Silent movie titles

if you’re looking for our logo gallery, click here…but the stuff below is really rather interesting

Restoring and re-creating silent-era titles

See also: glass lantern slides

Sometimes—maybe once in a lifetime—we get the chance to do some­thing enjoy­able and fun that we thought we’d nev­er be able to do again, sim­ply because tech­nol­o­gy had tak­en its place. It’s a gold­en oppor­tu­ni­ty to recap­ture a romance from the past. In this case, for me, it’s not gold­en; it’s black and white. And the romance is my love of let­ter­ing and typog­ra­phy: real hand let­ter­ing with pen and brush, and fine typog­ra­phy when wood and met­al type were set by hand. That, com­bined with repli­cat­ing the lay­outs and artis­tic styles of yes­ter­year, is what I nev­er thought I’d do again…but as syn­chronic­i­ty between two old friends would have it, I am once again thriv­ing at my pas­sion.

We’re talking—er, we’re silent—about the era of film­mak­ing from the ear­ly 1900s, when cam­eras and pro­jec­tors were cranked by hand, and when actors had no speak­ing lines. All the dia­logue was print­ed or hand-let­tered on title cards, called inter-titles, pho­tographed and spliced into the film. The film titles and cred­its were most often elab­o­rate­ly hand-let­tered with embell­ish­ments, but some­times sim­ply type­set, also pho­tographed as still images.

Back to my black-and-white oppor­tu­ni­ty:

2x3-BC-back-proofJOSEPH A. RINAUDO, whose name appears in the title card above (which is actu­al­ly his busi­ness card, much small­er of course), has been my friend for near­ly fifty years, since junior high (mid­dle school). Back then he was col­lect­ing 16mm silent films and would put on shows for his friends. Today he research­es, col­lects, restores and exhibits silent films (35mm these days) on a hand-crank pro­jec­tor, usu­al­ly with live accom­pa­ni­ment of the­ater organ or piano, as itin­er­ary shows to audi­ences far and wide, includ­ing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (in oth­er words, the Oscar peo­ple). Joe is also con­sul­tant and provider of restored films to the Library of Congress.

Silent Cinema Society

Visit SilentCinemaSociety​.org

Joe asked me a few years ago if I’d be inter­est­ed in restor­ing the title cards for his films and cre­ate new ones when the orig­i­nals are lost to time. Who knew two best friends would be so valu­able to each oth­er near­ly fifty years after meet­ing in sev­enth grade—my restor­ing the miss­ing parts to his films and he restor­ing my pas­sion for let­ter­ing and typog­ra­phy? I have enjoyed ren­der­ing titles for Joe for sev­er­al years now, and I even get to see them pro­ject­ed on the sil­ver screen in silent come­dies and dra­mas accom­pa­nied by the Mighty Wurlitzer. (Twice a year Joe brings his itin­er­ant show to the Nethercutt Museum in Sylmar, California. A cal­en­der of events and details about the shows are on their web­site.)

Much of my work for these titles is clean­ing up scanned images of the orig­i­nal neg­a­tives. Sometimes I have to “chop up” let­ters to replace parts of those which are bad­ly dete­ri­o­rat­ed. When titles are miss­ing entire­ly (usu­al­ly due to splic­ing after splic­ing of these near­ly hun­dred-year-old films) I have the most fun! Drawing upon my skill of hand let­ter­ing (which I did before com­put­ers could set a nice script or a mod­i­fy a type­style) and knowl­edge of peri­od type styles, I cre­ate new title cards from scratch, based on exist­ing footage and artis­tic styling of the era. Most of the let­ter­ing and effects I accom­plish with Photoshop, but once in awhile I still need to use a real pen or brush with real ink to get just the right swing or flair.

You might be won­der­ing, how is it pos­si­ble that if all the scenes are intact on these films, just the titles and inter­ti­tles are miss­ing? I won­dered the same thing. Joe explains that much of the live action footage is indeed miss­ing on these old films, but the remain­ing footage still car­ries the sto­ry. However, if a dia­log or nar­ra­tive inter­ti­tle is absent, the plot is hard to fol­low. So the new inter­ti­tles are insert­ed and the film seems com­plete, even with sev­er­al live action frames miss­ing. Most of the let­ter­ing I recre­ate for Joe is tak­en from the exact text in the films’ orig­i­nal man­u­scripts.

Joe Rinaudo is also an expert on the American Fotoplayer, one of which he ful­ly restored and enter­tains his guests with, and anoth­er of which he has rebuilt and installed at the Academy (the Oscar peo­ple, remem­ber?). What—you say you don’t know what a Fotoplayer is? Joe is play­ing one right now for you in his liv­ing room: Joe Rinaudo plays the Fotoplayer. After you hear this mas­sive “one man band,” Joe will explain all the ped­als, levers, switch­es, but­tons, and pull cords (includ­ing a Klaxon horn). You’ll under­stand why there’s a wide berth between his house and his neigh­bors. Here’s Joe’s Fotoplayer page. 

The American Fotoplayer

Click the pho­to and plug your ears!

 Title card gallery

Here are some titles I’ve either cleaned up or cre­at­ed from scratch, repli­cat­ing the orig­i­nals, on a blank sheet of poster board (either Strathmore with ink or Photoshop with pix­els) which were then pho­tographed and insert­ed into the restored films:

Joe Rinaudo chopped off the tip of his fin­ger in a met­al shear the day before his birth­day, so  I cre­at­ed this “film title” as his birth­day card. Hey, humor was crude back the ear­ly 1900’s.


See some old (but restored like new) glass lantern slides.