Aficionados of film and design of the last 50 years are bound to know the name Pablo Ferro (a 2009 AIGA Medalist). From 1964’s Dr. Strangelove to 2014’s Sins of Our Youth, Pablo contributed to and created more than 100 title sequences. Known for his iconic hand lettering, lightning-fast cuts, and multi-screen effects, Ferro brought bold new rhythms and a feverish energy to screen-based media. Hailed as one of title design’s greatest talents, his work enthralled and inspired generations of designers and filmmakers. He was hailed by Stanley Kubrick as the father of the ’60s look and the MTV aesthetic, and Jonathan Demme called him “the best designer of film titles in the country today.” He died earlier this month from complications with pneumonia, and left behind a legacy of exciting and inspirational work.
Ferro’s story began on his grandfather’s farm in Cuba, and then in New York, where he immigrated in 1947 at the age of 12. As a young man he attended Manhattan’s High School of Industrial Art and worked as an usher in a theatre, learning about European film, as well as a penciller of comics for Marvel mogul Stan Lee, then head of Atlas Comics. In Pablo, Richard Goldgewicht’s 2012 documentary, Lee noted Pablo’s multifarious skillset, saying, “The fact that Pablo was able to go from comic book art to directing commercials—that was a tribute to Pablo’s talent.”
His most well known commercials are the original animated version of NBC’s peacock logo and a 13-second spot for textiles company Burlington Mills. The latter is a high contrast blitz of criss-crossing lines paired with pounding drums and a commanding voice. “It was just something that I was experimenting with,” Ferro said. “It was two or three pieces put together: where it is slow, I make the drums faster, and it worked out great. It gave you an interesting feeling. That’s what people like.” And people did like it. The spot was so effective that it ran for two decades.
It also inspired at least two future designers. “Pablo was an influence on my work before I knew who he was, most likely because of that Burlington spot,” says Bonnie Siegler, founder of Eight and a Half. “It made me happy every time I saw it. I just wanted to watch it over and over again.” Fast forward to 1993, when Siegler and Emily Oberman (now a partner at Pentagram) joined forces as Number Seventeen, a studio where until 2012 they worked on projects for 30 Rock, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and Saturday Night Live as well as the opening titles to Will and Grace. Oberman says she thinks about Ferro’s body of work on practically every project she does today. And “it all started with that Burlington Mills commercial. Whenever that came on the TV I was mesmerized. It was an abstraction of weaving that felt human and like a corporation at the same time. It was real and authoritative.”
Fellow partner Michael Bierut, also cites Ferro as one of his heroes. “Seeing his trailer for Dr. Strangelove as a kid made me want to be a graphic designer before I even knew such people existed.” Reflecting on Ferro’s broad influence, design author Steven Heller noted that “his work, especially on Dr. Strangelove, showed that graphic film design did not have to be slick to be powerful or effective.”
In 1964, when Ferro moved into title design with Dr. Strangelove, noted film title designer Saul Bass had already spent a decade establishing a visual language for the form. Ferro’s unconventional, imperfect hand-lettered opening for Dr. Strangelove dashed all of that, changing title design forever. The sequence even features two spelling errors; in one section, a line reads “Base on the novel Red Alert” and in another we see the word “Ficticious,” but in context they add to the film’s satirical spirit. As Oberman and Siegler point out in their 2009 article for the New York Times, Ferro’s work for Dr. Strangelove was “the title sequence that inspired a thousand hand-drawn title sequences.”
It even seemed to inspire Bass’ work. His titles in the 1950s and ’60s generally favored clean, geometric typefaces on top of dark backgrounds, and an animated sequence here and there. In 1966, however, one sequence stands out as a clear departure. In Bass’ opening to Not With My Wife, You Don’t!, which was released two years after Dr. Strangelove, (a zany comedy set during a war, also starring George C. Scott), the animated sequence features entirely handwritten credits.
Star Wars title designer Dan Perri cites Ferro’s work on Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair as particularly influential. “They were both so imaginative and clever,” he says. As contemporaries, the two designers sparked a friendly competition, and Perri noticed that Ferro often received a coveted main title credit. “For a director to give him such a prominent credit, there has to be a tip of the hat to Pablo.”
Louise Sandhaus, author and design educator, included examples of Ferro’s work in her authoritative book Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California and Graphic Design 1936-1986, which highlights the titles for Jonathan Demme’s 1977 film Citizens Band. What makes him significant, she explains, is his artful ability to use sound, image, animation, and typography “to tell a very short but precise story to orient an audience in the film narrative to come.”
In the 1990s, Ferro’s popularity spiked again when new creators who had admired his work in their youth began their own projects; fans include actors Jeff Bridges and Tom Hanks (who’s called Ferro a “genius”), as well as directors Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) and Edgar Wright (Baby Driver, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World).
It was the title logo for Beetlejuice (1988), with its “elongated serif type encased by the decaying rubbing of a headstone framed by winged skulls of death,” that ignited a spark that’s fueled the work of lettering artist and author Jon Contino for decades. Recalling his experience seeing The Addams Family, which Ferro designed for director Barry Sonnenfeld, he says there has been no single shape that has had greater influence on his career than “that skinny, imperfect, hand-drawn uppercase R at the beginning of Raul Julia’s name.” He likens the effect to “walking into a hardcore show for the first time. The raw energy and life emanating from the letterforms were intoxicating.”
After The Addams Family, Sonnenfeld hired Ferro for the sequel, Addams Family Values, as well as all three Men in Black films. Ferro was asked to create titles in a similar vein several times during his career, lending his letters to Stop Making Sense (1984), American Heart (1992), Bones (2001), and The Ministers (2009).
Ferro is known as much for his work as for his gentle, open spirit, and his personal style, particularly a bright red scarf worn indoors and out. “He always wore it,” says Bonnie Siegler. “It was like he branded himself with his red scarf.” Sonnenfeld remembers Pablo as “a sweet, kind, quiet, talented, gentle man” who “always wore a scarf.” Steven Heller describes him as generous, funny and with a warm heart. “He was a master in his field, second only to Saul Bass, but he did not have a super ego,” he says. “He just loved what he was doing.”
Karin Fong, Emmy Award-winning creative director at Imaginary Forces (and fellow AIGA Medalist), recalls a conversation with Ferro about editing and music. “Personally, I love having a great track to cut to,” she says. But Pablo surprised her, saying he doesn’t like to make the music a crutch. “He said you should be able to look at your animation and have rhythm, changes, and dynamic qualities without having to depend on the music. You want the images to have a rhythm of their own.” Now when she’s working, Fong sometimes asks herself, Okay, do the visuals have a rhythm of their own? “It was a really generous thing for him to do,” she says.
There is no Oscar for title sequence design, but that doesn’t mean Hollywood hasn’t tried to give him one. In 1998, Jonathan Demme wrote a letter to the Academy urging the Scientific and Technological Award Committee to nominate Ferro and his “beautiful screen images” for the Gordon E. Sawyer Award. Still, Ferro has been recognized with countless awards, including the AIGA Medal in 2009 for “changing our visual expectations and demonstrating the power of design to enhance storytelling.”
He was also unbelievably prolific. Between 1997 and 1998 alone, Ferro designed titles for 14 films, including Good Will Hunting, Men in Black, As Good As It Gets, and the remakes of Doctor Dolittle and Psycho (for which he collaborated with Elaine Bass to update Saul Bass’ original work).
Ferro’s character and vision live on through his work and the generations of young creatives who feel a spark when they experience it. His unconventional lettering, quick cuts, multiple screens, and vivacious energy continue to offer viewers a sense of freedom and a license to experiment. His work teaches us that despite what producers, guilds, or even the design world may insist, creativity does not have to be boxed in by typefaces, grids, style, size, color —or even spelling—to be successful. Now more than ever, it’s in our best interest to celebrate and foster work that’s created with curiosity, an open mind, a sense of camaraderie, and an appreciation for the human spirit, flaws and all.