The purpose of a title sequence is to set audience expectations. Title sequences perform a variety of functions such as setting a time and place, disseminating crucial background knowledge, or invoking a tone. Those functions lead to an increased understanding of the material. Art is not created in a void. Art requires context. Art viewed out of context is often misunderstood or dismissed. That’s why title sequences often support a film’s purpose. Filmmakers often have guide their audiences to get to a certain point, either emotionally or logically. And the way to get an audience to the end is by showing them the beginning. If anything, title sequences are saying; “enter here.”
I have compiled a list of my favorite title sequences from the perspective of a designer. I explore how design elements aid concepts and ideas. You may also notice many of these entries are much more recent. One of the reasons these titles are so great is because they reference or utilize the history of title design. Also I recommend a visit to the site, Art of the Title.
Stranger Things (2016)
There are four reasons why this title sequence holds the top spot on my list. First, it relies solely on typography to tell a story, which is not an easy feat. Second, the typography chosen is reminiscent of a common typeface used on 1980 scifi book jacket designs. Though most people could not name the typeface, Benguiat, it serves it’s purpose of evoking 1980s nostalgia. Third, the slow reveal of the title alludes to Stranger Things’ story structure. Important plot points are revealed at various times and it is only at the end when every piece comes together. Much like the sequence, viewers only see a close up of lines and half letters, obscuring the overall title until the end reveal. It captures the aura of mystery carefully constructed throughout the show. Fourth, this sequence uses an analog effect. Computers can do a lot for us these days. However, sometimes old school effects have a way of capturing a specific tone. In this case it’s lighting. Lighting is a difficult thing to generate in a computer, even seasoned professionals can struggle. Untrained viewers can easily spot effects when they have poor lighting. That’s why using an analog lighting effect for this sequence adds a level of realism. In a show about extra-dimensional monsters and psychic abilities, grounding is necessary and vital. Only when a fictional environment is grounded is an audience willing to suspend their disbelief. This sequence sets expectations. For example, viewers can expect it takes place in or around the 1980s, the show is likely a mystery/drama/scifi, and is grounded in realism. It is a great example of how a title sequence supports a story.
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
“Catch Me If You Can” was the first time I paid attention to a title sequence. There are several reasons why this piece holds a spot on my list. First, it echoes the influence of Saul Bass. Though I do not include any of his work on this list, I respect his work. Many of his title sequences are amazing such as “The Man With the Golden Arm,” “Vertigo,” and “Anatomy of A Murder.” Without his work, title sequences wouldn’t be what they are today. “Catch Me If You Can” pays homage to his style. At the same time, it captures the era of the 1960s. Not only does it honor a title sequence veteran but is sets up the era. The second reason I like this piece is because it helps elevate the tone of the story. This film explores emotionally heavy topics, such as parental separation, morally ambiguous criminal activity, and death. One could consider this film as a tragedy. However, the light bright colors, simple shapes, and playful music elevate the film into the realms excitement and thrill. The audience is set up for an emotionally balanced experiences. The film maybe heavy but it has a happy ending.
Casino Royal (2006)
No list would be complete without at lease one piece from the selection of James Bond films. Most film aficionados would likely go for the excellent work of Robert Brownjohn for his work on “From Russia with Love” and “Goldfinger.” One cannot ignore the foundational work of Maurice Binder. There are many others worthy of discussion. However, my personal favorite is “Casino Royal.” I love this one because it is an excellent mixture of past and present design styles. This film was the launch point for the modern James Bond films. It hoped to appease previous fans while attracting new ones. The title sequence helped achieve that goal. The simple flat shapes harken back to the vintage styles, a brief reminder of the Swiss Style. The 3D elements and patterns generated by computer techniques, point to the future of the franchise. If anything, this sequence bends expectations. It helps the fans transition from the classic past to the exciting future. Also, I have a deep respect for rotoscoping.
You may be thinking, “Miracle, that hockey movie with Kurt Russell?” Yes, that one. The title sequence solves a specific problem for this film. For people like me, who were not alive in 1980, the context of this film is lost to me. The title sequence is dedicated to setting up background information. The reason this story is important is because of the events preceding it. The film cannot take valuable time away from story and character, to set up a decade of preceding events. Though, I did not experience this event personally I can instantly understand the culture and politics surrounding the story. I am thankful for this title sequence because it ads value to my viewing experience. However, this film is hardly the first example of setting up relevant background information. From a design perspective, I am amazed by the many creative layouts. It’s not an easy task to compile a variety of images, typefaces, audio, and footage into a simplified visual look. The materials differ in medium and tone. This sequence balances elements through the careful use of layout and timing. Each material is highlighted without loosing an overall visual look. In addition, I appreciate the methodical representation of an entire decade. The comprehension of historical iconography astounds me. It is this careful selection of historical material, that when sewn together makes me feel as if I lived in the 1970s. I’m pretty sure I’m the only motion graphic designer who loves this sequence. It deserves more love than it gets.
The reason why this title sequence makes my list is because of it’s overall purpose. My previous selections have been about establishing eras and tone. This title sequence establishes a character. The entire film is about two cops chasing a serial killer. However, the killer is not seen until the last act of the film. As a result the audience may feel disconnected from the threat of the killer. Some may question if the killer exists, which is not the intention of the filmmaker. However, thanks to this sequence we are introduced to the character. The audience knows the killer exists and understands the threat without ever seeing the killer’s face. Even though I dislike watching this film, I cannot help but admire the design choices. The handwritten typography, the woodcut typography, the quick cuts, the glitch effects, the sound effects, the music, the cinematography, and the closeup photography make a brilliant character study. I saw this film exactly once. I do not remember most of it, but I remember this sequence.
Deadpool is a unique film. No one expected this film to succeed, and yet it did. It is a strange mix of humor and drama. The reason why this film quickly became a fan favorite is because of it’s all-out-honesty. Deadpool is traditionally a character that breaks the fourth wall. The film laughs at common superhero conventions but does not shy away from the harsh reality of a violent lifestyle. The title reflects the philosophy of the film. A camera moving through a three dimensional space, revealing all the intimate details while displaying superlatives in san-serif, and juxtaposed with an 80s love ballad is a great visual representation of irreverent comedy. There is one underlying reason why I think this sequence is important. With the advent of technology in the design field, new elements have been made available to designers. Two of these elements are three dimensional space and timing. This design process required a new way of thinking about space. One of the challenges the creators mentioned was balancing several visual elements within a give frame. The film industry and by extension, title sequence design is a relatively new field. Though many great film makers and designers have laid the foundations, technology has enabled creatives to play with time. Timing is essential for comedy. I believe a sequence like this would not be successful without technology. They tested this sequence in front of audiences and through that process were able to achieve an unmatched comedic experience. Modeling, compositing, lighting, animating and rendering multiple times requires more work than a human being is unable to achieve. Without the heavy lifting of a computer, it’s simply not possible. All do respect to Saul Bass, but he was limited by his time. Also, the same people who wrote this title sequence wrote the Zombieland title sequence, which is also worth mentioning.
- Dexter (2006)
- Good Omens (2019)
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921)
- Broad City (2014)
- True Detective (2014)
- Game of Thrones (2011)
- Westworld (2016)
- The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
- Dr. Strangelove (1964)
- Godzilla (2014)
- Rick and Morty (2013)
- A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
- Spider-Man Into the Spider Verse (2018)
- Thor: The Dark World (2013)
- Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
- Black Panther (2018)
- Iron Man (2008)
- Sherlock Holmes (2009)
- Creed (2015)
- Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
- Wall-e (2008)