Thanks to his prominent partnership with director Alfred Hitchcock, the work of artist Saul Bass quickly became as prominent and popular as the movies themselves. Bass gained such steam, he even got a chance to direct his own feature film (the cult killer ant movie Phase IV). Of course, Bass is far from the only title designer in the world, and one of his most influential competitors was Pablo Ferro, an artist whose name may not be as well-known as Bass', but whose work is no less iconic. Ferro is behind the title sequences for films such as Bullitt, The Russians Are Coming, To Live and Die in L.A., and many more, as well as enjoying equally fruitful partnerships of his own, with Stanley Kubrick, Jonathan Demme, and with Hal Ashby, one of his closest friends.
On the surface, Pablo pitches itself as a film about Ferro's work and influence, chatting with the artist about his most famous work, and the film definitely touches on these things, packed with footage of his work (from his early, groundbreaking commercial work, through to clips of some of his modern title sequences). However, Pablo is equally open about his personal life, diving into his youth with an uncensored openness, albeit one still infused with warmth. Ferro broke onto the scene in the swinging '60s, and a good third of the film is spent examining his drug habits and sexual exploits. It's not every day one sits down to watch a movie about graphic design and hears a first-hand account from an ex-lover about how she felt she might "die of orgasm" during one orgy session, but director Richard Goldgewicht doesn't bat an eye.
For the most part, the film unfolds in chronological order, starting with Ferro's parents and his childhood before seguing into the arc of his professional career. Goldgewicht, also the film's editor, keeps the film moving at a fine pace, but with Ferro, he's really lucked into a wealth of material. Ferro's unconventional path takes him to work for Stan Lee, then into the fledgling television commercial industry, before finally hooking up with Kubrick, where he found his greatest success (designing the trailer and opening credits for Dr. Strangelove, and the trailer for A Clockwork Orange). The film alternates between this historical narrative and footage of Pablo in the present, dealing with health issues (stemming from a time he was shot in the throat!) and moving in with one of his sons. I confess, I knew nothing of Ferro's incredible career, but for those who are similarly uninformed, Pablo is an excellent primer on all the reasons Ferro is one of the most important filmmakers of the last 50 years: nearly every bit of his groundbreaking style has become part of the common language of editing and design.
Directorially, the backbone of Pablo is a series of animated segments that stand in for archival footage of Ferro, depicting key moments in his life. The Wikipedia entry for Pablo (and a scene in the film itself) alludes to Ferro doing some of this animation himself, but the credits are vague on this front. The segment that opens the film doesn't quite inspire confidence, with awkward composition of real-life photographs and artwork into the hand-drawn animation, but all of the subsequent segments have a pleasing, sketchy style to them, and they are very stylish. I don't know whether anyone but Ferro himself can truly say if he feels these segments capture some of his style, but, despite a minute or two of concern, they're nicely done. The interviews appear to have been shot wherever possible, with picture, sound, and lighting quality varying drastically.
Of course, that's understandable when one looks at the laundry list of talent from all over the film industry assembled here: Jonathan Demme, Anjelica Huston, Beau Bridges, Andy Garcia, Norman Jewison, Robert Downey Sr., Leonard Maltin, George Segal, Don Calfa, and many other artists, executives, friends, and family members sit down to talk about Ferro's life and career, as well as wonderful access to Ferro himself, who seems thrilled to talk about his process and memories of working with Kubrick and Ashby. The film is also narrated by Jeff Bridges, whose warm, lighthearted voice is a great fit for the fun, deconstructionist animated segments.
Pablo is graced by artwork that I would imagine was designed by Pablo himself, depicting his trademark red scarf as a vivid bullseye over a light blue background of his famous title treatments. It's very attractive, if a little on the simple side (very text-heavy). The back cover is pretty generic, and the disc comes in a cheap Amaray case with no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio, Pablo looks and sounds thoroughly adequate. It's hard to offer much consistent analysis of Pablo, as, like most documentaries, it's culled from a vast number of sources, and in this case, also accentuated by animation full of odd textures, but aside from some minor aliasing is visible on the line animation and a general softness, the film looks good, with nice, bold colors, and no significant compression issues. Sound is unremarkable, delivering standard interview audio and music with a reasonable vibrancy, with the same expected variance based on the quality of conditions in which interviews were recorded. No subtitles are provided, but the disc is closed captioned for those whose TVs offer the function.
Although it is not advertised on the package, the disc kicks off with a audio commentary by director Richard Goldgewicht and producer Jeremy Goldscheider, recorded at composer Lior Rion's house, who speak primarily about how people became involved with the production, including Pablo himself, their editing choices in putting the film together, and the extensive animated sequences (initially, the film was planned as a straight animated feature, until they looked at the interviews and realized they had a wealth of material that deserved to be seen). This is a decent commentary, although the pair can occasionally lapse into silence.
A series of short video extras are also included. "JCC Pablo Preview" (8:45) is a section of the film, done by a different animator, probably as sort of an audition. The animation in the finished film is great, but this test, which uses full CG animation rather than traditional 2D, is excellent too. "Creator Final Animation Test" (1:01) may be by the same company, featuring a more polished clip, which may or may not have been done by the same company. The rougher stuff is actually more in keeping with the style of the finished film; this second clip would probably be more appropriate if the film had been completely animated, as was the original plan. Lastly, an animated trailer (1:30) serves as yet another "audition," made up of animation not in the film or either of the two previous tests. This one is the most underwhelming, lacking much personality in the character design, although the treatment of the live-action material is kind of interesting. "Pablo Ferro's Original Art for Pablo" (0:22) clears up the question of how much animation Ferro actually did himself, which is to say, not much.
The rest of the disc is made up by additional footage, reconstructed as promos. "Who is Pablo Ferro?" (2:07) features many of the participants (and Jeff Bridges, who I don't believe actually appears on-camera in the doc) offering a couple thoughts on the man as a whole. "A Brief Lesson in the History of Trailers" turns out to actually be "A Brief Lesson in the History of Oscars" (1:55), which explains the statue, the awards, and what happened to Hal Ashby's. This is followed by "A Brief Lesson in the History of Rene Magritte" (1:07), Ferro's favorite artist, whose work informs much of Bridges' narration.
The disc rounds out with a photo gallery and a original trailer for the finished film. Trailers for Unhung Hero and Undressing Israel: Gay Men in the Promised Land are also included.
Reading a summary of Ferro's artistic accomplishments does not do him justice. Seeing is believing, and Pablo is a breezy, candid, inviting exercise in seeing. Highly recommended.
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