North By Northwest | 1959

One of Hitchcock’s classics, North by Northwest is considered one of the best pieces of cinematography in history. The psychological thriller marks not only a Hitchcock great but also distinct change in how opening credits/motion graphics were approached by filmmakers and graphic designers.

Previously seen as little as an afterthought, opening credits had a reputation for being considered as a “necessary evil” and essentially as such were totally detached from the film itself. Up until 1959, credit sequences were applied in a blanket style, very few were unique or conveyed any sort of message in their design or emotion making them feel completely distant to the following picture.

When tasked with designing the opening credits for the film, Saul Bass revolutionised not only the approach to opening credits but also set a benchmark in quality for motion graphics. Bass had managed to create an opening sequence lasting only a few minutes which had condensed the film’s mood/events into a short space of time and captured the very essence of the film. This encouraged people to become invested with the film immediately rather than waiting until they had an understanding of the plot several minutes into the picture.

The sequence introduces itself with projected lines forming from either side of the screen, linking to create an offset 3D grid effect onto a muted green backdrop. Soon the words would emerge on screen and disappear after giving the viewer the chance to read them, helping to set a pace for the film whilst also mimicking the opening elevator sequence soon to follow. The lines then continue to dissolve and reform into a New York skyscraper, looking onto a busy Manhattan street; one of the many locations used to shoot the film. The criss-crossing lines form to convey the idea of train tracks, another important central motif used throughout the film.

It is through this seamless marrying of type, perspective and relevance to the film’s plot, Bass’ contributions to North by Northwest managed to successfully revolutionise not only motion graphics but the entire mindset producers adopted when beginning to tackle opening credit sequences.