While the nominees for Main Title Design at the 2016 Emmys are strikingly diverse in theme and format, there is one consensus among those Creative Directors who find their firms and sequences nominated: the competition is stiffer than ever. “Title design is not a new thing, but it’s something that throughout the years, both television and film have embraced more and more,” says Alan Williams, the Creative Director behind Imaginary Forces’ Emmy-nominated sequence for HBO’s Vinyl. Undoubtedly, there’s a fatigue that sets in, as the immensely crowded television landscape continues to expand, and it becomes harder and harder to capture the imagination of a visually sophisticated audience.

This year’s five nominees come from three companies: Imaginary Forces, Elastic, and Digital Kitchen; firms that have been a force to contend with in the Emmys race for the last decade and continue to excite with an experimental vigor that is impossible to ignore. Let’s take a closer look.

Pulsating powder gave the Vinyl sequence part of its unique charm.
Pulsating powder gave the Vinyl sequence part of its unique charm.
HBO

Stimulating Spin
Vinyl

Spearheaded by Williams and Creative Director Michelle Dougherty, Vinyl’s titles are a raucous, in-your-face musical assault on the senses, setting the stage for the series’ exploration of the dynamic ’70s New York music scene. Commencing with a stylus, moving forcefully through the grooves of a record, the black-and-white sequence is laced with powder—cocaine—that vibrates in strange formations, in concert with dissonant chords, and explodes across the screen. Reminiscent of the jarring, invigorating work of David Lynch, the sequence finds its manic rhythm alongside Sturgill Simpson’s “Sugar Daddy,” transitioning rapidly between shots of the pulsating metropolis: the speeding subway, the crowd-surfing urbanite and the beat of the drum. Alluding to the evocative, surreal collapse of a building around music exec Richie Finestra in Martin Scorsese’s pilot, the sequence builds to a point of destruction, as the walls cave in.

Despite a proven track record in collaboration with HBO—producing the title sequence for Terence Winter’s Boardwalk Empire—the team at Imaginary Forces fought hard to win over several titans of industry—namely, Winter, Scorsese, and legendary Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger—with their pitch.

For Williams and company, in viewing the Vinyl pilot there were a few ideas and themes that resonated strongly, in their effort in capture the dynamics of a complicated era. “We loved the idea of exploring music, and vibrations and dissonance, and the evolution that was happening in the music scene,” Williams says. “You think of the Stones, and all of these different bands during that decade, that were doing new, raw things. Coming up with a visual language for that was pretty exciting, and something we were ready to jump into.”

“[Landing Vinyl] really, ultimately, came down to a bag of flour and an iPhone,” Williams says. Through research, the Creative Director landed on the work of scientist Hans Jenny, who experimented with visual representations of sound during the 1970s. With speakers blasting, Williams successfully pursued his own experiment. “We would film this powder actually moving, and it’s so hypnotic—and almost psychedelic—the way that sound itself was being visualized,” he explains. “It takes so much off of us as artists, because we literally just started playing different frequencies, and suddenly it was as if the Grand Canyon was being formed, or these crazy abstract formations.”

These hands-on experiments lent themselves to the company’s overall approach to the sequence; with the exception of one CG component, which captured the microscopic movement of the needle in the groove, the gritty sequence was produced through practical means. “My thought is, the show itself wasn’t a fantastical show—it wasn’t Game of Thrones. So what I wanted to provide for this was something that felt tangible, something that felt tactile, in-camera, cinematic,” Williams says. “What the distortion pedal did to the guitar is kind of what we were trying to do with the styling of the footage itself.”

Jessica Jones - Title Sequence.jpeg
Among Creative Director Michelle Dougherty’s influences for the Jessica Jones sequence was Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, Rear Window.
Netflix

Through Windows
Jessica Jones

Another nominee from Imaginary Forces, with Creative Director Michelle Dougherty at the helm, the Jessica Jones title sequence came about as a result of Dougherty’s prior collaborations with Marvel and series creator Melissa Rosenberg, and her great admiration of both.

Dougherty’s pitch for Jessica Jones stemmed from the title character’s status as both investigator and voyeur. “I had grown up watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window; like, I remember sitting on my parents’ bed watching it on a Sunday afternoon, over and over, and it never got old to me,” Dougherty says. “And I thought the idea of piecing together a story through small pieces of information was a fascinating thing.” With several other artistic influences in mind—including Edward Hopper’s Night Windows and the hazy, saturated paintings of Gerhard Richter—Williams also worked closely with Alias comic designer David W. Mack, and lead designer Arisu Kashiwagi, to translate Mack’s original vision to the screen.

Of course, the central motif of the painterly, visually-striking sequence is the window, the object of the voyeur’s gaze. The brush strokes are prominent and gorgeous, striped across the screen in various shades, as silhouetted figures stroll past, observed by unknown figures in their Hell’s Kitchen apartments, and through car windows. The high-contrast sequence aptly establishes the Jessica Jones world as a world of shadows, though ever-present windows cast vibrant beams of light, bringing attention to every couple’s spat, and every minor detail of strangers’ lives. As Sean P. Callery’s jazzy, Emmy-nominated score builds suddenly from a slow tempo of mystery and intrigue to the menace of pounding rock, and the screen is flooded with windows, the sequence lands on a window reflected in the eye of the beholder: Jessica Jones.

Part of the mission of any exceptional title sequence is to evoke a strong sense of place, and the Jessica Jones animated sequence delivers the feeling of a lived-in, three-dimensional world. “We shot a lot of paint—scraping away paint, moving paint around—and [the animators] put those elements within a three-dimensional program, and then combined that with the live-action elements and the stills,” Dougherty explains. “We definitely built it in 3D so you felt that sense of place.”

The Man in the High Castle.jpeg
Elastic

Fascism in Monochrome

The Man in the High Castle

Back in 1982, Elastic Creative Director Patrick Clair was wowed—as so many were, and have been—by director Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a take on a classic work of science fiction by the renowned Philip K. Dick. So when the opportunity to design the titles for Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle presented itself, Clair and company were ready, relishing this rare collaborative opportunity.

Equally compelling, to be sure, was the opportunity to examine history through an alternate lens—to contemplate a world in which the Nazis took World War II, and nothing was ever the same. Not lost on Clair, or in critical appraisal of the series, is a certain strong resonance with regard to the current political situation faced by America—and by extension, the world—in the ongoing heat of the 2016 Presidential race. “I definitely think it’s slightly terrifying that we’re in this environment, a couple years after the show was conceived, ” Clair says. “The idea that fascism is something we’re openly discussing in America today, in relation to our current presidential race, is terrifying and fascinating in equal measure.”

Set in stark black and white, against Jeanette Olsson’s spare, somber adaptation of “Eidelweiss”, the Man in the High Castle title sequence opens in darkness, with bright white lays of light emerging from an unseen film projector. The sequence then moves into an all-black, gridded map of the United States, swept up by the aggressively expanding lines of the Greater Nazi Reich. Tactile and topographical, the map ultimately establishes the new world the series considers, with the Japanese Pacific States on the west coast and the much-larger Nazi Reich in the east—the red of the imperial Japanese flag, the only other color in sight. Silhouetted paratroopers rain down like tears on the face of a three-dimensional Mount Rushmore, with the plume of smoke from an enemy aircraft projected onto the face of Lady Liberty.

With the flickering, evocative light of the projector ever-present, Clair was able to make use of a motif he had long had in mind. “We’re kind of slightly obsessed with finding ways to put two images together into a single image,” Clair explains, alluding also to Elastic’s Emmy-nominated title design for AMC’s The Night Manager. “We’d been itching to do something with projection for a while, and then Man in the High Castle came along, which had this projected film reel at the center of its story. So [projection] was perfect for it.”

In the juxtaposition of projected wartime imagery with icons of America, Clair and team arrived at something remarkably poignant. “The Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Capitol Building—these kinds of places are burnt into the minds of not just Americans, but people across the world,” Clair says. His team modeled and built the statues and iconography seen in the sequence in 3D programming, proceeding to place these creations in a 3D space, and project the Nazi imagery on top. “It’s all stuff that we simulate in quite a realistic way to begin with, and we shaped the way light falls over it,” he adds. “And that’s where we get the hopefully interesting, nuanced images that we thought would resonate with the show.”

The Night Manager's title sequence presents a thoughtful juxtaposition of weapons and luxury items.
The Night Manager’s title sequence presents a thoughtful juxtaposition of weapons and luxury items.
AMC

Weapons of Mass Seduction
The Night Manager

With his second Emmy nominated title of the year—the lustrous, elegant opening sequence for AMC’s The Night Manager—Clair worked closely with series creator Susanne Bier, whose stirring initial concept for the piece launched the process. This was a concept that played to Clair’s strengths, and those of his colleagues at Elastic: a beautiful juxtaposition of luxury items and weapons of war, suggesting the disturbingly prevalent view of weapons as as objects of commerce to be fetishized, just like any other consumer good. “I came from a background where I used to do a lot of documentary journalism-style work, investigating the relationship between warfare, our human moral values, and technology,” Clair explains. “And the chance to work on a sequence that engaged with that stuff was really fascinating and really compelling.” For a major fan of the espionage drama, who is also deeply engaged with the plight of our weaponized world, The Night Manager was the perfect artistic vehicle; an opportunity to explore heavy thematics within the context of high-quality entertainment.

Opening on a gorgeous, golden rocket launcher casting brilliant beams of light, the weapon fires—creating a cloud of smoke, which is just as quickly transformed into a martini glass. An inviting tray of ornate teacups becomes the revolving, rapid-firing barrels of a rotary cannon; diamonds drop from the sky, becoming grenades mid-air. And, in one of Clair’s favorite moments, a C-130 aircraft projects a series of angel flares, culminating, then, into a gleaming pearl necklace. “There’s an Australian current affairs show that used to feature [the angel flares] in its opening, and I just remember seeing that for years and years when I was a kid; and also, watching it when I was going through that phase where I was doing more journalism-style work, reporting on warfare,” the Creative Director shares. Concluding with a glass chandelier shattering in a burst of smoke, the sequence certainly gets its message across amidst the eye candy. “It’s that kind of slightly icky, creepy, glossy, violent imagery that I think can get a really interesting emotional response out of people,” Clair adds.

It was only through a number of early iterations and a thorough research process that Clair and team arrived at their sequence. With time banked in the world of advertising, Clair turned to the polished looks of jewelry ads, and luxury magazines. “We have a really talented team of guys here who work on all my projects, and we develop this shared visual vocabulary between us,” Clair says. “We create these big hunts of reference material, and then we go through those, looking for what’s interesting—what can we find relationships around?” In designing the weaponry featured in the sequence, Clair elected to focus specifically on weapons already in the purview of the average American—in the paper, in video games and in the 24-hour news cycle. “What’s kind of terrifying and fascinating is that we have a very combat-literate population these days. You’ve got a whole generation of young men who are extremely well briefed on the specifics of different types of machine guns and assault rifles,” he says. “I’m a deep pacifist—but at the same time, I used to play Call of Duty.”

Narcos - Title Sequence.jpeg
The opening sequence of Netflix’s Narcos repeatedly blurs the line between life and art, archival footage and photographic re-creation.
Netflix

Blurred Lines
Narcos

Digital Kitchen’s title sequence for Netflix’s original crime series Narcos is the product of extensive historical research and immense perseverance. In the gorgeously colored sequence, synced to the hypnotic, intoxicating melody of Rodrigo Amarante’s “Tuyo,” a spinning record blurs into a beautifully gridded map of Colombia: that of the DEA agents trying to track down one of history’s most infamous drug kingpins, Pablo Escobar. Cocaine—an apparently common theme this season—explodes into the lens through open hands, against a background of inscrutable, aesthetically pleasing diagrams and handwritten documents. Featuring scenic aerial footage of Colombia and archival footage of Escobar, the sequence documents a time, a place, and a lifestyle familiar to any aficionado of the crime drama. The guns, the money, the drugs and the women.

Nik Kleverov, the editor and Director of Photography for the sequence, worked on the Narcos title design for the better part of a year—alongside a half-dozen other artists—meticulously investigating the two decades of Colombian history depicted in the series’ first season. “To me, what’s exciting is the Inside Baseball of it all,” Kleverov says. “It’s so fun to really delve into the world and just let it consume you; you go nuts, obsessing over the tiniest things.“ The research process for Narcos involved “a lot of scrubbing through archive.org,” as well as a look at the work of “El Chino”—the Escobar family’s personal photographer.

Perhaps the greatest challenges faced by the Narcos team were red tape and rights issues. “Obviously, there were some amazing things we found that there were some legal reasons that we couldn’t use. And clearing was a big part of [the process],” the editor shares. “Sometimes we had to wait a week or two before finding out about something—and then, Oh, OK, we didn’t get it; so we have to find another solution.” Ultimately, these creative limitations became part of the solution, contributing to the mystique of the series, as the seamless integration of archival footage and photographic re-creations blurred the lines between life and art.

“I think it’s a nice blend, because when you’re watching, you kind of don’t know—is that archival, or is that shot?” Kleverov says. “And it’s this nice blurred line where we’re setting the tone of this world.”