Martin Scorsese’s 1976 drama Taxi Driver begins with a large plume of white steam rising from a vent on a New York City street. It’s night and the cloud catches the bright white light of a nearby street lamp. The soundtrack runs wailing, spooky Bernard Herrmann jazz. Then a New York taxi pushes through the cloud. It’s a shiny beast of a car, heavy and menacing. It looks like a tank rolling its way through the acrid, death-smelling smoke of a WWI battlefield. In passing, the title of the film appears on the screen.
Cut to: a close-up of Travis Bickle’s eyes. He’s bathed in red neon light. He stares at the world in amazement and judgment. The exterior of New York is a jittery, smeared, abstract chaos. He sees a dissolving and incoherent world. The world is reduced to the reds and blues of the wet, foul-smelling city streets. A story has already been told. In a dark, smoky, urban Tartarus, a frightened, confused man gets lost. There will be no reason here. It is one of the most eye-catching title sequences in cinema.
The Taxi Driver sequence was created by famed graphic designer Dan Perri, the man behind the opening titles of The Exorcist, as well as Star Wars, Saturday Night Live, A Nightmare on Elm Street, ” ” Wall Street” and “The Player”. Most recently he designed the titles for the remake of “Suspiria”. Perri is without exaggeration one of the most well-known artists in his field.
/Film’s Devin Meenan recently spoke to Perri about Taxi Driver and some of the technical aspects that went into the construction of the opening sequence.
Hell of New York
Dan Perri understood that Taxi Driver was meant to be a tragic horror film, and it was his job to make New York City look as hellish as possible. He attempted to introduce audiences to the dark world of Travis Bickle while Bickle himself was absorbing it for the first time. The opening sequence consisted of second-unit photography and b-roll, which Martin Scorsese gave him access to:
“Well, it came about first from my viewing of over 200,000 feet of second unit footage that was shot all over the city at night to capture the cab moving through the city, the smoke and the steam and the colors and all of that Textures of a New York night. So I looked at a lot of footage and I realized that a sequence of these details that introduces the viewer to the city and the character at the same time…”
Perri also realized that the city had to have a very specific look. It had to be dark and bright at the same time, with deep shadows between the bright lights. One might notice that Taxi Driver has many shadowy sequences, night scenes and cinema interiors that are gloomy and opaque. Perri immediately set the tone and wanted the city itself to tell some of the story. Peri said:
“[T]These images had to be presented in a way that captured the richness, rawness and saturation of the colors that are part of the city, all those neon signs and whatnot. And that black people really had to be black, which is a horrible feeling that comes from that, because of the characters that live in this horrible place.”
An effective use of slit-scan
To achieve the smeared visual “drift” of the cityscape, Dan Perri relied on a then-novel technique called slit-scan, which he describes as follows:
“[I]To achieve that, I knew from experience that I would copy these shots from a color print […] I would capture all those saturated colors and get really black blacks. And so I shot the sequence from that, and then I came across an effect that had just been created by the visual effects people I was working with at the time. It became known as slit-scan, in which a take was photographed and then rewound and photographed again, but shifted by one frame.
In all, Perri re-exposed the same film 12 times, giving the image a long, narcotic trail. Perri then slowed the film down to less than the standard 24fps and added the visual “jitter” you see. The end result was an odd way of filming in 1976, and nothing like it had been seen outside of the underground and experimental film circles.
Perri also spoke about his font choices. The font name isn’t mentioned (apologies to the graphic design fans), but Perri said he wanted the edgy, aggressive, rough-edged look to reflect on the film. Anything with rounded edges and a purposeful speed limit design wouldn’t work. Perri said he eventually visited the New York City Public Works to find out the name of the font used on street signs.
It should be noted that the titles appear offset to the left and right of the screen to denote their “street sign” nature, as if the audience were reading them as they drive by. Nothing appears in the middle except for the title.
An off-center world.