Time to give a little credit to the credits

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From Vertigo to Blue Valentine, the finest film title sequences are works of art. There ought to be an Oscar, argues Tim Walker

It's often the first thing you'll see of a movie and, depending on that movie's quality, it may be the last thing you remember. Yet the title sequence goes curiously unheralded by the film industry. There was once an Academy Award for Best Title Writing – the calligraphic text cards that stood in for dialogue during the silent era – but there has never been one for the finest credit sequences. The great Saul Bass made the medium an acknowledged art form with his modernist titles for the likes of North by Northwest, Vertigo and The Man with the Golden Arm. Even he, however, had to direct a documentary (Why Man Creates, a 1968 short) to bag himself a long-overdue Oscar.

What would take such a prize this year? Not The Social Network, one of David Fincher's few films not to feature a title sequence. The credits for The King's Speech (likely to sweep lots of the other categories) run over a sequence of austere shots of an intimidating radio microphone in a quiet, empty room: appropriate, but not award-grabbing.

Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, on the other hand, opens with arresting, triple-split-screen footage of crowds – at sporting events, at prayer, on the daily commute, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange – before segueing into the more solitary pursuits of its central character, who's about to spend the titular 127 hours alone with his arm trapped under a boulder.

Blue Valentine, under-represented at this year's Academy Awards, ought to be a contender. To music by Grizzly Bear, the film's editor, Jim Helton, designed a graceful end credit sequence of fireworks bursting over haunting still images from the movie. Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs the World, a box-office flop, deserves a nod if only for its videogame-style re-purposing of Universal studios' globe logo.

Bass's may be the name we think of first in the context of classic credit sequences but his contemporaries included Pablo Ferro, hailed by Stanley Kubrick as a genius, and the man behind iconic title sequences for Dr Strangelove, Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair. Meanwhile, aided by John Barry's unforgettable scores, Maurice Binder's opening titles to the early Bond movies became an integral element of that enduring franchise. The work of Bass, Ferro and Binder (as well as the leading graphic designer Paul Rand) defined the development of the credit sequence – previously, mere names on a title card – from the late 1950s onwards.

Also among the most influential title sequences of the era was Stephen O Frankfurt's for the 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which featured a child's hand scribbling the film's title with a crayon. The sequence had such an effect on a young Cameron Crowe that, when he came to shoot the titles for his own film Almost Famous, 28 years later, he paid tribute with credits hand-written – by Crowe himself – on a set of notecards.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, studios seemed reluctant to shell out for the minor extravagance of a title sequence. It was only with the arrival of David Fincher's Se7en in 1995 that their value became apparent once more: the designer Kyle Cooper produced a chilling sequence of the movie's killer obsessively maintaining his journals with bandaged fingers – their incriminating fingerprints removed with a razor. Cooper has now directed more than 150 film title sequences, while Fincher remains among the directors best known for commissioning innovative credits, such as those for Fight Club, The Game and Panic Room.

The best place to visit in search of more of these neglected wonders of film art may well be The Art of the Title Sequence (www.artofthetitle.com), a website set up in 2007 by the designer Ian Albinson and his collaborator, Alex Ulloa, to savour great title sequences. Albinson and Ulloa insist they're no experts, but they are energetic and discerning fans. "We've grown safe with the assumption that our readership is more intelligent than we are," say the pair of the site, which is frequented by assiduous, knowledgeable commenters. "The resources are there for people to discover whose work they enjoy most."

Among the unexpected clips in their growing catalogue are titles from Sahara and The Island of Dr Moreau – two of the bigger flops in recent film history, but featuring opening credit sequences that stand alone. The site's archive contains familiar classics – the films of Martin Scorsese's early period, say: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull. But it also demonstrates some less conventional uses for the title sequence, such as the animated infographics that precede 2007's War on Terror thriller The Kingdom, providing a primer to the history of Saudi Arabia; or the ambitious, five-minute prologue to Watchmen (2009), which sets up an alternate chronology of the Cold War and the superheroes of its title. Finally, the site introduces the uninitiated to the masters of the medium – such as Richard Morrison, who has directed title sequences for the films of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and Bernardo Bertolucci, to name a few.

So which directors commission credits worth arriving at the cinema in time for? "A few that spring to mind," say Albinson and Ulloa, "are the overpowering flash of Gaspar Noé's titles [Irreversible and Enter the Void], and Jason Reitman's ingenious collaborations with designers Gareth Smith and Jenny Lee [Thank You for Smoking, Juno and Up in the Air]. Zack Snyder [director of Watchmen] hasn't looked back after working with Cooper on the Johnny Cash-infused opening to the Dawn of the Dead remake. And one has to include Pixar, who opened a few eyes with the closing credits to WALL-E."

One of the more celebrated sequences of recent years was that for the opening of Steven Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can (2002), an animation that distilled the plot of the film, and recalled the era of Bass, Binder et al. Florence Deygas is one half of the French visual art duo Kuntzel+Deygas, who produced the sequence. "There were no computers in the 1960s," she explains. "Their work was all handmade, so we proposed something made with our hands. We said, 'We have to do it as if we're in the Sixties among all these designers, do something that fits with the spirit of the era.' The secret of its success was the brief. Spielberg said to us, 'My film starts in the Sixties. After the title sequence, I want the audience to have been re-educated about the period so that I can start the film without losing time explaining it. After that, it's up to you to submit your vision: it can be old footage reworked, it can be drawings, it can be anything.' That was a perfect brief for us."

The pair also revisited the 1960s with the titles for The Pink Panther, the recent remake of the Peter Sellers comedies. They produced a cartoon short featuring the original animated characters of the Pink Panther and Inspector Clouseau. "The problem with a long list of credits," says Deygas, "is that the brief will often be something like: 'You must linger for this amount of time on each name, and this name must be half the size of that name,' and so on. It's very boring. Our first task is to fight with this boring succession of names. A mini-narrative helps a lot, because it lets your brain follow two things: the names themselves, and a bit of action and story."

Deygas and her partner, Olivier Kuntzel, are offered more title sequence projects than they choose to take on, she explains. "When directors approach us we ask them why they want a title sequence, and most of the time they say, 'It would be nice', or else they think the title sequence can save a weak beginning. But we try to pick projects on the basis of a real need for a title sequence; not all films necessarily need one."

The revitalised television drama genre has brought with it a spate of stunning title sequences: those for HBO shows such as The Sopranos, Deadwood and True Blood, or their AMC competitors, Mad Men and Rubicon. Albinson and Ulloa's site features a remarkable, fan-made alternative credit sequence for the zombie series The Walking Dead, while a number of retro, Bass-echoing alternative title sequences exist online for Lost, depicting the show as a cheesy 1970s serial. There is an Emmy Award for title design in television. And, say Albinson and Ulloa, "Film festivals such as South by Southwest had a title design competition in 2010 that we were lucky enough to be a part of (and that is happening again this year)."

Yet the major film awards have yet to take notice. "Just after we did the title sequence for Catch Me if You Can we were approached by a journalist in France who asked us if we'd be in LA to pick up our Oscar," Deygas recalls. "He was surprised when we told him there wasn't one. But for us the best award is that even now, eight or nine years later, when we mention that we created that sequence, people say they still remember it, and they love it."

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