The Start Is at the Finish

Speaking of movies, I did in fact go to see “The Bourne Ultimatum,” which was fantastic. With my perpetually critical designer’s eye, though, I noticed two things: first, that the movie’s titles are actually quite bad. They use a simplistic, somewhat retrograde graphical animation that amounts to pretty much what I imagine the titles for “Freejack” must have looked like.

But if you saw the movie too, you might not have paid much attention to the titles, because of my second observation: like a lot of films released in the past half decade, the titles follow at the end of the film, after the final frame of action. Though they are designed very much in the same way as titles that precede the film — you could almost move them to the start of the picture and they would work as is — they’re inserted as parting gestures instead of opening salutations.


To the Point

In an age where soon isn’t soon enough, there’s a certain appropriateness to jumping right into a movie without wasting time on credits. More and more, audiences, users and consumers want to cut to the chase, bypass the formalities that once seemed indispensable. Think of the early (and thankfully complete) demise of Web site introductory pages, or the various cover designs for books that resemble the table of contents or the first page of the first chapter more than they do traditional covers.

All of which is fine and good; I have no quarrel with any of it. For the most part. When it comes to film titles, I think I’m a kind of a closet traditionalist in that I tend to think there’s something ‘right’ about having titles at the beginning of a movie. Heck, if it were up to me, I’d bring back the days when all of the movie titles appeared at the beginning of the film.

Where Graphic Design Goes

A lot of this comes from the formative experience I had sitting through the titles that Bob Greenberg famously designed for “Superman: The Movie” when I was a kid. They seemed long and interminable at the time, and I doubtless would have appreciated having them tucked away at the end of the film had that been an option in 1978. But I didn’t appreciate then how effectively they set the stage for what I was about to see; the sense of anticipation they built up was a kind of magic of its own.

There’s more than nostalgia at work here, though. As bad as titles like those for “The Bourne Ultimatum” were, I just think it’s a shame to have the graphics stashed at that tail end of the moviegoing experience. I’m sure there are good reasons for this trend in moving titles — audience testing, union rules and artistic license surely figure into the equation — but in my admittedly biased opinion, it’s a shame to waste all that great design work on that part of the night when most people are leaving their seats and rushing to the bathroom

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  1. Very true. I’m a believer in titles at the beginning. Although I can possibly imagine why movies are switching to this style. Sitting through 15 minutes of commercials and trailers makes me frustrated and wanting the movie to just start!

  2. I suspect the trend of moving credits to the end of the movie will continue unabated. 20 years ago there was no IMDB to go look up who was in a movie, these days it’s taken for granted.

    Though credit stylizing has always been a fantastic venue for type and motion design, the core purpose for having them in the first place is going away. May as well spend that money elsewhere. (Or so I could see the argument going in a few years…)

  3. I’m with you on the traditional placement of movie credits (and where does a full, mood-setting, opening theme music montage go now?).

    Thankfully the credits for Catch Me If You Can were up front! Beautiful work.

  4. This is really derailing the subject.. but remember the opening titles for ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’. I never minded sitting through them.

  5. Have you seen the film Se7en? The opening credits set the tone, convey information that while seemingly meaningless is actually part of the story, and are totally insane. Also, the movie is awesome.

  6. Conversely, the closing credits to ‘Ratatouille’–with its nod to Saul Bass–accentuated and continued the feeling of utter happiness I had from the movie’s conclusion.

  7. I’m going to watch the Bourne Ultimatum on friday, but I sat through its two predecessors sunday, and if I’m not mistaken, the ‘Freejack-like’ credits at the end of the movie are either exactly similar to, or a version of, the credits from the previous two films. The first movie had a 2D version of lines running from one name to the other, and the sequel had a 3D version of the same (and all three movies have the Moby track, which I personally find very cool indeed).

    Anyway, I thought that was worth mentioning, since it is in fact not ‘just’ another lame credit sequence; it’s the Bourne credit sequence.

    As for putting the name of the movie at the back of the film, it’s something I’ve always approved of. I remember watching Soderbergh’s Solaris for instance (which I out and out loved). I thought having ‘SOLARIS’ in large white captial letters on a black background after the film was poetic in some sense.

  8. Now this is a remembrance, but when I was a kid in the 60s I loved the opening credits to Bond films. Often there was a lot of sexy silhouette action in a “Go Go” manner. Perhaps I am only remembering “Gold Finger.”

    The latest Bond film continued that tradition well. I loved the groovy fractal sequences. I don’t remember much about the text and credit info.

    About Moby’s soundtrack for Bourne 3, I felt it was the same but changed and not as supercharged as the 1st and 2nd.

  9. This reminds me of a letter that someone wrote into my local news paper [ Khoi, NYTimes.com ain't got nothing on that website! ;) ]. In it the writer asked why movie trailers were referred to as ‘trailers’, as trailers are usually something that follows something else, em, like a truck.
    :)

  10. Some great observations Khoi.

    I am completely with you in the traditionalist department of wanting credits in the beginning of the film. But, thinking purely as a designer and considering the function of credits and how they can affect the pacing of the movie experience, perhaps both the “pre”-credits and “post”-credits both have their function in the grander scheme of things.

    I too watched Bourne Ultimatum recently and it truly is an excellent movie. Of all the big name Hollywood releases this year it seemed like the first movie actually made with an audience above the age of 10 in mind. For that film in particular, I think the straight-to-the action opening worked well, because the entire film needed to have the sense of urgency, and because it starts off exactly at the point where the last film ended. If anyone hasn’t see this movie and its predecessors, I highly recommend them.

    Speaking of traditionalism in movie opening titles, I have a personal bone to pick with the credits of Casino Royale. Unfortunately I disagree with christofay, in that I don’t think it maintained the tradition of the past Bond outings. Through the entire run of bond movies, the opening credits have always had a certain smoky silhouetted look which the recent one simply ignored, and also where are the sexy women?? This is James Bond movie for crying out loud! I want my standard issue slinky almost-nude women in the intro! I Protest! … But besides that the movie was pretty good.

    Over all, I hope there isn’t any mass change from pre-credits to post-credits or vice-versa. I don’t think too many strict conventions is ever a good thing, and as long as the decisions are based upon the story telling impact of the movie or other similar “design” consideration, we’ll be fine.

  11. ha, i was just coming here to comment about the “casino royale” opening credits which i ADORED. i’m a HUGE bond fan (though not many people would know it to look at me) and i personally hated all the smoky silhouettes of the older movies. i always thought that they were hokey and fast-forwarded through them. the “casino royale” credits were such a nice departure. i think that there’s something to be said for really taking a chance and doing it differently with this latest bond film. sometimes it’s better to break “the rules” and get a smarter movie than keep the long standing tradition and be boring.

  12. Both opening and closing credits can enhance the moviegoing experience.

    My jaw dropped the first time I watched the opening credits of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. I almost wiggled out of my seat in happiness during Superbad‘s incredibly simple and awesome opening. They set you up and got you excited for what was to come.

    I’m also a big fan of the closing credit sequence. High Fidelity and Stranger Than Fiction both have layered, music-oriented montages. Ratatouille and Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events opted for the animated outro. (I’m going by memory here… those were both at the end, right?) All of them capped off the movie and brought a weird sense of artistic resolution to the films.

    Custom credit sequences are the apertif or espresso to the movie’s entre. Not all meals require them, but they can add a really special touch.

  13. Cut to the chase? I’m all for it! But, to use a movie for this example seems a little off. Movies these days have more and more useless clutter before the film. There is little feeling of cutting to the chase when I go to a theater.

    How many minutes of nonsense are there these days before a film? We have often ignored and rarely enforced “silence is golden” and “please turn off your cellphone” public service announcements. There are reminders that snacks are available just in case you missed the huge displays on your way in. (Bonus points for mixing the previous into an animated film roller coaster sequence.) Finally you can sit though commercials before more and more previews.

    For DVD’s, I have the same complaint. FBI and copyright warnings that you never read but that you can’t skip or fast forward through. Cue the HD DVD sound effect and logo. Cue the Dolby sound effect and logo. Cue the THX sound effect and logo. And so on.

    What are another few seconds of credits, which you can fast forward through, compared to the rest?

  14. Opening credits sequences typically exist for the sake of the film’s creators, not the story. As such, they can really interfere with the escapism that is central to the film-watching experience—if they don’t completely ruin it. A perfect (if extreme) example: For several episodes of Twin Peaks, an actor who portrayed a supposedly dead character was still showing up in the opening credits, forecasting her return for anyone who could read.

    Accidental spoilers aside, once I’m watching a film, it shouldn’t need to sell itself to me with its star power. The creators should be willing to take their rightful back seat to what is supposed to be the real feature attraction: the story they’ve crafted. After all, it’s not supposed to be John Malkovich I’m watching on the screen, it’s supposed to be the character he’s playing. Unless I’m watching Being John Malkovich. :)

    Anyway, in general, I think the opening of a work of fiction should set the stage without reminding me that what I’m about to see is totally fake.

  15. @ Havagan: Ditto on the DVD lead-in shit. And when they disable the Menu or Skip Track buttons, sometimes with the infuriating “Fast forward through previews to reach main menu” notice? I could choke someone.

    The time between inserting a DVD and watching the feature can often be several minutes, with many seconds wasted by the DVD player itself switching tracks. Contrast that with simplified DVDs, like Fugazi’s The Instrument. Moments after inserting the DVD, you’re looking at the menu, with the main item pre-selected. One click starts the feature.

    Business types mandating user experiences infuriates me.

  16. Rob: But it *is* totally fake! Why not acknowledge it with something beautiful and compelling that sets the stage for the whole movie, instead of just dropping you in as if you were there. In my mind, not having an opening sequence is as much “fake” as having credits, honestly, in the same way that a bunch of actors doing spontaneous theater on the street corner is just as artificial as a play with an audience, stage, and a curtain.

    Besides, I like to watch a movie knowing, for example, who the music composer was, or who the secondary cast is, so I can keep my eyes open or ears open for them and enrich my film watching life overall.

  17. One potential theory about why credits are less necessary, or maybe why people crave more the experience of just getting to the film and skipping the intro bits could be that people have become more accustomed/trained to accommodate the suspension of disbelief required to truly enjoy most movies. The more that immediate physical reality becomes less a part of people’s daily experience (thanks to TV and computers, if nothing else), the less of a liminal interlude they might need to adapt to a given film’s alternate reality.

  18. except….

    when dvd’s are involved.
    having to sit through 30 minutes of copyright notices and cruddy trailers. And who sits through the end credits when watching DVD’s?

    And films on tv rarely show the full end trailers.

    I’m amazed more isn’t done with end credits. All that centred type!
    how about 2 columns/ 3 columns? colour?

  19. There are a few relevant points that anyone working online should realize with the strategy of putting credits at the end of a movie:

    1. I’m already at the movie.

    Please don’t try to sell me on a movie when I’ve already purchased my tickets. Let’s get the show on the road. Let’s skip the Flash intro.

    2. I can choose to view the credits.

    I don’t like or hate credits. Sometimes I want to see them, sometimes I don’t. Putting them at the end helps me do either easily. Please let me opt-in to see your promos, Hollywood.

    3. Self-aggrandizement isn’t attractive.

    Show me you can make a great movie and I’ll find out who you are. There’s a reason “About” pages aren’t synonymous with start pages on websites.

  20. Well, the question of front-credits vs. end of movie credits really depends greatly on the film in question. The “Star Wars” franchise, for instance, would be an entirely different experience with credits preceeding the movie. In like manner, the opening credits for “Catch Me If You Can” set up the mood and tone perfectly (these are the only credits I can recall where the designer is credited during this part). The truth is, I think that the decision between upfront and back-end credits really should be decided based upon the needs of the movie. Certainly they serve no informational purpose, you already know who’s in it and (if you care) who directed it, and even if you didn’t it’s not like that knowledge really helps you enjoy the movie. So opening credits (or lack thereof) really only serve to acclimate the audience to the environment of the movie.

    An excellent discussion of the thought process that goes into this comes on the commentary for “The Incredibles”. When the Disney and Pixar logos are shown, the traditional music behind them were dropped in favor of the opening spy-movie themed music of Michael Giachino’s score. Brad Bird explains that the reasoning was because the short that preceeded the movie, “Boundin’”, had such a lighter tone than “The Incredibles”, plus they were opening with the funny, grainy interview segments before jumping into the action. They felt that they needed to set the mood of “The Incredibles” instantly, and the Disney fanfare ran counter to that. If you watch the beginning of “The Incredibles” with that in mind, you really see how much of a difference it makes.

  21. I am in total agreement with some of the earlier comments about the opening credits having the ability to set the tone for the movie.

    Kiss kiss Bang bang and Catch me if you can (mentioned earlier as well) spring immediately to mind.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that movies from the 50′s and 60′s really didn’t start with opening credits. At least that’s the sense I get when they show those movies on cable.

    So maybe this is just a revival?

  22. I’m really surprised by this article.

    I hate having credits at the start of a film. They don’t mean anything to me. I don’t care who is going to be in the film – once I’ve sat in front of it, I’m going to watch it, whether I recognise lots of big names or not. Other than that, it’s a waste of my time to sit through them.

    I want to see named credits at the end. I *will* be sitting through the whole film thinking “Who the heck is that actor?” about at least two people, and having the credits at the end means I can look up who it was before I forget about it. Or if I’m not interested, I can stop watching.

    From my own experience, it seemed like more and more films were eschewing full end credits and replacing them with opening credits, which are far less helpful but nevertheless force you to sit through them.

  23. Opening and closing credits always get my eye – and good credits are certainly noteworthy. The movie isn’t over until those words stop rolling!

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