12/5/08

CREDIT SEQUENCES: A NOT VERY THOROUGH MINI-HISTORY

mgmlion

As a convention, the credit sequence is as old as the hills. Movies used to open with a formal presentation of the credits of the major stars and major technical help (cameraman, costumes, sets, editor, music) responsible for the movie you were about to see. Over the years, though, styles changed and unions got involved. Soon, every technician who worked on the movie had to have a credit. Why not? They deserve it. Thus the interminable final credits of movies today, which most of us--shamefully--don't sit through.

It's amusing to see films from the early thirties which--I believe--was the period (at least after sound came in) of the shortest credit sequences; the director was frequently listed on the title card, beneath the title. Often the actors were listed over images of them from the film. At the time the most prominently positioned credit--last before picture--was given to the producer. This reflected the studio system and its attitude toward filmmaking at it's peak. The producer owned the movie and all the decisions that had gone into it's making. The director was a hired hand who wrestled the actors through the scenes, pointed the camera and got the days work done on time. Below is the credit sequence of 1934's "Forsaking All Others", a pretty good example of precisely the kind of credit sequence I'm referring to.



Directing was, for the most part, considered a technical skill and not to be confused with a truly creative skill. The producer developed the material with the writer, picked the actors, supervised the editing etc. This, of course, is both true and untrue. For even in those producer oriented years, the director was truly the maker of the movie--he simply wasn't credited with being as important an element as he truly was. The fact is that early thirties movies are extremely director sensitive. Poor directors hadn't developed a sense of pacing yet--thus a lot of the no-longer watchable early talkies (though the worse they are the more I personally enjoy watching them--not because they're lousy, but because they provide a fascinating look at a vanished world and its stylistic mannerisms via their stilted, mawkish and just plain awkward conventions). Nonetheless, a director like William Wellman or King Vidor or Victor Fleming or Woody Van Dyke clearly knew how to make a film GO--and their movies still bristle with energy and invention. Was this because they had better producers? Hell no! These guys were early auteurs and were delivering the whole package just as it suited their taste. Early on, when director's weren't involved in the final editing of the movie, certain directors developed a way to insist on their vision of the final film no matter what the producer wanted; they "cut in the camera" as the saying goes, which means simply that they only shot the exact pieces of film that they wanted in the final cut of the film, not covering lines in multiple takes from different angles and thus forcing the producer (and editor) to piece together the film in the only way it could be pieced together. Cutting in the camera is a thing of the past--nobody but a fool would leave themselves no options in the cutting room now that films are so expensive and hard to get made in the first place. But for many years, a director who cut in the camera (Hitchcock was the most famous exponent of this practice) was--in a sense--admired for his muscle, technique and daring by his fellow directors. The highest compliment a director could pay a fellow director back then had little to do with their ability with actors or their bravura sense of place, time etc. It had to do with how little film they could shoot and how well it would work once edited.

But I digress. The title sequence stayed as a formal presentational credit through most of the fifties, until it began to be revolutionized by Saul Bass while working on Otto Preminger's films. Once Bass began to experiment with interesting titles, the lid came off and by the end of the sixties a movie with straight titles over cards was practically unheard of in the hip world. Nowadays, of course, many movies dispense with opening credits entirely, giving only the main presentational credits (companies involved in making the film) along with the star and "A Film By..." credit to the director (if he/she chooses to take one). By the way, my union, the Director's Guild of America, now requires that the director's credit always be "closest to picture"--so that it's the last credit you read if your credits are at the top of picture, or the first you read if you save them for the end.

As often as not a movie requires a full credit sequence, largely as a way of sharing visual information that helps set up the
movies characters. In "City Island" we had a lot of scenes that helped define who the family at the center of the story were and what their private needs, obsessions, etc. were. These scenes weren't necessarily dramatic but were necessary to get things going; the solution to keeping them was to create a credit sequence that showed pieces of these scenes as well as credits being run over them. Below I've posted a raw, early cut of a few shots that are currently in the movie (but at a much shorter length) and are played with credits over them (here they are not). I thought it might be interesting to see a little of this material in its raw form and once the credits are finished I'll post the final version.



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