PGDA as an oral history repository of design for film

For me, credit sequences are sometimes more important than the movie, because they present the picture a certain way. They promise something. —Martin Scorsese

Early film titles designed by Dan Perri: Cool Breeze (1972) and F.T.A. (1972)

The first time I witnessed a movie audience go nuts over a title sequence was in 1985, when I saw Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon for the first of a million times. A deftly choreographed montage of Black martial arts, ‘80s electric-blue serif typography, dramatic sound design and driven by a Motown synth-funk groove, the sequence had us effing freaking out in the theater aisles. Dancing, cheering, fake kung fu moves—the works. The main title also encapsulated the essence of the cult classic, both thematically and in its aesthetics. Those opening credits—to paraphrase Scorsese—let the audience know that the shit was about to go down!

In the case of The Last Dragon, the artisan responsible for crafting the sequence is Dan Perri. One of the titans of the title design pantheon, Perri’s notable film credits include The Exorcist (1973), Star Wars (1977), Raging Bull (1980), An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Mulholland Falls (1996) and the 2018 remake of Suspiria. Perri’s title design work has been profiled by the Art of the Title, an Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences featurette, and a 2022 career retrospective hosted by the Museum of the Moving Image.

What I find most fascinating about Perri’s work is his title design for films outside of the traditional Studio System. Namely, his stamp on underground and genre movies. The Last Dragon notwithstanding, honorable mentions include the cult classics The River Niger (1976), Airplane! (1980), Beat Street (1984), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Deep Cover (1992), and Gridlock'd (1997)—just to name a few. Perri even dabbled in the music video medium, directing the Bangles’ “If She Knew What She Wants” in 1986.

Early film titles designed by Dan Perri: Hit Man (1972) and I Escaped from Devil's Island (1973)

In April 2022, I interviewed Dan Perri to discuss his early years in the business, when he was starting out as one of the go-to-title design-guys for ‘70s low budget/exploitation films. We also talked about the formation of his first creative services firm, Perri & Smith (1971-1973), with partner Steve Smith. Over the course of two days, Perri—always cool and affable—expounded upon optical film effects workflow of the 1970s, his approach to film visual communication techniques, New Hollywood, Blaxploitation, and collaborations with Ralph Bakshi, James L. Brooks, Gene Corman and Walter Hill (who happened to call Dan during one of our interview sessions).

The interview never made it to print, but my colleague, Louise Sandhaus, suggested depositing the raw transcript and audio be added to the PGDA as part of their growing oral history collection so that it would be available for other researchers. As part of a larger initiative to promote the study of mass media communication arts, I look forward to contributing additional material and content to The People’s Graphic Design Archive.

For more information on Dan Perri’s work and illustrious career, be sure to check out his book, Hollywood Titles Designer: A Life in Film.

Tony Best is an archivist & researcher with a focus on mass media marketing and brand communications. His work includes projects for the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Wax Poetics, Showtime and AppleTV+. Tony is founder of the media non-profit Cineosis Inc., whose mission is to preserve and document the culture of media communication arts.