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Not all of our most important filmmakers are the most well-known. Hailed as a genius by Stanley Kubrick and described by Jonathan Demme as "the best designer of film titles in the country today," Pablo Ferro has distinguished himself in film for more than three decades as a director, editor and producer specializing in graphic design, special effects, sequences and main titles, trailers and print campaigns. A significant influence on the "look" of the 1960s, he may have had an even more decisive impact on the world of advertising. In addition to creating and designing some of the more striking TV and print ads of the decade (one highlight was creating the corporate logo for Burlington Mills with fast-moving multicolored stitching animation for a classic commercial campaign), Ferro helped bring the "hard-sell" visual razzmatazz of cutting-edge advertising techniques to Hollywood films that strove to reflect the changing social scene. Often pointed and satirical, much of his best film work has been in association with directors once allied, to varying degrees, with so-called countercultural values such as Kubrick ("Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" 1964; "A Clockwork Orange" 1972), Demme ("Citizen's Band" 1977; "Last Embrace" 1979; "Swing Shift" 1983; "Stop Making Sense" 1984; "Married to the Mob" 1988; "Philadelphia" 1993), Hal Ashby ("Harold and Maude" 1971; "Bound for Glory" 1976; "Being There" 1979; "Second Hand Hearts" 1981; "Looking to Get Out" 1982; "Let's Spend the Night Together" 1983) and William Friedkin ("The Night They Raided Minsky's" 1969; "To Live and Die in L.A." 1985; "C.A.T. Squad" NBC 1986; "The Guardian" 1989).
Ferro may be best known as an early master of quick-cutting and for using multiple images within the frame. In his commercials and title sequences, he would create a continuous flow of imagery that drew upon a wide range of graphic materials from various media. The goal was to sell a product, a movie or an idea by visualizing abstract concepts with a thought-provoking mixture of animation, live-action, clips from newsreels, still photographs and original art work. His style of montage seemed strangely apt for the dawn of the age of media overload; Ferro found the poetry in the potential cacophony of too much information. With a strong foundation in animation, Ferro was a filmmaker in his own right. He produced and helmed a number of experimental shorts, pioneered the use of video for narrative storytelling and did second unit work for a number of his assignments. Despite a decided fondness for high-tech, another Ferro trademark is his elongated hand-drawn lettering--such as in the title sequence of Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove"--which emphasized the all-too-human hand of the artist in the filmmaking process.
Raised on a remote farm in Cuba, Ferro emigrated to NYC with his parents as a teen. In 1953, as a high school student, he began teaching himself animation techniques from a book by Preston Blair (a frequent collaborator with celebrated animation director Tex Avery at MGM) with which he and two Brooklynite friends, Phil Kimmelman and Dante Barbetta, joined to build their own animation boards and stand for their own modest animation studio. The teens were able to shoot artwork with a 16mm Bell and Howell camera that photographed single frames. The young Ferro expanded his interest in the cinema working as an usher in a 42nd Street theater that screened foreign films.
Ferro sharpened his graphic sense working with Stan Lee (the future editor of Marvel Comics) at Atlas comics where, as a penciller, he churned out a reasonable series of EC-inspired horror, sci-fi and adventure stories before segueing into animation. He landed his first job at a studio that produced black-and-white commercials. There he got firsthand training from a legendary animator, former Disney veteran William Tytla, who was best known for animating the devil in "The Night on Bald Mountain" sequence of "Fantasia" (1940). Ferro learned his lessons well, graduated to animation director and toiled at various NYC-based animation houses.
In 1961, Ferro formed the influential and much honored film production company Ferro, Mogubgub and Schwartz, serving as president, writer, producer and director. The firm was dreamed up over a spaghetti dinner in which Ferro, Fred Mogubgub and Louis Schwartz decided that they could make commercials that were adventurous, experimental--and effective. A notable early assignment had them creating the illusion of children's drawings in motion. Writing in THE NEW YORK TIMES (July 8, 1962), Donald J Gormley observed: "Among other things, the firm's animators are trying out something seen often before--kindergarten drawing in motion--in which they manage a little better than the competition to conceal the underlying sophisticated hand. More promising is their use of typography, where printed words take their form from an attractive jumbling of a modern and archaic type faces and varied sizes. Words are fragmented and syllables are made to pop on and off the screen, zoom and retreat, spin weirdly and fly off to unexpected corners. There is a sort of abstraction here, not at all as disturbing to the eye as it might sound."
Indeed, the secret of Ferro's success may be his shrewd assessment of just how much information we are able to process as viewers. In 1962, Ferro, Mogubgub and Schwartz were hired to create an eye-catching intro for NYC's Channel 13, then WNDT, the city's first educational channel. They had previously made a 20-second opening sequence for Channel 18 in Hartford (CT) which utilized 450 separate still photographs to create a staccato illusion of continuous motion. For Channel 13, Ferro et al. decided to encompass and compress the entire range of the station's programming in a continuous flow of imagery running three minutes and 26 seconds that would precede each programming day. Audiences and industry insiders took notice. Director-choreographer Jerome Robbins was one impressed viewer. He hired Ferro and Mogubgub to provide filmed sequences for the curtain raiser and entr'acte of his 1962 Broadway production of Arthur Kopit's "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad."
Ferro traveled to London to make commercials for both US and British TV. There he was hired by Kubrick to create an unique teaser trailer campaign for his new picture as well as a memorable titles sequence. The film was "Dr. Strangelove."
The press release trumpeted: "Utilizing a system of quick cuts in all three creative areas of the trailers--film, sound and dialogue--the teaser trailer for "Dr. Strangelove" used 40 different scene changes and eight different voices during the one-and-a-half minutes duration of the theater teaser. Other versions of the trailer include a three-minute theater reel, a 60-second TV trailer, three 20-second TV teasers and two versions at different lengths for British TV. . . . The trailers create an excitement generated by a frame-by-frame presentation of pictures, words, sound and dialogue. The effect creates a temptation to see the trailer again in order to understand the technique, which is geared to generate excitement." Furthermore, Ferro has been credited with conceiving the outrageously suggestive opening title sequence of the film which depicted two military planes refueling in flight to the musical accompaniment of "Try a Little Tenderness." It proved a classic film opening and an auspicious start for a brilliant film career.
Forming Pablo Ferro Films, the ascendant filmmaker alternated between commercials and movie work. One highlight was "The Thomas Crown Affair" (1968) for which Ferro, for the first time in any 35mm motion picture, created and edited special multiple screen effects sequences notably featuring 66 images in one frame for a polo sequence. He also provided main titles, trailer and TV spots. Ferro also worked in TV, creating the main title sequence for the hit NBC sitcom "Family Ties" and serving as supervising editor on Michael Jackson's "Beat It" music video. Other distinguished credits include "The Addams Family" (1991) and its sequel "Addams Family Values" (1993), both directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and Gus Van Sant's "To Die For" (1995), Carl Franklin's "Devil in a Blue Dress" (1995) and Tom Hanks' directorial debut "That Thing You Do!" (1996). In 1997 Ferro had a stellar year, creating the title designs and sequences for the Oscar-winning films "Men in Black" (helmed by Sonnenfeld), "L.A. Confidential" (directed by Curtis Harrington), "As Good As It Gets" (produced and directed by James L. Brooks) and Van Sant's "Good Will Hunting." His more recent credits include the remake of "Doctor Dolittle" and "Hope Floats" (both 1998) and the HBO biopic "Winchell" (also 1998).
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