Ask any creative director what an opening title sequence should encapsulate and you’ll get a similar answer from them all: In a minute or less, it needs to set the mood for the show you’re about to see, and be robust and reliable enough to do so on a weekly basis. It is, after all, the only aspect of a series that repeats with every single episode.
This year’s nominees for Outstanding Main Title Design do a solid job of fulfilling that brief, reflecting an attention to detail that has become paramount in this storied golden era of TV.
The title for WGN’s Manhattan—which follows the scientists racing to develop the first atomic bomb, and their families living in Los Alamos, New Mexico—finds a striking middle ground between those two elements, taking World War II-era schematic designs and applying them to life in the suburbs. House blueprints become model towns shaped like frying pans and cake recipes mix with mathematic equations.
Remarkably, the entire sequence went from conception to completion within six weeks. Imaginary Forces creative director Dan Gregoras initially had turned away series creator Sam Shaw thanks to bandwidth limitations, but when the offer came back his conversations with Shaw immediately set the team’s minds racing. “We had a little over a week to put together our initial thoughts,” he says. “And it’s great because you don’t get a chance to second-guess yourself. We had four great ideas, and one of them was the one that was chosen.”
The concept shone through the research materials the show provided. “It was an interesting time socially,” Gregoras notes. “When they built this town in the desert, they had the scientists design the area. Our titles nod to all the fun, simple graphics about place settings and dance steps. You put that side-by-side with technical schematics and you just think in terms of 1940, and see that thought process they went through.”
“It’s not about just making something beautiful,” Gregoras says. “It has to have the same weight and meaning as the subject matter. There’s a relationship between show and title. Titles put a lens in front of you and allow you to jump into that world.”
Patrick Clair, the creative director at design firm Elastic responsible for the title belonging to AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, also is nominated for his title work on Netflix’s Daredevil. His sequence for Halt, in its red and magenta vibrancy, distills a show about ideas and the birth of the computer age into the simplicity of following an electrical signal that turns on an LED light. What better metaphor for an idea than the humble light bulb?
Clair pitched the idea by asking showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers to recall three simple ideas: a man in freefall, a dead body being prepped for burial, and the brutality of cooking breakfast. All three tell you something about their respective series—Mad Men, Six Feet Under and Dexter—but do so creatively enough to stick in the memory. “If you can find that one concept where you’re doing in that sequence what the story’s doing in the drama, then you bring a bit of visual poetry to it,” Clair says.
The Halt title sequence built from there. “We put in visuals that would capture that sense of pressure, decay and instability,” he says. These are key aspects of the show’s tale of troubled engineers and salesman fighting to stay alive and build machines both revolutionary and marketable. “And then there’s that almost sexual notion of things being fertilized,” he notes, and laughs. “It’s not super subtle.”
The level of detail reinforces the distance the technological age has traveled since the pioneers depicted in the show. It’s a sequence built for high-definition displays, and rewards viewing on a big screen. “We tried to do something that was halfway between an organic world and a digital world,” notes Clair. “We wanted a palette that was so vivid it was almost ugly. We pushed those reds and magentas so far, and I’m so glad AMC let us.”
The title sequence for Lisa Cholodenko’s HBO limited series Olive Kitteridge follows a similar idea: establishing expectations with visuals that evoke calm, and subverting them with notions of what lies beneath. Snowflakes are revealed to be powdered sugar dusting a donut, pills form neat little flowers, and a cross-stitched heart starts bleeding through the fabric.
The visuals are the work of creative director Garson Yu and art director Synderela Peng of yU+co. The company was nominated last year for its title sequence work on Silicon Valley. Says Yu: “They wanted the sequence to open up Olive’s world, so we came up with an approach of establishing the town, the weather and the whole environment of the show, and we wanted to get back to her mind, using objects and subject matters that represented the characters.”
The essence of the process, he says, is evoking the themes central to the show, without spelling them out literally. “We identify metaphorical elements that will take the story of the show and boil it down into something that is more impressionistic,” he says. “We never want to get too literal. We want the viewer to bring their imagination to it.”
After the original approach was defined, the process of determining what that imagery would be became the real task. “The idea doesn’t ever come easily,” Yu laughs. “But it’s like drinking a good wine—it needs to breathe. The more you let it breathe the better it tastes.”
Yu highlights the work of his fellow nominees—which also includes Prologue’s work on American Horror Story: Freak Show and Imaginary Forces’ titles for Bosch—as evidence of something of a renaissance for main title design, suggesting executives and showrunners understand now, better than ever, the crucial role they play in a series’ design.
It’s those standard bearers of successful title design that these nominees often return to—shows such as Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos. These designers remember the work of Saul Bass and express regret that feature films no longer take main titles as seriously as they once did. But on one key point they are all agreed: TV today knows how to make an entrance.