A Closer Look At Great Animated Title Sequences

In honor of Saul Bass’s birthday this month, we’re taking a look at some of the greatest animated title sequences from live-action movies (the topic of great credits sequences in animated movies is a subject for another time).

I love a good title sequence. It’s inspiring to see artists pour so much imagination and skill into what could be a simple list of credits. Here’s Walt Disney describing the process of creating the titles for The Parent Trap (1961).

As Walt Disney suggested above, opening credits in the early days of movies tended to be straightforwardly informational, often created quickly by in-house art departments superimposing text over static background paintings. Even so, there are a handful of movies from the 1930s and ’40s that contain brief bits of animation during the credits. One great example is the cartoon opening of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). This scene is frequently attributed to Walter Lantz, but was actually directed by Dave Fleischer.

The idea of the title sequence as an art form that serves as a little mini-movie in and of itself can be traced back to Saul Bass, who got his start in Hollywood as a designer of logos and movie posters. When director Otto Preminger suggested he create opening titles based around his poster design for Carmen Jones (1954), Bass became interested in the creative potential of a title sequence to contribute to the themes and overall tone of a film. As he said, “I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience so that when the film actually began viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it.” He spent the next forty years creating titles for directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Martin Scorsese that are just as iconic as the films that followed. Although he was not an animator himself, many of Saul Bass’s titles incorporate animated elements. Here are a few of his most memorable:

It was the six-minute sequence Bass designed for Around the World in 80 Days (1956) that firmly established animated credits as an exciting new trend. The titles take us through the entire movie in miniature, transforming the characters and main events of the film into stylized icons. Although Bass was the only artist credited for the sequence, it was actually directed by Bill Hurtz, a UPA veteran who went on to direct hundreds of Rocky & Bullwinkle episodes and Cap’n Crunch commercials.

In the 1950s and ’60s, movie studios were desperate to lure people away from their television sets, so they used attractions like CinemaScope and 3d to provide audiences with an experience they couldn’t get at home. Elaborate animated titles added to the sense that the movie you were about to see was not just something to idly watch, but a major event. The title sequence for the epic comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) – again designed by Bass and directed by Hurtz – crams in nearly as many jokes as the movie itself. As Bass said of the sequence, “The idea was – take a globe of the world and see just how many visual jokes can be squeezed out of it. Both the film and the title were based on similar notions – take a joke and push it beyond a reasonable point.”

The positive reaction to Bass’s work opened the floodgates for innovative titles designed by the likes of Wayne Fitzgerald, Pablo Ferro, and Iginio Lardani. Outside of Bass, perhaps the most famous title designer is Maurice Binder, who created the opening of the first James Bond film Dr. No (1962) and proceeded to design the titles of fifteen more entries in the series. He also designed the abstract animated titles for Stanley Donen’s brilliant mystery caper Charade (1963). The sequence is just so Sixties, with its mod color scheme and ultra-cool Henry Mancini soundtrack. And these aren’t just meaningless shapes; the spinning pinwheels and intersecting lines (animated by Robert Ellis) represent the twists and turns of the film’s narrative, leading our heroine Audrey Hepburn down a maze of mistaken identities and double-crosses.

Maybe the all-time classic title sequence comes from The Pink Panther (1963), by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, which not only introduced a cartoon star but also introduced one of the best movie themes ever composed (by Henry Mancini). Looney Tunes director Friz Freleng supervised the sequence, while Freleng’s longtime layout artist Hawley Pratt designed the panther and Ken Harris primarily animated him. Producer David DePatie remembered the movie’s premiere: “The memories of that night will remain with me forever. The projector started to roll and as the Panther first appeared there was a ripple of laughter from the audience which quickly became whistles and roars of approval as the Panther toyed with the various titles. At the conclusion of the main title, the crowd went bananas.”

Animated title sequences became a tradition for the Pink Panther series, which starred Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. In my opinion, the funniest Clouseau movie is the second one, A Shot in the Dark (1964), which also boasts one of the funniest title sequences. DePatie-Freleng once again designed the titles, but they were animated in the U.K. under the supervision of George Dunning, who later directed Yellow Submarine. Compared to the original Pink Panther sequence, you can see the drawing style here is looser and scratchier, but so charmingly kooky. And once you hear that original theme (by Mancini, again) it will never leave your head.

Riding high off of the success of The Pink Panther, DePatie-Freleng Enterprises handled the titles of various movies of the 1960s and early-’70s, each one unique and beautifully designed by animation greats like Ken Mundie, Corny Cole, and Robert Dranko. Here are a few of their best:

DePatie-Freleng wasn’t the only studio to design intros for the Pink Panther films. The legendary Richard Williams (of Who Framed Roger Rabbit fame) handled the lavishly animated titles of The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976). Williams designed many outstanding credits sequences over the years, but I’m fond of Strikes Again for its unique photographic backgrounds, beautiful animation by Tony White, and funny movie parodies.

The success of The Pink Panther prompted a wave of cartoon animal mascots in live-action films. The Peter Sellers comedy After the Fox (1966) introduces a fox character for the opening sequence designed by Binder and animated by Dick Horn. The animation is choppier than in the Panther films, but the sequence is bluntly effective at delivering loopy cartoon silliness.

Disney often used animated titles for live-action comedies like The Shaggy Dog (1959), The Parent Trap (1961), and Freaky Friday (1976) in order to give them a dash of the cartoony visual imagination audiences associated with the Disney name. One of my favorites is Bill Justice and Xavier Atencio’s stop-motion opening of The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), which features a cutout version of Annette Funicello singing the movie’s theme song.

The Sixties must’ve been the golden age of animated movie titles; you could find clever, beautifully-drawn credits sequences in everything from expensive super-productions like Doctor Dolittle (1967) to cheap drive-in fodder like Catalina Caper (1967). Several of the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello Beach Party movies contained quirky stop-motion titles by Art Clokey, creator of Gumby. Here’s one from How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965).

Animated movie titles weren’t only a trend in the United States. Comic artist extraordinaire Ronald Searle designed the titles of many British films, including Those Daring Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies (1969). It’s a pleasure to see Searle’s intricately gnarled drawing style in motion.

I’ve never heard of Harry Hess, a former UPA animator, but based on his gloriously goofy and psychedelic titles for the Italian feature The Prophet (1968), I’m a huge fan.

Georges Grammat is another cartoonist I’ve never heard of before now, but I adore this zany title sequence he created for the French crime film The Troubleshooters (1971). The little square guys here look like the Seventies equivalent of the Minions.

The demand for whimsical animated opening credits died down a bit in the more serious New Hollywood era of the 1970s, but they still popped up occasionally throughout the decade, perhaps most famously in the musical Grease (1978). Despite the movie being set in the 1950s, the disco beat and grungy art style immediately mark this sequence as a product of the ’70s. Animator John Wilson seems to be channeling Ralph Bakshi with his scratchy line-work and underground comix aesthetic. I’ve always been amused by the vague lyrics of the title song, which suggest that songwriter Barry Gibb had no idea what the movie was about.

Jumping ahead to the 1980s, the animated titles to the Madonna vehicle Who’s That Girl (1987) transform the popstar into a Betty Boop-type character, designed by Argentinian artist Daniel Melgarejo. This likable sequence, stylishly drawn in grease pencil, completely steals the show; even the film’s director James Foley conceded that it was the best scene in the movie. The sequence was produced by Broadcast Arts, the studio behind Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and was directed by Ric Machin, who later worked on Batman: The Animated Series. You can read more about who animated the title in this Cartoon Brew post.

Indie animator Sally Cruikshank directed a handful of title sequences for Eighties movies, including one for the teen romantic comedy Mannequin (1987), which accompanies a song by Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Gos. You have to wonder what the film’s target audience made of this random intrusion of cartoon weirdness.

Bill Kroyer (director of FernGully: The Last Rainforest) produced three of the most memorable title sequences ever made, all in the same year: Honey I Shrunk the Kids, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and Troop Beverly Hills were all released in 1989, and all display Kroyer’s innovative “combo” technique of blending hand-drawn animation with computer-generated 3d elements. For Troop Beverly Hills, Kroyer sought help from the artists at Spümcø, who would go on to create The Ren & Stimpy Show (John Kricfalusi, Jim Smith, Bob Camp, Don Shank, Lynne Naylor, etc.). It’s fascinating to see that zany Nicktoons style in its early stages.

One of the most fun aspects of animated title sequences is when cartoon characters interact with the credits themselves. No one is better at spinning gags out of that concept than Bob Kurtz, who directed wonderful titles for films like City Slickers (1991), Four Rooms (1995), George of the Jungle (1997), The Pink Panther (2006), and Are We Done Yet? (2007). Ron Underwood, director of City Slickers, said of Kurtz’s titles: “It gave the opening of the film the perfect lift. You can always count on the F word with Bob’s work: Funny! But it’s the H word that makes it so memorable: Heart!” Here are a few of Kurtz’s credits gags:

The credits are also cleverly revealed in the title sequence of Brain Donors (1992), which was directed by Claymation legend Will Vinton. The movie itself is a tribute to the timeless comedy of the Marx Bros., but it might be Vinton’s animated opening that comes the closest to capturing that wacky Marxian energy.

I get especially excited by title sequences that take an unusual approach to animation. For the credits of the underrated bizarro comedy Freaked (1993), David Daniels used his totally unique and difficult-to-fathom Stratacut animation technique, which involves molding an entire animated movement into a piece of clay and then slicing into it frame-by-frame like a loaf of bread, creating a flip book effect. This sequence perfectly matches the in-your-face MTV-era insanity of the movie that follows. The film barely received a release in the U.S. because executives deemed it “too weird,” so the movie and this sequence never got the attention they deserved. WARNING: This scene contains intense flashing lights.

Aleksandra Korejwo is a one-of-a-kind talent who creates animation out of colored salt. Her opening credits for the Disney feature The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1998) are lovely and unlike any other credits sequence I’ve seen. According to Korejwo, “I animate directly under the camera; I destroy the first picture to create the second. When I finish, all that remains is the dirty salt on the floor. The life of the material exists only in movement and only for a few minutes, but I hope it remains forever in the imagination of the audience.”

It isn’t only comedies and family movies that benefit from animated titles. The acclaimed German action thriller Run Lola Run (1998) features a cartoon opening by Gil Alkabetz that instantly sets the tone for the film’s fever-pitch adrenaline.

Sometimes title sequences outclass the movies they’re attached to: Tomcats (2001) is a gross-out sex comedy in the American Pie vein about a couple of womanizing bachelors, but animators Darrell van Citters and Scott O’Brien use that setup as a jumping-off point to create a cel-animated Tex Avery slapstick cartoon with a cat and a dog, set to an early 2000s pop-punk tune by the Offspring.

One of the most influential title sequences comes from Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can (2002), designed by Paris-based artists Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas. The Saul Bass-inspired sequence combines old and new technology: the figures were created using hand-printed rubber stamps (based on Leonardo DiCaprio’s character using rubber stamps to create new identities for himself in the movie) and then were moved around digitally. The positive reaction to the sequence led to a wave of stylish motion graphics-based title sequences, like the ones in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and Thank You For Smoking (2005).

There have been plenty of excellent animated title sequences in the 21st century, although instead of appearing during a film’s opening credits, they are now more commonly used as a lead-in to the end credits. One of the best is Jamie Caliri’s masterful five-minute end credits sequence for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), which cleverly turns the villainous Count Olaf into a “huge, invasive graphic element.” I love the darkly gothic art style and Thomas Newman’s moody musical theme.

Lots of animated end credits run through the events of the movie, or sometimes even bring a characters’ drawings to life (this was done in Super, American Ultra, and the recent Spider-Man movies). In other cases, the primary goal is just to leave the audience with a buzz of excitement. Matt Reynolds’ striking sequence for the comic thriller Villains (2019) is a gutsy explosion of punk neon grossness. According to the film’s director Robert Olsen, “We had intended for it to be at the beginning of the film but it wound up kicking too much ass! It was so energetic and full of life and so crazy that it made the film that came after it feel less so, so we wound up putting it at the end.”

Even so, there’s nothing like a good opening credits sequence to really get the ball rolling. I still remember seeing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) in theaters and having my mind blown by the abstract scribbles dancing around while Beck is blasting on the soundtrack. Apparently, the title was added when Quentin Tarantino viewed a rough cut of the film and suggested it needed a title sequence to hint at the mayhem to come. Director Edgar Wright told animator Richard Kenworthy that he wanted it to be like “2001: A Space Odyssey meets Sesame Street,” further explaining, “The idea was to have it as if the animation is a manifestation of how cool the music is in Knives’ head. That’s why we end the sequence on her watching, the titles are like her brain is exploding with how cool the track is.”

We don’t see enough animated opening credits in movies these days, but maybe the tide is turning: the recent horror comedy Lisa Frankenstein (2024) features a pleasantly macabre animated opening from Tulips and Chimneys.

What are your favorite animated title sequences? Let us know in the comments. We’ll finish things off with a title sequence that doubles as a parody of title sequences: Terry Gilliam’s opening for Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), which features a spoof of one of those Shirley Bassey James Bond theme songs. Enjoy!

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