On Pablo Ferro, Movie Title Design Magician

Mark Busse – One Comment

I was honoured to be invited by SPARK Animation 2012 to give the introductory remarks before the North American premier of Pablo, a documentary by Richard Goldgewicht about legendary title designer Pablo Ferro. Below are those comments:

Good evening. My name is Kyle Cooper. No, no it’s not…I’m just kidding, but the person up here tonight SHOULD be someone like Kyle Cooper, Garson Yu, Karin Fong, Daniel Kleinman, or maybe a David Carson or Stefan Sagmeister. Frankly there are many more talented and deserving designers who owe much of their success to the genius of Pablo Ferro. By comparison I feel like a hack undeserving to be here tonight, but I’m honoured to be asked. Thank you Sylvian and Sauching for your kind introduction, and thank you Larry for your kind words.

OK, so now what? I’ve always found intros for people to give intros to movies a bit odd frankly. You guys are all here because you probably already know about Ferro and want to learn more, certainly not to listen to me prattle on endlessly. So I’ll try to keep this brief so we can get on with the show.

I must admit that although I I knew his name, I only really discovered Pablo Ferro’s work personally a few years ago when I had the privilege to represent Canada at Icograda’s World Design Congress in Havana, Cuba. There were a many graphic design events that week throughout that historic city, and one show in particular included some of Ferro’s graphic design work.

I was stunned! I recognized many opening title sequences that I loved such as Dr. Stranglove, Married to the Mob, A Clockwork Orange, Bullitt, The Thomas Crown Affair, Midnight Cowboy, LA Confidential, Men In Black, Good Will Hunting, Beetlejuice, and Napolean Dynamite—and Ferro has produced about 100 more (not kidding)! I certainly never realized they were all created by the same genius mind. Even though Pablo moved to America while quite young, Cuba, which has a long history of graphic design culture, was apparently still rather proud of their prodigal son—and so they should be!

As I considered what to share with you tonight, I pondered why does Pablo Ferro matter so much? His use of typography and image? His sense of colour and style? His animation and editing technique? The way he presented himself and contributed to the design community? Yes, yes, yes—all of it. Ferro is so much more than an artist. And to label him a ‘graphic’ designer is an insult as he uses much more than merely graphics. He’s a director, an editor, a producer, an animator, a special effects pioneer—a magician at communicating feeling (or an “emotionator” as one of my colleagues likes to say).

Largely a self-taught artist, Ferro’s background in illustration, comics and advertising, combined with his hippy-dippy lifestyle and truly bizarre life experiences—that I’m sure we’ll see told in this film—no doubt gave him a unique vantage point from which to move into motion picture graphics. Pablo Ferro is simply a design industry treasure, deserving of the innumerable awards, praise and admiration he’s received and his special corner at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt national design museum.

I have taught design for some years now, and in the classroom it’s common to reference the great talent of design giants like Milton Glaser and Saul Bass, who dabbled himself in movie credits—everyone knows the seminal work he produced for The Man With The Gold Arm, North By Northwest and Psycho (Ferro actually designing the sequence for the remake in 1998 by the way). And of course I mentioned Kyle Cooper, whose opening sequences on movies like Spider Man, The Mummy and of course Se7en, which is considered a landmark of title design.

But it is Pablo Ferro who I believe deserves closer study. It is Pablo Ferro these masters would turn to for inspiration and reference their work against. Like jazz musicians borrowing riffs from the greats, so many graphic designers have visually referenced—hell, the flat out copied—Ferro’s brilliance. The “retro” style so popular again in movie credits and title typography lately? Who do you think they’re emulating? It is Pablo Ferro who introduced narrative and nonlinear dimensions in movie title design. And it was Pablo Ferro who inspired and paved the way for many title sequence, animation, motion graphics and graphic designers of today.

Why should this matter so much? If you love cinema, you already know why. Movie titles are so much more than credits—they are the audience’s introduction and first impression.  As the late design writer Ken Coupland said, “the first few minutes of a film can be compared to the curious stage of consciousness that marks the transition between wakefulness and sleep.”

Title sequences take a variety of forms, from hauntingly beautiful to sublime, from ridiculous to hilarious, even shocking and hard to watch. The opening moments of a film offer us a membrane through which to pass, from the real world into the imagined. With audiovisual rhythms that wash over us like poetry, movie title sequences not only serve to distract us from the noise in our heads from our daily lives, but set the tone and feeling for the coming story, inviting us with striking prosody to suspend our disbelief and engage.

To create successful movie titles is to be that magician, capable of hypnotizing a theatre full of jaded, suspicious naysayers, and convert them into the giggling children we all hide within. Movie titles, done well, make us let go and prepare for what is to come. I love how opening titles have become an important part of storytelling, no longer just credits to communicate title and actors’ names. Remember the psychedelic animated colour NBC peacock? Ferro did that in the late ’50s and it was used until well into the ’70s.

It was the innovative work of Ferro and his colleagues more than four decades ago that became the germ which grew into the dramatic work of today, such as the opening sequence for Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The director of that film, David Fincher, a modern master of the opening title sequence, once said “I don’t know how much movies should entertain. I’m interested in movies that scar.” And ever since Fincher and Cooper haunted us with this new brand of motion graphics, studios like Blur, Shynola, and Digital Kitchen have been striving to repeat that magic trick. Well Pablo Ferro has been stirring, haunting, compelling, entertaining and indeed scarring movie audiences for decades. He is the original magician.

As I did some reading to prepare for this talk, I came to appreciate how modest Ferro remains after all these years. And wasn’t terribly surprised to learn that he was dyslexic and can’t even spell! A few of the most talented designers I know are dyslexics. It also struck me that Ferro must’ve gained wisdom from such a long and turbulent life and career—it really had it’s ups and downs as the documentary will demonstrate—and gained humility from having fallen into obscurity in the 80’s and then being rediscovered later in life. Mind you, having spend time with numerous Cubans myself, I’ll bet this is more his natural state of being. It’s fascinating how many different ways people describe Pablo, “playful” “quirky” “true artist”, “creative genius”, “shaman” and “modest”—and always cherished by those who know and worked with him.

Ferro is now 77 years old and lives with his family near Los Angeles—and he’s still working I might add, completing a children’s book and graphic novel—which for me is so great. It means there’s hope for all of us! Personally, I would love to meet and learn from the master himself and even tried to contact Mr. Ferro directly and see if we couldn’t get him here in person tonight or at least Skype him in to say hello so you wouldn’t have to listen to me for too long. Speaking of which…

For all these reason and more, I’m excited to introduce Richard Goldgewicht’s documentary film Pablo—especially as it is narrated by another hero of mine—the Dude himself, Jeff Bridges. I think it’s wonderful that the man whose artistry was behind so many amazing movie credits finally gets the credit he deserves. Now the world will better know the power of design and the legend of the man with the red scarf, Pablo Ferro.

You know what I’d like to know? Who got the job of designing the opening title sequence for a movie about the best title sequence of all time? Let’s find out, shall we?

Ladies and gentlemen, Pablo.