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When I’m chasing my tail on a creative project, like a website or logo, I usually have to force myself to forget about the project for a while and look around for inspiration in odd places. This post is a journey into one of those odd places I found:
Amazing, inspiring, good enough to watch over and over title sequences.
All four of these are really different, and I’ll guarantee you that if you’re into creative video, one of them will make you want to go create something amazing.
At this point, you get a choose-your-own-adventure moment.
Scroll down, watch the videos, and then stop reading. Or, if you want to break these down a bit and do some thinking about why they are as great as they are, read on.
Here’s the thing – I’m probably never going to create a title sequence (and I’m guessing most of you are in the same boat). But like lots of people today, I’m involved in making consumable visuals: things like websites, logos, posters, brochures, and ads. In today’s business, they’re usually branded visuals, meaning every part has to communicate a specific message—from the most basic lines and shapes to imagery, copy and sound. That’s true of websites, logos, posters, brochures, and ads, and it’s extremely true of title sequences.
I started looking at title sequences because it occurred to me that they are the ultimate challenge in storytelling through creative visual branding.
Think about it: how do you create a sequence of video and audio with no meaningful text that 1) people will actually watch, even if they are on episode 50 of a show, and 2) conveys the major themes and mood of what you’re about to watch in (most of the time) something between 30 seconds and 2 minutes?
That footage has to be tight. There’s no room for fluff, and everything has got to fit the message. A well-done title sequence is a beautiful work of visual branding artistry.
As we all know, simpler doesn’t usually mean easier. In fact, tighter and more constrained projects can take way more effort than complex ones. I find that it’s way more difficult to design a good logo than to make a brochure, and it takes an entirely different way of thinking—one where you have to ruthlessly sacrifice anything unneeded in your message. What that generally means is you spend a lot of time brainstorming, and then an unbelievable amount of time crossing off ideas.
Mark Gardner, one of the creators of the title sequence of Mad Men, says it well:
“The simpler and the purer the concept, the better… but it doesn’t usually start out like that. It gets there by talking about it and rationalizing it and getting rid of the bits that aren’t necessary and don’t work, and then you’re left with the core concepts.” (From an interview on Art of the Title)
I think this is one of the most frustrating and challenging, but also one of the coolest, things about creative projects. And that’s why I respect these title sequences so much – because they’ve done so much with so little.
OK, enough talking. Let’s watch some cool video.
Game of Thrones
I am in awe of the makers of these titles. I think this is probably my favorite title sequence of all time. I Looked forward to watching it every single episode…I think I watched it about 15 times while I was writing this post, and about half of those times were just for fun.
There’s so much to get into with these titles, but first, in case you don’t know the show – Game of Thrones takes place in a fantasy world loosely based on the middle ages, with the addition of some supernatural beings like dragons and zombies. It’s about the power struggles between the ruthless leaders of the kingdoms you see in the titles.
The attention to detail in these titles is amazing – the cities emerging like someone winding a clock, the mechanized tree with its beautiful red flowers, the seas that move like water turned to fabric. It feels like a world built by powerful players, their invisible hands cranking gears somewhere behind the scenes. And that’s the way many of the characters see life in this show, as a game of power where the calculating and well-connected win kingdoms, and the weak or morally-conscious die trying.
These titles are beautiful, powerful, and fierce, much like the show. I love how they use sound and light to make you feel the powerful heat of the sun in the first shot. That blazing heat, followed by the sound of slicing blades, give you the first taste of the danger implicit in this world.
There’s a lot that goes into creating something like this that you wouldn’t necessarily think of, like having to decide what geometric shape the world should be in order to make the camera movement work (they ended up mapping it onto the inside of a sphere); or the fact that everything you see is crafted out of materials like leather, wood, and stone, so that the world feels low-tech, despite being an incredibly intricate machine. You can learn lots more about what went into the design in this interview with the creators.
Now, on to something completely different.
The Wire (Season 1)
These titles prove that you don’t need an enormous animation studio to make something really good. They’re gritty, raw, and unpolished. This is a great fit for a show whose focus is a bunch of cops, drug dealers, dock workers, politicians, and newsmen negotiating for turf in a city that seems to take no prisoners. The soundtrack gives it soul, and all the short clips give you a feeling for the rich, rough landscape you’ll dive into watching the show. The clips are actual footage from episodes, and you end up playing a game where you try to figure out when you’ve just seen a clip from the titles.
I love the shots they chose for this title sequence. If you pay attention to the camera action, you’ll see most of the shots are up close, and tactile—vials clinking on pavement, a metal blade scraping on a pan, fingers dialing on a payphone. Even in the wider shots, like the helicopter through tree branches, you never have a clear picture of what’s going on. Much like watching the show, you feel like you’re piecing together this story, one potent moment at a time.
All in all, a great introduction to one of the more epic, gritty, and realistic urban dramas of our time.
This is another title sequence I looked forward to watching, every single episode. These titles are by Elastic, the same people who made the Game of Thrones title sequence, and again, lots of good choices got made here. Let’s pick it apart a bit.
The show takes place in Hell’s Kitchen, in the Marvel universe after Manhattan is ruined by the Avengers battle, and we know there’s a wide-spread, powerful, corruptive force controlling the city. Matt Murdock, the main character, is a blind lawyer turned vigilante, using his heightened senses to punish the people who are ruining the city he calls home.
The sequence feels slow, the action driven by a dripping, spreading liquid that feels sort of like blood, and sort of like a thick, poisonous sludge. You get the feeling that the seeping liquid is both bringing the city into being and destroying it at the same time, and that’s true of Daredevil too – a dark hero born out of violence and corruption.
There’s a great interview about the making of this title sequence on the Art of the Title, where they talk to the creators at Elastic about the evolution of their liquid vision and how they pulled it off.
In this nostalgic title sequence, a faceless businessman walks into his office and sets down his briefcase. Then his office crumbles around him, and he falls through a dreamscape of skyscrapers and 50s/60s-era advertisements – a woman’s legs, a nuclear family, soul-less ad copy about the “gifts that keep on giving”…
The show’s main character, Don Draper, is an ad executive who’s constantly struggling to keep up with the pace of American business and culture, while trying to hide that he’s struggling at all. It’s amazing to me how they managed to pack all this and more into about 3 shots and 38 seconds.
This controversial title sequence makes a lot of people (including me) uneasy. Doug Hill puts it well in his Forbes article “Decoding Mad Men’s Falling Man”:
“ It…captures what it feels like, existentially, to be living in a world of radical uncertainty. The source of our anxiety…[is] a loss of psychic footing in a world of overwhelming change.”
Certainly this theme is as relevant in the show’s time period as it is today. It makes for a pretty unforgettable title sequence, and a great emotional introduction to the show.
I love the stylistic choices they made here – the flat, 2D illustrated look gives the businessman and his environment a feeling of artificiality. The final shot, with the businessman suddenly posed, coolly smoking a cigarette, goes even further, leaving us with the impression of a man with a constructed identity. These images do a great job of preparing us for the show, in which the main character is essentially an imposter, struggling to play the part of a successful businessman, while suppressing the signs of his ugly past.
The advertisements they chose show us when the show takes place, without beating us over the head with it. And the falling man, a tiny figure floating powerlessly through a landscape of enormous advertisements, evokes an era when new media was revolutionizing just how intrusively messages about what was supposedly “normal” and “good” could worm their way into people’s private lives.
All in all, a powerful, visceral introduction to the show. You can read about how this sequence came together in the creators’ own words in this interview.
In case you want more…
Some favorites from the rest of the Gravity Group team: