A Conversation With Legendary Title Designer, Dan Perri

Dan Perri became a cinema legend because of his work in optical title design. This artist has collaborated with some of the most important filmmakers in history. Perri has designed titles for George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s easy to say that Perri’s most impressive feat is creating the opening crawl for 1977’s Star Wars. George Lucas crafted a popular culture phenomenon with his space opera and Perri’s creation of the opening crawl helped to introduce the filmmaker’s grand vision to audiences across the world.

But Perri has contributed much more to film outside of a galaxy far, far away. He produced title designs for numerous Scorsese films – including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. The awe-inspiring filmography also includes Caddyshack, Nightmare on Elm Street and The Warriors. The diversity of his projects and being able to create in a wide range of genres is the most notable thing to me about Perri’s filmography. Few artists can say they worked with everyone from Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street) to Harold Ramis (Caddyshack).

I got the chance to speak to Dan Perri about his career, specifically his time working with Steven Spielberg. Perri has released a new book, Hollywood Titles Designer/A Life In Film which you can purchase here.

Can you talk about your current process when it comes to your craft? How much has changed since you started out as a title designer?

It’s the same way it has always been…ever since I started. I get an idea and often it’s fully formed in my mind. The design is done. It looks the way I want it. So, then it’s a rush to get that idea in my mind down on paper so I can work with it and develop it. I work with a pencil and paper. When I get it looking decent, I scan it and get it in the computer. When it’s in the computer I can manipulate it and refine it. Then it can be applied to the screen if it’s for titles, or for graphics, or paper, or wherever it will be used.

With technology the way it is today, have you considered bypassing the paper and pencil and just relying on the computer?

Some ideas I have had lately are easier to do right in the computer and bypass the pencil and hand stage. It still is mostly a hand process for me. It still comes from my head and then I scribble them out. All the processes are just tools for me. It’s just about getting my designs into a condition that people can view them.

How did you originally get into title design?

I started as a graphic designer. Before that I was painting signs as a teenager. It all came from my love of letters. The shapes of letters. The beauty of them. I started with a pencil and pen. Then I moved to brushes and paint. I would make signs for supermarkets and clubs for money. I then started to make logos. I would make brochures or posters for companies.

Early Logo Designs Done By Perri.

I then learned that people worked with the letters I loved on movies. I found a fellow in the late 60s that was doing title designs for major films and TV shows. He exploited me for a long time until I figured out how to put my ideas on film. It’s a very technical and expensive process. That’s how I found this niche called title design. I started to pursue directors and producers who were making films. I would get hired on small films, but I was getting samples that I could show other filmmakers.

Star Wars is arguably your most famous work. How did that opportunity present itself?

It was partly coincidental. I worked on a film called Electra Glide in Blue. The sound effects on that film were done by one of the best in the business. He had a business where he did many films at one time. He had a complex of offices where sound people were working on 5 or 6 films at a time. Part of that complex was an old motel in Hollywood. He rented out the motel rooms and I rented one and ran my business out of it.

He was eventually hired to do the postproduction supervision on Star Wars. This was an expansion for him. He got hired to oversee the completion of Star Wars and he recommended me to George Lucas to do the titles. It became a part of my schedule and was just another film to work on.

What was working with George Lucas like for you?

Lucas always had little time for me. For everyone he was working with on the film really. He was just overwhelmed. It was difficult to communicate with him. He would struggle to communicate because he was preoccupied with so many things. When I got his attention, it was split with so many other crew members. It wasn’t a good experience for me. I was on the film about 3 months. I was happy when I found something he finally liked.

How were you able to come up with the title design and opening crawl given the situation you were in on Star Wars?

The roots of the idea came from the 1939 film, Union Pacific. The opening shot of the film is looking down at the railroad tracks and from under the camera the titles start rolling away from you down the tracks. I visualized that in space. I knew there would be a series of paragraphs describing the film and I imagined that text crawling up in space. I also redesigned the original logo Lucas designed to sell the project to Fox.

How did you get the chance to work with Spielberg on Close Encounters?

I came to Spielberg through his producers Michael and Julia Phillips, who produced Taxi Driver. They were happy with my work and when they came to produce Close Encounters, they brought me in to meet with Spielberg. Spielberg liked my work and brought me into the project.

What was your relationship like with Spielberg?

He showed an uncommon wisdom I had not experienced yet at that time. He realized the value of having his film branded. Wherever the name of the film was seen it had the exact same design. I first designed the Close Encounters logo and then we created stationary that was used for mailing. I created elegant stationary that was used for all the correspondence. This was long before email. We made T-shirts the crew could wear and that helped them bond and feel like a team. We put stickers on the equipment boxes. The Close Encounters logo was everywhere.

Seems like that branding strategy worked well on Jaws and he wanted to repeat that strategy?

I think he recognized the value of branding on Jaws. I don’t think he had the power yet to dictate that on Jaws. But he saw what Universal did with Jaws and the branding. I think he carried all that over to Close Encounters

How did you get the chance to work on the ad campaign for Close Encounters?

I did the titles for the film. It was a given in Spielberg’s mind. I didn’t have to bid or anything. I was his guy. During that time, during postproduction, Spielberg called and asked me to meet with the head of Columbia about working on the ad campaign for the film. Spielberg had rejected all the people who had been working on the ad campaign previously. I did the entire campaign for the film. It started with a poster, a billboard, and a whole series of newspapers ads. Then I designed a game box, a hardcover book, and any other collateral material that they needed for the film.

Was Spielberg easy for you to work with?

He was always accessible. He was friendly. He was very gracious and always handled himself very well.

You have recently released a book, what can you tell me about Hollywood Titles Designer/A Life In Film?

Over the last 5 or 6 years I have been visiting schools and other places for my title program. It’s a compilation of my work. I tell stories and present my work. It became so popular that I was doing big tours. I went to France and England and there was so much positive response to the program that I decided to share all my work with people in a book.

I worked on the book during 2020 and the lockdown. I wrote it, designed it, produced the artwork, and had it printed when I had nothing else to do. There was no title work in 2020 because there were no productions. I made it exactly the way I wanted it to be. I didn’t have to answer to a publisher or anyone else.

There is currently a documentary in the works that will cover the life and career of Dan Perri. You can visit his website here and purchase a copy of his book on the site.