Film designer to share life's work

Fitzgerald helped create main titles in Hollywood since 1951

Posted: Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wayne Fitzgerald is the reason people want to be in their seats at the movie theater when the lights dim and opening credits roll. He's also the reason people stay until discarded patron droppings are pushed out the aisles.

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Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

A main title designer in Hollywood since 1951, Fitzgerald and his colleagues are often overlooked and unappreciated by the masses that flock to cinemas. Unless one is a movie buff, artist or in the industry themselves, few realize why they're captivated by a particular movie's start, a montage in the middle, or the last flickers of the end.

In the Billy Crystal comedy "City Slickers," a cartoon cowboy ropes actors' names in the opening credits, dragging them off screen. In the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi flick "Total Recall," red letters streak upwards as an astronaut rises from the bowels of Mars. And in the John Wayne classic "Green Berets," surrealistic colors accentuate battle scene photos.

These small glints of movie-making magic is what has kept Fitzgerald working in Hollywood for five decades. The three-time Emmy Award-winner will discuss his works at 6:30 tonight in the Gold Town Nickelodeon Theater.

"I hope they get an appreciation of the process," Fitzgerald said. "It's so hard to make a good movie, everything has to fall into place. A director (Herbert Ross) said, 'The audience knows if it is in good hands in the first 15 minutes, and if it isn't in good hands it will never be comfortable.' The first two or three minutes are my title."

But it's not just the opening sequence that Fitzgerald worked on. He also designed end titles and on occasion a few sequences in the middle of a film. It's a form of art, but often an underappreciated one.

"Most people ... don't really understand because they never think about it, but the next time they go to a movie they find themselves paying more attention and looking to see what is being done."

As a child, Fitzgerald was conscious about the beginnings of movies, thinking of them long after leaving a theater. He eventually went on to study motion in art at the Los Angeles Art Center.

His first job was with Pacific Title and Art in 1951. He was 22 at the time. Four years later was his first title design, for the film "Glory."

The big studio picture of 1957 was "Raintree County," with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. After Pacific Title and Art was repeatedly turned down for opening ideas, they gave the task to Fitzgerald. He had loved the book and its Americana style, and decided to use a blue/grey background with standard illustrations, and red letters with white outlines.

His boss wanted more color, but Fitzgerald refused to change what he'd done. That night he received a phone call from the studio. Film executives liked his work, and doubled his salary. The rest is cinema history.

"In those days when people paid for color they wanted a lot," Fitzgerald said. "... I held my ground and the idea sold. It was a big picture for the studio."

Arguably one of his first notable creations, and what helped fuel his desire to move away from Pacific Title and Art, was his title design for "Bonnie and Clyde," starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. He used old photographs to establish the flavor of the 1930s outlaws, then added the clicking sound of an old Brownie camera.

Fitzgerald felt showing snapshots of outlaws' upbringings would give a sense of hard times in the 1930s.

"I didn't want any sound," Fitzgerald said. "Just that distinct metallic click of the old Brownie."

Studio head Jack Warner liked what he saw. Beatty, who also directed the film, and producer Arthur Penn also approved. What Beatty didn't like was that Fitzgerald had to get approval from the studio.

In those days title designers didn't answer to the director, producer or editor of the movie - they answered to the studio head, Fitzgerald said, to maintain control of the film. Beatty eventually "suggested, encouraged (and) convinced" Fitzgerald to go into business for himself.

"... It actually changed the way i did business," Fitzgerald said. "I was working for a company (and) I had designed an idea that was unusual for that time. Beatty was right, so I quit and went out on my own."

Fitzgerald said the split wasn't a pleasant one.

"You don't want to get caught in a battle between Warren Beatty and Jack Warner," he said.

He then established Wayne Fitzgerald Film Design in 1968, and since has been credited with over 450 title designs, including most of Jack Warner's films. His creations have included, among others, classics such as "The Electric Horseman" (1979). Its long opening with drunken cowboy Robert Redford on a horse at half-time of a high school football game, interposed with a montage of the former rodeo champs life in paper clippings, sets the movie's tone. Fitzgerald worked with Redford for just one day to create the opening sequence.

But not all of his title designs have been well received.

To this day Fitzgerald says he is still snubbed by Jane Fonda, who hated his montage of morning workers' alarm clocks, subways, missed taxis and coffee spills during the opening of "Nine to Five."

"I never did another Jane Fonda movie," he laughed. "To this day I still think she hates it."

And not every movie he's worked on was good.

"Some of the best credit work you do goes on movies that no one likes," he said. "Ideally, you would like your best work to be seen on a film that does really well. My path is littered with what I consider really good work, but not that I would put on my resume."

"The Comic," starring Dick Van Dyke, was one of these. It was a downer movie but fans of Van Dyke's successful television career were expecting a comedy. Fitzgerald featured a windup doll of the character that would take a few steps and fall over, repeating again and again, until finally it remains motionless and the movie begins at a funeral.

He's had successes too. Fitzgerald's three Emmy's were for:

• Outstanding Graphic and Title Design, "The Bronx Zoo" (1987).

• Two Daytime Emmy Awards for soap operas "The Bold and the Beautiful" (1987) and "The Guiding Light" (1992).

He also designed the logo of the Motion Pictures Editors Guild and is a voting member of the Academy Awards.

Fitzgerald's final work was on Francis Ford-Coppola's 1997 film "Rainmaker."

Ford-Coppola had shot footage a shark swimming in a tank. Fitzgerald superimposed the title over the fish as it swam by, and as it came back around the shark swallowed the title whole.

"I did a little electronic trick we could not have done on film," he recalled. "I would kill to have had the technology that they have today. They have all this new stuff now, you can really do anything you can imagine. It says, 'See me, see what I can do!'

"Sometimes there may be a lot of razzle dazzle and flash that may be hurtful (to the film), but it sure is fancy."

• Contact Klas Stolpe at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.



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