Laura Wilkens

Thoughts - A Design and Film Related Blog

The blog portion of focuses on graphic design, film, and travel.

Opening Title Sequence Design - the 1920s

I'm taking a trip down memory lane, looking at the art behind opening title sequences in film. Title design is basically the collision of filmmaking and graphic design which is also coincidentally my life in a nutshell. Throughout history, title sequences have been used to solidify the mood of a film (Se7en, 1995), to provide some pretty awesome foreshadowing (Back to the Future, 1985), and even recap the majority of the story before you watch the movie (Catch Me If You Can, 2002). 

With the explosion of the silent movie era in the 1920s, text became a crucial way to give information about a film's story and move the plot forward. Title cards listed the legal jargon that corresponded with each film (director, copyrights, production company info etc.), while intertitles provided the dialogue and context whenever necessary. Therefore, the copy on these generally static frames had to be as legible as possible. Directors originally hired lettering designers for this job (oh a world without computers and keyboards) and each letter would be hand drawn, photographed and incorporated into the film. White text on a black background became the norm so that the words popped off the screen.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
The original German titles for Dr. Caligari (the English ones are pretty boring and plain) are a great example of opening titles conveying a mood. There's some great type design going on here, with disproportionate and askew letterforms not only making up the title of the movie but also all the additional production information. This echoes the look of the film, made up of landscapes filmed at twisted angles and harsh rays of light that come to sharp points with even harsher shadows (often painted directly onto the film set and not from an actual light source). A perfect look for a movie about a hypnotist that uses a sleepwalker to murder people. 

Nanook of the North (1922)
I personally consider the opening expository title sequences in movies such Nanook and The Gold Rush (1925) to be the precursor for the famous (infamous?) Star Wars titles. Being one of the first documentaries put to film that had an actual storyline with rising and falling action, the first blocks of text explain the filmmaker's backstory of shooting in the "actual Arctic". You can just imagine them in bright yellow and tilted forward on an angle. A long time ago, in an Eskimo village far, far away...


Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu is definitely my favorite movie from the 20's (just google image search it, definitely don't want to run into that guy in a dark alley), but the opening titles are a complete mystery to me. The original logo and poster design work is so expressive, yet the actual titles are a basic, Futura-esque sans serif typeface with no character for a movie based on Dracula. This one seems like a great design opportunity lost.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The original Phantom of the Opera uses a great technique of merging multiple layers of the film title together in its opening frame. Can you feel the intrigue?! There are also more Victorian-style flourishes to the text itself which correlates nicely with the opera location.

Metropolis (1927)
One of the most well-known films of the 20s (catch it in a theatre with live organ accompaniment), Fritz Lang found a way to successfully animate the buildings in the opening title sequence of Metropolis so that it looks as if they were rising into a city. This process apparently involved more than 1000 drawings of the buildings to create movement both of the buildings and of the light and shadows that play off them. This is one of the earlier examples of an actual title sequence as opposed to static title cards.

The Jazz Singer (1927)
And with that we're at the first talkie - the first movie to have sound other than accompanying music. The opening titles are very similar the The Phantom of the Opera in terms of text flourish. The intertitles are also very decorative, sacrificing legibility for a more expressive font.

All these movies are amazing classics and are so old they've lost their copyrights! Watch them here:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Nanook of the NorthNosferatu | The Phantom of the OperaMetropolisThe Jazz Singer