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]