For many of us, the movie Grand Prix is a cinematic classic. Shot in 1966 under the direction of John Frankenheimer, it still holds up nearly 50 years later. Perhaps one reason it has weathered time so well can be attributed to the work of Saul Bass.
Saul Bass (May 8, 1920-April 25, 1996) was a graphic designer and Academy Award-winning filmmaker, but in the film industry he is best known for his design on motion picture title sequences, which is arguably recognized as the best such work ever seen. His work on Grand Prix is no exception. Interestingly, it almost never happened. Bass initially turned down John Frankenheimer’s request to create the title sequence for Grand Prix (1966) because he was recovering from a hip operation at the time. In the end he not only agreed to do the sequence, but signed on as visual consultant for the film. Bass designed the majority of the races, supervised the final cut and put together the movie posters.
Perhaps it’s worth watching again,
Bass was responsible for some of the best-remembered, most iconic logos in North America, including both the Bell Telephone logo (1969) and successor AT&T globe (1983). Other well-known designs were Continental Airlines (1968), Dixie (1969) and United Way (1972). Later, he would produce logos for a number of Japanese companies as well. He also designed the Student Academy Award for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Here’s a first-hand account of his first days on-set from the book, Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design:
Shooting the races in Grand Prix brought into focus for me the Director-as-Performer mode. Until then I had been directing in the Repertory mode. Small companies, with accumulated experience working together. All in tune with an exploratory point of view. Shifts in concept or staging understood as a process, rather than a certainty.
This all changed when I began directing the races for Grand Prix. The first race was at Spa in Belgium. We had permit problems with the Racing Association. We didn’t know if we could even get on the track. If we did, I would have no advance opportunity to study the track or even to know what part of the track we would have.
Suddenly, at the end of one day, we unexpectedly got permission to shoot the next day. I arrived at an assigned section of the track at 8:30am. I saw an unfamiliar terrain, a multilingual crew, a slew of Formula One racing cars and drivers, 1,500 extras, and others—waiting for “the word”.
I looked around. What’s my first shot?
A race start.
I called out my requirements.
“Put the cars over there.
The No. 1 Camera here. 600mm lens.
I had another thought.
I started again.
“Let’s have the cars further back.
No. 2 Camera there. 1000mm lens.
Put the 600mm lens…” Pause.
I had a better idea. “Here’s what we do…”
I could see the crew looking at each other and growing restless. My authority eroding. It was a very long day.
But, somehow I got through it.
The next day, I arrived on the set. New pieces of track. New terrain. A thousand pairs of eyes zapped in on me.
In a panic, I grabbed my cane.
Plunged it into the turf. “OK!
No. 1 Camera here. 200mm lens.
No. 2 Camera there, 600mm lens.
No. 3 Camera in the stands.
All cars lined up for a start there.
1,000 extras in the stands.
The rest in the woods.
And call me when you’re ready!” A beat.
Pandemonium broke loose, and everybody went to work.
I hopped into my jeep with my first cameraman, tooled around the curve in the track, stopped where no one could see, and said to myself, “OK. What the hell am I going to do today?”
I knew it would take them a little time to get that all sorted out. So I calmed down. Went down the track a bit. Set up some angles and figured out my day’s work… my shot list.
My first assistant came running up. They were ready. We drove back to the set. I looked everything over.
“Fine. Alright. We’re ready to go.”
“Camera rolling…speed!” “Action!”
The cars took off.
“Cut. Print. Next shot!”
People exchanged glances. “He knows what he wants. We’re in good hands.”
Of course, I never actually used that shot. It was a question of morale… I learned that when you have an army, you may have to ride a white horse.
As if his timeless work in Grand Prix wasn’t enough, perhaps you recognize some of the logos that Saul Bass developed over the course of his career.