Michael Bierut | Essays

Pablo Ferro Offers You His Protection

A few weeks ago, my wife came back from the movies telling me I had to go see a new independent film, Napoleon Dynamite, which she said was very funny. "And make sure you're on time," she added. You don't want to miss the titles." Now, Dorothy is not a designer, and in fact makes it a point to never say things like this. So I knew the titles must be special.

And they were. The whole movie is great, but the audience began laughing during the opening title sequence, which is a masterpiece of desperately low-tech typography. I hung around through the end credits, watching the names roll - director and writer, cast and crew, not a single one of which I had ever heard before - and waiting to see if they credited the title designer. I figured that this would be some new talent to watch.

Imagine my surprise when the name finally rolled on: Pablo Ferro, the most legendary title designer working in the movies today. [See Editor's Note below.]

Napoleon Dynamite is one of those films that tries so earnestly hard to be "quirky" that it would be off-putting if it wasn't actually hilarious. A deadpan combination of Rushmore, Election, Welcome to the Dollhouse, and Flashdance, the film is a "revenge of the nerds" story staged in a bleak Idaho setting where everyone seems to be a nerd, which makes the question of revenge rather existential. It benefits from some great performances from Jon Heder, Jon Gries and Aaron Ruell, direction by Jared Hess and a script by Hess and his wife Jerusha containing dozens of indelible, quotable lines of dialog including my favorite, delivered by supporters of a tiny, pathologically shy Mexican-American student who is making a quixotic run at class president: "Pedro offers you his protection."

What's astonishing is that this cast and crew of unknowns got Pablo Ferro.

Ferro, a past winner of the Chrysler Design Award, is perhaps best known for his titles for Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964). There he introduced the trademark hand lettering that he has been periodically revived for films including Stop Making Sense and Men in Black. Although he can take on the ambitious, glossy Hollywood movie - he masterminded the dazzling multiple split screens in the original version of The Thomas Crown Affair - he has always seemed most at home in the darker, sardonic world of independent cinema, as witness his gritty scrapbook-style title design for To Die For in 1995.

The title sequence for Napoleon Dynamite uses as its background a series of flatly-lit, hideous surfaces that turn out to be tablecloth patterns. Nearly all of the credits are written with condiments like mustard and mayonnaise on foods like hamburgers and corn dogs. To a lounge-jazz score, none-too-graceful hands keep setting new dishes on the table. The budget appears to be non-existent: it all looks like it was shot in my mother's basement by my eleven-year-old nephew. As a result, the title sequence nails the movie's Vice-magazine-meets-4H-Club sensibility with deadeye accuracy. In my audience, it actually inspired little outbreaks of applause. As Napoleon himself might say, it is "flippin' sweet."

In an age where computer-generated this and special effects that are within the reach of anyone who can afford a copy of Final Cut Pro, it takes real restraint, not to mention confidence, to stick with a simple idea, simply executed. What a remarkable thing that it takes an old master to remind us how its done.

[Editor's note: Months after this article was posted, it emerged that while Pablo Ferro served as a visual consultant to the film and contributed artwork to certain live action sequences, the actual opening titles were created by Aaron Ruell. Ruell, who has worked with director Jared Hess since film school, explains that "We were lucky enough to get Pablo Ferro to draw up the title that appears on Napoleon's desk about three minutes into the movie. We took it to Sundance with only that one title in the beginning of the film. Then, after Searchlight bought the film, they suggested adding an opening title sequence." With only a few days and no budget, Ruell designed and shot the entire opening sequence, and is rightly proud of the way it came out. If you have seen the film, note that Ruell is the actor that plays Kip, which makes his achievement all the more impressive.

Based on the confusing wording of credits at the close of the film, we misattributed Ruell's work to Ferro. We contacted Ferro's studio to in an attempt to get some stills from the sequence to shoot but were not successful. It turned out that Ferro has never seen the final film, and perhaps never knew exactly what we were talking about.

We regret the error and extend our apologies to Aaron Ruell and Pablo Ferro. MB]

Posted in: Media

Comments [29]

Men in Black II features also features a title sequence in the typographic style of Dr. Strangelove.The titles run over a shot taken by a cgi camera zooming past a cgi solar system (as opposed to a shot of a refueling jet penetrating a wet n' ready b-52). When I first saw the movie (before I knew the titles were by Ferro), I thought the job was a total hack. "Yeah, they got the type right, but it's implemented without the necessary context." I thought the MIB2 titles were done by some kid who saw Dr. Strangelove and was copying the aestethic because he thought it was the cool thing to do. Little did I know.
Ahrum Hong

Hear, hear! Why aren't there more people shouting about this stuff!. Pablo Ferro - what a body of work, I'm no film geek but it is incredible how much of his work I already knew and had never realised (or bothered to read the credits!) - Dr. Strangelove, Stop Making Sense, Thomas Crown Affair, To Die For, Bullitt (I even worked for a studio of the same name, many years ago, and remember studying the film's titles to source the typeface - Doric Bold, I think it was) It's a real testament to his talent that he was so admired by Kubrick and the great Hal Ashby and that after so many years he still continues to inspire.
'Napoleon Dynamite', great title, on that alone it it would merit checking out. I look forward to seeing it one day, if indeed it'll ever reach Italy, but I'll look out for it (in some form(at) or another). Top stuff. Thanks
Derek Stewart

And let's not forget his titles for Beetlejuice! I saw some sketches of Ferro's at a design show once, and they were wonderfully exciting...

(Interesting that IMDb doesn't list his involvement in Napoleon Dynamite at all...)
Robot Johnny

I think the first opening credits sequence that rattled my bones was that of 1968's Barbarella. No, it wasn't Jane Fonda writing in a zero-gravity strip-tease that got me going, it was the hand rendered lettering that floated, slithered, and morphed its way across my television.

The sets and costumes for the movie were designed by Paco Rabanne, but it was Maurice Binder who designed the opening credits. While I can't say with any certainty what "technology" he may have used to create his titles, it obviously didn't involve Freehand, Premiere, or anything of the like. It was probably more along the lines of frame-by-frame cell animation.

Turns out Mr. Binder is responsible for what I believe is probably one of the most memorable "popular film" title sequences... creating the titles for the first James Bond movie "Dr. No". I am still amazed by the vision he pursued without the help of the tools we now have to make it easy.
Andrew Twigg

i agree

I have yet to see Napoleon Dynamite, but now I have a good reason to drag my wife to see it.

If there are modern-day Masters, Pablo Ferro is one of them. He is to movie titles what Matthew Carter is to typography. It's a joy knowing that we are experiencing their work as they create it.

In response to Ahrum's post, I would like to know how and why your opinion of the film titles changed. How does one go from thinking that a title job is a total hack with correct typography but "implemented without the necessary context" to thinking it is good. Does a name make it good? Did you change your opinion after you found out that Pablo Ferro designed the titles and Michael Bierut thought they were good? I have always had a problem with this sort of thing. Why do people change their minds about what they like and don't like, or what is or is not good design when they find out who did the work? If it is bad, or you do not think it is good, who cares who did it?

I have not seen Napoleon Dynamite yet (I will probably wait till video, poor college student) but have seen his other titles and like them very much. I have a hard time believing that my opinion would change regardless of who did the work though.

Every work is created in context, the originator is part of that. What initially looks like it should be written off may in fact be worth the time with further examination. Perhaps knowing who created something gives an audience reason to look closer, to take a second look. First impressions are not everything.

Crediting a prominent designer with a given work doesn't change the design... but it can change how we understand it, and there's nothing wrong with that. This is why what seems like a hack job can be more than just that. The question is: are we paying enough attention the first time around?

Nonetheless, Jonathan, your point is fair enough. A good work should stand on its own, not because of who did it. Now I just have one more reason to go see 'Napoleon' so I can speak firsthand on this matter.
Andrew Twigg

I have to disagree with "First impressions are not everything" Andrew. First impressions are everything when it comes to design. The first impression should be the motivating factor in taking a closer look at a design, not who made it.

The exchange between Jonathon and Andrew has been interesting, although I fear that Ahrum's original point was lost in the shuffle. He was reacting, I believe, to the fact that the Men in Black titles looked just like the Dr. Strangelove titles, and had assumed that the designer of the former was ripping off the designer of the latter. His opinion changed when he learned that Pablo Ferro had done both, albeit in the same style.

However, this raises another issue worth discussing: is it okay for a designer to recycle a successful style?
Michael Bierut

Jonathon, I'll agreee to disagree and leave it at that.

Michael, on your point: Paula Scher might have something interesting to say about this:

Paula was confronted as to the originality of a poster she created for the Public Theatre. From Stop Being Sheep:

"'Though I have changed the type on the Public Theater year by year since 1998 I have tried to maintain some kind of stylistic consistency other than the logo What I have tended to do is experiment with different typefaces in Public Theater scale and style. Sometimes it works better than others. The bad imitation of myself comment gives me pause. I liked this poster when I did it, but don't think it was my best. I am only as good as my last job. And I am always trying to get better.

Thanks for noticing.'
Paula Scher

Paula Scher Redux
August 19, 2003"

My answer would be that, yes, of course it's ok for a designer to recycle a successful style, but only if that is (the/an) appropriate solution. I don't, however, think this is the most common reason we see style repeated and reappropriated. This may have more to do with any number of things: a designer's preference for a certain aesthetic, a desire to do the what seems to be the latest trend (hello, helvetica's um-teenth rebirth?), a lack of proper information from the client, a designer being served up with the same information from brand strategists (e.g., can every brand have a "hero" archetype?), etc.

For someone like Mr. Ferro to reuse a style, any number of forces could be at work. Who knows, perhaps the studio execs requested something a la Dr. Strangelove. But ultimately, if a rehash is the "right" thing to do, it's the "right" thing to do.

As a side note, IMDB erroneously credits Joshua D. Cohen, THDX Studios with the opening credits of 'Napoleon'.
Andrew Twigg

Let me clarify: i'm not suggesting Mr. Ferro bowed to a studio exec. I'm just suggesting anything is possible... anyone have the ability to ask Ferro himself?
Andrew Twigg

Allow me to Chime in.

Haven't seen the film Napoleon Dynamite.
Will try to see it.

I'm a BIG FAN of Pablo Ferro and amazed at the
volume of work he's created throughout the years. Within Film and Television Graphics. As well,
Director of one of Michael Jackson's Videos.

Pablo Ferro has inspired a Generation of Title Designers. To include Kyle Cooper, Richard Greenberg, Randy Balsmeyer and Title House others to numerous to mention.

Personally, I always felt Pablo Ferro was under-utilized by the Film Industry. Thus owning his own company sought work from other sources.

I'm constantly reminded. Whenever I see the Thomas Crown Affair opening sequences. And the montages interspersed strategically throughout the Film. That technique was paying HOMAGE to SAUL BASS. If you've ever seen the opening Title Sequences for Grand Prix. You know what I mean.

Mr. Bierut:

You inquired, "is it okay for a designer to recycle a successful style"?

In my humble opinion yes. Designers and artist
use motifs and often times motifs are associated with an authors style.

In 1994 when I was walking my mother to the bus stop and saw the Clockers Billboard for the first time. My first impression. I've got to see this, SAUL BASS did the Posters and regurgitated the most ubiquitious and omnipotent image in film history.
(Anatomy of a Murder) Little did I know it was a rip-off. Created by Jeff Balsmeyer artist, Designer and Randy Balsmeyer's brother.

Essentially the Bass rip-off sold the movie and got everybody talking about it.

Ingenious strategy, all involved got in trouble for using the Legendary Imagery.

Saul Bass superimposed segments of the Title Sequence 'Seconds' with 'Cape Fear'. That was to add ambiguity.

SAUL BASS also created the opening Title Sequences for the Television Series BONANZA. The branding iron touching to map
of Nevado and engulf's into flames. And a dissolve into the Cartwrights riding horses.

SAUL BASS used the same motif a branding iron touching a map or someother surface in the opening sequences of That's Entertainment
Part II.

There are other instances were this was done by other Artist and Designers. All creative people consciously or indirectly regurgitate motifs.

When used sparingly to add ambiguity or metamorphasis. I don't see a problem with it.

Mr. Bierut, this Editorial is appropo. In the mail yesterday. I received an eBay purchase from the United Kindom.
An out of print issue of Film Comment which features SAUL BASS, Maurice Binder, Wayne Fitzgerald, and Dan Perri.

You know, I licking my chops.


Is it okay for a designer to recycle a successful style?

If anything is successful, be it a film, a car, a pop song, a piece of furniture, a work of art, a book, it is often recreated or recycled in order to create further success and 'style' is just another item in that process. We seem to crave for it and it works - Bond/Star Wars films, the Mini, any song by Oasis, Ikea, Warhol, most design books, etc. It's the same in the graphic design and illustration fields, out there there's a saturation of recycled styles (and ideas) - font, colours, the odd SAUL BASS, photographic, tons of Paul Rand, choice of papers, touches of Peter Saville, etc.. - a peek at any celebrated design annual will show. Indeed, we are all at IT in some way or another 'conciously or indirectly' recycling and 'regurgitating' (loved that, DM). When people see a style that's considered contemporary and is successful, they want it and they buy it - and if you are good at you can turn it into a career. I don't want to undermine their obvious talents but just look at Brody's or Carson's work in their heydays - What was it that made them so successful then, their unique styles or their innovative design solutions? Something was obviously okay there.
Like some here I agree that if used in moderation it isn't a problem, an easy way out perhaps, if it works then fine, it's only when it appears to be the only means to an end that it becomes tedious.
As for recycling other designers successful styles - that we only do for FUN, right? Ms. Scher?

By the way, thanks Mr. DesignMaven(?) - enjoyed the SAUL BASS trivia, riveting read, ...so he DID Bonanza?...will be revisiting Grand Prix later - I'd forgotten all about that.
Derek Stewart


SAUL BASS and Director Robert Altman were very Good Friends. Robert Altman Directed and/or Produced a enormous amount of the early Television Series. To include, COMBAT, ROUTE 66, PETER GUNN, LAWMAN, SUGARFOOT, MAVERICK, SURFSIDE 6, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, US MARSHAL, HAWAIIAN EYE. (many others)

SAUL BASS worked a lot on early Television Series. His work was uncredited.

I have Documentation of the opening Title Sequence for BONANZA. Cannot document the work for the aformentioned Television Programs.

I suspect he worked on Route 66 and Combat.
Seems appropriate to create a Bass Title to a Nelson Riddle Theme Song. A la Route 66.

The last Television Title Sequence SAUL BASS created was for Under Suspicion,(1994) A Cop show.
Created by Jacqueline Zambrano. Starring Philip Casnoff, and Karen Sillas.

The Title Sequence was reminiscent of Bunny Lake Is Missing. The opening credits were revealed by ripping paper to expose the names of the actors and actresses.

At the time, Bunny Lake was considered a Lost Film from Otto Preminger's Archives.

If the television audience never seen Bunny Lake Is Missing. And saw Under Suspicion for the first time. It was quite revolutionary.

FYI, I sent word to the Bass Family to try include documentation of Mr. Bass Television Graphic Career. The book is so Huge. Very doubtful if the television title work will be included in the Bass Biography.

The Bass Biography will be released between January and June 2005. I'm told it should be on store shelves January 2005. It is supposed to be Massive.

I have to give Paula Scher Props and much Respect. At least she ask permission to use Herbert Matter's Imagery. Very well Executed.

Unlike Spike Lee who Bastardised the most Famous Imagery in Film History. And thought nobody would notice !!!!!!


The Internet Movie Database is not INFALLIBLE.

If you posses knowledge of Film History for Cast and Crew. Then you are aware of its inaccuracies.

IMDB is dependant on members of the film industry to input factual information. Often times mistakes are made.


I'd wanted to ask you if there was a decent book on the subject. On your mentioning Grand Prix, I watched it, for the first time in years, last night - some truly great sequences - the acting's a little stiff, I know, but what a document - they sure don't make them like that anymore.
You've wet my appetite, so will be making big effort to go and take in HIS current show.

P.S. I like Paula too, really.
Derek Stewart

A baroque homage to Pablo Ferro that doesn't employ white, condensed, rustic lettering:

Geoff Mcfetridge's title sequence for the movie Virgin Suicides reads like Ferro's high school notebook on a sugar-buzz.

The words fade-in through the clouds and climax with a wink from Kirsten Dunst. Genious.
Joe Marianek


Forgot to mention Robert Altman was Director and Producer of BONANZA. When Bass created the Opening Titles.

To my knowledge, no books on Film Title Design per se. There's not a curriculum that teach Film Title Design. To my knowledge. Title Design is one of those Grand Father Jobs. That's passed down from generation to generation.

Either you apprentice with a Master or inherit the job. Sought of like Corporate Identity. There's no curriculum leading to a Degree in Corporate Identity.

Yet, it is the Pinnacle of Visual Communication.

Great Picture of SAUL BASS and Sir Alfred Hitcock.

I had pre-knowledge of the exhibit at the Design Museum London which opened July 17, 2004. Unable to travel to the United Kindom at this time.

Received a personal invitation from School of Visual Arts and Saul Bass in 1996 for the retrospective of Mr. Bass' work at SVA.

Funny, how the Academy of Television Art and Sciences award Title Designers (Emmy).
And the Motion Picture of Arts and Sciences does not. (Oscar)

Doesn't make sense to me. Today, Pablo Ferro,
Pacific Title, Howard A. Anderson, Kyle Cooper, Wayne Fitzgerald, Sandy Dvore, Dan Perri, Phil Norman, Nina Saxon, Daniel Kleinman, Randy Balsmeyer. (others) Are deparately trying to coax the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science to award Title Designer(s) the Oscar.

So far the answer from the Academy has been NO.

The Montage and Split Image was first created by Bass. Pablo Ferro's use of the Montage and Split Image SHOCKED and AWED me as well.

If you think the London Exhibit is going to be nice.

Wait till the book hit the shelves.


Thanks again, I feel I'm in debt, my round next time.
Phew! .....and ALL this because Dorothy went to the movies.......

Film title design, especially at its best, certainly captures the imagination of the design community. I've heard, though, that a lot of title designers find the genre very challenging -- insufficient compensation, debilitating legal and contractural restrictions, and general lack of respect. I suspect a lot of the titles we revere most were done as labors of love.

Still, I agree with DM that it's a sin that there's no Oscar for titles. I did a piece for the weekly Public Radio International show Studio 360 that touched on the subject several years ago that you can listen to here. (Go to the piece titled "Movie Typefaces.")
Michael Bierut


I think you misread me. I still think the MIB2 titles were mediocre. The type in both movies is well drawn and engaging to look at. But the childish/cartooniness of the hand drawn letters spelling out "DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB" hits the same note of irony as the accompanying shot of the refueling jet penetrating the bomber. Seeing "MEN IN BLACK II" in the exact same typographic style, this time paired with a camera zooming through a cgi solar system... well, it wasn't quite the same for me, you see? I do not agree with Michael Beirut.
Ahrum Hong

Something tells me there are just a lot of younger directors who loved the iconic Dr. Strangelove titles and aspire to have something just as good -- or even something exactly the same -- for their films. When Jonathan Demme used them for Stop Making Sense I was surprised and pleased. There was a kind of logic to it: David Byrne as Strangelove, perhaps? It seemed like a knowing, hip reference. It made less sense to me for the MIB titles, although there was an overall early sixties vibe to a lot of the art direction throughout.

When Ferro spoke at the AIGA Las Vegas conference in 1999, I seem to remember he did title slides for all the speakers, again in the Dr. S. lettering mode. I imagine that he treats that particular approach more like an illustrator's style than a bespoke design solution. He has also said that he started doing it because it was cheap -- no typesetting required. As I've said above, I've been surprised to learn how poorly paid title designers are as a rule.

"Handwriting" is used sometimes metaphorically to describe a designer's characteristic approach. But here have been designers who have literally used their handwriting as a visual device, and without hesitating to use it on repeated occasions: Paul Rand, Ivan Chermayeff, Paula Scher and Stefan Sagmeister are a few that come to mind.

By the way, if you ever get a chance to see the startling theatrical trailer Ferro did for Dr. S., don't miss it. It is a completely different style (no hand lettering), but very funny, appropriate, and in my opinion even better than the movie's main titles.
Michael Bierut

Perhaps the term 'recycled' in how it has been used in this thread strikes a bit too close to 'replicated' - though occasionally for good reason in some cases. If the reaction to MIB/MIB2 titles was that they were 'copying the aesthetic because [they] thought it was the cool thing to do' then it doesn't sound like a very well-used solution to those movies titles (which I haven't seen). However, the logic that Mr. Bierut uses above to appreciate the titles for Stop Making Sense, seems to... make a lot of sense.

Plus something as broad as handwriting can be changed in so many ways that it may, somehow, be applied appropriately to a great variety of design applications (as done by the noted: Rand, Chermayeff, Scher, Sagmeister, etc.).

The Appropriation of past design elements and styles hopefully is used towards some meaningful (and occasionally innovative) ends. This applies to work influenced by one's own past designs or by other's. The well-made connection of Ferro's work to the titles for Virgin Suicides exemplifies a designer's ability to mold direct influence into something new and successful.

Even the influence of Mr. Kubrick on Mr. Ferro may have been overlooked in this thread. I believe I remember hearing in one of the Dr. Strangelove DVD special features (although it's now a good hundred netflix deliveries ago by now) that the titles originally presented by Pablo Ferro to Stanley Kubrick were intended as layout and rough representation of an eventually more polished set of titles. This DVD feature claims that it was actually Mr. Kubrick who liked the lettering so much as they were drafted that that he made the decision to keep them in the hand-written style.

Considering how much use Ferro got/gets out of this style, and certainly with no discredit to his skills and ingenuity, it's interesting to hear a little more about the source of this style that he is credited for. Plus, Kubrick no doubt had his own influence in positively receiving those titles, even if they aren't easily pinpointed.
Adam Berninger

In response to this article, I wrote to Michael in order to express to him and other fans of Pablo, what an honor it is to have fans, (both critical or otherwise) who themselves with great intimate knowlege and understanding of a craft pay tribute and in turn inspire the artist himself. As his son, I can say the following about the man himself: That to witness his methods is to confirm the paradox by concluding that he had the vision to begin with. In the simplist of terms, he is a visionary, with great understanding of base primordial motivation. He is extremely truthful about the integrity of the product (which has cost him half of his career). We all know that the age of the carpet bagger is back with false advertising as its foundation. He can sell what you have using only what you have. I see no one else today who can do that. I forget all this because I'm so close to it and yet I see all of you who know and appreciate his work so well that I must say with humility that he is in fact, the great artist who you all claim him to be .

Thank you sincerely,

Allen Ferro

Allen, thank you very much for your comment on this.

This is what i was waiting for.
Andrew Twigg

Does anyone know where i can get screenshots of the Napolean Dynamite movie titles? Ferro's website doesn't have them. They are such a brilliant example of good concept design! I am an instructor teaching a class on Film Title design and would love access to these images.
Lara McCormick


To correct the confusion here;

I play 'Kip' in the film and I actually designed and created the opening title sequence for Napoleon Dynamite. Pablo Ferro only wrote out the 'Napoleon Dynamite" that appears on the desk in the film.

I'm credited with my partner as 'Friend or Foe' in the closing credits.

Hope this kills the confusion. But thanks so much for thinking that my work was Ferro's. Quite a compliment.
Aaron Ruell

Snatch! Can we go back and have the conversation again knowing what we know now, then?


Thanks for the clarification. LOVE the titles! 'Friend or Foe' rocks.

Also, you were great in the movie :)
Lara McCormick

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