Much like book covers, it can be tempting to judge a television series by its main title design — those evocative and increasingly imagery-driven sequences designed to convey everything from the essence of a show’s content to visual aesthetic and thematic reach, often while still telling a mini-story all its own. This year’s five Emmy nominated title sequences certainly pass judgment, effectively inviting viewers into a variety of worlds.
“American Gods” (pictured) (Starz)
Charged with conceiving the title sequence for Starz’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel exploring the role of rising and falling deities in the modern age, creative director Patrick Clair looked directly to the two words in its name. “It was dealing with two very powerful, potentially sacred, very weighty elements — being basically the legacy of America and the legacy of religion on the other side,” Clair says.
In order to represent this duality visually, Clair used crucifixes and holy imagery on the spiritual side and cowboys, eagles, astronauts to represent Americana. “It struck me that it would be enormously fun and interesting to crucify an astronaut,” he says. “It’s playful. It’s intentionally a bit provocative. I hope it’s not disrespectful, even though it’s thought-provoking.”
Clair continued to fuse seemingly disparate elements, including “menorahs with hi-fi jacks, neon-sign cowboys mashed up with war robots, and all sort of things from Greek and Roman mythology.” The digitally crafted artifacts were also composed of clashing aesthetics, from strip club décor to Renaissance art.
“Feud: Bette and Joan” (FX)
For the title design of FX’s “Feud,” creator Ryan Murphy brainstormed an intermingling of vivid but stripped-down, Saul Bass-style graphics that evoked the ’60s and featured plot points from “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” — the iconic film that co-starred “Feud’s” subjects Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and was fictionalized within the limited series.
Director Kyle Cooper embraced the film noir style of “Baby Jane” for the title design. “To use the shadows, make them graphic, and have them become transitions was exciting to me,” he says. Further flourishes — including a puppeteering studio boss, whose cigar flicked Oscar-shaped ashes — were added to depict the business of Hollywood and behind-the-scenes nature that “Feud” depicted. “I like things that are more metaphorical to the whole way these women were manipulated and pitted against each other,” Cooper says.
With the addition of Mac Quayle’s haunting Bernard Herrmann-esque score, creative producer Alexis Martin Woodall credits Murphy for the button that made the sequence complete. “He said ‘I want to feel bereft the end of this. I want to echo the sentiment I feel when I think of these two women having wasted both of their lives, not being in each other’s life. I think we should end up on the beach like in ‘Baby Jane,’” Woodall says. “If we didn’t pack a punch at the end emotionally, it wouldn’t be the Emmy-nominated piece that it is.”
“Stranger Things” (Netflix)
Just as Netflix’s spooky ’80s throwback “Stranger Things” made an instant impact on the zeitgeist, its deceptively simple, eerily effective forward-floating red letters on a pitch-black background became an immediately recognizable element of the show’s iconography. “What we really try to do is mimic a real optical title, which is the way those titles were done in the ’80s,” says creative director Michelle Dougherty.
Early in the series, creators Matt and Ross Duffer pointed Dougherty to the typographically dynamic works of legendary title designer Richard Greenberg, known for his chill-inducing work on “Aliens” and “Altered States,” as well the epic-minded “Superman: The Movie,” for inspiration. “He created these moods and these feelings with typography alone,” Dougherty says.
The retro vibe Dougherty created was achieved by digitally aping old-school analogue effects, ultimately enhanced by the sinister theme created by the band Survive, which she calls “the best gift” they could get. “Without that, I don’t think we would have had that mood that was created,” she says. “It was so beautiful.”
“The Crown” (Netflix)
Settling on a properly regal and evocative approach for Netflix’s “The Crown” posed a significant challenge for creative director Patrick Clair in his second nominated title sequence. The show’s real-life central character, Queen Elizabeth II, “commands an enormous level of respect and affection,” he says. “She has really projected this image of being someone who can handle diplomacy and the weight of this very sacred burden.”
Therefore, Clair would have loved to do something “poetic and violent and abstract” to encapsulate Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) public-facing image. However, Clair notes that because the queen is “such a reverent figure,” he felt he should tread lightly.
The solution was to to take an up-close look at the crown itself, literally and symbolically, to draw out drama and hint at the world Elizabeth is stepping into.
“We tried to come up with something that had magic and mystery to it, to hint at the kind of prison bars that you get out of these big gilded frames, to hint at this rich cultural history that’s come from all over the globe in the many jewels and things,” he says.
Nominated against himself in the category once more with his sci-fi-meets-Old West opening for HBO’s “Westworld,” creative director Patrick Clair initially expected to riff off the show’s device for the creation of the android inhabitants but soon discovered its scientific, industrial process had an aesthetic appeal all its own. “There was no way to abstract that and makes it more poetic,” says Clair. “So it really became about finding out, ‘What’s the more dramatic point at the core of all this?’”
In the end, Clair’s team dove deep into the series’ more philosophical exploration of artificial intelligence. “Out of that came this idea that what we should show is something about these kinds of beings and their lives,” he says. This was accomplished by contrasting the stunning beauty and startling grotesqueries of the techno-organic A.I. forms against a backdrop of their frontier role-play, seeing lovers embrace or how the piano players hit the keyboard when notes are played, for example.
“Ultimately, it was about getting real human emotion and seeing a grace in them,” Clair says.