Title Designer Dan Perri is the Biggest Movie Star You’ve Never Heard of

Posted inDesigner Interviews

Star Wars. Taxi Driver. The Exorcist. Raging Bull. Caddyshack. 

What do all of these movies have in common? Other than being classic—dare I say iconic?—films that have each played a role in defining American cinema, they all have another connective thread of which even the biggest cinephiles are likely unaware… 

These classics are just a few titles from a laundry list of beloved cinematic masterpieces that all have opening credits created by the same title designer, Dan Perri.

Don’t be too hard on yourself for not knowing this— it’s a sad reality that title designers are unfairly under-acknowledged on the whole, and are rarely given the credit (pun semi-intended) that they so sorely deserve. Considering his staggeringly impressive resume, Dan Perri should be a household name. The Star Wars opening titles alone should be enough to put Perri up there with other film greats in terms of recognition, yet very few viewers probably even consider the creators behind these works of art. 

Luckily there are a subset of advocates for title designers like Perri within the cinematic universe, such as those at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, where an exhibition chronicling Perri’s 50-year career is now on view. ‘Dan Perri and the Art of the Title Sequence’ is led by the Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs Barbara Miller alongside guest curator Lola Landekic (the Editor-in-Chief of the project Art of the Title). It includes a video interview, sketches, storyboards, type, logo designs, and other production material from a range of films Perri played no small part in putting on the map. Ultimately, the exhibition serves as a long-overdue celebration of an unsung and often overlooked aspect of filmmaking by highlighting the work of a legend in the field. 

I recently had the great joy of chatting with Perri directly about his journey as a title designer and his exhibition. How does one get into creating title sequences in the first place? What’s the process like for coming up with a title sequence? What was it like designing one of the most identifiable and revered title sequences of all time? I had to find out from the master himself. 

Perri was first introduced to graphic advertising design at his high school in Los Angeles, thanks to his art teacher, Barbara Brooks, who had been an agency art director on Madison Avenue in the ’50s. As it turns out, she used issues of PRINT as reference materials for students, and it was in these very copies of PRINT that Perri first discovered the work of the world-renowned graphic designer Saul Bass. “I studied him and loved what he did and wanted to be like him,” Perri told me. “I developed my style to reflect some of his characteristics and approaches to design. Then, luckily, I learned that Saul had offices right in LA on Sunset Boulevard.”

By that time, Perri was already working for himself as a sign painter, painting signs for businesses in and around LA. “So I was aware of and familiar with type, and as I learned more about letters and type styles and so on, I became very interested in designing letterforms.” After learning that his hero Saul Bass lived and worked in the same city that he did, Perri decided he needed to meet him directly and show him his work. So with his portfolio in tow, Perri began taking periodic trips to Bass’s offices in the hopes of grabbing his attention from the building’s lobby. Perri never had an appointment, but what he did have proved to be more valuable: undying persistence and the confidence of naivety. 

via Dan Perri and the Art of the Title Sequence

Finally Perri’s determination paid off when, one day, Bass himself walked past him in the building lobby. “I introduced myself and he invited me into his office, where he very graciously and very patiently looked at all of my work— every single piece that was there,” Perri told me. “He critiqued me and decided that I had something that he was interested in. He said he wanted me to come back and that he would keep track of me and what I was doing. He offered to give me advice and help me learn more about the world of design that I wanted to be a part of so badly.” 

Perri’s career took a slight detour when he joined the Navy during the Vietnam War, but he was fortunate enough to continue designing while enlisted. “I worked as a journalist in the Navy on a couple of different ships. I designed and wrote a newspaper every day, and did a lot of graphic design for different things within the Navy,” he said. After this stint, he ventured back to Bass, who offered him a job. “But something went off in my head,” Perri told me. “I said to myself, If Saul Bass wants me, I must be good enough. So I turned down the job and I opened my own little studio.” 

After striking out on his own, Perri partnered with an old high school classmate of his, Steve Smith, who had been working at an aftereffects house and had experience in title design and creating art for the screen. They launched their own independent design studio together called Perri & Smith, where their opening title sequence for the 1973 film Electra Glide in Blue caught the attention of the director William Friedkin, who then hired Perri to design the opening titles for The Exorcist (1973). 

This was Perri’s first solo project, and the success of the film catapulted him into title design stardom. “The Exorcist was one of the first big blockbusters, so once that hit, everyone in the industry knew who worked on the film; suddenly I was the flavor of the week,” Perri said. “This was in 1974, and it’s been that way ever since. I’ve been so lucky and fortunate that I’ve never had a day without work.”   

At 77, Perri is still designing titles to this day. He’s also teaching and speaking at film schools, design schools, and festivals all over the US, and even in Europe, spreading his wealth of knowledge with the next generation of title designers. “There’s an enormous amount of interest in my work,” Perri said. “Students always want to know how I did things, especially when I was working optically, which was much more primitive in its mechanics. They want to know how to put something on film, compared to the ease of doing it digitally. They’re always very curious to know what it took for me to do the titles for Nashville (1975), or Taxi Driver (1976), or any of the other films that I’ve done on film.” 

When it comes to Perri’s title design process, of course there is far more than meets the eye. “There’s two levels: there’s the titles themselves, and then there’s whatever the titles are with on screen,” Perri told me. There are also many parties involved in the production of a film who need to be appeased within a given title sequence, ranging from the filmmakers and the studio to the distribution companies and the actors and technicians. Title sequence stipulations for each of these entities are governed by their hyper-meticulous contracts. “Oftentimes, the lead actors’ names have to be the same size as the title; they go into extreme detail about needing to be the same size, same color, same type style, same height, same thickness and so on, so I have to be aware of all of those sorts of requirements.” 

From there, Perri tackles the background imagery for the sequence. “Sometimes I might shoot them, or direct them, or find artwork, or take photographs, or decide that they will be on black, or whatever it is,” he said. Perri is also a completist with his practice, who demands full creative control of his title sequences from start to finish. “Because I’m a specialist, people want me to create sequences for the film rather than just designing a logo, and pass it off to them and hope they put it on screen the way I envisioned it. I require that I handle the entire project; I design the logo, all the titles, and then I supervise putting it together and delivering it completed. I’ve enjoyed a lot of autonomy in my work. Fortunately, I’m trusted and respected and given the reins to do what I think is best.” 

The ideation process for Perri seems more like a preternatural gift than anything else. All he requires is a pencil and paper. “I will view the film and then come up with ideas. These ideas are still a mystery to me; I don’t know where they come from. They’re just suddenly in my mind’s eye. I see images, I see motion, I see whole sequences sometimes, all based upon my emotional reaction to viewing the film. It’s a simple process,” he told me. “Once I get an idea, I literally have to scramble to find a piece of paper to draw it out. I always use a pencil with an eraser on the back of it so that I can draw something and then erase it and change it and so on. This is a process that has been with me ever since I began when I was painting signs; I would sketch them out with paper and pencil. It’s worked for me all this time and I still do it exactly the same way. If I don’t capture an idea on paper right away, sometimes it goes away, it just evaporates; it’s gone, I can’t remember it. So it’s a process that requires a very quick response to the idea.”

Perri’s brain is so prolific that he usually fields a handful of concepts. “I’m fortunate that, not only do I get one idea, but I get many ideas,” he said. “There’s an ongoing thing where one might pop up in my head suddenly a day after watching the film, or come out of something that I thought of yesterday. So it’s a very exciting ongoing creative process for me.” 

Once the idea has blossomed, Perri begins to explore how to apply it to the screen. “Now, with computers, I can just scan my drawing and start manipulating it on the computer. But the computer is just a tool. It’s a terrific tool, but it’s dependent upon the idea,” he said. “You can then take it a lot farther because of the ability of the computer, but without the idea, there’s nothing. I live on my ideas.”

via Dan Perri and the Art of the Title Sequence

For someone who’s worked in the same industry for 50 years and counting, Perri has witnessed the evolution of title sequences and their production process firsthand. “There’s a lot more technology available for designers to use now, and so many sequences have become much more complex,” he said. “They’re very busy and full of many design elements. Sometimes, I think they have too many tools to do too many things with. Oftentimes, I think less is better.” 

Aside from obvious advancements in technology and the leap from film to digital, there’s also been a dramatic shift in the structure of the title sequence industry, which has moved from individual title artists to large groups of designers who work for studios. “When I first started out and for most of my career, we all did our work personally. Myself and most of my competitors— Saul Bass and others— did our work and got credit for it as an individual. But nowadays, title sequences are done within teams, with names like Digital Kitchen or Imaginary Forces or Prologue. They approach and solve the problem of what to design for the film as a group. They collaborate with each other and then they attack the director with all of these ideas from all different directions and all different viewpoints. They may produce a better product— I don’t know!” Perri said. “But when people want me to work on a film, they want me. They don’t want people who work for me, or some team or group of people— they want me.

Perri has always been incredibly protective of his creative vision for his projects, and has rejected any notions of expanding to work with other designers. “I’ve never had any collaborating designers in my studio that work for me, nor have I ever hired anyone to design something for me that I then pass off to the director,” he said. “I reached a point years ago where I had so much work that I had to make a decision: should I work more like Saul Bass where I hire a few designers with me, and supervise them and develop their ideas, and then take it to the client as mine? Or should I start turning jobs down and only do what I can do myself? That’s what I chose to do, and I still operate that way; I can’t let go of any of it. I’m always grateful for having that autonomy, that control of my work, and that appreciation of it. That’s why I still work— because I still enjoy that.”

While Perri has been fortunate to mostly collaborate with directors who respect his legacy and vision, there have been a few trickier experiences, not least of which came when creating his most well-known title sequence, the scrolling opening credits for Star Wars. “I always thought of it as a stupid space movie, and when I was working on the film, it was not a good experience for me,” he told me candidly. “Working with George Lucas was not a thrill. He was very put-upon and overwhelmed, and always angry and difficult. He was known for not being able to communicate what he wanted very well, so people were always trying to drag it out of him.”

The process for creating what might be Hollywood’s most well-branded title sequence was such a pain that Perri was eager to get it over with. “Whenever I would go out to ILM [Industrial Light & Magic], I’d wait for him for hours to show him things that I’d brought,” he said. “Finally, when he looked at it, he never liked it, and would send me off with some other idea, or something else to look at. It wasn’t fun to have to wait for him to then be criticized by him and rejected. When I finally came up with the idea that we used, I was glad to just see the end of the road and be done so that I could move on with another project.”

Likely due in part to these negative associations, Perri did not expect the fanatic reception of his work on the film. “I was amazed, and I’m still amazed. It’s never ended,” he told me. “I meet people all the time who realize that I did those titles and they’ll flip out. They can’t believe that they’re meeting the person who did the title sequence that apparently is so important to them. They have to sit me down, and they have to tell me everything about the day they first saw the film. It’s just astonishing. I look at them in wonderment. The film itself never really impressed me a whole lot, but I know that hundreds of millions of people around the world feel differently about it.”

Perri has had a handful of unforgettable encounters with the franchise’s notoriously feverish fanbase. “I’ve been invited to go to Star Wars conventions to sign autographs, and I’ve seen the whole gambit of these Star Wars maniacs,” he continued. “They wait in line to get my autograph or to take pictures with me; sometimes people will have me sign their forehead or the top of their head. One young woman had me sign across the top of her breasts!” 

Perri’s book, Hollywood Titles Designer: A Life in Film.

Now, thanks to the Museum of the Moving Image exhibition, more than just these Star Wars die-hards have gotten to fawn over Perri and his work. The designer himself initiated it, as part of his desire and need to share his work. “It happens that I do something that is appreciated by people, and I want to pass it on to the next generation; I want to share what I’ve done and what I know. I feel obligated to do that,” he said. He’s done this previously by teaching and speaking to students, writing his book Hollywood Titles Designer: A Life in Film, and now through the ‘Dan Perri and the Art of the Title Sequence’ exhibit. 

via Dan Perri and the Art of the Title Sequence

“When I saw it and walked through it, I was thrilled, almost to where it felt like I was seeing someone else’s work,” Perri reflected on seeing the exhibition in person for the first time. “I was impressed; I’ve never seen all of my work together at one time. Sure, I can watch videos of my work strung together one after another, but it’s not the same as being in this space, where there’s the actual objects that I created and filmed and used in different projects.” 

The exhibition is on view through January 1 within the museum’s Video Screening Amphitheater, but it’s safe to say Perri’s legacy will live on forever.

via Dan Perri and the Art of the Title Sequence