A Tribute to Richard Alan Greenberg, Master of Movie Titles

The R/GA co-founder passed away this summer at 71

Is the work bold? Brave? Innovative? Do you wish you'd done it? 

These are the questions we encourage Clio jury members to consider when awarding the most creative work of the year. They're the same criteria we ask ourselves when determining which creative careers we wish to celebrate at our award shows. This sort of recognition requires more than an award-winning ad or tagline. It is reserved for the innovators whose work stands the test of time and transcends generations, leaving a mark on pop culture.

The goal of any creative is to shift the industry forward and redefine standards. That's what defines legends. Last Thursday evening at the Clio Entertainment Awards, the industry came together to celebrate one such visionary, Richard Alan Greenberg, who passed away this summer at age 71. 

If you're not familiar with his name, you certainly know his work. It was Richard's artful designs, special effects and title sequences that opened some of the world's most beloved films, such as Alien, The Goonies, The Matrix and Dirty Dancing, among many others. Richard's work was bold, brave and innovative. He set the industry standard of what to expect from a great title sequence. 

Here's a video tribute to that work, which was shown at the Clio Entertainment show: 

"Richard was my first and most important mentor," says Peter Frankfurt, owner of creative studio Imaginary Forces. "He wasn't didactic, he didn't have rules or nostrums to follow. He just had beautiful taste, impulse and maybe the courage to keep things simple. He taught me to strip things away instead of adding things on—fewer words, fewer frames made a good idea clearer, better. If you look at his body of work, his voice is so apparent: elegant, witty, laconic. The work is so strong and doesn't look like anything else." 

Perhaps the most iconic piece in Richard's collection came shortly after he and his brother Robert founded R/Greenberg Associates in 1978, a design agency—now the renowned international agency R/GA—that they ran out of their New York brownstone. Warner Bros. was on the verge of releasing Superman, the first superhero film of its kind with A-list stars, blockbuster potential and a marketing campaign that would transform Superman into a movie star.

The major creative challenge of the project were the limited existing special effects. Warner Bros. wanted the audience to feel like they were flying, and Richard Greenberg promised he could make that happen. He just had to figure out how. Among his many other talents, Richard was a creative solutionist and a visual innovator. Instead of folding at the challenge of undeveloped technology, he created it himself. 

Superman (1978) | Title Sequence

"In 1978, special effects as we know them today were non-existent," says Richard's son, Luke Silver-Greenberg, co-founder of creative agency Bond. "In Superman, audiences had to suspend disbelief as Christopher Reeve stretched out his arms and pretended to fly. When my dad saw the rough cut, he recognized that in order to really make the film work he needed to make the audience feel like they could fly. With his titles, he did just that."

It was during his work for Superman that Richard was introduced to his creative collaborator, Paula Silver. 

"Richard Greenberg and I met while working on the teaser trailer for Superman," says Silver. "I was amazed by his vision and how he made an ad, which was simple typography but made all the sense. It showed that a man could fly, and people would believe it. It took Superman out of TV and made him a movie hero. Our work together led to many such metaphorical trailers, whether it be Tootsie or The Big Chill or Jaws or Dirty Dancing. Richard always looked to simplify the idea, and together we were able to not just cut a movie up into a two-minute trailer but create a representation of the concept of the movie. His work continues to live on because people fell in love with them. Moving pictures by design was his slogan, and he really did that. He always managed to create something which made you stop and think about it." 

Alien (1979) | Title Sequence
Altered States (1980) | Title Sequence

After Superman, Richard and R/GA became one of the hottest advertising and special effects shops in the industry. R/GA's commercial work included trailers, VFX and spots for films like Alien, Xanadu, Zelig, The World According to Garp, Altered States, Weird Science, Predator, Beverly Hills Cop and Ghostbusters. Top directors sought out R/GA to get the master's touch on their title sequences. The title sequences that Richard developed cultivated generations of film lovers. He raised audiences' expectations on how a film should open. 

"Alien, Dirty Dancing, Die Hard and The Matrix. These are some of the most formative films of my life," says Stewart Hopewell, creative director of motion graphics at The Refinery. "They helped me appreciate that title sequences are not just a stream of contractually obligated names. At their very best, they're art. They're the film in miniature, setting the stage for the story to come. Richard Greenberg's work was the best of the best. He was the leading edge of the art form, pushing its boundaries at every turn and inspiring a generation of filmmakers, animators, designers, typographers and artists to destroy those boundaries and never look back." 

One of the most recognizable traits of Richard's work is his beautiful use of typography, which created a unique visual identity for each of his title sequences. For example, the playful type of The Goonies title promises fun and adventure, conveying the core of the film. Or consider the towering letters and shadowing effects used on the typography of The Untouchables, which feels unreachable and infamous, just like the gangsters themselves. Frankfurt says of Greenberg's use of type, "It's very much of its time but is timeless. Richard understood the power of type onscreen; with the simplest gestures, he let the letters themselves tell the story. Look at his work on Alien, Altered States, Blow Out, The Untouchables. Consistent, original, rigorous and so simple—brave, you might say."

The Dead Zone (1983) | Title Sequence
The Goonies (1985) | Title Sequence

Richard's ability to conceptualize the overarching idea of a story was his greatest artistic talent. Concept was at the core of his every project. Each of his title sequences tells a story about what's to come. How you convey that story depends on the conceptual aptitude of the storyteller. When it came to concept, Richard was a master. 

"My dad taught me about concept," says Luke Silver-Greenberg. "That all the best work always starts with a great concept. Concept, married with simple, elegant design could change the world. I channel him every day." 

Richard inspired many. Family, friends, colleagues and generations to come will remember his talent and eagerness to create groundbreaking work. He was an innovator, an artist and a visionary. His style defined his stories. 

"Richard is a true talent and pioneer," says Don McNeill, designer and co-founder of Digital Kitchen. "His work has inspired such an amazing legacy in design, motion graphics and creative expression. Ever since I saw the flying type in Superman, I was hooked." 

Aside from his artistic endeavors, Richard was beloved in the industry as a co-worker, father and creative partner. Not surprisingly, he was a wonderful mentor and friend to his colleagues throughout the years. He remained close to many filmmakers, including Superman director Richard Donner, who introduced a tribute reel to Richard at the Clio Entertainment Awards show. 

The Untouchables (1987) | Title Sequence
Die Hard (1988) | Title Sequence

"Richard was a generous, fun, kind and a talented artist," says former co-worker and friend Unjoo Byars, who is the COO and producer at Aquamen Entertainment. "He loved his children, and he had the best stories to tell. He was a prolific reader and designer and had a keen eye for the highest aesthetics and design. I learned so much from Richard." 

What stands out most about Richard's work is the passion that shows up in every frame. Looking at his spots, title sequences and even the film he directed, Little Monsters, you can sense the joy he got from the work, and that joy extended to the viewer. 

"It's nice to know his art will live on beyond his short life," says Paula Silver, "He loved movies, he loved good design, and he truly loved the people he worked with." 

Richard Greenberg is the man who gave the world wings. Audiences wanted to fly, so he showed them how. In determining his legacy, I encourage you to ask yourself if his body of work fits the criteria: Is his work bold? Absolutely. Brave? Always. Innovative? Every time. Do you wish you'd created it? Many in the industry do. As another industry legend, Saul Bass, put it in 1994: "I had the opportunity the other day to screen a reel of Richard's work, and I was amazed at the uniformly high quality of his work. The fact is, he's the only guy around whose work I wish I had done." 

Richard Alan Greenberg was a master of his industry and a creative genius. He will be missed, but his work will transcend. 

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Ashley Falls
Ashley Falls is associate director of program management and development at The Clio Awards.