A lean, silhouetted figure stays one step ahead of his pursuer, a man wearing glasses and a fedora. Along the way he metamorphoses into an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, pausing briefly to dally with girls around a pool and at a swank party.
The plot of "Catch Me if You Can," Steven Spielberg's film about a young con artist? Well, yes, but it's also a tale that occupies the first 2 minutes and 40 seconds of the film, a fast-moving and clever title sequence whose style harks back to the animated openings of several '60s classics.
Even the critics, who rarely discuss such things, are noticing. USA Today referred to the animated opening as "the cutest of the year," while Variety singled out the visuals and the jazzy John Williams music for "setting a fizzy mood."
Says film historian Leonard Maltin: "A good title sequence puts you in the right mood to enjoy the film. [This one] is a great marriage of picture and music -- visually arresting, really sharp, clever graphics that are retro looking, as befits the movie, yet cutting edge at the same time."
The idea, according to producer Walter F. Parkes, was Spielberg's. "The first impulse came from Steven, in keeping with the spirit of the movie and the conventions of the times in which the movie is set," he says.
As early inspirations, Parkes cites the use of lines crisscrossing the screen in Saul Bass' titles for "North by Northwest" (1959) and the DePatie-Freleng cartoon over the opening of "The Pink Panther" (1964). But, as Maltin points out, there are several fondly remembered animated sequences from that era, from Bass' closing credits for "Around the World in Eighty Days" (1956) and his opening titles for "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World" (1963) to Maurice Binder's "After the Fox" (1966) and Richard Williams' "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1968), some of which are more entertaining than the movies they adorn.
The job of animating the "Catch Me" titles fell to London-based Nexus Productions. Parkes and his wife, Laurie MacDonald, one of the film's executive producers, sought out Nexus because they had been impressed by, of all things, the animated flight-safety film shown on every Virgin Atlantic flight they took to London while working on "Gladiator."
"It was done in this wonderful animation that was somehow simultaneously retro and contemporary," Parkes said. "It felt like it could have been the title sequence to a new version of 'The Avengers' or 'The Prisoner.' It had a great, swinging '60s London quality."
Nexus' sample reel contained examples of work from several animators, including those who did the Virgin piece, but Parkes was even more impressed with the work of Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas, a pair of French artists who are not only animators, but also conceptual artists for everything from museum exhibitions to restaurants.
Supervising, and acting as liaison between Parkes and Spielberg in Los Angeles and Kuntzel and Deygas in Paris, was Nexus co-founder Chris O'Reilly. Speaking by phone from London, O'Reilly recalled that the filmmakers "wanted us to create a sense of the '60s, the period in which the film was set, a sense of playfulness. Kuntzel and Deygas had a very strong sense of how it should look, right off the bat."
Parkes concurs: "The style was pretty much intact with their initial presentation," he says, "that kind of sexy silhouette quality, those very iconic images of nurses in high heels, the FBI agent with the hat, the use of the palm trees and that very abstract image of the airplane."
They were achieved, according to O'Reilly, through an old-fashioned technique. "The actual characters are created by carving stamps, then putting them in ink and reapplying them on paper over and over again to animate them." Parkes adds that "they specifically went for a hand-stamped or woodblock look; it gives the whole thing a handmade quality."
With the character designs and the overall look in place, conversations began about transitions, movement and narrative. An early version of the sequence, Parkes said, "tried to tell the story too specifically. In fact, it was very difficult to follow. It was on the third go-round that we said what you want to do is just identify two characters: the pursuer, the man with the hat -- we added the glasses at the very end -- and the character that's being pursued, who changes identities. And to make sure there is a chase. That's as much narrative as we really needed."
The look may have been classic '60s, but the execution was very much 21st century, said O'Reilly. "It was a combination of traditional and contemporary digital animation," he explains. "Those print-block animations were taken into computer, and then the backgrounds were all constructed digitally. The camera moves within it were also created within a 3-D animation system."
While the animators were toiling in Paris and London, composer John Williams was in Los Angeles composing and recording his theme, with its changing meters, elaborate alto saxophone solo and very '60s-style finger-snaps.
"He played this amazing, modern-jazz suite that sounded like something from a Jerome Robbins dance piece from 1969," Parkes said. "It was the final touch that made the sequence sing."
After Nexus received the Williams track in September, "it was quite inspirational for us," O'Reilly said. "When we got that music, we were starting to animate in earnest, and we were able to heighten the sense of story and drama." The actual animation work occupied about 15 people in London and Paris through mid-November; Parkes and Spielberg were kept abreast of progress via e-mailed computer files.
Spielberg pressed for a greater degree of integration between the letters in the titles and the images, "so that the sweep of a J becomes the offramp of a freeway, and a character will jump on a rope and slide down from one card into another and it'll become the L of someone's name. Those kinds of elegant transitions came into being after John's music," Parkes said.
Some of the most striking effects are fleeting, like the flying books during author Frank Abagnale's credit, the revolving mirrored doors for editor Michael Kahn and the interplay of light and shadow for cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. "We moved the camera around in a 3-D fashion," O'Reilly said.
Maltin hopes that these kinds of classy title sequences are making a comeback. "It seems to go in and out of vogue. There was a period in the '70s and '80s when titles became very low-key and functional, and the creative or flamboyant title sequence fell out of favor. But as the pendulum swings, they came back in the '90s, and now they're flourishing."