The title sequence in film has been an art form ever since Saul Bass made a sequence for Carmen Jones in 1955 that did not merely attempt to convey the names of the cast and crew for the audience. That was over 50 years ago, and now, finally, the title sequence as art form is being recognized for the important role it plays in setting the stage for a film. This year's South by Southwest film festival is having its own little version of the Oscars for title sequences in both film and television. Other film festivals are following suit, and hopefully one day the Academy will do the same. Why?
Some films have title sequences that are much, much better than the films themselves - the 2003 remake of Willard (click to view title sequence) comes to mind - which illustrates the fact that outside studios are almost always hired to create them. Viewing this year's Academy Awards was, as always, a quick refresher course in just how many people are required to get a film made from start to finish. With so many categories and jobs to be honored, there's really no strong argument why the title sequence should be excluded.
Films of the silent era relied on text to convey meaning. The early 'talkies' for a long time maintained the seemingly important role of text in film, always putting their entire credit sequence at the front of the film. Eventually, Hollywood started to favor a credit roll at the end of the movie, reserving the up-front credits only for the major creative forces behind the film (and causing years of arguments, lawsuits, and general strife in a battle of Hollywood egos). It wasn't until the 1990s that action movies started moving all credits to the back of the film, so they could cut to the action in no time. In fact, both front-runners for Best Picture this year had no opening credit sequence at all.
But for smaller, more independent features, their budgets cannot create a magical 3D jungle in which to immerse the viewer - in other words, a more affordable way of creating an atmosphere must be used, and the title sequence is just that. Wes Anderson's films use music and clever titles to create an air of whimsy and irony in his films, so no one would take them too seriously. Jason Reitman's three films to date, including this year's Best Picture nominee Up in the Air, (click to view title sequence) make very creative use of titles to establish location and mood for the film. And my favorite title sequence of the year, in Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland, integrate themselves cleverly into a montage of zombie-murdering mayhem that throws you into a post-apocalyptic world of Hell with a smile on your face.
Judging by these examples, it seems that the clever title sequence has found its niche in comedy and light drama - but the history of the title sequence in no way indicates the trend. In fact, the most famous title sequences - Saul Bass's treatments for Hitchcocks Psycho, North by Northwest, and Vertigo - are all thrillers. Even Bass's titles for Sunset Boulevard - although not set to a narrative in and of themselves - are incredibly effective in establishing mood and scene before the movie begins.
For more on title sequences, check out two great Websites dedicated to them: The Art of the Title, and Forget the Film, Watch the Titles. Also check out this great article on title sequences from this week's NY Times.