Saul Bass (1920-1996); A simbologia minimalista no design gráfico

Foto: © Harrie Verstappen

Saul Bass foi um eminente designer gráfico e cineasta norte-americano e o seu trabalho notabilizou-se sobretudo por ser uma ponte de união entre estes dois meios visuais (cinema e design gráfico). Senhor de uma invulgar capacidade de síntese gráfica, reduzindo a imagem ao seu conteúdo simbólico essencial, Saul Bass é autor de alguns dos mais memoráveis cartazes para filmes, tendo trabalhado para realizadores como Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock,  Stanley Kubrick e Martin Scorsese.

Saul Bass não só tratava da imagem gráfica do filme sob a forma de cartaz como também era muitas vezes responsável pela sequência de abertura do mesmo. Os “créditos” de um filme sempre foram até então uma área relativamente negligenciada e sem interesse. Saul Bass elevou-o à categoria de arte, tornando-os parte integrante do filme e não apenas uma introdução maçadora onde desfilam os nomes de actores, produtores e realizador…

Em termos gráficos, SB optava geralmente pelas formas simples e altamente sintetizadas, quase abstractas. Os contornos tinham muitas vezes um aspecto de recortes espontâneos, preenchidos com cores vivas cuidadosamente seleccionadas. É também uma característica sua a notável gestão que normalmente fazia do espaço vazio num cartaz.

The Man With the Golden Arm, 1955

The Man With the Golden Arm, 1955

Juntamente com a sua obra ligada ao cinema e aos cartazes, SB foi também responsável pela criação de numerosos logotipos para empresas Norte-Americanas, como a Warner, AT&T, United Airlines, Minolta, Kleenex e  Bell. Normalmente, os logotipos têm um tempo de vida limitado pela necessidade de renovação de imagem sentida pela maioria das empresas. No entanto, os Símbolos/logotipos de Saul Bass têm a particularidade de resistirem ao tempo. Estima-se que o tempo de vida útil médio dos logotipos de SB se situe nos 34 anos, um recorde absoluto! Uma análise dessa intemporalidade demonstra quão sólido e actual é o trabalho de Saul Bass.

© Sala17/ António Marques 2013

Sites relacionados:

Sequência de abertura do filme “Vertigo” (A mulher que viveu duas vezes), 1959

Sequência de abertura do filme “The Man With the Golden Arm” (O Homem com o braço de Ouro), 1955

SAUL BASS (1920-1996) was not only one of the great graphic designers of the mid-20th century but the undisputed master of film title design thanks to his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Martin Scorsese.

When the reels of film for Otto Preminger’s controversial new drugs movie, The Man with the Golden Arm, arrived at US movie theatres in 1955, a note was stuck on the cans – “Projectionists – pull curtain before titles”.

Until then, the lists of cast and crew members which passed for movie titles were so dull that projectionists only pulled back the curtains to reveal the screen once they’d finished. But Preminger wanted his audience to see The Man with the Golden Arm’s titles as an integral part of the film.

The movie’s theme was the struggle of its hero – a jazz musician played by Frank Sinatra – to overcome his heroin addiction. Designed by the graphic designer Saul Bass the titles featured an animated black paper-cut-out of a heroin addict’s arm. Knowing that the arm was a powerful image of addiction, Bass had chosen it – rather than Frank Sinatra’s famous face – as the symbol of both the movie’s titles and its promotional poster.

That cut-out arm caused a sensation and Saul Bass reinvented the movie title as an art form. By the end of his life, he had created over 50 title sequences for Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, John Frankenheimer and Martin Scorsese. Although he later claimed that he found the Man with the Golden Arm sequence “a little disappointing now, because it was so imitated”.

Even before he made his cinematic debut, Bass was a celebrated graphic designer. Born in the Bronx district of New York in 1920 to an emigré furrier and his wife, he was a creative child who drew constantly. Bass studied at the Art Students League in New York and Brooklyn College under Gyorgy Kepes, an Hungarian graphic designer who had worked with László Moholy-Nagy in 1930s Berlin and fled with him to the US. Kepes introduced Bass to Moholy’s Bauhaus style and to Russian Constructivism.

After apprenticeships with Manhattan design firms, Bass worked as a freelance graphic designer or “commercial artist” as they were called. Chafing at the creative constraints imposed on him in New York, he moved to Los Angeles in 1946. After freelancing, he opened his own studio in 1950 working mostly in advertising until Preminger invited him to design the poster for his 1954 movie, Carmen Jones. Impressed by the result, Preminger asked Bass to create the film’s title sequence too.

Now over-shadowed by Bass’ later work, Carmen Jones elicited commissions for titles for two 1955 movies: Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife, and Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch. But it was his next Preminger project, The Man with the Golden Arm, which established Bass as the doyen of film title design.

Over the next decade he honed his skill by creating an animated mini-movie for Mike Todd’s 1956 Around The World In 80 Days and a tearful eye for Preminger’s 1958 Bonjour Tristesse. Blessed with the gift of identifying the one image which symbolised the movie, Bass then recreated it in a strikingly modern style. Martin Scorsese once described his approach as creating: “an emblematic image, instantly recognisable and immediately tied to the film”.

In 1958’s Vertigo, his first title sequence for Alfred Hitchcock, Bass shot an extreme close-up of a woman’s face and then her eye before spinning it into a sinister spiral as a bloody red soaks the screen. For his next Hitchcock commission, 1959’s North by Northwest, the credits swoop up and down a grid of vertical and diagonal lines like passengers stepping off elevators. It is only a few minutes after the movie has begun – with Cary Grant stepping out of an elevator – that we realise the grid is actually the façade of a skyscraper.

Equally haunting are the vertical bars sweeping across the screen in a manic, mirrored helter-skelter motif at the beginning of Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho. This staccato sequence is an inspired symbol of Norman Bates’ fractured psyche. Hitchcock also allowed Bass to work on the film itself, notably on its dramatic highpoint, the famous shower scene with Janet Leigh.

Assisted by his second wife, Elaine, Bass created brilliant titles for other directors – from the animated alley cat in 1961’s Walk on the Wild Side, to the adrenalin-laced motor racing sequence in 1966’s Grand Prix. He then directed a series of shorts culminating in 1968’s Oscar-winning Why Man Creates and finally realised his ambition to direct a feature with 1974’s Phase IV.

When Phase IV flopped, Bass returned to commercial graphic design. His corporate work included devising highly successful corporate identities for United Airlines, AT&T, Minolta, Bell Telephone System and Warner Communications. He also designed the poster for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

To younger film directors, Saul Bass was a cinema legend with whom they longed to work. In 1987, he was persuaded to create the titles for James Brooks’ Broadcast News and then for Penny Marshall’s 1988 Big. In 1990, Bass found a new long term collaborator in Martin Scorsese who had grown up with – and idolised – his 1950s and 1960s titles. After 1990’s Goodfellas and 1991’s Cape Fear, Bass created a sequence of blossoming rose petals for Scorcese’s 1993’s The Age of Innocence and a hauntingly macabre one of Robert De Niro falling through the sinister neons of the Las Vegas Strip for the director’s 1995’s Casino to symbolise his character’s descent into hell.

Saul Bass died the next year. His New York Times obituary hailed him as “the minimalist auteur who put a jagged arm in motion in 1955 and created an entire film genre…and elevated it into an art.”

Fonte/ Source: Design Museum

Saul Bass’ body of work distinguishes him as one of the most versatile and innovative graphic designers of the 20th Century. Alongside his talent for creating definitive visual references in the form of film poster campaigns and title sequences stands his later work as an Academy Award Winning director for his short film ‘Why Man Creates’ (1969). In the course of his career, Bass worked with Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock, and his legacy is evident in the work of numerous contemporary designers and directors. But it is his posters that are currently causing the biggest stir.

In the past 15 years of working as an original vintage film poster dealer and gallery owner, I have handled some of the rarest posters in the world. Auction prices for posters of The Mummy (1932- $452,000), Metropolis (1926- $356,000) and King Kong (1933- $245,000) have recently reached all time highs. In my opinion, Saul Bass posters for films like ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Anatomy Of A Murder’ as exciting as these high-value posters. Contemporary poster collectors of all kinds are giving Bass’ designs special attention, and even building collections around key pieces. The effectiveness of his imagery is undeniable, resulting from his constant striving for perfection and his optimistic rejection of stuffy and uninspired conventions, which governed the majority of American poster designers from the 1940s.

Saul Bass was born in New York on May 8th 1920 and studied Graphic Art at Brooklyn College, NY before moving to Los Angeles in 1946. Bass was a pioneer of the pared down graphic, favouring minimalist symbolic images, which has been in vogue since he began designing for the film industry in the early 1950s.

In 1954, Otto Preminger commissioned Bass to create a visual identity for his film ‘Carmen Jones’. Bass came up with a strikingly simple flaming black and red rose. The following year, Preminger again called on Bass to work on ‘The Man With The Golden Arm’, for which Bass created the famous jagged arm design, suggesting the jarring and disjointed existence of a drug addict. With this design, Bass exploited what he termed the significance of content in design. Bass, along with a small number of other 1950s designers such as Paul Rand and Erik Nitsche, operated against cluttered imagery and towards geometric designs using angular shapes and primary colour schemes. While working on the design for ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ Bass asked ‘Why not make it move?’ Through animation, he created a new style of title sequences, which has since become classic. The thin white lines of the title sequence for ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ gradually invade the screen and set the tone for Preminger’s tale of a hardened drug addict.

For opening sequence of ‘Vertigo’, Bass used the motif of the revolving Spirograph to evoke the dizzying sensations of the film. He always aimed to create the right climate for the film in question when designing opening sequences, offering audiences a visual feast from the very first frame, and plunging them into the atmosphere of the story that was about to unfold. Thanks to Bass, they no longer had to sit through the tedious credits which had until then been part of the cinematic experience, and which were, in Bass’ own words, mere ‘popcorn time’.

Bass directed the short dream sequence in ‘Vertigo’ as well as working on the poster campaign for the film. This film marked his most complete collaboration with Hitchcock. Paramount Studios did not censor Bass’ work for ‘Vertigo’ in any way, gave him full credit for his work on the film. It was not customary, until Bass’ era for American poster designers to be credited for their work. Once again, Bass spearheaded changes in this area. By signing all his work, he made it possible for the designers to lay rightful claim to their work, and redressed the balance in favour of the artists.

Today, collectors are showing interest in all Bass’ poster designs.
Alongside masterpieces including ‘Exodus’ and ‘Spartacus’, Bass also designed posters for less commercially successful films. Posters from the American campaign for Preminger’s 1958 film ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ sell because Saul Bass designed them, and for no other reason.

In the 1960s, Bass’ genius extended to building corporate identities for some of the biggest companies in the USA. He designed the logos for AT&T, Quaker Oats, and Warner Communications, and successfully conveyed the ethos of each of these corporations to the American public. As always, his concern was to replace predictable images with simple, meaningful symbols. His perfectionist drive and his aspiration to always be at the vanguard of all forms of design have bequeathed a legacy of some of the most potent symbols of the 20th Century. I am consistently aware of the influence Bass has had on contemporary film poster designers and on the design world at large. Unashamed references to original Bass designs abound. The poster campaign for Spike Lee’s 1995 film ‘Crooklyn’ offers a humorous and clever reworking of Bass’ graphics for ‘Anatomy of A Murder’. Today Bass’ visual style is echoed everywhere from all forms of advertising to the most prestigious of web site designs.

As for film poster collectors, I have noticed a shift away from a strict policy of collecting posters of one genre, director or star, towards an approach more appreciative of the image and design of the poster. Bass’ ability to transcend a film’s ‘look’ and create meaningful symbols has made him the single most requested film poster designer.

Saul Bass died in 1996, in Los Angeles, leaving behind a flourishing design empire with Bass Yager Associates, and a heritage which will continues to inspire creative designers and film-makers.

by Tony Nourmand

This article was published in the international magazine, Patek
Philippe, Number 9, Spring / Summer 2000

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