Of Film Buffs and Font Geekery: A Q&A with the Creator of the Movie Title Stills Collection

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Christian Annyas is the designer mastermind behind the Movie Title Stills Collection, the online destination for screencaps of classic film titles. Based in a small village in Amsterdam, Annyas skipped the dusty cinema studies chapter of his film education, going straight to advanced studies in title fonts. As he tells it, it all started with a particularly epic CasablancaGone with the WindCitizen Kane bender. Read on to hear about Annyas’s unlikely path to film buff-dom, the golden age of movie titles and why he left the Harry Potter movies out of his collection.

Flavorpill: What inspired you to start the Movie Title Stills Collection? Have you always been interested in title stills?

Christian Annyas: Until a couple of years ago I never knew which movie to get in a rental store. I always ended up being disappointed after watching yet another crappy movie. That’s when I decided to watch older movies. I always wanted to see the “big three”: Casablanca, Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane. It took me three days to sit through Gone with the Wind but I really loved the other two. Then Humphrey Bogart led me to the wonderful world of film noir.

Movies from the forties come with wonderful trailers with all kinds of memorable lines about hard cops and soft dames, living dangerously and loving recklessly, stuff like that.

Stills from the trailer of the film noir Thieves Highway (1949)

The design of the text always contains a mix of bold letters and scripts, which I loved and wanted to keep for future reference. I started taking screenshots. And never stopped.

The screenshots became some sort of proof that I’d seen the movie. After months I had hundreds of them, just gathering dust on my computer. I needed to find a purpose for them.

A website seemed like the perfect solution, a way to share them with the rest of the world. The internet is a huge source of information, but with surprisingly few online collections. I knew (or hoped) the titles would be of interest to both graphic designers and movie enthusiasts.

Most of the titles are rather dull or ugly. But when placed next to other titles it suddenly becomes interesting. I decided to display them chronologically to show the evolution of the title design by decade.

FP: Is there any decade or time period that you consider the “golden age” for movie title stills? What about that era stands out?

CA: The thirties are considered the golden age of Hollywood and in a way it’s a golden age of titles as well. Just look at the trailer page.

It might not look all that sophisticated but keep in mind that these titles are all handmade. It looks as though titles were much more important than today. Look at the size of them. Every title is as big and bold as possible and almost fill the screen to attract attention.

Stills from trailers from the thirties: 42nd street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

The titles weren’t perfect back then. A second peak in title design was reached in the late fifties and early sixties. Even now, in an era where everything is possible thanks to the computer, very few designers have been able to reach that high standard.

FP: Are there any title designers you admire the same way some people might admire certain cinematographers or soundtrack composers?

CA: There’s one designer who has been the most influential when it come to title design: Saul Bass, a graphic designer responsible for iconic title sequences for films of famous directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Martin Scorsese. His design of the title sequence of Psycho (1960) is the most basic title sequence of them all. A high point in title design, but also one that ruined creativity: the black screen with a white title is a phenomenon seen a lot the last couple of years.

Stills from titles designed by Saul Bass: Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Psycho (1960)

FP: What sort of response have you gotten to the site? Were you surprised that so many other people would be interested in titles?

CA: The response has been incredible. When the site went live the bandwidth limit exceeded within a few days. The site became so popular thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Delicious and StumbleUpon that I had to move to a different server.

People seemed to like everything about the website: the content, but the design and usability as well. Fifty percent of the visitors are from the USA, of which most come from California, and most of them come from Los Angeles.

Some people use it as a source of inspiration of typography, others use it to decide which movie to add to their Netflix queue.

FP: Do you ever hate a movie, but love its title stills? Or the other way around?

CA: There are two ways a title can be really good: when they put the viewer in a certain mood for the film, or when they’re completely original and become an icon, a logo for the film. Very few movies have that kind of titles.

I think the titles of the Harry Potter movies do a pretty good job at setting the mood of the film with the titles. The custom font used for the title has become the “corporate identity” for the film.

Thanks to my (now ex-)girlfriend I’ve seen quite a few Harry Potter films. I didn’t manage to sit through the third or fourth because of the awful editing. That never happened to me before. I decided never to watch a Harry Potter movie again. I even left them out of the collection. For a guy who watches film noir and westerns it is a lot to admit that I ever watched Harry Potter movies, you know…

An example of a good film with bad title design is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In case you haven’t seen it: it’s a western. Westerns usually have their own typographic language, as you can see on this page. This film is the only western I’ve ever seen without a western kind of title. The font Bell Gothic is normally used in telephone directories, books and magazines. The design of the title for the trailer of the film is much better. At least we know we’ll be watching a western.

Two titles from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007): the main title (left) and trailer title (right)

FP: Of the movies you’ve seen over the past year or two, what titles stills stand out as the best ones?

CA: I don’t exactly remember when I watched each movie, but sometimes a certain title from an old movie stands out because it still looks fresh today. One of the best examples is Sunset Boulevard (1950). It’s a title with a concept (the title in the gutter refers to the story of the rise and fall of both protagonists in the movie) as well as timeless design. Aside from the fact it’s in black and white, one simply can’t tell that it’s 59 years old.

There are lots of others I could mention here as well, but if you’d like to find your old favorites, I invite you to start exploring the Movie Title Stills Collection!

The main title from Sunset Blvd (1950)