TV Show Titles and Opens Have Become More Creative and Sopisticated

in recent years, TV opening titles have become increasingly layered and intricate. Like the shows themselves, they now rival the quality of their big-screen counterparts.

This year’s batch of Emmy-worthy work continues that trend, with one notable exception: The credits for Netflix’s “Stranger Things” are an exercise in simplicity. The letters of the title coming together against a black background as the camera zooms out.

Fans of pop culture from the early ’80s, when the show is set, should recognize that the font — ITC Benguiat — resembles the lettering used on horrormeister Stephen King’s book jackets of the era, and the throbbing electronic theme, by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the band Survive, is a nod to the one-finger synth scores of director John Carpenter (“Halloween”). Less obvious are the subtle touches that make the digitally created sequence mimic old-fashioned optically-printed titles, including simulated projector gate jitter, film grain and color bleed.

Positioned by “Stranger Things” creators Matt and Ross Duffer after each episode’s dramatic opening scene, the titles are “a moment to breathe,” says Michelle Dougherty, creative director of the title sequence.

The opening titles for Netflix’s “Luke Cage” evoke not an era but a person and a place: the superhero title character and the gritty streets of Harlem. To create the sequence, title designer Patrick Clair (“The Man in the High Castle”) and his team at Elastic had photographer Kate Rentz take pictures of various Harlem locales and virtually projected them on to the digitally rendered body of Cage as he throws a slow-motion punch. “You get these shots of Harlem rippling over the undulations in his muscles as the punch is coming in, so Harlem and the character are glued together,” explains Clair.

“A lot of people think this is all real, that I was up in a helicopter… when it’s just a matte painting with 3D models.”
Johnny Likens

For FX’s “Feud,” series co-creator Ryan Murphy wanted a title sequence reminiscent of the show’s early 60s setting. Drawing inspiration from the cut-out animation in Saul Bass’ iconic titles for such films as “The Man With the Golden Arm” (1955) and “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959), creative director Kyle Cooper and his team crafted vignettes literally and metaphorically illustrating the real-life clashes between stars Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (portrayed by Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, respectively), as well as the conflict between their characters in 1962’s “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.” The artwork was created by hand, then computer-scanned, cleaned up in Photoshop and animated with After Effects. “Yes, we’re using present-day software,” says Cooper, “but we’re still doing it a frame at a time.”

To create the opening titles for HBO’s “The Night Of,” still photographs of Manhattan street scenes were digitally manipulated to look like live-action shots and intercut with CGI-rendered depictions of objects key to the plot, e.g., ecstasy pills flying through the air.

“A lot of people think that this is all real … that I was up in a helicopter shooting these aerial views, when the truth is it’s just a matte painting with 3D models and animated cars,” says titles director Johnny Likens.

In contrast, while the opening title sequence for HBO’s “Big Little Lies” boasts a similarly dense montage of images, it was constructed entirely from unused live-action footage filmed by director Jean-Marc Vallée, including shots of crashing waves, frolicking school children, and sea creatures at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“It wasn’t relying on being overly designed or making heavy use of graphics,” says the sequence’s creative director Mark Woollen. “This kind of sun-kissed, lived-in California coast just felt like the right way to introduce the show.”

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