And the Oscar goes to…
The gold trophy winners are announced, the red carpets rolled out, and yet another year at the Academy Awards passes without a Best Title Design category.
So why isn’t there an Oscar for Best Title Design? After all, there are Academy Awards for other artistic and technical endeavours related to film, like Best Sound Design, Best Costume Design, and Best Production Design, so why not recognize title design too? The Primetime Emmys honour television title sequences with the Outstanding Main Title Design award. Shouldn’t there be a film equivalent?
Well, there was at one point. At the very first Academy Awards in 1929, The Red Mill won the Oscar for Best Title Writing – an award that recognized the silent film with the best intertitles. However, the advent of the talkie era quickly made the Title Writing category obsolete and it was phased out the following year.
The only other time that title design has come close to being recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences occurred in 1999. That year, a Best Title Design category was proposed to the AMPAS Board of Governors (who meet yearly to consider new award categories) but the idea was ultimately rejected.
Is it finally time for title sequences to be recognized at the Oscars?
This is a question that has been nagging Art of the Title – and many of our readers – for some time now. The answer is not so simple.
Title sequences have been an integral part of cinema almost since the birth of the medium. What started as a legal formality at the beginning of a movie slowly evolved into an artform of its own, one responsible for some of the most indelible and iconic moments in cinema history. North by Northwest, Psycho, Dr. No, The Pink Panther, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Bullitt, Taxi Driver, Star Wars, Superman, Se7en – what would these films be without the incredible title sequences that introduced them?
"A good title sequence prepares an audience for what they are about to see not unlike the overture in a musical score. The combination of narrative filmmaking and graphics is very powerful. Audiences often remember a significant title sequence more than the film itself."
—Richard Greenberg, R/Greenberg Associates
What names like D.W. Griffith, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg are to the movies, names like Saul Bass, Maurice Binder, Pablo Ferro, Richard Greenberg, and Kyle Cooper are to title sequences. Film title design is a craft that has become an invaluable tool in the filmmaking arsenal; it is a singular artform with a significance to the movies that cannot be understated.
We recently asked some of the top title design talent in the world how they felt about the possibility of a Best Title Design category at the Oscars and what they think are some of the reasons preventing the inclusion of such a category.
Ben Radatz, MK12, on why title design should be a category at the Oscars:
Title design should be acknowledged for two reasons:
- When done well, a title sequence is critical to both the internal and external message of its film. It is impossible to imagine Psycho, Vertigo, Se7en, Fight Club, or any Bond film without their respective sequences. The very substance of Dr. Strangelove or The Shining would be diluted or misdirected without the context given by theirs.
It is without question that title design has contributed to film culture in a significant way. Its artists are a rare combination of storyteller, designer, craftsman, and avant-garde filmmaker – a hybrid profession unique to the film industry until very recently.
- All other awards shows look to the Academy as the gold standard for industry recognition; that the Emmys and other established industry events like SXSW now have a Best Title Design category should compel the Academy to consider its merit.
There has certainly been no shortage of brilliant, memorable film title design on the big screen. So why aren’t these titles – or the people behind them – being recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?
Obvious factors like the abundance of existing Oscar categories and the length of the already bloated Academy Awards telecast certainly play a role in the omission, but the lack of a Best Title Design award basically boils down to one thing: politics.
Every existing Oscar category has a posse. That is to say, each category has a corresponding branch within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its own trade guild. The Directors Guild of America represents most of the Best Director nominees and the Directing branch of the AMPAS (which shares a sizable amount of its membership with the DGA) votes to determine those nominees and winners. Other guilds (like the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America) and Academy branches (like Acting and Writing) operate in much the same manner.
Bill Kroyer on the necessities of establishing a category:
There is not an Oscar for Best Title Design because the Oscars are chosen by the members of the individual branches whose membership is based specifically on their accomplishments and expertise in their designated fields. There is no branch for Title Designers. That process is at most a subset of Production Design, but in itself is not considered a significantly major area of achievement that would merit its own branch. When you think of the myriad of other specialties in filmmaking that have tried for decades to get their own branch (like stuntmen), you will realize that the Oscars address only “the major categories” of filmmaking, the people considered to be the “key contributors.”
This does not in any way denigrate the contributions made by artists working in dozens of specialized roles. The Academy limits itself to the major categories.
I attended the VES Awards [recently] at the Beverly Hilton and they gave out 23 awards (!!!) for various areas of visual effects. The Academy awards ONE Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
So, there is no Title Design branch within the AMPAS or a Title Designers Guild. Many individual title designers have tried to make the case for an award, but without any kind of organized representation in Hollywood, these designers face an uphill battle. Though some guilds do have members who work in the field of title design, those organizations on the whole are not eager to upset the order of things over matters that don’t pertain directly to their particular field. We reached out to the Academy and a number of the major Hollywood guilds for a comment regarding a Best Title Design Oscar. Most either did not reply or would not offer comment.
Did you bring enough for the whole class?
Another possible reason there is no Best Title Design Oscar is that title designers are not the only entertainment artists or craftspeople who have been lobbying for recognition from the Academy. Movie stunt professionals and casting directors have long lobbied for an Oscar of their own, with the latter making major strides and founding the Academy Casting branch in 2013. This move puts casting directors much higher on the AMPAS totem pole than title designers, as far as potential new Academy Awards are concerned.
"Main titles will always be behind casting. The casting agents have historically lobbied the academy very hard for an award in that category. The Academy response to [the question of a Best Title Design category] has historically been 'get in line behind the casting directors.'"
—Kyle Cooper, Prologue Films
We’re certainly not the first people to ask the question – the case for a Best Title Design Oscar category has been made before but as champions of this wonderful artform we would be remiss if we didn’t discuss the issue.
Title designers are instrumental to the Oscars
Though they may not pick up any hardware during the ceremony, the irony is that title designers are an integral part of the Oscars telecast. For the 86th Academy Awards, Designers Henry Hobson, Manija Emran, and the team at Mill+ put together a package for both the live broadcast and in-house theatrical experience that included the striking title cards for the nominees and the moving In Memoriam sequence.
Oscar-winning editor Angus Wall (The Social Network), Jason Sterman, and the team at Elastic created the Popular Heroes, Real Life Heroes, and Best Picture nominees montages. Additionally, Pamela B. Green and PIC Agency created the Fashion in Films packages for the red carpet and edited the Wizard of Oz montage that accompanied singer Pink’s live performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Previously, title designer Kyle Cooper and studio Prologue provided montages, interstitial graphics, and title cards for nine of the eleven Oscar broadcasts since 2004. Even without formal recognition, title designers and design studios have been demonstrating their craft at the Academy Awards for decades.
Title Designers speak out about a Best Title Design category
What would Saul Bass do?
Jennifer Bass, author of Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design and daughter of Saul and Elaine Bass:
"In terms of an Academy Award for title design... My first instinct is that [my father] might feel as though having an award for titles would, in itself, perhaps begin to change the nature of title sequences in ways that could actually skew the orientation away from what he considered the primary obligation of a title sequence: to best serve the film, even if that means being very minimal or quiet in terms of design (and therefore recognition).
However, I also know he would feel strongly that good work and important contributions to filmmaking should be recognized, and just as cinematography or production design are celebrated at the Academy Awards, good title design should be as well. So, my guess is that he would support it."
Do you feel there should be a category?
Richard Greenberg, R/Greenberg Associates:
"I agree that there should be an award category for title design. As to why there is not; historically, until Saul Bass came along, titles were not considered a design element in the picture. They generally were viewed like the title page in a book.
To raise the Academy’s consciousness about title sequences warranting an award, they must be educated in the wonderful sequences created in the last 30 years – in particular the work of Saul Bass and Steve Frankfurt."
Daniel Kleinman, Rattling Stick:
"I think this is a good idea; it would promote creativity and encourage and reward a rather overlooked yet much loved facet of the filmmaking industry.
There aren't that many other bodies that recognise the work done in this area, so it wouldn't overlap with other awards. D&AD, a British awards body, give awards for titles but similarly to other awards where titles are eligible for recognition, titles are not a category in their own right and they are bundled in with film graphics and effects in general."
Gareth Smith, Smith & Lee Design:
"I'm supportive of an Oscar for Best Title Design. I think it would go a long way toward acknowledging the title sequence as a serious artistic contribution to film. It would also help our industry recognize that the title designer can be a valuable member of the creative production team, and not just a vendor who supplies a service.
I'm not quite sure why there isn't currently a title design Oscar category, but I'm assuming that there is a great deal of politics involved in such a decision. I'm sure the Academy is concerned about precedent; that by allowing this additional category, the floodgates would open and many other categories would be demanded. Every second of the Oscars appears to be a battle against the clock, so any additional category spells trouble for the broadcast.
Also, title designers don't belong to any of the guilds in this industry, so they lack the organized clout to push for this category. As title design expands as a field, it might be time to consider a guild that represents the concerns of our profession to producers and studios."
"We all have a legal screen credit. To be recognised by the Academy for our creative stamp would be fantastic and is well overdue. Not sure why not – but maybe we all need to stand together and sign up to a formal request through Art of the Title and go and knock on their door."
What can be done?
"Though I'd definitely like a Title Design category, years ago I contacted and petitioned the Board of Governors – more than once – to create a Title Design Branch and recognition for the craft. Their response was that there are so few of us, that we'd all be nominated every year. I never pursued it further."
Allen and Pablo Ferro:
- It is an art
- It can be an integral part of setting up the mood of "Reel 1," a psychology (completely overlooked by many) as important to predispose the audience both in private screenings, and especially in public screenings
- Often saves the film by setting up character and story development when missing in the principal photography
- Is a source of graphic branding for marketing across language barriers that use the English alphabet – such as Men in Black
- If the story is in development, a graphic title can inspire content development"
We've posed the question “Why isn’t there an Oscar for Best Title Design?” to our readers during Oscars telecasts every year and are often overwhelmed by the responses received. There is obviously interest in a title design Oscar amongst the design community and our readers but that desire probably doesn’t extend to the general public. While the industry has events like the SXSW Film Design Awards, which honours Excellence in Title Design in film, television, video games, and conferences, until title sequences are recognized on the Oscars stage the craft will not be widely understood or appreciated by the public.
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