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In the age of streaming TV, who needs title sequences?

Illustrations by Garret Beard

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Until Tony Soprano took viewers on a strange journey over the New Jersey Turnpike for the very first time in 1999, television title sequences were mostly straightforward affairs.

There was an establishing shot: a barrel wave off the coast of Hawaii, or choppers carrying wounded vets over a mountain in Korea. Then a theme song swelled, an earworm that would echo in your brain like an advertising jingle: “Here’s the story, of a lovely lady…” Some names appeared alongside corresponding actors, who often turned to smile — or brood, depending on their character — in a weirdly stagey way. The audience was told the central premise in no uncertain terms. The nanny is named Fran. In the criminal justice system the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. The truth is “out there.” Then the cartoon family converged on the couch, and finally the show began.

Television titles set the scene, offered some exposition, then got out of the way. They were hardly a main attraction. But with The Sopranos, and two years later with Six Feet Under, something began to shift.

“What we were hoping to do,” says Paul Matthaeus, the founder of Digital Kitchen, which crafted the original titles for Six Feet Under, “is create a context for the show where it instantly became more meaningful, more relevant, and more penetrative for the audience before they’d even seen frame number one.” Instead of just introducing a family of dysfunctional undertakers and the actors who played them, the opener of Six Feet Under used evocative symbols to channel the show’s bigger themes: life and death, existential dependence on the body. In 2001, this was a stunning departure. Radical, even. “A lot people didn’t really understand it,” Danny Yount, the director of the sequence, once told Vanity Fair. “They thought of it as something edgy and cool, not as something that would take the viewer into this ethereal, visceral space.”     

Of course, in retrospect, the sequence’s abstract dreaminess seems almost rudimentary. The last 15 years have seen a steady development of titles that confront the audience in increasingly sophisticated ways, from the quotidian morning violence of Dexter, to the corporate despair of Mad Men, to the queer personal history of Transparent, to the nightmarish production line powering Westworld. Compared with their utilitarian predecessors, these new titles are tight, accomplished art films, something showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett has aptly described as “standalone experiences that roil the imagination.”

In fact, there are now so many supercharged sequences that we are living through what could be called a kind of renaissance (the Age of a Damn Good Introduction?): Game of Thrones, The Leftovers, Orange Is the New Black. Some titles are so polished that they even threaten to outshine the programs they theoretically frame. For example, Vinyl: the coked-up intro proved the most stimulating take on 1970s New York in the entire short-lived series.

This renaissance reached a landmark this past March, when Starz released its hallucinogenic opener for American Gods — released it, that is, an entire month before the drama actually premiered. Unmoored from its source material, the sequence, directed by Patrick Clair, took on a new and vibrant life of its own.

Title sequences can feel like a vestigial nuisance for viewers who are four episodes into a season-long binge

At the same time, the way we consume TV shows has also changed dramatically. Streaming services have made binging mainstream, and in the process, they have transformed the very nature of the shows we watch. As James Poniewozik argued in The New York Times a couple years ago, streaming TV shows now constitute their own genre in which directors can avoid tedious practices like “‘repeating the pilot’: telling repetitive stories in the early episodes to accommodate latecomers.” As a result, title sequences can feel misplaced in this new genre, a vestigial nuisance for viewers who are four episodes into a season-long binge. In a response this spring, Netflix began to tantalize a “skip intro” button, which allowed viewers to do away with titles completely, bringing serial television even closer to marathon-length movies.

It is a moment of remarkable contrast, with title sequences both blossoming with potential and seemingly imperiled. This conflict raises an interesting question: at a time when television titles have never been so good, what purpose do they actually still serve?

The Sopranos.
The Sopranos.

If you ask almost anyone with insider knowledge of how prestige television is made, they will probably tell you that this is HBO’s story. 

Like its name, “Home Box Office,” suggests, HBO has long aspired to dissolve the boundaries between cinema and your living room. One way to do this has been to produce television content at Hollywood-quality levels. Another more subtle but no less effective way has been to insinuate prestige through opening sequences that echo the classic work of title designers like Kyle Cooper (Se7en), Dan Perri (Star Wars), and Saul Bass (Vertigo). To raise the brand, in effect, HBO co-opted and normalized a hallmark of iconic films: artistic openers that challenge the viewer to think more deeply about the following story. 

The reason why HBO was able to create these kinds of titles at all is because of technology. “So much of the evolution of title design has been directly parallel to the evolution of the technology used to make it,” explains Lola Landekic, managing editor of the aptly named Art of the Title, which has been analyzing titles in film and television since 2007. Today’s renaissance is the direct result of a “democratization of tools.”

Before the mid-1990s, putting together a title sequence was difficult and laborious. Motion graphics required a facility like the Quantel Paintbox, Landekic says. It was a dedicated workstation that was operated with a stylus pen, and it was so prohibitively expensive that it was only available to the most well-heeled production studios. Something like the recent title sequence for Stranger Things, which paid homage to the opening sequences of Altered States (1980) and The Dead Zone (1983), would have been created digitally and then “filmed out,” or transferred to film which was processed to gauge the final effect. “There was no way to quickly make a change,” says Michelle Dougherty, the creative director behind the Stranger Things sequence. “You would have to film it out, see the mistake, and then redo it, and then film it out again… and that became very costly over time.”    

Cost meant studios were rarely willing to experiment. You needed to walk into the production suite “really knowing what it is you wanted to do,” recalls Matthaeus, “and that means you walk into the suite thinking about things that you’ve seen before.” Thus the same-sameness of many old-school television titles came to be. What had worked once would work again. Repetition equalled financial security. Innovation was treated as an untenable extravagance.

The desktop revolution changed all that. Tools like the Quantel Paintbox gave way to CoSA After Effects 1.0, and then Adobe (which won a lawsuit against Quantel, and ultimately swallowed After Effects to become the industry leader). The arrival of video-editing and animation software on powerful, affordable Macintosh computers is what empowered today’s leading studios of television title design, including Digital Kitchen, Elastic, and Imaginary Forces. Without the technological leap, these studios would not exist, and we might still be watching some white text flash across canned footage.

Six Feet Under.
Six Feet Under.

“The technology really freed us in a lot of ways,” says Dougherty. She works at Imaginary Forces, where she has produced titles for Jessica Jones and Boardwalk Empire, among others. The tech has permitted a degree of play and experimentation to be introduced into the process that once might have caused a designer to be fired for wasting precious resources. For example, Dougherty created several alternatives before landing on the final floating Benguiat typeface in Stranger Things. Its brilliance is the product of trial and error, of testing ideas and throwing them away, and even shining a light through Kodalith film to see how it reacted. (The imperfections were then re-created using After Effects.) “We were really trying to get the feel of a bad ‘80s film-out,” Dougherty says. But the “roughness” of the sequence is painstakingly contrived, making it a true labor of love.

Matthaeus compares the modern-day approach to making titles to how musician Brian Eno creates his music. Eno sees his recording studio, in and of itself, as a musical instrument. With the affordable sophistication of digital software, the average designer can now treat their computer as an instrument, too. Title designers have ceased being technicians, executing jobs at minimal expense, and become artists able to try new things. “You can iterate much faster,” says Matthaeus. “You can get tangible very early. You see how it plays and moves against music. The pattern of design and creation is no longer so linear.”

“The technology really freed us in a lot of ways.”

This past January, Alan Williams, leading a team of five or six designers at Imaginary Forces, produced the complex opener for Anne With an E, Netflix’s controversial retelling of Anne of Green Gables

“I almost treat it like forensics,” Williams says of his speedy creative process. “I will record the conversation that we have [with the showrunners], and I’ll go back and re-listen, and re-listen, and try to get to the core of what makes this story what it is.” Williams came up with two original treatments for Anne With an E: one live-action and one animation. When the animation option won out, Williams turned to the artist Brad Kunkle, who produced eight oil paintings in his distinctive heightened style. Imaginary Forces then photographed Kunkle’s paintings with high-resolution cameras and shaped them into three-dimensional renderings. Gold and silver leaf was filmed to capture the movement of light. Then everything was assembled together to create a sequence that, not long ago, would have been impossibly expensive, regardless of the length of development. It took Alan Williams and his team little more than a month.

Technology has liberated designers to such an extent that they now see their job as complementary storytellers. When it comes to Anne Shirley, “you’ll see her face blossom with emotion when she sees these different things,” Williams explains, but in the actual show Anne With an E, “you’ll never see as she sees.” Williams decided the title sequence offered an unusual opportunity to offer a peek inside her head at the beginning of every episode. “This is a character who sees things with wonder, magic in the mundane. This was our moment.”

True Detective.
True Detective.

Patrick Clair, who works with Elastic, is arguably the modern master of television title sequences. His work includes The Man in the High Castle (for which he won an Emmy in 2016), as well as Daredevil, The Night Manager, Halt and Catch Fire, The Crown, Westworld, and, most recently, American Gods. His style is metaphorical and abstract, combining highly charged symbols — the Statue of Liberty, a Nazi eagle — in a dark void. He has the associative sensibility of a poet.

Clair got his break in journalism, illustrating news for an Australian television show called Hungry Beast. In 2011, he was tasked with building an infographic that would explain Stuxnet, the mysterious cyber-weapon, possibly American-Israeli, that wiped out a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. Clair’s video, “Anatomy of a Computer Virus,” quickly went viral — 500,000 hits in three days — and caught the attention of video game company Ubisoft. As Clair tells it, Ubisoft watched his video and reasoned that “if he can explain real warfare, maybe he can explain fake Tom Clancy warfare.” Clair was contracted to apply the techniques of visual journalism to “fictional worlds.” Eventually, this led him to Hollywood.

The journalistic eye for detail remains a throughline in much of Clair’s work as a title designer. In The Man in the High Castle, for example, maps, labels, and sliding arrows establish how, in the alternate dystopian reality of the Amazon drama, the United States has been divided into the Greater Nazi Reich and Japanese Pacific States. In HBO’s Westworld, on the other hand, Clair offers what a print journalist might call a “process piece”: laying out, step-by-step, how something is built. In this case, it’s an android “host” that will populate (and embody) the amoral landscape of Westworld. In effect, Clair has built his entire career out of translating complicated concepts into elegant, accessible visual explainers.

“All of a sudden people expect you to do things that are more abstract, more daring, more audacious and visual.”

But what makes any of this possible, Clair suggests, is a radical shift in the way we consume our popular culture. “The internet has made us all super visual,” he says. There is now a premium on rendering human experience in visual forms: video, photographs, emoji, GIFs. Visual culture “is not just a part of your everyday life,” the theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff once wrote, “it is your everyday life.” As people have become more adept at communicating thoughts and ideas through pictures and symbols, perhaps their ability to divine more subtle gradations of meanings in visuals has also increased. It’s the same principle as literacy: the more literate a person is, the more difficult books they can digest, from The Cat in the Hat right up to Ulysses.

What does all this mean for television title design? “All of a sudden people expect you to do things that are more abstract, more daring, more audacious and visual in the way you design television sequences,” Clair says.

In other words, as our culture has become driven by the internet and interactive technologies, television openers have responded by serving up an increasingly sophisticated barrage of images. “Our ability, our tendency to be able to process that barrage of images,” says Matthaeus, “I think on a certain level it’s a metaphor for how our brains are working now.”

The Man in the High Castle.
The Man in the High Castle.

Of course, technology has also revolutionized how we, as viewers, actually watch the television shows. Streaming services and handheld devices mean cable subscriptions and living rooms are no longer necessary. You can, if you wish (and are completely masochistic), binge-watch an entire season of The Americans while sitting on the New York subway.

How this has influenced the purpose of title sequences is difficult to underestimate. On one level, they remain what they have always been: a legally mandated list of names awarding credit to the people who were involved in production. But for many shows that are competing in a high-quality market that is growing at an exponential rate, they are now also being used to generate intrigue — or, as Matthaeus puts it, a feeling in prospective viewers of “holy-crap-I’ve-got-to-see-this-show.” Like the cover of a book, a strong title sequence is being used to entice an audience to choose this program out of the seemingly countless that can now be viewed anywhere, anytime.    

Clair likes to use the analogy of an “air lock.” Once, a viewer approached a show from within the regulated space of a television network, “and there’s a tone and aesthetic to that station,” he says. “Now you’re coming [in] completely cold.” As a result, Clair’s titles, like the titles of many contemporary designers, are meant to transition you from everyday life, wherever you happen to be at the time, and place you directly into the atmosphere of a particular show.

One way to do this is through leveraging emotion, a tool already used to devastating effect by the advertising industry. It is no accident that many recent title sequences inspire sensations of confusion, fear, melancholy, or nostalgia; appealing to a viewer’s emotions both engages interest on a subliminal level, and conditions them for what they’re about to see. One masterful example is Clair’s opener for True Detective, which implies — through its juxtaposition of oil refineries, strippers, tangled highways, and fire — sensations of anxiety and anomie. Clair’s “portrait made from broken landscapes,” as he describes it, scored him his first Primetime Emmy in 2014. It is now considered a classic of the burgeoning genre.

Jessica Jones.
Jessica Jones.

Clair’s latest title for American Gods opens with a jittery blitz of visuals that reminded me, the first time I watched it, of a mashup between Coney Island, a Jewish synagogue, and the Berlin nightclub Berghain, filmed and edited by a tech-savvy millennial with ADHD. A medusa with fiber-optic hair, a Buddha confettied with pills, a crucified astronaut — the sequence says a hundred things simultaneously, mainlining themes and world views directly into your brain. When I spoke with showrunners Bryan Fuller (Hannibal), and Michael Green (who co-wrote Logan and the upcoming Blade Runner 2049), they both seemed a little dazed by what Clair had created — dazed but ecstatic. “We wanted it to be witty. We wanted it to have points of view,” Fuller said, and what Clair and his team conjured up was “pretty inspiring.” Brian Reitzell, who provided the score, described it as “the bong hit that you need to process the rest of the show.” Fuller thought that was just about right on the money.        

When Clair’s latest title was released in March, weeks before the show itself, it hinted at some curious possibilities for the future. Could a title sequence be treated like a music video, a piece of artful marketing meant to inspire viewers to purchase an album (or show)? Could it take on a life independent of the actual drama — a short film in its own right?

Clair, for one, is skeptical of this: “At the end of the day, the title sequence doesn’t mean much without the very dense and complex drama that follows.” And the trend for increasingly extravagant openers is beginning to raise eyebrows in some other corners of the industry, too. Will Perkins, an editor at Art of the Title, says, “It’s become a sort of title sequence arms race. If every show on television has a flashy title sequence, what can they do to set themselves apart? They’re going to have to keep one-upping each other with these increasingly elaborate opening credits just to compete at that level. I think that might, at some point, encourage viewers to hit the ‘skip credits’ button.” Actually, a few shows are already skipping the credits automatically: most recently The Handmaid’s Tale, which used nothing but a brief title card flash.

American Gods.
American Gods.

This past March, some Netflix subscribers noticed a new feature when they fired up their favorite series: a “skip intro” button that let them skip the title instantly. At the time, Netflix assured The Verge that they “perform hundreds of tests every year to help make the Netflix member experience better,” and the company had made no decision to roll out the feature widely.

There’s evidence to suggest that if Netflix did, however, it may face some audience resistance. In 2016, the producers behind American Horror Story decided to drop the show’s famously evocative opener for AHS: Roanoke, perhaps because a slickly produced title sequence conflicted with the season’s documentary aesthetic of found footage, reenactments, and “real” interviews. This omission was quickly noted and reviled by many viewers. “People were furious online,” recalls Lola Landekic. “I took all these screencaps of people yelling, ‘Where is the title sequence? How dare you!’” The decision spawned think pieces, Reddit angst, and at least one fully fledged fan trailer, as though the absence of an opener was simply too frustrating to allow.

“People were furious online. ‘Where is the title sequence? How dare you!’”

When I asked several different designers about the Netflix skip button, reactions ranged from wry amusement to open disgust. (Netflix declined to comment for this story.) Clair said his team was “looking into it.” Manija Emran, a graphic designer and typographer based in Los Angeles, described it as a “hugely counterintuitive” step that would “devalue the show.” This seemed to be the opinion of another artist at Imaginary Forces, who reportedly complained to his colleagues that “you don’t have a button to skip car scenes.” Another colleague replied that it was an impetus to work harder, produce better work, and now earn a “repeat titles” button.

Ultimately, though, nobody seemed too concerned by Netflix’s covert assault on their work. The general attitude is that titles have become too integral to the identity of prestige television, too much of an internet discussion point, to disappear entirely without causing the kind of audience revolt that greeted American Horror Story.

In April, Starz gave me access to the first four episodes of American Gods through its online media room. As I settled down with wine to watch the baroque saga of Shadow Moon, I noticed something odd: the title sequence was missing. (Fuller later explained to me that it was still unfinished when these first screeners were uploaded.) Instead of a dizzying opener, the show simply began its onslaught of surrealist plot threads. I found myself missing Clair’s work. The show felt, without its overture, too abrupt and too ridiculous. I wasn’t in the mood. My disbelief was not suspended. Ultimately, I paused between each of the episodes to re-watch the titles on YouTube to fix that.

It reminded me of something Alan Williams had told me: “You sit down and you’ve got dirty dishes that you need to wash, or all the stress from work, or whatever is going on… and here is this moment, a curtains-rising-and-lights-dimming type of moment, that sucks you in to be told a story. And I think we need that. We need that preparation to escape and separate ourselves from all the busyness of life, even if it’s just on our phones, on the subway. A successful title sequence does that. It’s gets you out of reality and pulls you into the eyes of the storyteller.”