How did movie titles used to work?
August 26, 2007 2:00 PM   Subscribe

Before the advent of computer generated graphics, how were elaborate opening titles and scrolling movie credits created for films?

What techniques were used to generate the transitioning/rolling text and how were they layered on top of opening/ending sequences?
posted by punkfloyd to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
A combination of techniques were used. The simplest was to put the text onto a long sheet of paper, and literally to roll it past the camera.

Layering was done using an optical printer. If the credits were done as white on black, then it wouldn't even have been necessary to use masks, though they could have.

It was... painful. But you do what you can with the tools you have.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:04 PM on August 26, 2007

Nothing to add to the question, except it's still painful. I've spent the last week trying to get credits to scroll in Final Cut Pro without looking jittery and crappy. And now every time I watch a movie, I often notice others dealt with (and didn't completely solve) the problems I've been going through.
posted by yellowbinder at 2:33 PM on August 26, 2007

I have always wondered the same thing, punkfloyd. Many of the credits don't look like writing on paper at all.
posted by HotPatatta at 2:34 PM on August 26, 2007

I suggest reading as much as you can about the work of Saul Bass, who was probably the most influential title sequence designer in film history (in addition to being an extremely influential logo designer)

Here's a great article that talks about the painstaking techniques used back in the day, specifically with Bass' work.
posted by melorama at 2:43 PM on August 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

Not to derail, but in response to yellowbinder's scrolling title problems, the secret to getting decent looking scrolls in FCP is to use the Boris TitleCrawl generator (which comes with every copy of FCP). Do not under any circumstances (where quality is important, at least) use FCP's built in text/scroll generators. They're pretty much useless.

The reason why your scrolling titles look jittery is because they're moving at a speed which is not in sync with the field rate of your video. So sometimes, the tops and bottoms of your text lands on a split field, which is why it looks jittery and chunky on on playback. To get smooth title scrolls, the text needs to move at a pixel speed which is an even multiple of the field rate of your video format. You can't just arbitrarily dial in any old speed and hope to get smooth movement. That's why even on super-expensive "black box" character generators like Abekas and Chyron, the speed choices are for the most part "slow, medium and fast".

The dirty secrets and wonderful geek-level detail to this problem can be found here.
posted by melorama at 2:58 PM on August 26, 2007 [4 favorites]

I'm sure I remember seeing an extra on The Thing DVD in which they showed that their elaborate opening title was done with a strong light, a fish tank, and a black trash bag.
posted by forallmankind at 3:26 PM on August 26, 2007

It's amazing just how primitive the techniques they used to use were. For instance, during the 1940's at Warner Brothers when they were making cartoons, they would record the voice actors first, and then match the animation to the voices.

But in the 1940's, magnetic tape hadn't been invented yet. Nor were wire recorders considered reliable. It turns out the only reasonable way they could record the voice actors was to use the audio track on film. It had to be developed before it could be played back.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:14 PM on August 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

Chyron does real-time video crawls at crummy video resolution that are perfectly smooth-looking, regardless of the number of pixels per frame moved.

The trick is to render text at 1-pixel increments (basically a simple translation) and then interpolate two neighboring text images for the display.

So if the text starts at pixel 12.75, render text at 12 and 13, and interpolate (12)*.25 + (13)*.75

And remember to gamma-correct the intensities before the interpolation, and degamma the result, or the text will brighten and dim rythmically.

And Dan, they recorded animation sound and music on film because someone had to transfer the voice to animation sheets with FRAME NUMBERS for the animators, so the mouths would be in sync with the voices. A sheet was like:
Frame  Sound Bg   Cel1 Cel2 Cel3 Cel4
1      Hel-  bg1  tkey1
3      lo-     
6      To-        tkey2
7      m
Music was (is) timed to a click-track measured in frames.
posted by hexatron at 6:16 PM on August 26, 2007 [6 favorites]

yellow binder. it has to run @ 60 lines per second (or multiples of such) for the sync of NTSC. There is no analog softening that hexatron observed on a chryon. I've seen some horrible digital chyron crawls.

Using Boris Title Crawl works...if you turn on the 1.2:1 deflicker, because it blurs vertically across fields

Technically....Dissolves were 'Optical' Effects. Pretty anything that wasn't footage, was optically printed.

Google Books on Film Opticals
Article on Optical Effects

Oh yeah, Saul Bass is amazing.
posted by filmgeek at 7:20 PM on August 26, 2007

Hexatron, it's true that they had to time the audio to the frame level to permit animation. But the frames on the film that was used during voice recording weren't always useful for that purpose.

The voices of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were sped up slightly in order to change the sound a bit. Not a huge amount -- maybe 10%. But it means that the frame rate for the "film" containing Mel Blanc's voice was greater than it should have been. (If you've ever seen live film of Mel Blanc doing the voice of Bugs, that's why it didn't sound quite right. What you were hearing was what they recorded before they sped it up.)

Perhaps they sped it up and rerecorded it on another film running at normal 24 fps, and then used the frames on that for their timing?

Anyway, I apologize for the slight derail. This doesn't have anything to do with creating film credits.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:51 PM on August 26, 2007

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