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