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Title Design: A conversation with Dan Perri

Dan Perri is one of the most accomplished and versatile title sequence designers of our time. He has worked closely with legendary filmmakers including Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan and Jodie Foster, perhaps most famously designing the "Star Wars" title sequence, logo and opening crawl. These days, he’s working on titles for Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the 1977 Dario Argento horror, "Suspiria" and an upcoming book on his career and title design.

Let’s start at the beginning. Your interest in graphic design and typography started really young. How does a 12-year old even become interested in letters?

My mother is a painter. Not professionally, but she painted all her life. At 95, she’s still doing one painting a day. There were always brushes and paint around the house. I liked putting color down and making strokes. Even in grade school, I had teachers who saw whatever natural talent I had and cultivated it.

By the time I was 12, I started noticing letters, type, graphics and posters. I started playing around with doing letters and I found that I could do them well. I started selling my signs to different stores. At first it was supermarkets, where I would paint the prices for potatoes on butcher paper. Soon I was designing things with decorative elements. I started doing signs for restaurants, cocktail lounges. Around that time, my high school teacher, Barbara Brooks, was also a great influence on me. She had been an agency art director on Madison Avenue in the 1950s. She imparted all of her knowledge. And I was off designing advertising and graphics, posters and everything else I could get my hands on.

Did you grow up in Los Angeles?

Yes, I’m from New York, but by mid-grade school I moved out here and completed my studies through high school here. I then started going to the Art Center School in LA. Because I was advanced even in high school, I used to win all the poster competitions that the city of Los Angeles School System held for the years that I was in high school. All the city schools competed to design a poster for “Boys Week,” which was one, and the other was for a “Keep LA Beautiful” campaign. These signs would be on the sides of trash trucks that would rumble all over the city, and billboards. I won both those contests, two years running in my junior and senior year of high school. I was awarded the trophy and a savings bond by a man who was the head art director at a big ad agency. The equivalent of Madison Avenue here in LA. When I met him that day, I hustled him for a job. I wound up working at this ad agency for the summer between high school and starting Art Center. I was in with professionals at a very high level when I was still a kid.

What did it feel like to have your work on city buses, plastered all over the city, seeing your work out in the world when you were so young?

It was truly a thrill. It was out to a wider audience. I’d see it as I was driving down the street, or walking to the store.

Certainly an encouragement or validation that you were on the right path?

I never had any doubt about that. It was always what I wanted to do and I was amazed that the thing I loved to do I actually got paid for and got appreciated for.

Early in your career, you worked in advertising. At what point did your interest shift to film?

I was exposed to Saul Bass’s work in high school. My teacher in high school had a whole library of all the main, current advertising and graphic design magazines. I studied them and they became my bible. I honed in on Saul Bass because I loved his work. It was a graphic style that I admired. And I found myself working in that style naturally. At some point, I think in my senior year of high school, I realized that his offices were right here in LA. So I just went down there, in my direct way, and tried to meet him. I would frequent his waiting room, just hanging out. He saw me one day. I had my portfolio with me. He liked what he saw and he was encouraging. He asked me to come back in a few months and show him what i was up to. He started mentoring me.

That’s amazing.

As I think back on it, it happened by itself. He was wonderfully encouraging and supportive to me. I remember one thing that he pointed out to me when I met with him: I had all of these pieces of design. I had cut out cardboard frames for them so that they looked presentable. He would leaf through them one at a time, and as he would turn one over he would point out that the back of some of them looked really messy, taped up and not very well executed. I learned from that that he noticed everything. You have to be attentive, exacting and precise in all aspects of your work, not just what’s on the front but even the back. All aspects of it. And that can apply to any kind of design. Whether doing production design or costumes, you have to maintain that in order to do your best.

What was the first title sequence that you designed? I know "The Exorcist" was your breakout but you’d been directing title sequences for some time before that…

I’d started working for a fellow named Don Record, who was a big designer among a handful who were doing the work at that time in the late 1960s. A friend from high school was working for a graphics agency. He was building these dimensional letters out of Strathmore paper for use in a TV commercial. When it came time to finishing the work, my friend became unavailable and he suggested me to finish the job. So I built these letters and I brought them to this studio where they were shooting them. On the walls of the offices were these storyboards for these different title sequences that this fellow Don Record had designed. I learned of him, made note of his name. Later, I sought him out and he hired me to work in his design studio… it was just his apartment. Just me and his girlfriend. I started designing title sequences with him.

A number of times it would be my concept, my design and he would require me to produce it as well. I would work with the camera people and prepare the artwork. I learned all the aspects of designing titles. At that time it was all on film, so you had to learn about the limitations of film, compared to designing for print. For example, that you couldn’t do things really tiny because the film couldn’t resolve it. I did four or five sequences while I was working with Don where the screen credit was his name, but the design work was mine. (I finally was able to correct that on IMDB). For films including "The Grissom Gang", "Plaza Suite", a Paramount film, "Rio Lobo", a Howard Hawks film. For "Rio Lobo", I even designed the font for all the titles and then directed the live action sequence that we shot that was the backgrounds for the titles. After that, I broke off from Don Record and formed a company with my friend from high school, Steve Smith. We were called Perri and Smith. We started doing title sequences that we got credit for and paid for. And that launched my career within the business.

In the early days, obviously pre-digital, what were your primary tools?

The tools were always the same, because you had to first prepare the artwork for the camera. Whether it be photographed directly from an animation camera or typed elements photographed onto high-contrast film, which would then be super-imposed over live action or pre-photographed background… you had to prepare elements. First it would be black on white on paper, photostats as they were called. Just clean black and white that you would then make a film negative of, a reverse. And then assemble those onto a piece of celluloid that was pegged to comply with the Acme peg system, that you could then put a piece of artwork down onto the camera stand and then backlight it, using a light box. Lay the cell over it, black out the rest of the frame with black paper, and then photograph that title. If, when they photographed it, you wanted it to zoom up or pan in or zip out, or whatever, they would shoot all that on the camera stands. You had to know that process, know the limitations of it, and within those limitations then your imagination could design different things.

It sounds extraordinarily time-consuming.

(laughing) Compared to today, yes. It would take days and days to do this process.

Do you still start with pencil to paper?

Yes, I do. It happens wherever I am. I keep a pile of envelopes, letters I’ve received. I’ll grab one and draw on the back of it, draw an idea. Scraps of paper, pieces of tissue and whatnot. I keep a pile of pads of paper at my bedside and many times I completely dream something and wake up and scribble it down.

The tools are the same: an idea put to paper. Though how it’s then executed is a little different now, using a computer instead of a camera. In many cases I still use a camera as well and then it gets to a computer and finalized so that it can be shared with an audience. I’ve had to learn how those new tools are both similar and different from what they were, in order to find the best solution in the end.

As a title sequence designer, what is your relationship with the director? Who approaches you to design the title sequence and then who is your primary creative collaborator as you’re developing a concept?

I’ve always worked in the two arenas of feature films and television. They’re driven differently. In the feature world, the director is in charge. He or she is king of the hill. It is they who you work for and directly offer ideas to. In television, it’s the producer who is in charge. Though these days there’s a lot of cross-over, and when a feature director works for television, he is still in charge and the producer may acquiesce to that. So you’re answering to different people in different mediums. It’s the same thing: you’re presenting ideas and solving problems, finally given the green light to go ahead and put it together.

Sometimes you might receive the script, but I imagine it is more typical for you to first see an edit of the film?

Yes, usually I come in in post. If I get a script and read it, I’m then interpreting how to tell the story from my viewpoint. That’s likely not the way the director who is making the movie is telling it. I find that waiting to see what he or she has done, in order to react to that, develop ideas from that works better. Then as the editing progresses, I see new versions of it as it comes along. By that time I’m developing my ideas and contributing to the shaping of the film.

When you are watching an edit of the film, do you watch it differently than a “regular” moviegoer?

I’ve learned a lot about the business and how things are done, so often times I will see a shot and know how they did it or wonder how they did it, more as a filmmaker would look at a film. But I have an ability to just be a viewer, to not even notice any of those technical things. Just look at the performances and the storytelling. Out of that I can then devise responses to it, like any viewer could. But with the addition of my knowledge and experience, I can then devise ideas about what will be possible to accomplish in titles. Part of that includes the practical considerations of knowing what can be done within the range of the budget. I might imagine something, a concept, and then realize it’ll cost too much to do, so I won’t offer that idea. That wouldn’t be professional. I’m guided by those factors as I’m developing ideas.

Sometimes you’re given footage from principal photography to work with for the title sequence, and other times you’re directing a sequence from scratch. Which do you prefer?

My ideas emerge from my own emotional response to the film. I might see the opening reels and think immediately where titles could perhaps interplay with existing footage. I also think of things that could relate to and bring typographic solutions to those images, but simultaneously I get ideas that have nothing to do with the existing footage; they’re a concept from scratch, just from my own emotional response. I see images and elements in my mind that can be created on screen to tell what I think is a better story than what the backgrounds of the opening reels are doing. To deal with existing images, footage, or storytelling, is a restriction right off the bat. One has to solve the problem of using those images to accompany titles. Generally, I would prefer to pursue my own images and my own imagination. When I am given the opportunity to do that, the solution is always better.

You come into the process in post-production, so usually there’s no overlap with the production designer on principal photography.

That’s primarily true. [On a few occasions,] I might have come onto the films during production and I would meet with the production designer and art department, but it isn’t for the purpose of saying “Okay, now let’s create something together.” The film is carrying on at that point and even if the director wanted the production designer to get involved in the title sequence design, they couldn’t just drop everything and turn to me to begin to collaborate.

Occasionally, the script calls for something specific [for the title sequence], so in those cases they set aside time during principal photography to work on the sequence as part of production. That’s happened in the past, for example, when I was directing second unit on "Nightmare on Elm Street Part III" - that included directing the sequence that opened the movie. So it was part of the schedule.

But in general it can be very useful to be brought in before production ends. When I come onto a film during production, it isn’t necessarily for the purpose of at that moment starting to develop a title sequence. It’s more just to visit and see the tone and texture; to watch and observe. Ideas might come from that.

How does the design of principal photography inform the choices you make?

I’ve always had great interest in production design. It’s certainly a part of the visual world [of a film]. As I know it, the production designer is responsible for everything that the camera sees, except for the actors and what they’re wearing. That’s always been of interest to me. As a filmmaker myself, many times I’ve directed sequences where I’m responsible for everything that the camera sees as well.

When I was doing "The Aviator", they were shooting in Montreal for six or eight weeks, and then they came to LA to finish the production, for the remaining five or six weeks. While in LA, I would go every day, drive out to where they were shooting, to shoot video and pictures. And whenever I could get a few moments with Martie, I would talk about things with him. It was with the intention of gathering information, getting a feel, seeing what he was doing. There might be images very specifically that I might later come back and ask to review a particular scene, so that I could draw from it. But if I hadn’t seen it when I was there on location during filming, then I would have to sift through thousands of thousands of feet of footage, which isn’t realistic. There wouldn’t be any way, unless they brought in another editor to sit with me for two weeks to go through the whole movie. It’s just not practical. So visiting the set when it’s happening is much more efficient and effective in order to pursue ideas that would come later after we wrapped. The the best situation for me is to be able to visit set.

Do you have specific advice for novice title designers?

I’m often asked this when I speak at schools or film festivals to budding creators. I revert back to my experience when I was in that position, what I did. Though certainly the industry is different now than it was then, there are things that are the same. Whatever artistry, creativity, or imagination that one might have, you have to pursue that. If one wants to design title sequences, work with letters, type and graphics as applied to a movie or a television show, you have to pursue those people who are making titles for films. That’s hard work, but it’s the same if you wanted to be a banker, or a lawyer. You pursue those who could put you in that position. The energy and the passion and the drive are common elements to everyone. I know it’s probably a cliché. Actually, I think it could only be called a cliché if I came from wealth and I was given breaks and doors were opened for me… and then I got to this position that I’m in now and said, “All you have to do is work hard.” That’d be a cliché because it’d be bullshit! But what really happened to me is what I described. I had no advantages; no one paved the way for me. No one made introductions. I came from nothing. It was my art and my passion for creativity that drove me. The need, the obsession to express myself, with those tools that I was given. I just wore people down!

I remember I was doing a movie, "The Last Dragon", about martial arts. The producer was an old friend of mine. I’d worked with him many years before that. I had now pursued him to do this movie. He finally hired me and we were literally walking across the street in New York City on the way to the studio stage where we were going to shoot this sequence. He stopped in the middle of the street and said, “You know why I hired you?” With traffic honking… I said, “Well, no. Why?” He said, “Because you wouldn’t let up. You wouldn’t give up. You just pursued me until I gave in.”

(laughing) Is that a compliment?

(laughing) I think it was.

How do you feel when you see your own work now? Are you your own critic?

I’m proud of what I’ve done. Certainly as a creator, I often see things I would have done differently, in retrospect. I’m certainly thrilled that people like them, and want to ask me about them. Now I get fan letters all the time. I guess people found out where I live. I get two or three fan letters a week. Usually about "Star Wars". They’ll send me a frame from the crawl and they want me to sign it. All of that is part of my life now, and I don’t mind it all.

You’ve been a chameleon over the course of your career, from "The Exorcist" to "Nashville", "Taxi Driver" to "Star Wars", to "The Aviator" and now the remake of "Suspiria". Rather than having a distinctive style, you adapt your work to be in service to each story. What does that mean for you as an artist?

I’m aware that I’m perceived that way, and that I serve the film, rather than my own ego or a style that I repeat. So many artists are that way: An actor is wanted because he does a certain style and they want him to do it again in another movie. You come to a point where, if you’re conscious of it, you have to think, “Do I just repeat myself because people like it?” But I’ve never been conscious of doing that or not doing that.

The important thing that’s going on is the process, in the moment, for each movie. I have no idea how others might do it, how Saul Bass did it, how other designers who have come and gone did it. For me, on every film, I view it, I let myself react to it, and ideas come to my mind’s eye. I can see them in my mind. They’re very often whole, completed. All I have to do is put that idea down on paper. Then that idea is done. Then another pops up in my head. They’re competing with each other, bouncing around. I go as fast as I can to get them down before I forget them or they get distorted. Since I have a lot of ideas, I’m prolific that way, five or six ideas maybe on one film, amongst them might well be a design that might be similar to some previous film I might have done. But I don’t then recognize it and say, “I won’t do that because I already did it on another film.” It isn’t conscious. It’s so… unconscious. Creatively flying by the seat of my pants, so to speak. I’m just a conduit for these things that come through me. I put them down and make sense of them, so that they can apply to the film and be used and be a productive contribution to it. So it seems like each sequence is unique to the thing I’m looking at. This movie has qualities and aspects that are unlike other films and so my reaction to it is new and particular to that film.

What ultimately makes a title sequence effective?

It should be evocative and convey the feelings and emotions from the film. Through type and other graphic elements, it should convey to the viewer some of the texture and the nuance of the film, unconsciously. Once the viewer starts seeing the film, they’re already familiar with it; they’re connected to it and following it, as a result of being introduced to these emotional elements. The sequence I did for "Taxi Driver" works quite well that way. I went through a lot of research and effort to find just the right elements that could convey those things that I touched on. It’s my best work.

It’s very different, but I’m also a fan of the sequence you did for "The Warriors". There you were working with footage they gave you. The lettering is iconic, with the sequence of the subway making its way up to the Bronx; and the movie is such a specific product of its time. What was that experience like?

It was very fun to be unshackled from the constraints of specific type styles and the more precise world that many films live in, to be totally in service to a specific character, finding out personality and texture that could be embodied in this group of letters that say the title. In the case of "The Warriors", it was cut loose. For me, the obvious choice then, still the obvious even now, is graffiti being the mode of expression. It appears throughout the film and to see “the Warriors” in spray paint or hand scribbled was the obvious solution to me. Fortunately, the director Walter Hill agreed, so I just went off and started spray painting and scribbling letters. And then figuring out how to put it on the film came out of the shots that I was given to work with. The violent aspects of the characters comes out in the titles being kind of crashed into or pushed off the frame by the wipe effect of the subway train coming through. It was organic to the environment.

I’m not sure if this is as true in Los Angeles, but in New York there’s a real resurgence of interest in hand-painted signage. Having started your career there, I wonder whether you’d noticed that there’s a renewed interest now in that sort of craft again?

I’m sure it’s happening. I haven’t noticed it as much in LA, but I have to admit I haven’t been “down the street” as much as I used to be. I’ve been searching for a few pieces that I did back in my high school days that until recently were still around out in the Valley area where I lived. I think it’s wonderful that it’s all coming back. Even the work that I did in the late 1960s and 1970s, I’m now being pursued to talk about the resurgence of that era.

What are your thoughts on some of the more deliberately retro styles in recent title sequences? Like the title sequences for "Good Time" or "Stranger Things".

The title sequence for Good Time was designed by Tom Kan - it is very retro and wonderfully conceived. I met Tom just the other day, while at a title sequence designers conference in Paris, and we talked extensively about a movie he did for French director Gaspar Noé, "Enter the Void". Tom’s sequences are really astonishing. He claims to not even be a motion designer. He’s a graphic designer. If you look at the sequence for "Enter the Void", it’s really unique, there’s no motion in it at all. It’s probably a couple hundred different type styles that present all the main titles on the film. It’s brilliant, in sync with the music, which really drives it.

On "Stranger Things", I consulted with Michelle Dougherty and the folks at Imaginary Forces. They invited me to talk to all of their designers one night. I’ve been friends with them for a long time. I met with them; they took me around their studio. One fellow, at that moment, was putting together the "Stranger Things" concept and design that Michelle had already done. They asked me questions, “Hey, you worked a lot in the 80s. The producers want to replicate the style and the look of 80s films. So what do you think of this?” They wanted to do all kinds of flaws and scratches and imperfections in the mattes and compositing. I advised them to not go so far with it. For one because it would look so flawed, you could never deliver something like that to a client, so imperfect that they’d never pay for it! Your integrity would prevent you from even bringing it to them until it was perfect. We discussed at length the concept of it and the look and how to make it more 80s and retro.

There’s that growing appreciation of work made by hand, or work that looks like it’s made by hand.

I still have a great value for a hand process. I do it whenever I can. It’s automatic for me. It’s natural. In the case of "Suspiria", the director Luca Guadagnino shot the film on film. He’s asked me to do all the titles on film, rather than digitally. So I’ve been exploring that. I’ve been able to accomplish it, but believe it or not, in the film capital of world, Hollywood, there are no longer animation cameras which I used to use to shoot titles. There isn’t the equipment any longer to put together a title sequence the way it was done then. But to get it to film was important, so I found another way to do that.

I look forward to seeing it.

Luca is happy and that’s what’s most important.

Dan, thank you so much for your time.

It’s been a pleasure.

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