Game of Thrones, True Detective, The Crown, Westworld, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos, and most recently, American Gods, all have one thing in common: their opening title sequences are damn near impossible to forget.
As the third golden age of television continues to thrive, shows have become even more cinematic. They’ve become larger in scale, higher in quality, demanding nothing but the best in their competition with dozens of others for the top spot. Game of Thrones is just as beautiful as Daredevil and now, American Gods is just as viciously elegant as Boardwalk Empire.
Title sequences aren’t new — one of the most famous occurs at the beginning of the 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis — but audiences are paying attention to the new trend because TV series and showrunners are demanding it. The latest example of this is Bryan Fuller’s American Gods, which combines the showrunner’s enthusiasm for the macabre with images that can only be described as nightmare fuel, all coming together under a neon glow. The title sequence captures your interest from the moment it begins, and gives you a preview of what to expect out of Fuller’s latest creation.
Lola Landekic, managing editor of Art of the Title, said it’s not too surprising that people are noticing the trend. Shows like True Detective, Westworld and Game of Thrones have made their title sequences integral to the series itself. The sequences exist to introduce the world, location and characters of their series, adding traces of the showrunner’s flair to set the mood for both the individual episode and series at large.
“When you think of something like Game of Thrones, you absolutely need that opening sequence to orient yourself, to position yourself in the world of that show,” Landekic told Polygon. “Without it, you're actually a little bit lost. With True Detective, so much of that show was setting up its brand really strongly and establishing the landscape of the show and how much of this landscape is a poisonous force for the characters. Twin Peaks does the exact same thing. It's functioning on so many levels; it's functioning on a level of narrative, on a level of simple world building, laying out the landscape in which everything takes place, and tone.
“It gives you the emotional resonance that you need to understand the core of the show.”
Title sequences are the byproduct of a design studio and are created first and foremost to sell the concept of a show. If a showrunner is heavily involved with the design aspect like Fuller is, however, it becomes a little more personal. Landekic added that as television becomes more personal to the showrunners involved, audiences will see that producer’s individual style come through a little more.
“If the showrunner is involved, as much as someone like Bryan Fuller is, you have an entirely different picture,” Landekic said. “Their title sequences provide pieces of our main character, the one powerful male hero or villain, and they all set up his character and his world. They give this shadowy, unfragmented view of this character. That sets up the whole narrative trajectory for that character and the series.”
Will Perkins, co-editor of the award-winning website he and Landekic run together, Art of the Title, said it’s because of that attention to title sequences from networks and showrunners that more attention is being brought to the art form today.
“There’s also a bit of an amplifying effect with these high gloss TV shows,” Perkins told Polygon. “Producers and showrunners see all these other series with elaborate opening title sequences and want their own shows to have an elaborate opening to brand it and set it apart. A title sequence is a calling card in a lot of ways. It’s a way for a show to leave an impression of some kind on the viewer, usually without a single line of dialogue.”
The title sequence, as pretty as it may be, is more than just marketing for the show. It’s an art form and one that has received more attention over the past few decades. Although the recent slate of series — going back to those that made HBO the network that it is today — get more attention for their cards, there were other series. Landekic said because there’s an art to the title, trends come and go. When sequences first debuted in the ‘20s and ‘30s around the time of cinema’s growth in popularity and accessibility, they received attention, too.
Perkins traces title sequences picking up momentum back to the ‘50s and ‘60s, particularly thanks to one sole designer — Saul Bass. Before Bass came along and started designing more elaborate opening sequences, it was common for theaters to leave the curtain closed while the credits played because there wasn’t anything special about what was happening.
In 1955, however, a movie by director Otto Preminger was released that changed all of that. The Man with the Golden Arm featured one of Bass’ designs and, knowing they had something special, Preminger added a note to the film canisters that asked projectionists to raise the curtains before the sequence played out.
“It was this exciting, highly graphic sequence — black and white and set to a jazzy score by Elmer Bernstein — that really opened people’s eyes to the possibilities of the title sequence,” Perkins said. “The movie is about a man battling a heroin addiction and those titles really embodied that struggle and set the tone for the film.”
The second resurgence of people noticing title sequences again can be credited to Kyle Cooper. Cooper, who collaborated with director David Fincher on projects like Se7en and Fight Club brought the title sequence back to the forefront of conversation again. Most importantly, it helped pave the way for the third golden age of television the industry was about to enter.
“You can actually trace a lot of the modern trends in TV title design back to Cooper and Fincher’s collaborations,” Perkins said. “Angus Wall, who was the creative director on studio Elastic’s Game of Thrones title sequence, has been one of Fincher’s editors for years.”
As television becomes more cinematic, television sequences need to match the quality of entertainment that succeeds them, leading to a desire for grander, exquisite sequences.
“We're definitely seeing this trend of really slick, epic, liquid CGI,” Landekic said. “Right now we're in what people like to refer to as the golden age of television, we have these epic big budget dramas, and title design has adjusted to follow suit. It's grown larger and more epic in some ways.”
At the heart of this renaissance is the design studio mentioned by Perkins — Elastic. There’s a good chance you haven’t heard of the studio before, but there is a very good chance that you’ve seen some of their work. They’ve designed the opening title sequence for a number of the shows listed above along with HBO’s The Young Pope and a number of projects on Pottermore.
Due to Elastic’s close relationship with studios like Netflix, AMC and HBO, Elastic gets to use its techniques across some of the most watched platforms, effectively setting the trend. It’s partly because of that monopolization of the market that the trend is as noticeable as it is.
“When we talk about a studio like Elastic it's interesting that people are sort of saying, ‘Why does Westworld look like Daredevil, why does this look like The Crown?’ and people are kind of picking up on what's happening because it's all coming from the same source,” Landekic said. “It seems like it's a trend, but is it really a trend if it's one studio? You have to step back and take a look at what's happening in the industry, which is that one studio has monopolized the title design scene over the past few years thanks to the relationship they established early on with Netflix and certain showrunners.”
Landekic added that it’s difficult to tell if this trend will continue over the next few years, but said that like all art, title sequences will undergo certain changes. Emerging technology like virtual reality will also play a role in how title sequences evolve, but until that happens, Landekic said these type of experimental, long form, cinematic sequences will continue to prevail.
To an extent, Perkins agrees. He believes the elaborate main title is here to stay, but thinks there will be a more minimalistic approach. Perkins pointed out we’re already seeing this play out in shows like Stranger Things and Legion, both of which have received quite a bit of attention for their title designs.
“For example, if you look at the opening titles of Stranger Things, that’s just glowing type in motion,” Perkins said. “There’s a lot of design thinking and work that went into that, but at the end of the day it’s a very simple title sequence. Like any trend, it’ll come and go in waves. One style will be in favor now, another next year.
“Whether that ends up being something elaborate or simple is very much up to the filmmakers, showrunners, and game directors, and the type of project they’re producing. As someone who studies and writes about this stuff, I have to say I really appreciate that way of thinking.”
American Gods, which has one of the best title sequences in years, premieres April 30 at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.