Richard Alan Greenberg

You may not have known the name Richard Alan Greenberg, but you almost certainly know his work. Greenberg was an Oscar-nominated effects artist who created memorable title sequences for films, including Alien and Superman. Greenberg died this week at the age of 71.

In 1977, Richard Alan Greenberg and his brother Robert founded R/Greenberg Associates, designing film titles and advertising work. Inspired by the work of acclaimed graphic designer Saul Bass, Richard Greenberg would help create iconic movie titles for years. In 1977, Greenberg Associates landed their first major movie gig by designing the titles for Richard Donner‘s Superman. The titles have a now-familiar whooshing effect, with each credit rushing towards the screen as if at lightspeed. Greenberg Associates pitched director Richard Donner on the idea, and Donner went for it. But the effect was easier said than done.

“We had no idea how to do it!” Greenberg later said. “For about two weeks we kept trying to figure it out. Then we realized we had to let the Oxberry run and put a black card in front of it to end the streak. The streak was created by putting a negative and positive Kodalith together with a blue gel in between. The blue gel allowed enough light through to create that streak.”

Greenberg added:

“Those titles were created by re-working the idea of what the animation stand was; you would literally move the camera on the rostrum stand and cap it at particular points to create a kind of three-dimensional motion. Everything we did until the mid-’80s was pre-computer — Superman is all pre-digital. It is more beautiful, in a way, than digital work could have been. There will be a point in the near future when — and we’re almost there now — films won’t be shot on film anymore. We came in as everything was only beginning to change over throughout the industry.”

Superman

From the Superman gig came more high-profile films, including the eerie opening credits to Ridley Scott‘s Alien, where each letter of the title slowly pieces itself together on screen, like a cryptic message being deciphered. “It’s disturbing to people to see those little bits of type coming on,” Greenberg said. “We wanted to set up tension, and as these little bits come in, they seem very mechanical. We wanted to break the type apart using that letter-spaced sans serif, which really hadn’t been done in film before.”

“In that particular period of American filmmaking, from the late ’70s into the early ’80s, there were some attempts by studios to have the graphic nature of the advertising and the titles feel cohesive,” Greenberg continued. “That really dissipated later. Marketing has grown to the point where there are separate departments for everything and the process is more complicated. We tried to use techniques that were experimental for the time.”

Alien

Other memorable opening titles from Greenberg included Altered StatesThe Untouchables, True Lies, and The Dead Zone.

Greenberg would later direct projects of his own, including the 1989 film Little Monsters, and an episode of Tales from the Crypt. Greenberg’s title work tappered off over the years, primarily due to Hollywood’s decreased use of creative titles. “When you’re dealing with movies now, it’s so much about the size, budget, and the pre-contractual stuff,” Greenberg said. “I feel like there’s less creativity actually involved, but that could be me. A lot of the really good work is being done for television. I love the opening to Mad Men. I love that guy falling through space. It’s a wonderful metaphor for advertising. You never know where you are.”

Greenberg died in New York City on June 20, 2018 at the age of 71.

The Untouchables

Altered States

The Dead Zone

 

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