Monday, March 30, 2009

Tell Me I'm Not the Only One...

The Art of the Studio Logo

When I go see a movie in theatres, I like to arrive early. There are several reasons for this. Save a good seat. Have plenty of time to get snacks. Not having to search around for a seat in the dark. See all the previews. But, there's one more reason that may or may not be unique to me. I like to see the logo(s) at the beginning of the films. You know: the brief animated shots telling you what studio made the film, be it Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Disney, whatever. There are dozens of studios in America that produce films that show in public theatres, hundreds more that make independent films. The possibilities for logos are endless.
I'm fascinated with logos, for reasons very much explainable. The colors are so vibrant, it's like actually watching a painter finish a masterpiece. No matter how small or how bad the film is, the logo is allowed to be huge and beautiful. The music is usually very big and theatrical, like the announcing of the arrival of an emperor. But it can also be very quiet and thoughtful. Some filmmakers choose to use their own music for the logo, or even unoriginal music or a song, or background noise of the opening scene. Some logos are absolutely silent.
The very existence of logos in films is a paradox. They are essentially unnecessary for viewing the movie; after all, they are never part of the story and often stand alone from the entire film. But, they are mandatory if the studio wants to make any money. Just like an author puts his or his name on the cover of a book, a director puts his or her name in the credits. The publishing company puts its logo on the spine of a book and on the cover page, where the reader can easily skip it. The producing company must puts its name on a movie to show the work it's done; but it's so much more than giving credit where credit is due. It has a place that cannot be equalled in any other medium: books, radio, even the Internet.
Think about it: logos are at the beginning of almost every single movie you've ever seen, regardless of what kind of movie it is, or even how old it is. (I can only think of one movie that doesn't open with a logo: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl simply opens with the title fading in. Of course, Disney made the film. The only reason I can think of for them not slapping a logo on it is because they thought it would be a flop. That, coupled with the fact that is was rated PG-13 and was not suitable for children maybe made Disney want to back away from attaching its face to the film. This, of course, backfired because the film was a big hit, and they actually used the sequel, Dead Man's Chest, as the first film to feature their new logo.) Depending on the studio, you'll see very different things. (see photos below for examples)
Most studios choose the big, theatrical logos. After all, they want their company associated with greatness and epic filmmaking. 20th Century Fox is a good example, as it starts with a drumroll that combines with trumpets and big fanfare, almost like a military march. The shot is a sweeping vista of the large words and spotlights on top of a large hill, supposedly overlooking Hollywood. Paramount is another good example, as the logo follows a line of stars until they form a half-halo around a tall mountain above the clouds. This shot is incredible and makes you feel like you're looking at the summit of Everest. Oddly, this logo is silent and requires the filmmakers to put in their own sound. The logo for Walt Disney Pictures for a long time was simply the outline of a castle and a half-circle drawn around it, followed by the words flashing on beneath, while wistful kid-friendly music plays. Then they changed it to a strange dark logo that was looked like it was supposed to be a candle looking upon the logo carved into the side of a cave. This logo was not consistent with the kid-friendly movies the studio produced. But then they changed it to the big, epic shot that is an awesome update of the original. The shot shows a peaceful, beautiful land guaraded by the familiar castle. Once the camera pans out in front, exposing the river leading through the front gates, a tiny Tinker Bell makes the half-circle and pixie dust creates the words. The same music is brought back and updated to be much bigger.
My personal favorite would have to be Universal: those big words floating around the planet Earth as big, epic music plays. So simple and yet so complex and beautiful. And of course it exemplifies the name of the studio perfectly.
Other logos are smaller and prefer tradition and sticking to the classic values to the big, epic ones. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is a good example. That logo has barely changed for almost a hundred years. That lion's roar is still as dramatic today as it was back in the 20's. Warner Bros. Pictures, while updating its logo to put the big letters in front of a beautiful cloudy sky, still keeps its same basic look. The music now features the tune from "You Must Remember This" from the legendary Warner Bros. movie Casablanca, then it becomes a big fanfare.
Other logos are less impressive and show a considerable lack of effort. New Line Cinema is particularly unusual. It features falling ladders connecting to a black box in front of a blue light. It makes no sense and features very simple music. I've also never understood the logo for Touchstone Pictures; a lightning bolt on a rock. Uh, did they pay someone to come up with that? The Weinstein brothers, after leaving Miramax (which has a fairly cool new logo) formed The Weinstein Company (or TWC, as it is sometimes seen to be called). Their logo is fairly disappointing, simply three triangles fading away, leaving the words at the bottom on a black screen, and cheesy dramatic music. The logo for Lucasfilm Ltd. is in the middle; it is simply the words starting out in green glittering to gold, against a black screen. It's very simple, perhaps too simple, but it leaves the filmmaker (basically George Lucas or Steven Spielberg) room to do whatever they want with it. For all the Star Wars films, Lucas actually merged it with the 20th Century Fox logo, allowing the fanfare music to play over his own logo.
Independent studios always have interesting logos because they can essentially do whatever they want. Fox Searchlight Pictures, being owned by 20th Century Fox, copies its parent company's logo with the same words on top of a hill and fanfare, but the words look unnatural. 'Fox' is too spread out and 'Searchlight' is too squished. The now-extinct Warner Independent Pictures had an interesting logo: starting out with the WB logo, fading out the B, and dotting one line on the W to make an I. The only logo I've never really liked is the one for the independent Picturehouse, also extinct. It's also the only logo that is more than one shot. It shows the words being lit up on top of a large building, supposedly a theatre. It tries to be very dramatic and like it's part of the film. A logo is not supposed to look like part of the film, it is simply supposed to introduce the company and show its values in less than ten seconds.
Of course, the longest logo I know of is that for Pixar Animation Studios, which features the adorable hopping lamp crushing the I and taking its place. This company makes movies for children and families, so this is oddly appropriate. It shows that the company has a sense of humor and strives to bring the best possible animation quality, even in its logo. You're even entertained a little bit before the movie even starts. Could you imagine anything else in front of a Pixar film?
Some random miscellaneous logos: DreamWorks is very odd, featuring a man fishing from the moon, which fades into the words among the clouds. I've never understood this, although it seems very much like a dream, so I guess it fits. Lionsgate's new logo features a very complex city/machine that zooms out to reveal a door, which opens to reveal the word floating in a heaven-like cloudy place. This is probably too dramatic, but a great improvement over its boring standard logo the company began with. The logo for Marvel Studios is slightly different for every film, flipping pages from the comic books that the particular movies are based on, and they somehow fade into the white letters over a red background, which echo the actual logo shown on the comic books. DC Comics films also shows black-and-white renders of comic-book pages, which then transforms into the logo, which also is very similar to the actual comic-book logo. They're both similar, but Marvel does it better.
Well, I realize this post was kind of pointless, but I hope at the very least I've caused you to think about the logos and not ignore them the next time you see a movie. I know they're not needed, and a good logo has nothing to do with the quality of the movie. In fact, in a comedy, drama, or low-budget indie film, the logo might be the best visual effect in the entire film. I just find them fascinating to look at: like little mini-movies in themselves that tell mini-stories.

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