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posted: 8/3/2014 4:45 AM

Title sequences: Credit where credit is due

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  • The title sequences that usher audiences into each new installment of their favorite television shows are often as compelling, visually inventive and worthy of deep analysis as the original dramas and comedies they introduce.

      The title sequences that usher audiences into each new installment of their favorite television shows are often as compelling, visually inventive and worthy of deep analysis as the original dramas and comedies they introduce.
    Courtesy of Lionsgate

  • The moving pieces and ever-changing map in the "Game of Thrones" opening sequence evokes both the political machine behind the characters and the feel of a game.

      The moving pieces and ever-changing map in the "Game of Thrones" opening sequence evokes both the political machine behind the characters and the feel of a game.
    Courtesy of HBO

 
By Jen Chaney
The Washington Post

The fast-forward button is right there. At multiple points during a hard-core TV binge-watch -- at least the kind that involves a DVR or streaming video -- the binger has the option to press those two rightward-pointing triangles, scoot past the opening titles and immediately continue consuming episodes.

Yet even after barreling through, say, seven hours of "Game of Thrones" and immediately settling in for an eighth, viewers often don't bother to push that button. Instead, they dig into, over and over, the title sequences that usher audiences into each new installment of their favorite television shows.

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That's because those intros are often as compelling, visually inventive and worthy of deep analysis as the original dramas and comedies they introduce. We may still be in the midst of what's been dubbed the third golden age of television, that post-"Sopranos," anti-hero-dominated era that has served up more quality, buzzed-about programming than anyone can reasonably cram onto a TiVo. But we're also currently experiencing another television renaissance of sorts: a new golden age for TV opening titles.

Certainly, plenty of shows, especially on network TV, still kick-start with a standard "meet the cast"-style montage. Others flash their title card with a flourish, a la the in-your-face all-caps of HBO's "Girls." But increasingly, especially on cable and emerging programming platforms such as Netflix, opening sequences are becoming clever, visionary and cinematic in scope.

For proof, just watch the hypnotic, overlapping Southern gothic imagery in HBO's "True Detective," the cheeky visual double entendres in Showtime's "Masters of Sex," the moving close-ups of female ex-convicts in Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black," or the Saul Bass-esque, now-iconic-in-its-own-right opening of "Mad Men."

Ian Albinson, editor in chief of ArtoftheTitle.com, a web site that explores title design in television, film and other media, says multiple factors have led to this burst of TV introductory energy. Among them: emerging technology that has enabled designers to more easily create high-quality motion graphics, and increased collaboration between those designers and the TV showrunners intent on crafting the perfect frames for their weekly works of art. Albinson also cites the influence of HBO, whose titles for "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under" served as pioneers in this blossoming niche world of short-subject filmmaking.

"A lot of HBO shows have very unique, very different, but very designed sequences," Albinson says. "I think other networks followed that, especially Showtime and AMC, and even FX now."

What makes the story in an opening title sequence so captivating that we can't bring ourselves to fast-forward through it, even when we've got the producers' names memorized and the theme song permanently set on deep earworm? Let's look at six of the most crucial elements in great title sequences and how they work to memorable, unskippable effect in some of today's best intros, as explained by the people who brought them to life.

Plotting the road map

A strong title sequence serves as an explainer, a mini-movie that gives viewers a sense of where the narrative is about to take them. No current sequence illustrates that as literally or eye-poppingly as the constantly evolving computer-graphic one that opens HBO's "Game of Thrones."

The weekly journey through the maps of fictional Westeros and Essos, complete with 3-D castles and trees that sprout skyward out of the flat terrain, is a nod to the maps that appear in the "A Song of Ice and Fire" books on which "Game of Thrones" is based.

"We were trying to orient the viewer to what's going on location-wise," says Jennifer Sofio Hall, executive producer at Elastic, the studio behind the sequence. "A lot of the story has to do with families moving and taking over other territories. As the power shifts, the map also changes."

Yes, as astute viewers are already well aware, the locations on that map vary depending on where an episode's plot plans to take the viewer, turning the titles into a weekly sneak preview of sorts. As a result, the Elastic crew is constantly crafting new graphics that can be incorporated into the sequence. "We actually get involved early on to understand where the show is going next season so we can put together a new breakdown for the territories we're going to be traveling to," Hall says of that ever-evolving approach, which "never normally happens" on other shows.

Avoiding conventional tropes

At its most basic, a title sequence should tell us what we're about to watch and whom we're about to see. That's why most intros, even very good ones, highlight the show's stars. But increasingly, the creators of title sequences rely on other imagery, even other faces, to anchor their work. Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black" -- last summer's much-binged-upon peek at the multifaceted women holed up together in federal prison -- is a prime example.

The team at Thomas Cobb Group initially proposed an opener that focused largely on Taylor Schilling's Piper, the ensemble dramedy's protagonist who's based on Piper Kerman, author of the memoir that inspired the series. But showrunner Jenji Kohan wanted something that tapped into the diverse, ensemble nature of the show. With founder Cobb as co-director of a bicoastal film shoot, the TCG team created a sequence that features tightly framed shots of the lip-ringed mouths, heavily mascaraed lashes and haunted eyes that belong to real women who actually served time.

The expressions on the womens' faces revealed themselves in response to three directives: Think of a peaceful place, think of a person who makes you laugh, and think of something you want to forget. "It was a very intense day," Cobb says of the Los Angeles shoot. "They didn't speak of what they were remembering, but you could definitely sense it from their faces." And the audience can sense it in the sequence, too.

Establishing character

While "Orange Is the New Black" avoided a protagonist-centered focus, other title sequences do the opposite, making it clear that the key to the series lies in understanding one or two key characters. The weekly preamble to Showtime's "Homeland," another creation of the Thomas Cobb Group, achieves that by burrowing into the mind of bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison via a more-than-one-minute-long journey through her childhood, the key news events that shaped her worldview and the jarring realities of her adult life.

"There's a key moment in the pilot where she's having a panic attack and she puts on some jazz music to calm herself down," Cobb says. "She's running out from her cubicle to the patio at the CIA, and she is soothed by that music. I thought that was such a really incredible moment. ... I tried to just visualize: What would be something she's seeing in that moment? So I took that inspiration and coupled it with her life."

Some of the pictures from Carrie's youth -- the pigtailed little girl seen sleeping and watching Ronald Reagan on television -- were licensed stock images. Others, including the photo of Carrie standing in front of a piano and as a teenager stuck in a maze, are actual photos of star Claire Danes that were supplied to the TCG team. As for that maze, where eventually Danes' Carrie and Damian Lewis' Nicholas Brody find themselves trapped, Cobb says he wanted to "visually represent the kind of cat-and-mouse game between the two characters." He settled on the labyrinth, in part inspired by a movie that made a lasting imprint on his mind: Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining."

Setting the tone

An unforgettable title sequence aims to match the emotions and overall vibe of the TV show into which it leads. In the case of FX's "The Americans," a suspenseful, 1980s Cold War drama about a pair of Russian spies posing as married Falls Church, Va., suburbanites, that means an Elastic-produced opener filled with symbols of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., edited with super-quick cuts designed to jangle the viewer's nerves. But for "Masters of Sex" -- Showtime's occasionally racy account of the sex studies conducted by Masters and Johnson -- the people at Elastic, who also created that title sequence, got a little cheeky.

"Masters of Sex" treats its subject with frankness, but also conveys the societal shyness and shame about sex that was omnipresent during the late 1950s. Its title sequence captures that dichotomy by adopting a mixed-media approach that unleashes a barrage of visual euphemisms for doing the deed, from trains entering tunnels to cucumbers being carefully rinsed. Hall says the often hilariously suggestive bits came from a mix of stock footage and vignettes that the team at Elastic shot in its own studio. "That cat is one of our designer's cats," she says of the feline who gets stroked for maybe half a second in the clip. As for the image of margarine being applied to a warm breakfast treat, Hall utters her own unintentional double entendre: "We buttered our own muffins."

An unforgettable song

"Far From Any Road" -- the obscure 2003 track by alt-country duo the Handsome Family that became familiar to millions this year as the theme of "True Detective" -- is the sort of song that seeps into your molecules. It's what heavy, lurid, Deep South humidity sounds like, which is probably why "True Detective" executive producers Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga knew it was a must to frame their HBO Louisiana-set series, an eight-episode blend of murder mystery and metaphysical philosophy as articulated by Matthew McConaughey.

"The team from the show chose this track early in the process," says Patrick Clair, who directed the sequence for, yes, once again, Elastic. "It was the one element they were sure they wanted to include in our execution."

Having the song in place from the very beginning, which doesn't always happen in title development, enabled the filmmakers to set the pace of the edit and "figure out the narrative of the imagery a lot faster," says Hall. That imagery, a 3-D-projected blend of stars McConaughey and Woody Harrelson with shots of broken Louisiana landscapes and strippers' bare backsides, is unquestionably compelling. But when paired with "Far From Any Road," it's downright mesmerizing, so much so that both the jury and the audience at the recent South by Southwest Film Festival honored it with the year's top honor for excellence in title design.

Iconic imagery

When Matthew Weiner, creator of AMC's drama about identity and branding, collaborated with design studio Imaginary Forces to create an opening identity for his show, he initially envisioned a live-action sequence. As Imaginary Forces managing partner and creative director Peter Frankfurt explains, Weiner imagined the audience watching a never-fully-revealed Don Draper take the train into Manhattan, ride the elevator to his office and, upon arriving at his desk, proceed to jump out the window.

"We were like, wow. That's awesome," says Frankfurt. "That's really dark and provocative."

Frankfurt's team took that idea and transformed it into a motion graphic sequence that was both contemporary and an homage to the work of designer Saul Bass during the 1950s and 1960s, in the openings to films by Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock. The result -- a 36-second sequence of a suited silhouette free-falling past vintage ads that then dissolves into a rear view of Don Draper in repose, with cigarette in hand -- became the indelible mark of "Mad Men"and has been pored over by fans who wonder if the sequence offers narrative clues.

"It definitely invites a lot of speculation," Frankfurt says of the intro. As to why that mysterious monochromatic view of the back of Don's head works so well, he says: "The minute any of us saw that, it said so much -- just his posture, his attitude, the cigarette. It was such a great shorthand for the tone of the show."

"You never set out to make something iconic," he says, adding, "A lot of what makes something iconic is repetition."

In other words, the watching of a sequence over and over, without ever hitting fast-forward.

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