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Designers Talk Emmy-Nominated Main Title Sequences

The nominees for main title design share the burden of persuading viewers to invest in ambitious, hour-long serialized television. It’s a tricky piece of salesmanship: In roughly 60 to 90 seconds, the opening titles have to capture the essence of a show — the tone, the genre, the look, the music — while functioning as a seductive, standalone work of art in their own right. The creative directors of all five sequences, two of them double nominees, offer us a window into their craft.

THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE
Based on a Philip K. Dick novel, Amazon’s thriller imagines what the United States might have looked like had the Axis Powers won World War II. With the Japanese Pacific States in the West, the German Nazi Reich in the East and Midwest, and a “Neutral Zone” cutting a swath through the Rockies, the show’s cartography is striking, as is the mingling of native and foreign cultures.

Elastic creative director Patrick Clair, who previously won an Emmy for “True Detective,” latched onto a key plot element about a much-coveted piece of newsreel film. “As soon as I heard that we could do something with projection, I got really excited, because I love having two sets of images overlaid in some way,” Clair says.

The titles establish the Axis-ruled territories in the show like the kingdoms in “Game of Thrones,” but the projection element allowed Clair and his team to see American monuments in a disturbing new light: “The different nation’s states and borders segue into this much more poetic, thematic projection. You’ve got paratroopers running like tears down the cheeks of Mt. Rushmore.”

MARVEL’S JESSICA JONES
Despite the Marvel name, “Jessica Jones” isn’t a typical superhero series, even with a character who enjoys the benefits of superhuman strength and a half-developed ability to take flight. Based on Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Baydos’ comic, the show has the feel of a sardonic New York noir, updated with dark themes of sexual assault and its lingering stresses. So the Netflix drama has a comic-book feel, but grounded in the noir genre and the realistic threats facing a female gumshoe working alone in New York City.

For Michelle Dougherty and her team at Imaginary Forces, the idea for their colorful, graphically distressed title design starts with the Master of Suspense. “We have this character who’s an investigator and uses her camera in the city,” says Dougherty, “so we thought it would be interesting to take her POV and go through the city to create the sequence. I grew up watching Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ and I love this idea that you can construct a story with just little bits and pieces of information.”

Much like “Rear Window,” the credits for “Jessica Jones” present a voyeur’s-eye-view through old apartment buildings. Dougherty credits the illustrators, David Mack and Arisu Kashiwagi, for “this beautiful, painterly landscape of her vision.”

NARCOS
When Tom O’Neill and his former company, Digital Kitchen, were brought in by the showrunners of “Narcos” to talk about the titles, they were introduced to the beautiful theme song, “Tuyo,” by Rodrigo Amarante. In writing the song, Amarante imagined something Pablo Escobar’s mother might have listened to as she raised the boy who would grow up to be the world’s most notorious cartel boss. The gentle tone of the music both evokes Escobar’s Colombian homeland and contrasts sharply with the violence that he would visit upon it.

“From the start, we had an understanding of what the vibe of the show would be,” O’Neill says. “After that, it was about portraying the beauty and the color of the time period. Some of the footage is from the time and some was recreated in order to replicate the time. We were using images from a huge variety of sources, so the biggest challenge was combining all the various visuals to create a strong, consistent narrative.”

More than any of nominees, the “Narcos” titles have a look that carries over into the show itself, which covers the broad strokes of Escobar’s operation (and the efforts to stop it) with a documentary-like verisimilitude. “[The footage] came from a huge variety of sources,” O’Neill says. “Some of it we got from this guy, El Chino, who was Pablo Escobar’s personal family photographer.”

THE NIGHT MANAGER
Of the five nominees, “The Night Manager” is the shortest and simplest, emphasizing the show’s interplay between the glamorous lives of illegal arms dealers and the mass destruction that funds them. A rocket launcher bursts into a martini glass. An elegant tea set spins into a pistol chamber. A fusillade of bombs dropped from a plane coalesce into the multiple strands of a pearl necklace. The message is clear: The elite class are getting rich off human misery.

“The show does a really good job of showing how there’s this very secretive corporate structure in the world that exists to turn war into a product,” says Clair of his second nominated work. “You’ve got images of jewels and sexy cocktails and high-end hotels on the one hand and the war porn of bomber aircraft and rifles on the other. It gave us the chance to visually mesh them together in a way that hopefully has an emotional impact on people.”

VINYL
Making the literal creation of an album as the organizing image for a show called “Vinyl” may seem like too obvious a choice, but the supercharged title sequence treats it like a Big Bang moment. From a microscopic angle, the carving of grooves into a record has the quality of an earthquake splitting immense cracks in the landscape, evoking the trailblazing volatility of the New York rock scene in the 1970s. Combined with black-and-white shots of raucous club scenes, the titles carry the spirit of creation.

“You know the first time you hear your favorite song or the first time you went to a concert as a teenager or heard something that really awoke your soul?,” asks Dougherty. “We really wanted the titles to recreate that visceral experience. It’s very hard to put into words because you just feel it, right?”

The L.A.-based Dougherty credits her Imaginary Forces counterpart in New York and fellow nominee, Alan Williams, for manning the project and insisting on sticking with black and white. “I felt like we needed to put some color in it,” says Dougherty. “But he fought hard for [black and white] and I appreciate that because I ended up really loving it. It reminds me of the record and just logistically helps marry all the footage together.”

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