James Bond: 50 Years of Main Title Design

December 20, 2012 2:10am
Source: Art of the Title

After 50 years and 23 films, the James Bond franchise is inarguably the most successful and steadfast in film history. Based on a canon of novels by journalist and WWII intelligence officer Ian Fleming, Bond was already a household name in the United Kingdom a decade before reaching the silver screen. But it was Sean Connery’s performance as a souped-up version of Fleming’s iconic superspy that turned 007 into one of the UK’s largest cultural exports, on par with Doctor Who and The Beatles.

In his literary form, Bond was a much-welcomed boost of national pride for a country which had only begun to stabilize after the War; on film, he became an icon for a postwar boom generation with aspirations and disposable income, with Connery leading the charge as the world’s most famous playboy on and off the job. Bond films became style forecasts, dictating everything from fashion and gadgetry in the pages of Playboy and Esquire, interior design courtesy of visionary set designer Ken Adam, to car, drink, and firearm preferences around the world.

The mission began in 1962 with Dr. No, Fleming’s sixth Bond novel. Since then, the franchise has cycled through six leading actors, eleven directors and two generations of producers, but it has always followed the blueprint of Fleming’s original works — if more in spirit than in literal adaptation — despite having exhausted most of his material by the late ’80s. And while its reasons for success are as numerous as its fans, every Bond film carries in it the same root DNA — a cocktail* of simple ingredients, in varying quantities: international conspiracy and espionage, high-tech gadgetry, supervillains, nine-life action scenes with explosions disproportionate to their cause, exotic locations, sultry associates and cheeky one-liners — all summarized in a simple phrase known the world over:

Bond, James Bond.

But there are also two famous visual Bond hallmarks not of Fleming origin: the “Bond Barrel” sequence, in which white dots animate in stop-frame fashion across the screen to become a gun barrel aimed at 007, and the main title sequence: a sovereign piece of graphic real estate nestled into every Bond film, usually around 15 minutes into the first act, at the conclusion of the traditional pre-title action sequence.

As with the films themselves, most Bond titles draw from a self-governed set of themes, but they are also liberal in their application of them. Female forms, stylized violence, implied danger, guns, imaginative photography, motion graphics, and academic typography are paired with a billboard anthem and presented through the thematic lens of the film itself — as in the underwater ballad of the Thunderball titles or the cosmic backdrops of Moonraker.

In spite of the tropes, the Bond titles are not formulaic — they have become a genre unto themselves, and as such they hold a certain immunity from criticisms aimed at its format. To criticize a Bond title for featuring silhouettes is to criticize a Tolkien novel for featuring hobbits. If it isn’t your thing, you’ll move on; if it is — and generally speaking, it is — you’ll come back, expecting more and better.

In broad terms, Bond sequences can be defined as a strong visual statement accompanied by a high-profile pop ballad, both bordering on excess. Technology for art’s sake has also played an important role over the years. In some cases it’s evidenced in their construction, from optical film compositing, in-camera effects, and stop-frame animation in the ’60s to experimental CGI and digital compositing, motion capture, and motion control in recent years (and likely an untold number of late-night innovations throughout). But technology has also found its way to the foreground as an aesthetic: lasers, projections, science-grade high-speed and closeup photography, and an array of optical tricks have all made prominent cameos over the years.

It has been the role of the sequences’ four directors — Maurice Binder, Robert Brownjohn, design studio MK12, and Daniel Kleinman — to balance these concerns with their own interpretation of the film and the Bond legacy, and to shepherd the tradition intact through successive eras.

Just as the Bond films have had a significant impact on culture at large over the years, so too have their title sequences affected the landscape of graphic and title design in the latter half of the century and onwards, due in equal measure to the creative and technical contributions of its directors and a savvy and supportive production backbone willing to take box office risks to protect their integrity.

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