The Daily Heller: Selling Stories Through Titles

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It is always a mystery to the outsider why some films have well-designed title sequences and others do not. Money—or the lack of it—is a common excuse. But almost all motion pictures do have their own logos, which either stand alone as a title card or are integral to and in concert with the opening (or in some cases, closing) sequence. In the branding age, to not use a logo (as was common in the ’30s and ’40s) would be more than a missed opportunity, it would have impact on the bottom line. Think franchise, think Godfather.

Some designers are specialists in the often complicated process of movie logo-making. Tim Girvin, calligrapher and typographer, who long ago distinguished himself as a premier letterer, has successfully transformed his once “artisanal” practice into a digital agency, with a special niche and fondness for film. Some of his most recent work is either known or will soon become known to the avid Hollywood moviegoer. I spoke with him about what makes his film logos, well, logos for film.

How long have you been doing movie logos? 
I started on movie logos in 1979. Francis Ford Coppola saw a spread in a 1977 U&lc and said, “let’s get that guy on this project.” 

I sent this roll to Herb Lubalin. I used to draw these for my students when I was teaching drawing, calligraphy and lettering design at The Evergreen State College. I was teaching my students the vibe of rhythm in the alphabet as a series of movements in touch, the literal musical movement of drawing letters in their alphabetic sequence. And that their forms intertwine, drawn on a rhythmic form language. Back then, I drew these to music. 

What determines how a movie logo will look, or what it will “say” to an audience?
I look at a string of things—first, reading the script, mostly under lock and key. They’re generally highly secretive and securely protected documents—and many times, I read onsite, on the motion picture studio lot, in a locked room. Then I look at production drawings, visit sets, look at chronology, location of the story, nature of the storyline. What kind of narrative is it? Story arc, type of story, characters, interplay. With these inputs, I draw direction. 

The ones shown above appear to capture the essence of each film. What is your average number of iterations? 
Motion picture–related design is entirely competitive. There is a lot of talent attached to a film—so my design solutions are competing with in-house. I’ve always operated as a kind of rōnin, since I’m in Seattle, not LA, Hollywood or Burbank. There are many agencies in LA with gigantic teams and retainer contracts to work on films for all the studios, so I come in rogue, a kind of specialist logo artist. 

Do you take cues from the directors or producers?
If I can, I try to find links to directors, producers, production designers and actors. That might be an opening project review, storytelling strategy, or in process, shoots underway—or at the tail end of the production. That’s led to direct interpretations for J.J. Abrams, Keith Barish, Jerry Bruckheimer, Tim Burton, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, David Fincher,  Walter Hill, Sergio Leone, Barry Levinson, Don Simpson, Joel Silver, Doug Trumbull, The Wachowski sisters, Robert Zemeckis and plenty of others, over time. I’m always a collaborative listener—it’s their work, I’m merely an interpreter.

What has been your favorite and why?
I like working optimistically, almost pre-shoot. Speaking with Clint Eastwood while he was on set, shooting in Alberta, he told me the story of Unforgiven, and—“I don’t usually do much about logos for my films, but this one’s different. How could you design a logo for a story around redemption—and a man that’s gone to hell and is trying to find his way back to redeeming his life?” So that logo is entirely drawn by hand on Italian handmade paper, with a broad-edged metal tool. It was something that could’ve been drawn on a plank, as a sign, printed and distressed, woodblock printed on an old Victorian broadside—but emotionally it evinced anguish, coupled with strength, tinged with pain. There are lots of favorites, but another was working for Sergio Leone on Once Upon a Time in America. Which was as a pitch package, the design treatment to get the project rolling. Listening to him, it was about the solidity of the storyline, something speaking to the broad characteristics and personalities of crime in the time period of 1930s America. So I designed it as a marquee, something that could be built, an epic, a pageant, something that stands up, strong heritage, legendary in scope. And indeed it was. Leone’s last film. 

Posted inThe Daily Heller