Saul Bass on Grand Prix

We think of Grand Prix solely as Frankenheimer’s movie. In the basic sense I suppose it was, but I often forget about legendary designer and filmmaker Saul Bass’ hand in the film.

He did the title sequences—which were brilliant—but he also had a hand in the choreographed racing montage sequences as well. They’re handled wonderfully in the film, often as musical interludes that are balletic in parts, raw and evisceral in others. In short, they’re perfect analogues for racing in general. They’re so wonderfully assembled, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re the result of months of preparation and storyboarding.

But Saul shared this classic fake-it-till-you-make-it story in Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design:

Shooting the races in Grand Prix brought into focus for me the Director-as-Performer mode. Until then I had been directing in the Repertory mode. Small companies, with accumulated experience working together. All in tune with an exploratory point of view. Shifts in concept or staging understood as a process, rather than a certainty.

This all changed when I began directing the races for Grand Prix. The first race was at Spa in Belgium. We had permit problems with the Racing Association. We didn’t know if we could even get on the track. If we did, I would have no advance opportunity to study the track or even to know what part of the track we would have.

Suddenly, at the end of one day, we unexpectedly got permission to shoot the next day. I arrived at an assigned section of the track at 8:30am. I saw an unfamiliar terrain, a multilingual crew, a slew of Formula One racing cars and drivers, 1,500 extras, and others—waiting for “the word”.

I looked around. What’s my first shot?
A race start.
I called out my requirements.
“Put the cars over there.
The No. 1 Camera here. 600mm lens.
The crowd…”
I had another thought.
I started again.

“Let’s have the cars further back.
No. 2 Camera there. 1000mm lens.
Put the 600mm lens…” Pause.
I had a better idea. “Here’s what we do…”

I stopped.

I could see the crew looking at each other and growing restless. My authority eroding. It was a very long day.
But, somehow I got through it.

The next day, I arrived on the set. New pieces of track. New terrain. A thousand pairs of eyes zapped in on me.


In a panic, I grabbed my cane.
Plunged it into the turf. “OK!
No. 1 Camera here. 200mm lens.
No. 2 Camera there, 600mm lens.
No. 3 Camera in the stands.
All cars lined up for a start there.
1,000 extras in the stands.
The rest in the woods.
And call me when you’re ready!” A beat.
Pandemonium broke loose, and everybody went to work.

I hopped into my jeep with my first cameraman, tooled around the curve in the track, stopped where no one could see, and said to myself, “OK. What the hell am I going to do today?”

I knew it would take them a little time to get that all sorted out. So I calmed down. Went down the track a bit. Set up some angles and figured out my day’s work… my shot list.

My first assistant came running up. They were ready. We drove back to the set. I looked everything over.

“Fine. Alright. We’re ready to go.”
“Camera ready?”
“Camera rolling…speed!” “Action!”
The cars took off.
“Cut. Print. Next shot!”

People exchanged glances. “He knows what he wants. We’re in good hands.”

Of course, I never actually used that shot. It was a question of morale… I learned that when you have an army, you may have to ride a white horse.

6 responses to “Saul Bass on Grand Prix”

  1. Robert E. Richer says:

    At dinner this past Saturday, well-known graphic designer Alan Peckolick and I were discussing the genius of Bass, as Alan had done some work with him.
    And of course, Grand Prix remains the gold standard.

  2. José Wellington Porto says:

    It’s a pity Saul Bass not to have assisted in the filming of Le Mans…

  3. Mick Havoc says:

    I remember seeing this film in a Cinerama movie house in West Allis WI, April 1967. I was blissed out for the entire summer. I couldn’t believe that people could live like that, and have wished my whole life that I could. James Garner and Yves Montand were EVERYTHING a man should be.

  4. […] through the slow motion montages in this clip, I have to believe it was part of the inspiration for Saul Bass’s racing sequences in Grand […]

  5. VERITAS says:

    Sorry to rain on your parade, but John Frankenheimer should be given equal if not greater credit for the Grand Prix title. When asked in 1989 if Saul Bass came up with the “split screen” ideas Frankenheimer responded, “No, that was me. Saul and I both designed the titles.” In a 2010 interview Evans Frankenheimer gave further details about the titles (& split screen in general) origin: “John had the idea from the beginning. We were both so impressed by the Francis Thompson film, To Be Alive!, and Charles Eames’s film for IBM, both of which we saw at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. John at that time said, “I would love to incorporate that into a movie some day.” When we got back to California from New York, we met with Charles Eames and discussed the concept of the split screen.” Unfortunately I would also take anything Saul Bass said about his “directorial” efforts with more than a grain of salt. He claimed to have “directed” the major battle in Spartacus when he was nowhere near Spain in October/November 1959 and other than crowd shots I think you’ll find Frankenheimer was in charge of most of the racing footage. Watch Bass’ only feature film (Phase IV) sometime–you’ll find out he really had very little camera (as opposed to design) ability. Good at montages—horrible at linear storytelling.

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