by Sharan Shetty
It began in France. In 1895, the Gaumont Film Company (the oldest continuously operated film studio in the world) debuted their “Marguerite” logo, the iconic daisy named after founder Léon Gaumont’s mother. The daisy’s design has evolved since then, and so has the art of “bumpers” — those petite vignettes that announce a production studio’s involvement in a project. Universal and Paramount, the respective second and third-oldest studios in the world, swiftly followed Gaumont’s lead; the latter’s “Majestic Mountain” logo is Hollywood’s oldest surviving bumper, the byproduct of Paramount founder W.W. Hodkinson’s doodle of the Ben Lomond Mountain near his childhood Utah home.
Rarely are they consciously paid attention to, but there’s some serious history to production company bumpers, and they tend to find an uncanny purchase in our collective psyche. Columbia’s “Torch Lady,” Pixar’s jumping lamp, and Warner Bros’ gleaming, golden shield — they’re only ten- or eleven-second commercial visions, surreal images whose sole purpose is to sear their name into the mayonnaise of your brain matter, but they often possess all the magic and mystique of the movies they preface. With that in mind, here are the 23 greatest.
23. Focus Features
My interpretation of how this logo was conceived:
“So, pastel-colored, semi-transparent circles overlapping each other. Solid. But here’s the clincher: We’re Focus Features, right? Let’s put the “O” out of focus!”
“Brilliant. They’ll be gobsmacked.”
22. 20th Century Fox (1994–2010)
Familiar, no doubt. Less familiar, perhaps, is the fact that the intricate fanfare was penned in 1933 by Alfred Newman, who won 9 Oscars — the most for any composer and second-most for any individual. While the bumper’s been updated a few times over the decades, the fanfare has remained the same since 1935. George Lucas liked it so much he urged John Williams to compose the Star Wars theme in the same key (B minor).
21. RKO Radio Pictures
RKO Radio Pictures was one of the “Big Five” production studios of Hollywood’s golden era, and it shows in this faded, old-school logo. The best part: the stilted, intermittent beeps are Morse code for “Attention, attention: an RKO Radio Picture.”
20. Studio Canal (2001–2003)
Tracers! More importantly, though: WHY ARE THERE NUMBERS? They mean something, right? Why else have the arbitrary inclusion of integers? Or maybe these people are just crazy, which is entirely possible given that they funded the last third of Mulholland Drive.
19. Hanna-Barbera Productions (1979)
It just goes round… and round… and round… such pretty colors….what? Oh, right. The movie. Pass the popcorn, please.
18. Paramount Vantage
If a production company bumper can be postmodern, then this is what it looks like. Paramount’s indie production house has a logo that is a) refreshingly sparse and succinct and b) looks as though Steven Soderbergh directed all whopping ten seconds of it. Seriously though, anything but Paramount’s storied Star-Spangled Mountain Range of Boredom.
17. Dreamworks Pictures
If you aren’t charmed by the surreal fishing scene, the lilting guitar strum gets you hook, line, and sinker. I’ve also always imagined the cherubic little moon-boy-fisher slipping and falling to his untimely death. So has this guy, apparently.
16. Orion Pictures (1981–1996)
A suitably stellar logo for one of the lost giants of the production industry. Between 1984 and 1991, Orion Pictures produced Amadeus, Platoon¸ Dances with Wolves, and Silence of the Lambs. All won Best Picture.
15. Araba Films
Here’s a hidden gem: Araba Films, most notable for their backing of Polanski’s Ninth Gate, was a quaint little Spanish production house. By 2007, however, they had stopped distributing and producing films. Still, the hand-drawn pencil animation here evokes some hidden pastoral paradise, and the music’s a sentimental favorite.
14. Touchstone Pictures (1980s)
The thick, rounded blue line. The tinny synthesizer chiming in your ears. The golden flash of thunderbolt and trumpet. The 80s in general. Yes, this was the perfect logo for its time.
Founded in 1998, Imagemovers is the pet project of renowned filmmaker Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, etc.), and its logo appears in front of the movies Cast Away and The Polar Express. No doubt inspired by the latter, the oncoming train hits just the right note between mystery and magic.
12. Carolco (1988–1995)
That blue laser illuminating this labyrinth of a logo is just as winding as Carolco’s 20-year reign: they started with massive successes like Terminator 2 and the Rambo series only to collapse into bankruptcy in the late 90s. It was a sudden and screeching descent punctuated by Cutthroat Island, the biggest commercial flop of all time.
For a medium-budget production house, this is some majestic stuff: an enormous chamber with Art Deco overtones, glinting gears and cogs moving in mass synchrony, and a lush symphony rising in the distance. Oh, and metallic doors large enough to be the gates of heaven itself.
Speaking of lions, how about a real one? The ageless Leo the Lion’s roar never fails to rouse the audience from the trailer-induced slumber to which they have inevitably succumbed. Note of interest, though: there have been five lions to grace MGM’s banner, of which Leo, featured since 1957, is the fifth and longest-tenured. Tanner, who served as resident roarer from 1934–1956, is often cited as the most recognized of the five. The first, second, and fourth felines, in chronological order, are Slats, Jackie, and George.
9. Scott Free Productions
Given Tony and Ridley Scott’s penchant for sci-fi and special effects, you’d assume their production house bumper flaunted some flashy CGI wizardry. Instead it’s eerie, organic, and entirely entrancing.
Nothing like our beautiful planet, a thousand points of light, and fanfare fit for a British coronation to imbue what is essentially a commercial with all the significance of the universe and meaning of life.
7. Film District
This short always gets me thinking: what if cities had actual film districts? Classic cinema playing on sides of skyscrapers, sepia street lighting, gargantuan squares dotted with spectators? Take note, city planners of the (distant) future.
Of the kids who love Pixar, few realize that the lovable lamp has a name — Luxo Jr. — and that he was the eponymous star of Pixar’s very first film, the Oscar-nominated short Luxo Jr. A simple enough concept, but its power probably comes from how much perfection we expect from the movie following it.
5. New Line Cinema (1983–1987)
Before they were an ubiquitous presence in Hollywood, New Line specialized in sleazy grindhouse flicks and cheap thrills. This red-and-black, epileptic opening was used before the popular Nightmare on Elm Street series. The retro surf rock helps the vibe, as well.
4. Walt Disney Pictures
A mundane shot of the sky, clouds floating at the fringes. The camera pans downward, then…BAM! The flag turret of the castle comes into focus, we scale back to a picturesque plain, the orchestra swells to that familiar crescendo, and the audience is, by this point, stupidly smiling at the screen. That’s right, the Nine Old Men are whispering from the heavens: we are Disney, we still have an unyielding grip on your childhood heartstrings, and we’re gonna add a sprinkle of fireworks for good measure. You are putty in our hands.
3. TriStar Pictures (1984–1993)
The newer versions, where Pegasus emerges from a pulsating flash of light, are entirely unsatisfactory. I want to see that heavenly horse trot, goddammit. A few other production houses have adopted the winged steed in their bumpers, but none have come close to matching TriStar’s 80s standard.
2. United Artists (1980s)
There’s not much to say about this, besides the fact that its sick suspense possibly scarred an entire generation. Seriously — it’s like they had a perfectly average sequence, but then decided: “No, wait, let’s slow this down to about a tenth the speed. There ya go. And make the music as disorienting as possible, with offbeat notes on an out-of-tune piano. We want them to wriggle in their seats and have nightmares in their beds.” Genius, really.
1. The Rank Organisation
Perhaps one of the most famous logos of all time, “Gongman” was the renowned mascot for the largest film company in Britain. The man himself? Heavyweight boxer “Bombardier” Billy Wells, chosen by the company as the perfect male specimen. And then handed a huge mallet so he could bang that gong into the annals of history. Classic.
Sharan Shetty is an Awl summer reporter.