In some respects, Stephen Spielberg is synonymous with cinema. The director has churned out one masterpiece after another, playing with the audience’s emotions, making them laugh and cry, and shaping American cinema ever since the 1970s.
But that’s not all: he has also created images, characters and worlds that are permanently ingrained in the collective imagination: the wacky archaeologist Indiana Jones, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the terrifying attacks in Jaws and that most famous of aliens, E.T.
Today, however, we’d like to tell you about another type of icon in Steven Spielberg‘s films: the fonts, lettering and typographical choices in each of his masterpieces! After all, who can forget the adventurous lettering of Indiana Jones or the logo of the bizarre dinosaur-themed amusement park?
Jaws, released in 1975, as well as being the movie that made Steven Spielberg’s name in 1970s Hollywood – the so-called New Hollywood – also set a new, incredibly successful genre in motion: blockbuster horror.
The opening scene of Jaws is set deep underwater, accompanied by the unsettling notes of John Williams’s legendary soundtrack. The typography used for the opening titles, curated by Universal Title, broadly maintains the font and lettering chosen for the first edition of the novel of the same name on which the film was based.
The lettering for the main title was probably designed specially for the film, based on an extra-bold font, with the J of Jaws altered to make it look like a hook. The other titles, meanwhile, feature a staple of 1970s typography: ITC Souvenir, a rounded serif font inspired by a typeface created in the early twentieth century by American type designer Morris Fuller Benton, and reworked in 1967 by the prolific master of font design Ed Benguiat.
It is sometimes known as ‘the 1970s Comic Sans‘: Souvenir was used to excess, in part because it was optimised for phototypesetting, often in unsuitable locations, and soon became one of the most widely detested fonts around.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Raiders of the Lost Ark, which came out in 1981, was the film that began one of the most famous sagas in American popular cinema and introduced its unforgettable lead character Indiana Jones to the big screen.
The iconic lettering that would eventually be associated with the entire series actually only appeared on the poster, and not in the opening credits. It was designed by Mike Salisbury, an art director who, despite being much loved in Hollywood and by the world of pop culture in general, has remained largely out of the public eye: he has worked on the set of Apocalypse Now and Rocky, for magazines such as Playboy, on video games like Halo and for musical legends including George Harrison.
The lettering was undoubtedly inspired by the classic posters created for adventure serials, a format that was extremely popular among US cinemagoers in the 1930s and 1940s. A modern font that pays homage to this style, Adventure, can be downloaded free here.
However, the opening titles of the successful Indiana Jones debut film featured a rather more innocuous typeface: Open Capitals Roman, created in 1929 by the Dutch designer Jan van Krimpen.
Let’s take a minute to enjoy the movie’s unforgettable opening scene!
Jurassic Park, the prolific American director’s fourteenth film, was released in 1993. Everyone knows the movie’s contents: a secret island, highly advanced special effects (for the time), an amusement park featuring cloned dinosaurs and, of course, something that inevitably goes horribly wrong.
The font chosen for the film’s title is an outline version of Neuland, an expressionist typeface designed by the German Rudolf Koch in 1923. Koch apparently engraved the font directly into metal without any preliminary sketches, and this unusual genesis probably explains this sans-serif and uppercase font’s unusual forms.
Although Neuland ended up on a list of the worst typefaces of all time, it has been used on several occasions, including the logo of the tobacco company American Spirit and the posters for the Broadway adaptation of Disney’s cartoon The Lion King.
Catch Me If You Can
Catch Me If You Can is a fast-paced comedy directed by Steven Spielberg with a stellar cast: Leonardo DiCaprio plays a professional con artist and expert at fake identities, while Tom Hanks is the FBI agent charged with catching him.
As well as being highly rated, this hilarious film also won plaudits for its stunning opening credits.
The title sequence – curated by the French artistic duo Kuntzel + Deygas – is a genuine film within a film, a miniature work of art recalling Saul Bass’s creations for Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. You can read a long interview with the two creators here.
The sequence exploits kinetic typography to its full potential, using the latest technology available at the time. Although the silhouettes of the imposter and the police officer chasing one another above John Williams’ jazzy soundtrack are fun, the true stars of the scene – particularly for fans of typography – are the two fonts chosen for the sequence. The main one of these is Coolvetica, a sans-serif font with modified, ultra-long glyphs, and one of numerous variations on Helvetica that appeared in the 1970s, based on the logo of a chain of American shops.
Coolvetica is paired with Hellenic Wild, a slab or Egyptian font (i.e. one with wide, square serifs) that was very fashionable in the mid-twentieth century.
The Post is a political thriller from 2017. Spielberg’s film takes the viewer inside the editor’s office of the American newspaper The Washington Post: it is 1971, and the paper has decided to publish top-secret documents on the war going on in Vietnam, leading to a fierce clash with the White House.
The typeface chosen for the film’s title was the classic Helvetica, which has been one of the most widely used fonts in the world since the 1970s: you can find it everywhere, including the signs of the New York subway, NASA space shuttles, the first Macintosh, released in 1984, and a wide range of logos, such as Lufthansa, Nestlé, Panasonic and Microsoft. We told its story here.
Helvetica is often chosen for its extremely neutral tone. And it may be this characteristic that led Stephen Spielberg to opt for this font, given that the movie is open in its support for an independent and free press.
Instead of the usual clip of the titles, here’s a gem from The Post that is sure to excite those of us who love printing and typography: the film’s faithful reproduction of the fervent typesetting and printing work carried out at daily newspapers in the 1970s.
As we’ve seen, Steven Spielberg is capable of absolutely anything, both in his directing and in his font choices, His masterpieces from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, which brought him fame and public adoration, were rounded off with bold, showy and recognisable lettering. The typographic style of films like Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park became just as iconic as his films.
However, Spielberg is also an extremely intelligent director, who knows how to use the various film media at his disposal and understands the importance of graphic details. His titles, including the highly acclaimed credits for Catch Me If You Can, proved that he is one of the few people with the ability to do something unique: bring back the flavour of classic American cinema in the modern age.