March 22, 2010

Title Analysis: Ed Wood

This article is an adaptation of a paper I wrote in 2007 as an undergraduate at UC Irvine. Screencaptures are my own. Critical analysis is original, except where cited from other sources.

Film: Ed Wood
Director: Tim Burton
Title Designers: Robert Dawson and Paul Boyington

It is impossible to speak of the title sequence of Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994) without referencing the films of the man himself, director Edward D. Wood, Jr. Burton’s film explicitly lifts images, themes and other visual signifiers from Wood’s films and inserts them into the biographical narrative of Wood’s life. The most condensed set of referential symbols is in the credit sequence wherein objects and people that reoccur several times in the film are introduced. Most of these signifiers first appeared in Ed Wood’s opus from Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), which is the film Burton uses in the climax of Ed Wood.

Therefore, there are three levels of what Robert Stam calls “transtextuality…all that which puts one text in relation, whether manifest or secret, with other texts” (Stam, 207). These are intertextuality, paratextuality, and metatextuality, all which work in relation to the three stages of the film: the title sequence, the making of the films-with-a-film, and the screening of the films-within-a-film. The title sequences sets the tone of the picture in its explicit citations of Ed Woodian tropes. The sequence works within the generic conventions of Ed Wood’s films: horror, science fiction, and melodrama but tweaks the generic formula slightly in its conscious use of humor, whereas the humor in the films of Ed Wood is unintentional.

Howard Shore’s soundtrack is also a metatextual reference, in that it uses electronic instruments like the theremin and the ondes Martenot to evoke a weird tone that calls to mind the otherworldly outer space of '50s sci-fi films. Although Ed Wood never had the budget for original music, the theremin was popular in science fiction film and television shows in the 1950s, the period in which Ed worked. The blending of sci-fi music and horror movie standards like wolf cries and dark, foreboding tones, helps to set the tone for films that deal in those genres. Shore's score is both serious and winking in its quotations of Wood's work. The score at once justifies the legitimacy of Wood's films and pokes fun at their camp appeal, using more lighthearted musical instruments like bongos to signal that Ed Wood, unlike the films of Ed Wood, is conscious of its comedy.

The opening title sequence for Ed Wood.

Director Tim Burton says that he and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski set out to capture “the flavor of Ed Wood, but not be Ed Wood, exactly” (DVD Audio Commentary). Burton notes that all Ed Wood films feature symbols of Ed’s personality embedded in filmic genre convention. There is a through-line across Wood’s work that makes an Ed Wood film instantly recognizable. Burton plays with these signs and symbols in the title sequence, which moves from different tableaus prominent in the Wood films featured in Burton’s film. The gothic haunted house is from Bride of the Monster (1955), Criswell's introduction and the headstone credits are from Plan 9, and the lightning motif is present in both films. Alexander and Karaszewski comment that all the symbols and characters in the film must have immediately “iconographic importance,” and shorthand for the introduction of key themes and tropes within the narrative (DVD Audio Commentary). This is exactly what the title sequence designed by Robert Dawson and Paul Boyington does. The tone of the film straddles the space between comedy and drama while adapting elements of Wood’s generic tableau, which is evident in the mixing of genre archetypes in the opening titles.

The opening title sequence for Plan 9 From Outer Space.

The opening title sequence for Bride of the Monster.

The iconographic objects that appear in the titles include the octopus, Criswell, the haunted house, the lightning & thunderstorms, the gravestones, the coffin, spaceships, water, and Hollywood. Each of these visual signifiers is an example of transtextuality in Ed Wood. They emerge first in the title sequence, which is itself a paratext that “frame[s] or bracket[s] a film” (Zagala, 1). Therefore, these symbols color our reading of the text that follows. The objects are metatextual in that they are “explicitly cited” in other texts, in this case, Wood’s films Plan 9 From Outer Space and Bride of the Monster.

The title card for Ed Wood mimics Plan 9 in font and palm-treed cemetery backdrop.

In both Plan 9 and Ed Wood, Criswell, or at least Jeffrey Jones as Criswell, serves as a narrator who speaks directly to the audience. In fact, his opening speech is almost word for word what the real Criswell said in Plan 9:

“Greetings, my friend. You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now for the first time, we are bringing you the full story of what happened. We are giving you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, the places. My friend, we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Can your heart stand the shocking facts of…”

Ed Wood continues with this line: “…the true story of Edward D. Wood, Jr.?” whereas Plan 9’s introduction ends with: “grave robbers from outer space?” Grave Robbers From Outer Space was the original title for what became Plan 9 From Outer Space. The reasons for this change are enumerated in the film Ed Wood itself, therefore they are at least three levels of referentiality in this introduction alone.

Jeffrey Jones (left) plays television psychic and Ed Wood regular Criswell. He introduces Burton's film from a coffin and the real Criswell (right) introduces Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Other intertextual quotations occur in the form of using tombstones as the actors’ credit, and having lightning bolts transition between credits. Even the typography of Plan 9’s titles is the same as Ed Wood’s: job titles in bold white italics above the peoples’ names in the same type, white, non-italicized, and all capitalized, centered in the middle of the frame. The titles of Plan 9 set the tone and setting of that film by superimposing the credits on a shot of a graveyard. Ed Wood adapts that technique and informs it with conscious self-referentiality. Ed Wood quotes Plan 9, but also gives the viewers hints on what to expect later in the film when Ed (Johnny Depp) films scenes for Plan 9 in a cemetery set.

Later in the film, the footage Ed/Depp has shot is projected in a theater as the completed Plan 9 from Outer Space. The effect of this Russian doll-like structure of inter- and metatextuality is to create a sense of warm nostaligia for not only the film Ed Wood, but the man Ed Wood, even if the viewer has not seen a single film he has directed.

The premiere of Plan 9 is reproduced in Ed Wood. We watch the audience watching the titles that were parodied at the beginning of our own viewing experience. Johnny Depp as Ed Wood looks on, demonstrating and perhaps prompting a sense of awe and pride the audience is meant to share.

There is a triad structure set up in the credit sequence that contributes to this fondness for Ed’s story. Ed the man is intimately connected to the themes and tones in the title sequence, therefore if the title sequence succeeds in engrossing the viewer, they will consequently identify with Ed’s biopic. The octopus occurs three times in the film, for the first time in the titles as underwater file footage, and as a stop-motion animation that fights with an animated spaceship. The octopus symbol is further developed as a plot point when Ed and his gang steal one from a studio prop department. The octopus plotline comes to an emotional climax when Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) must fight the prop creature in a shallow pond at 4 A.M. while shooting the climax of Bride of the Monster.
Objects that serve a humorous purpose in the credits take on greater emotional resonance later in the film. The coffin from which Criswell arises is later referenced in the introduction of Bela, who is laying in a coffin, hands crossed, eyes closed when he first appears in Ed Wood. This is of course a reference to his most famous role as Dracula. The camera tracks forward and tilts to introduce his character, and later, when Bela dies, the same camera movement is used to signal his exit from the narrative. The opening and closing the coffin lids symbolizes the opening and closing of the narrative, in the case of Criswell, and of a character arc, in the case of Bela.
Another recurring object in the titles are the animated spaceships that take the viewer away from Earth and into space, a visual signifier for the science fiction aspects of Ed’s oeuvre. In the film, a triumphant montage includes Kathy (Patricia Arquette) lovingly painting paper plates silver to make the flying saucers which we later see hover over a poorly constructed and completely inaccurate model of Hollywood during the filming of Plan 9. Though the ships are funny in the titles, allying them to Kathy’s acceptance of love of Ed, and Ed’s “masterpiece,” Plan 9, lends them a deeper meaning as we root for Ed to make his best bad film in the face of many hardships.

The spatial metaphor of entering and exiting physical space, opening and closing windows, and movement in, out, and through different spaces gives the title sequence the sense of a journey through the world of Ed Wood and Ed Wood movies before we meet the character or encounter his films. The fluid, forward camera movement and invisible edits create a sense of cinematic realism even amid such unrealistic elements as an octopus/spaceship fight, and in spite of the fact that Ed Wood is a movie about a man whose films defied any logical realism, cinematic or otherwise. The tension between real and fake is articulated in the last tableau of the title sequence. The Hollywood model displays accuracy of artifice, complete with realistic rain, lights and moving cars. It is, however, a parody of Ed Woodian aesthetics that used inaccurate miniatures to stand-in for actual locations, as for example, the model of Hollywood in Plan 9 From Outer Space. Burton's film seems to recognize the fakeness of Wood's films but offer up his own film as a very real space that provides writer-director-producer Edward D. Wood, Jr. a rightful place in cinematic history. Even if that place is as the worst director of all time.


Stam, Robert. “From Text to Intertext.” Film Theory: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

Zagala, Anna. "The edges of film." Senses of Cinema Feb 2002 1-3. October 5 2007 .

Ed Wood. Dir. Tim Burton. Perf. Johnny Depp, Martin Landau. 1994. DVD. Touchstone Pictures, 2004


  1. Very informative and I thought I knew a lot about this film and its subject. Now I want to put this in the DVD player and watch it again. :)

  2. Ed Wood is one of my favorite movies and one of my favorite title sequences precisely because there's so much love from one artist (Burton & co.) to another (Ed Wood). And because it's obviously such a personal film, and those are always the best Tim Burton films, imo.