Saturday, March 17, 2012

"Mad" Good Design

"My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set mood and the prime underlying core of the film’s story, to express the story in some metaphorical way. I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it." - Saul Bass

I would argue that no one has been more influential to the art of film title design than the legendary Saul Bass. His work continues to inspire and its influence can be felt in the title sequence for AMC's hit television show, Mad Men. Designed by Mark Gardner and Steve Fuller, Mad Men's title sequence hits on each thought expressed by Bass in the above quote. It sets the mood, metaphorically expresses the show's story, and conditions the emotional response of the viewer.

The show takes place in the early 60's, when the ideals of the 50's "American Dream" began to crack. The favored colors, shapes, and lines of Mid-Century Modern design are mimicked in the sparse and simple silhouetted forms used throughout the animated title sequence. Abundant negative space is employed to direct your eye to the important elements within each shot. The most dominant of these is the black silhouette of the businessman who walks into an office, sets down his briefcase (causing the nearly transparent forms of the office's furnishings to deconstruct), and then free-falls from the high-rise office building. During his descent, he falls past huge advertisements from the era that are superimposed on the minimalist grids of the surrounding skyscrapers. His fall ends with him landing perfectly composed, seated with his back to the viewer and a lit cigarette in his hand.

Even without any knowledge of the series' narrative, the 36 second opening sequence gives you enough information to form a concept of its underlying core story -- a powerful, yet mysterious (coded in the faceless black figure), businessman will have the security of his life shaken (the crumbling office and ensuing fall), but (if you trust the final seated shot) will regain control of himself in the end. The advertisements that encircle his fall signify the false reality of his world, the so-called "American Dream." There are images of the perfect nuclear family, wedding rings on male and female hands, and slogans like "Enjoy the best America has to offer." But there are also images of alcohol and sexy women -- temptations that can ruin family and marriage. After watching the show and knowing more about Don Draper, the main character who is represented as the shadowed man in this title sequence, you understand the symbolism of these ads. Don has the perfect life -- married with two kids, but has trouble controlling his appetite for drink and women.
Each shot within the sequence features meticulous composition, while the use of color is subtle, primarily featuring the warm faded hues associated with the advertising of the era. However, bold red is used selectively (often in relation to women in the ads), and is linked to the show's credits that appear over the images. The first names of each credit are in bold red. The last names are in black. This design element is carried over to the text for the show title -- Mad is in red, Men is in black. Red, being a color that symbolizes passion, is used to denote the emotive qualities of Mad, while the solid and strong, yet mysterious black is used for Men. The font is an all caps sans serif typeface and works well with the rest of the visual elements. The credits consistently appear screen right or screen left, depending on the composition of action in each shot, and the job title and person are listed on two lines that flush left. The only centered credit is reserved for the show's executive producer.

The dreamlike quality of the slow motion sequence is enhanced by the accompaning musical track, "A Beautiful Mine" by RJD2. The music is mysterious, without being heavy-handed, and features a repetitive downward movement that compliments the narrative action.

The design of Mad Men's title sequence works. For me, it is a perfect example of good design. It communicates its message in an eye-catching and appealing manner and sets the appropriate mood for the show. Clues and symbols relating to character and narrative are present, as well as appropriate film grammar concerning framing and composition. It's one of the few opening sequences of a television show that I don't fast-forward through. If Saul Bass had lived to see it, I think he would have approved.

Click here for more info on Saul Bass.

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