The movie began ominously, with a voice-over warning that the Soviet Union was apparently developing “the ultimate weapon, a doomsday device” that could tilt the balance of the Cold War. But as the opening credits rolled on “Dr. Strangelove,” Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic, it became clear that the film was not a military thriller but a pitch-black comedy.
The credit sequence, one of the most famous in film history, was an elaborate sex joke, a balletic montage set to “Try a Little Tenderness,” with hand-lettered titles superimposed over shots of a B-52 bomber high above the clouds, docking with a jet tanker’s phallic refueling apparatus. In a span of 100 seconds, the film’s satirical tone was set.
“The title sequence is the story,” designer and animator Pablo Ferro, who created the sequence, later told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s the introduction to the movie. It’s telling you what kind of feeling you’re going to get into.”
“If you fail doing that,” he added, “the whole movie falls apart.”
Ferro, a Cuban-born artist who drew horror comics for Stan Lee in his youth and rose to become an innovative filmmaker on Madison Avenue and a renowned title designer in Hollywood, was 83 when he died Nov. 16.
Cutting a distinctive, even countercultural figure with his trademark red scarf and hair that he sometimes wore in braids, Ferro spent five decades as a highly regarded motion-picture utility man, serving as an editor, movie trailer creator, assistant director, graphic designer, visual consultant and occasional actor.
But he was best known for his opening title sequences, which he devised for acclaimed directors such as Norman Jewison (“The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming”), Hal Ashby (“Harold and Maude”), Gus Van Sant (“To Die For”) and Tim Burton (“Beetlejuice”). Director Jonathan Demme, with whom Ferro collaborated on films including “Philadelphia” and “Stop Making Sense,” once called him “the best designer of film titles in the country.”
His signature techniques, partly developed through commercials he created in the 1960s, were the use of rough-hewed, hand-drawn typography; rapid-fire cuts between shots; and the placement of multiple images on a single screen, inspired by magazines that placed disparate images side-by-side on a page.
“Compared to contemporary Saul Bass, often called the godfather of title design for his work on [Alfred] Hitchcock and [Otto] Preminger films of the 1950s, Pablo Ferro’s work was much more chameleonic, emotional and bold, shifting its shape to innovate with technique, editing, and media – to create new shapes and rhythms,” Lola Landekic, editor in chief of the title-design website Art of the Title, said in an email.
For “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968), directed by Jewison, he drew on his magazine technique to combine multiple shots to form the picture’s title sequence. Then, at the suggestion of his friend Ashby, the film’s editor, Ferro used the same technique to compress a six-minute polo sequence into a breathtaking 40 seconds, according to an Eye magazine article by design writer Steven Heller.
For “Bullitt” (1968), which starred Steve McQueen as a San Francisco cop, Ferro used tracking shots that showed an empty office, with the superimposed names of cast members transforming into “type holes,” in which the lettering drops out to reveal another shot that expands to fill the screen.
Ferro’s other title sequences included “Midnight Cowboy” (1969), in which he showed Jon Voight’s title character leaving a diner and heading toward New York, cowhide suitcase in hand, and “To Die For” (1995), which featured a quick-cut montage of newspaper articles and magazine covers that introduced Nicole Kidman’s fame-hungry character.
In recent years, he was cited as a major influence by designers including Michelle Dougherty of Imaginary Forces, who created the titles for the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” and Aaron Becker of Filmograph, who devised the quick-cut titles for “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.”
Pablo Francisco Ferro was born in Antilla, a port town on Cuba’s northern coast, on Jan. 15, 1935. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a farmer and fisherman. Ferro later said he developed an artistic sensibility while working on the family farm, watching “the lighting and the shape of the trees” as he brought cow’s milk to market.
“I’m always seeing images,” he told Art of the Title. “I just thought everybody was like that.”
The family moved to New York when Pablo was 12, and after his parents separated a few years later, he supported his mother and four siblings as a dishwasher and movie-theater usher – a job that effectively served as a tuition-free film school.
Ferro taught himself animation techniques using a book by Disney and MGM animator Preston Blair, and worked alongside Lee at Atlas Comics, a predecessor of Marvel, before apprenticing at various New York animation houses.
With two partners, he formed the firm Ferro Mogubgub Schwartz in 1961, leading to commercial jobs and commissions that included animating the peacock logo for NBC and animating a “stitching” logo for Burlington Mills. Boasting that he could “tell a story in 30 seconds that others tell in 30 minutes,” he drew the attention of Kubrick, who commissioned him to create a trailer for “Dr. Strangelove.”
The result was a quick-cut tour de force that employed “220 shots in just 97 seconds” – “about six times faster than other edits of the era,” according to a 2013 account in Wired magazine. The film’s title sequence arose by chance at the last minute, Ferro told Art of the Title, after an unusual conversation he had with Kubrick.
“He asked me what I thought about human beings. I said one thing about human beings is that everything that is mechanical, that is invented, is very sexual,” Ferro said. “We looked at each other and realized – the B-52, refueling in mid-air, of course, how much more sexual can you get?! He loved the idea. He wanted to shoot it with models we had, but I said let me take a look at the stock footage, I am sure that [the makers of those planes] are very proud of what they did and, sure enough, they had shot the plane from every possible angle.”
Ferro later created the trailer for Kubrick’s 1971 film, “A Clockwork Orange,” which interwove disturbing, half-second shots from the film with flashing title cards bearing adjectives such as “metaphorical,” “frightening,” “satirical,” “witty.”
His career was nearly derailed around that time, when he experienced a home invasion at his apartment in Manhattan. By Ferro’s account, a hit man came to his door, mistaking him for someone else, and fired a shot that “ricocheted and got me in the neck.” He said he was paralyzed but recovered after a year.
Ferro, who had by then begun to focus almost entirely on movies, served as a co-director with Ashby for the Rolling Stones movie “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” and made his feature-film debut as a director with “Me, Myself and I,” a romantic comedy about a screenwriter (George Segal) who finds himself involved with a woman who has a split, Jekyll-Hyde personality (JoBeth Williams).
His marriage to Susan Fridolfs ended in divorce. His daughter, Joy Michelle Moore, said he died of complications of pneumonia at a hospice center in Sedona, Ariz. Additional survivors include his son Allen Ferro, with whom he worked since the mid-1980s; three sisters; a brother; and two grandchildren.
Ferro was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in 2000, and was the subject of a 2012 documentary, “Pablo,” narrated by Jeff Bridges.
While it was primarily Ferro who developed the idea for the “Dr. Strangelove” intro, he credited Kubrick with encouraging him to employ a hand-drawn style, with letters that sometimes stretched across the frame.
“He wanted everything on that screen, and then everybody started copying it,” Ferro told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2016. But Ferro, who came to the United States without speaking any English, added: “I don’t know how to spell. I left the D out of ‘Based on the book.’ Somebody at Columbia [Pictures] had found it six months later. Stanley calls me and says, ‘Pablo! How can you do this to me?!’ I said, ‘But, Stanley I can’t spell. I left it up to you. Besides, it’s very satirical.’ . . . He didn’t change it, and he said, ‘You’re completely right. It looked like you did it purposely.’ “