relation with images and sounds. For him translating the words of a is like translating poetry, that as we know is factually impossible, or at least need a special effort. Translating poetry is inventing new poetry. And this is exactly what happens when we put subtitles to films. Every subtitled film is a new film.

As much as type changes film, in the case of subtitles and title sequences adding feeling and meaning to a film, as much feelings and meanings are given back to typography by film. We could say that typography is charging film and cinematography is charging type. A great example is the unique use of Windsor Light Condensed by the Woody Allen. Windsor is a typeface of British origin that’s found its way, accordingly to font review journal, into the “Ugly American vernacular”. What does this typeface, that’s drawing upon some sort of Art Nouveau characteristics, say to us? What did Woody Allen make selecting it? One thing is clear that it did have something to say even before Woody selected it. But it is troubling, at least for us, that eventually this Typeface, at it actual state, does make us think of Woody Allen’s films. The same way we should reflect how type is recuperated in cinema narratives or and how those cinematic narratives in their return are loading typography with a feeling. It seems that we can never be completely sure what gives a voice to typography or what gives typography a voice. Typography however seems often to preexist to Cinema. We could perhaps state that Type is the functional real and Type in Cinema the meta-real. In the film “They Live (1988)” by John Carpenter the main character John Nada find sunglasses that reveal him a hidden reality. Behind the seductive colorful images one can read in clear Barbara Kruger like typography: obey, consume, reproduce, conform, etc.

Here Typography seems to deconstruct the seductive cinematic illusion within a cinematic context and speaks out load what really is.



However typography and cinematography are finally symbiotic writing systems making use of each other to express or to reflect on humane existence. The Typographer and the Cinematographer are using similar logics: in the sense that the typographer works letter by letter and the cinematographer frame by frame, both are composing reading symbols or containers of emotion.

— The End