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Punch Through The Din – 3 Copywriting Tips by Screenwriter, Neil Jaworski

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Neil Jaworski, co-screenwriter on The Decoy Bride, is the man behind our latest blog – a fascinating look at Saul Bass and what copywriters can learn from his greatest work.

Designer, Jim Northover, quotes Saul Bass as saying the best design “punches through the din” of all the loud, bad design around it. This is as true of the written word and, as a copywriter, it’s important that your words find a way to reach your audience.

They must stand-out and demand attention.  

When your target audience is online they are under near-permanent attack from furious banner ads and relentless pop-ups. How can you be distinctive and get your message across? How can you punch through the din?

My name is Neil Jaworski and I’m a screenwriter. In this blog, I’ve taken inspiration from one of my personal heroes – Saul Bass – to find out which of his techniques can be applied by copywriters. But first…

Who is Saul Bass?

Saul Bass, was a New York designer who moved to 1940s Los Angeles and revolutionised movie campaigns. Pre-Bass, most movie posters were uninspired, giant headshots of the stars. Opening title sequences were considered so boring, that projectionists didn’t pull the curtains until the actual film began.

Bass changed this with his radical campaign for Otto Preminger’s 1955 film, The Man With The Golden Arm. Frank Sinatra plays ‘Frankie Machine’ – drug addict, card-dealer and drummer – a man who’s defined by what he does to and with his arm.  

Bass distilled this character idea into a single, dramatic image of a jagged arm which ran on subway posters & cinema marquees and swiftly became iconic. 

In the film’s opening titles, an animated version of this arm splits and reforms in unsettling, unexpected formations whilst a crazed Elmer Bernstein score squalls underneath.  

When the projectionist pulled the curtains, audiences had never seen anything like it.  

I’ve been a fan of Saul Bass for twenty years and admire his invention, wit and economy. Bass not only delineates an idea effectively, he renders it beautifully.  

Here are some lessons I’ve taken from Bass over the years. Perhaps you can learn from them too…

1. Be Clean & precise

Bass’ genius was to distil the essence of a film concept into a single, inviting idea. His hypnotic spiral design for Vertigo alludes to James Stewart’s predicament, as it hypnotically draws the filmgoer in. 

An efficient, striking visual is better than a quagmire of images. In copywriting, remove unnecessary words, keep the message simple, remove inefficient words like ‘very’ and ‘actually’. Stay on point.

2. Juxtapose words & visuals

There’s an unwritten rule in screenwriting that voiceover should not repeat information that is already on-screen. Soundtrack should contrast with the image, else there’s a strange flattening effect.  

In Bass’ opening titles for Spartacus (watch video below), the pomp & majesty of Alex North’s score is brilliantly contrasted with visuals of grand statues & busts as they decay, crack and explode.  

Similarly, great texture can be achieved by juxtaposing words & visuals. So think about ironic counterpoints.

3. Avoid clichés…. or interrogate them further

Saul Bass arrived into an industry where almost every poster featured standard head-shots, the leads in a clinch, an explosion in the background and a comedy dog. By not doing the obvious thing, Bass demanded our attention. Bass’ spare, Japanese-influenced trade ad for western, The Magnificent Seven, is the antithesis of the usual men-on-horseback western cliché.

But Bass could also manipulate & reinvent a cliché. An over-familiar household cat – as shot by Bass for the opening titles of – Walk On The Wild Side, is rendered anew for us with macro lenses:  it is huge, threatening, mysterious, muscular. 

We see cats with new eyes. Copywriters must similarly eschew the cliché or give it an extra turn that renders it fresh again.