Opening title sequences are an integral part of visual storytelling, even if too frequently they occur as an afterthought—a thing to be tacked on last-minute out of grim legal obligation. In features, the elaborate title sequence has practically become an endangered species; often reduced to an abrupt single-frame title card or relegated, when they do exist, to the end of the film before the final end-credits crawl. Which, frankly, is a huge missed opportunity. Done correctly, a nifty title sequence at the beginning of your film can help establish a mood and build a bridge for your viewer to cross into the reality of your story.
No one understands this better than the creators of Art of the Title, the internet’s marquee resource for information about today’s most visually inventive, playful and arresting title sequences. Based in Toronto and operated by Managing Editor Lola Landekic and Senior Editor Will Perkins, Art of Title is a curated showcase of the best and most inventive work being done in the titles field—from feature films, to TV shows, commercials, video games and beyond.
Curious about the current state of the title design industry as well as the website itself, we spoke to Art of the Title Senior Editor Will Perkins about today’s top designers, trends and just how exactly to break into the industry.
THE ART OF THE TITLE
Can you describe what Art of the Title is, exactly, and what your goals are in operating it?
Perkins: The short answer is that Art of the Title is a motion-design oriented website. The long answer is that it’s an archive that goes into the history of title design, including TV and video games and anywhere else the craft pops up. We think of it as an ever-growing resource for this craft, where we sort of highlight the latest and greatest and the most interesting things happening in the field of title design. We’re putting names to the creators of these pieces. We’re saying that this is the person who made it. You might take it for granted, but the creator is an incredibly talented designer or filmmaker.
What is the typical workflow in putting together the typical modern-day Hollywood title sequence?
Perkins: Well, I’m a journalist and I cover this industry and my knowledge is always going to be from that perspective. It usually begins with a pitch. The producers and the showrunners will approach a bunch of different studios or put out a call; they’ll give the studios a project brief or maybe show them a pilot or script, and then they’ll invite designers to pitch. From there, the producers or the showrunner will pick a concept that they have strong feelings about. It’s generally an iterative process. There’s a lot of back-and-forth with the creators and the designers of the project. Sometimes the creators will have something very specific in mind. Other times it’s way more open.
What are currently the top shops in your estimation? What names do you see popping up over and over again?
Perkins: In the last decade or so it’s been pretty much the same studios that crop up in the Emmy’s title awards every year. Imaginary Forces is a really big one. Elastic is another big one. They produce Game of Thrones and True Detective. You’ve got Prologue, which is Kyle Cooper’s firm. He’s a big film guy but they’re doing a lot more TV work, like American Horror Story. It’s generally two or three American studios that dominate the American TV that you see.
What are some of the reoccurring trends you’ve seen in recent years?
Perkins: True Detective [became] a cliché instantly in terms of that double exposure style. It’s sort of synonymous with crime shows, now a lot of documentaries try to evoke that feeling with that double exposure and small type. We’re even seeing that style extend out to advertisements and music videos. One thing both Lola and I’ve noticed recently is the liquid visual effects we’re seeing in stuff like Daredevil. I’m not sure if that’s the result of a new tool becoming available, but you’re seeing that kind of thing. As well, the big bold white title cards. You see that a lot recently in terms of establishing location. I’m thinking of shows like Mindhunter and Wormwood, with that sort of big bold plain type.
In features, opening titles have disappeared almost entirely. There are still good title sequences, but they’ll often be stuck at the back.
Perkins: Seeing them at the end of the movie kind of bums me out. Filmmakers want to get to the meat of the movie. There’s great work in terms of new title sequences, particularly on the Marvel side of things. They’re there to sort of put a nice cap on the experience or sometimes as a recap. But they also serve another purpose, which is to keep people in their seats until the ever-important post-credits scene. But I would like to see more main title sequences on the big screen. I think the last super high-profile one might’ve been Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and that was back in 2011. It was a big, long, super-expensive main title sequence, sort of the start of the liquid thing we talked about earlier.
With the caveat that you’re an observer of this industry rather than a practitioner, do you have any insight on how someone might get into the title design industry?
Perkins: Learn as much as you can about the craft and its history. Then on the flip side, I’d also say just get out and do it. A lot of the people we talk to, they have formal education in motion design or graphic design. The great thing about movie titles is that movies always need them, so there’s a lot of opportunity there. It doesn’t have to be a crazy elaborate sequence. It could just be the design of the title card or the end credits of the movie. [Movies] need them in a lot of cases to fulfill guild rules or actors’ contracts or even to qualify for tax credits. Go out and find someone who is making a little movie and say, “Hey, I’m a designer and I think I could make a title for your movie.” That’s a good place to start.
Lastly, what are some of your all-time favorite title sequences?
Perkins: In terms of classic stuff, I’m a really big fan of the opening of The Third Man. It’s just a close-up shot of a zither, it’s a static shot of the zither and the credits appear between the strings that are vibrating as the theme song is being played. It’s a beautiful little sequence and the music is iconic. It really sets up the feel, theme and mood of The Third Man. In terms of new stuff, I’m a big fan of Elastic’s output. Not necessarily in terms of True Detective, but Halt and Catch Fire—the AMC series from a couple years ago—has a fantastic opening. I also don’t want to leave out Imaginary Forces. Stranger Things is incredible. All of the sequences that I’ve mentioned really do those films and TV show a service by setting the mood but being really strong pieces on their own.
You can read more of Will Perkins’s writing about graphic design and film titles at Art of the Title. And to read about some of our favorite Film Independent staffers’ opening title sequences, just click here.