The so-called new Golden Age of Television has not only ushered in unprecedented production values for the small screen; it has spawned new frontiers for eye-catching opening credits sequences as shows aim to gain a quick edge on a growing number of rivals. And just like the showrunners who strive to keep these programs fresh season after season, the designers of the opening graphics must constantly raise their game to grab audiences at the outset of each airing.
Now, with the Creative Arts Emmys around the corner, the industry is curious to see which show will take this year’s trophy for main title design: The contenders are TNT’s “The Alienist,” Netflix’s “Altered Carbon” and “GLOW,” Starz’s “Counterpart” and HBO’s “Westworld.”
Jake Ferguson, a digital designer Emmy-nominated this year for his work on “Counterpart,” says a title sequence is “hugely critical because it’s the first thing people see when they watch a show, and you’ve got to hook them on it.” The only problem, he says, is that any good execution runs the risk of generating copycats.
Recalls Lola Landekic, managing editor of the website Art of the Title, “After ‘True Detective,’ everybody wanted titles that looked like those.” The networks, she says, often return to the same major design firms, which use the same stable of designers with the same tools and the same ideas. That can lead to title designs that seem strangely uniform. “When we look back at this decade, we’re going to see how similar it all looks,” she says.
Design shop Elastic is the biggest player in this field, having done titles for “American Gods,” “Westworld,” “Altered Carbon” and many other shows. Its work includes the oozing liquid look of “Daredevil” and the oft-imitated ghostly double-exposure effect of “True Detective.”
“For a while people were wild about the double-exposure thing,” says Lisa Bolan, a creative director at Elastic who is up for Emmys for “The Alienist” and “Altered Carbon.” “That look was all the rage. It’s a fun technique, but it doesn’t make sense to keep doing it. There’s always a new approach to title design.”
Michelle Dougherty, creator of the now iconic retro titles on Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” says that title design clichés are often tech-driven. “Technology makes things fashionable,” she says. “Certain plug-ins or certain ways to render 3D elements come into fashion and it starts to feel like a trend.” The solution: “You need a good concept, because that’s what people remember, not the technique.”
To keep ideas flowing, title designers tend to maintain an open, collaborative relationship with networks and showrunners. When Bolan gets to work on a new series, for instance, she says she wants to hear what the most important aspects of the show are for them and turn that into her main inspiration. She cites “Altered Carbon,” where she worked closely with showrunner Laeta Kalogridis to “take elements from the show and interpret them in a way that feels fresh.”
Kalogridis says she was very happy with what Elastic devised: The atmospheric intro featuring tattoos and snakes was “just stunning … you bring them an idea and they come back with something very original.”
Karin Fong, a creative director at title design studio Imaginary Forces and a designer on “Black Sails” and “Boardwalk Empire” as well as “Counterpart,” says one of the great pleasures of title design is getting into the showrunner’s mind to understand the themes and figure out what the style is going to be. “It’s not about being original for its own sake,” she says. “It’s about being true to the show and giving it the best appetizer in titles for the main course of the series itself.”