Patrick Clair, creative director of California-based studio Elastic talks to Issac Teh about the storytelling techniques behind those opening title sequences obsessed over by TV bingers everywhere.
Beginnings: a simple idea, and a singular strong concept
In recent years, the TV series has entered critical and social discourse with great force – from the pages of The New Yorker to the discussions and allegiances that unfold on Facebook feeds. And with a more diverse range of networks and streaming services making their way into the market, a strange phenomenon is unfolding: the title sequence race. From humble beginnings as mere title cards in silent films, today highly considered title sequences can be found leading not only into big budget movies but into their increasingly-sophisticated sibling, the TV series – an indication that the ways in which we are making and watching television are subtly changing.
Unlike the simple, utilitarian arrangements that informed the viewer of the show’s stars, or what happened in the previous episode, the title sequences of today are whole different breed. “For any series, the challenge is to boil down the dynamic of the drama into an idea that is simple, yet striking and meaningful,” says Patrick Clair, creative director of Elastic in California, the studio responsible for the titles to True Detective and Halt and Catch Fire. “The most iconic and memorable title sequences begin with a simple idea: a singular strong concept that evokes the characters, the tone, the world and the story through focused and striking visuals – a man in freefall (Mad Men), a dead body being prepared for burial (Six Feet Under), the brutality of cooking breakfast (Dexter).”
The sophistication of these sequences has grown alongside the emergence of services like Netflix, an on-demand internet streaming service. Unlike a traditional network, where a longer title sequence means less time for commercials, Netflix is unbound by these restrictions and the titles for its original series are conceptual, multilayered pieces of mini cinema, with hidden symbols and connotations regarding the series they accompany. Anyone who follows Orange is the New Black can recognise the title sequence (designed by Thomas Cobb Group) with their eyes closed just by listening to Regina Spektor chiming in the background, and this may conjure the mouths and eyes of the incarcerated women featured in the sequence, each of whom took creator Jenji Kohan’s directions in front of camera to think of a peaceful place, a person who makes them laugh and something they want to forget. The combination of this audio and sepia-toned synecdochic images, with contrasting pops of orange and red, results in an unmistakeable brand that becomes ingrained in the viewer’s mind.
Developing a style guide for the series
Or look at the opening titles to the American Horror Story series, with the unique challenge in that each season tells a different story. Created by Los Angeles studio Prologue, the titles across each season feature surreal imagery, unnerving ambient sounds rushing in the background, and a surprising typographic treatment with the use of a modified ITC Rennie Mackintosh font, which holds more of an art nouveau air than claims to the horror genre. But by consistently including these art-directed elements in the title sequence for each instalment of the popular franchise, Prologue created a style guide for the TV series, which ensures that each new production falls in line with the rest.
For the period drama Halt and Catch Fire, Clair and his team looked into computer advertising from the 80s. “So often the 80s is just seen as this kitsch ridiculous bizarre fun time, but if you go back and look at the materials from the time you see that these clunky pixel machines were serious big business with all the conservative serif typography and sheen of high-end business marketing. That’s what inspired so much of our approach to timing and type choices – the idea that it was possible, interesting even, to actually take the 80s seriously for a moment. For Daredevil, we had this great chance to dig into symbols around old New York and Hell’s Kitchen, especially symbols of the church and justice system. Any story has many rich symbols in the subtext, the exciting thing [when making title sequences] is to mine that subtext and make something cool with it.”
Designing for repetition
As the arts become more accessible, it can be said that audiences can now better appreciate good technique. Even the 2015 Emmy nominations for Outstanding Main Title Design have become a topic for discussion. When was the word ‘snubbed’ ever used for something like title sequences? Some treat these sequences with the same fervent loyalty that they have for their favourite character or series. The nominations of titles from streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Studios – in which users are given the opportunity to binge watch entire seasons in a single sitting – suggest that audiences are now more taken with a premium experience and all the perks that come with it, including more sophisticated title sequences. While techniques such as the double exposure employed in both of HBO’s True Detective sequences (“broken portraits of broken people,” says Clair), as well as the mirroring effect used in the title sequence for Amazon Studio’s Bosch, are lauded by the viewers.
The British explorer Freya Stark said, “Curiosity is the one thing invincible in nature.” Such is human nature, the less we know, the more want to uncover, and with the facilitation of binge viewing, some titles are designed to reveal layers of depth over time or with repetition.
“A good example is a show like Homeland,” says Clair. “Its title sequence is unusual, but also very effective at working on a number of levels. On the first viewing, it really feels likes it’s tackling the bigger geopolitics of the show – a story about espionage, post 9/11 counterterrorism and the chaos and pitfalls of American foreign policy across the last decade. However, on subsequent viewings, the discordant score and fragmented imagery really spoke to something much more fundamental about Claire Danes’ character – this was a sequence about the challenges of coping with mental illness, of someone struggling to face a demanding career while also balancing a condition that affects the way you experience the world.”
The artistry behind these masterpieces is a collaboration between show runners and studios, where a close relationship is critical. “As with an creative project, trust is key,” says Clair. “The more you can demonstrate an understanding of the human struggles at the heart of that story, the better the result will be when you translate it into sound and visuals. As a director, your job is to sell your ideas – and every concept should be met with resistance. The best ideas live because they are robust and universal.”
Thumbnail illustration by Daniel H Gray.