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The art of captions and titles

In the beginning, we had silent movies.  Artists were engaged to design and complete the intertitles which gave a rough indication of what the actors would have been saying, if they had been saying anything that had anything to do with the plot.
Only lip-readers would have been able to tell if the actors were saying something meaningful.

Alfred Hitchcock, the most famous director in film history, was. like me, educated at St. Ignatius College, London N15.

In 1920, at the age of twenty-one he was offered a job by an American film company operating in London.  They were known as Famous Players-Lasky.  He was taken on as title designer and artist.  He made the titles for all of their films for three years.  Then he was given a film to direct and everybody knows what happened after that.

Alfred Hitchcock, head-and-shoulders portrait,...

Alfred Hitchcock, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He would have had to design his own typeface and vary it from film to film when producing the main and end titles.  For intertitles it was usual at that time to print them on paper, to film the titles and then print them, together with the picture negative, to produce a combined print.

Main titles were produced by designers dedicated to the task.  After the arrival of sound film, it was only the main and end titles that were made for films released in the countries which spoke the language of the original film.  Obviously subtitles have been used until now where films are distributed in foreign countries.

At Movietonews in the forties and fifties, their story titles were made in house at 22 Soho Square.  This was done by Bill Short, and employee of Kay (West End) Laboratories.  He had designed his own lettering which became distinctive as the Movietone story titles.  Every title was done by hand.  He had a small studio on the fifth floor.  He could handle alterations, which meant he had to re-do a title or make a new title for a last-minute story.

His titles were then sent down to the titling department on the ground floor where “Big Mick” had a 35mm rostrum camera.  It was mounted horizontally on a travelling platform which enabled him, when required, to make a zoom shot, this before the zoom lens.  The negative would then go to the laboratory where they would superimpose the titles over their respective, chosen opening scenes.

In 1957, At GTV9 Melbourne, we had a requirement for story titles in the news service.  I discovered the Art Department which was run by Trevor Ling.  He could produce most normal artwork, but he also had a hot press printer which enabled him to produce a title card very quickly.

The typeface was heated on a press.  Blue paper was then placed over the typeface before the press was lowered on to a black card.  This made the typeface stick to the card.  Upon withdrawing the press, the titles were left on the card while the residue came away with the typeface.

Terry Gallacher Caption GTV9 1957

Caption by Trevor Ling GTV9 1957

It was ideal from a news service which may have, from time to time, the need to produce a film title at the last minute.

For transmission, we were able to show the title, mounted on a pedestal, and superimpose it on the newsfilm emanating from the telecine machine.  It was most effective.

At the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1958, as Supervising Film Editor, I was still in a position where technical problems would come up every day and there was no-one around to ask how to overcome them, I had to work it out for myself.  I was expected to know the answer.  The required expertise would have been readily available in Sydney where there were plenty of film technicians and laboratories with the necessary know-how, but that was 600 miles away.

Back in London, there were specialists for every aspect of film production.  For titles, for example, there were specialist designers who knew the whole laboratory process and all you had to do was give them the wording on a piece of paper and an idea of what you wanted.  They would do the rest.  Sid Wiggins, the Head Cutter of Movietonews, when requiring an optical effect, such as a wipe or a star burst, between scenes would only have to hand over to the lab two scenes and the catalogue number of the optical effect he wanted.

One such set of problems came when the Sports department asked me to produce a new set of titles for them.  One programme was called “Sports Page”, another was “Sports Parade” and another called “Grandstand”.

For Sports Page, I suggested the words Sports Page would be prominent on the screen and then turned as a page.  Before the page was turned, we would see a sporting scene within the letters and then the whole scene revealed when the page was turned.  It sounds simple, but I had to go to the laboratory and ask them what they knew about mattes.  They didn’t know what I was walking about.  The Laboratory was called Cinevex and it was run by two young men who had worked before in a Sydney Lab.  It was a developing and printing lab and a good one, but nothing more at that time.

TMG cricketThe matting required that we filmed the title and the scene, and then the reverse mattes which would blank out unwanted material until the two films were printed together.

This meant that we filmed the first page which carried the words “Sports Page”.  The letters were thick type and the middle of each letter was cut out so that one could see through each letter.   After a few seconds, whilst still filming, the page was turned, completely out of frame, revealing a complete black card.

We then needed to reverse the image so that the page was completely black while the letter apertures were left open.  This was then printed together with the background to produce a picture that had all the background scenes, but nothing representing the page.

The exposed print was then returned to a synch mark and now we printed the shot of the page turning.  Of course, if fitted.

To do this, I had to convince the ABC art department that I wasn’t mad.  Reluctantly, they provided the various bits of artwork required.  When all the titles were finished, it was congratulations all round.

Another title was to have the wording appear as if written.  This was somewhat easier to arrange.  This was done by single frame filming and the title being revealed by moving a black card cover to reveal the developing wording.

We then printed the title wording superimposed over a suitable sports background.

Today in digital post-production, we can sit at a console and conjure up any type face from a choice of hundreds and place it on the screen within seconds, using a keyboard.

The End - film title

The End – Image by fliegender via Flickr

Computer graphics now allows the programme maker to make the most complex main title as well as computer generated action.

I wonder how many of today’s technicians know what processes we had to go through to achieve what they can now do within a few minutes ?

© Terence Gallacher and, 2010.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Additional links: Alfred Hitchcock and intertitles.
The Art Of Film Title Design Throughout Cinema History.

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