“Main Title Design” may not sound like the most glamorous Emmy award out there, or even as crucial an element as it is to a series. But while it’s often underrated, a show’s titles do all the heavy lifting right at the start, setting the tone and pace, and giving audiences a taste of what’s to come in terms of themes, characters, visual aesthetic and artistic ambition. It’s a tall order for such a short sequence, but when done right, it economically conveys all that and more, as evidenced by this year’s five Emmy nominees.
The Alienist (pictured above)
Combined with its pulsing, urgent score, the opening’s flickering montage quickly paints a vivid picture of late-1800s New York City. Gas lamps, the Statue of Liberty, ambitious bridges and buildings under construction all act as a backdrop to the crime-solving drama that follows. “We were trying to take you back to that New York, architecturally and tonally, and also give little glimpses of the main characters’ faces,” creative director Angus Wall says. “So it’s really a sort of reverse time-lapse combined with some profiling, and it’s pretty short and sweet and concise — just 30 seconds long.” The cold, greenish-blue color palette was another “key element” notes Wall.
Set centuries in the future, when technology has transformed society and radically redefined old concepts of consciousness, life and death, the sci-fi show has a lot on its mind. And the eerie imagery of the title sequence by design studio Elastic had to very quickly capture and convey that ambition. “We worked on a bunch of storyboards and concepts and ultimately decided to go with this combination of metaphor and the science of the show,” says creative director Lisa Bolan. “So the very opening features this spark of energy, and the carbon explodes out. Then we used the Caduceus with its rod and snakes, and the idea of snakes shedding their skin, and then humans shedding theirs, and then this ouroboros tattoo, which becomes very important in the show and in its themes about identity.” The potent image of a snake swallowing itself “worked perfectly with all the tech,” she adds.
The genre mash-up, a sci-fi spy thriller that’s part Berlin-set period piece, part timeless exploration of parallel worlds and the true nature of reality, is introduced with a variety of metaphors and symbols. “When we first talked about it with [executive producer] Justin Marks, he discussed all these deep themes and things like ‘the templates of destiny,’” says creative director Karin Fong. “Do we determine our fates or are we all pre-determined?” To illustrate such philosophical conundrums, Fong and her team used elements from Go, the complex strategy game, along with images of human figures dwarfed by brutalist architecture “which echoed the show’s ideas about alienation and loneliness. We also tried to tie in a lot of the circles and grids from Go, and use those patterns alongside bits of the period sets and modern technology to represent what’s going on in the show. It didn’t have to explain anything, just complement it.”
For the all-American(a) wrestling show, the producers counter-intuitively hired British collective Shynola, which channeled their inner wrestlers and used an effective but deceptively simple concept to evoke a bygone era of sparkly spandex, big hair and even bigger personalities. But creating the vibrant neon figures wasn’t easy. “The technique of rotoscoping is inherently laborious,” says creative director Jason Groves. “But this was amplified by the dreadful quality of the material we were tracing. They were all the wrong ratio, low resolution and very fuzzy since most was from old VHS tapes. Each frame would take upwards of an hour minimum to complete.” The team initially trawled through countless hours of wrestling footage, “looking for great shots and moves, after which we made an edit, finessing until we had a great, lively cut. Then the horror began — tracing every frame using splines. There’s no shortcut for this — only hard graft.”
Multiple Emmy winner Patrick Clair was nominated last year for Elastic’s main title deep dive into the beautiful but disturbing aspects of the series’ AI elements: skeletal fingers playing piano and robotic arms etching techno-life-forms, combined with wild horses racing across the Wild West. “The big decision for season two was, do you leave it alone or update it and tweak it a bit?” says the creative director. “But I find it’s often not very satisfying to do just a few tweaks. So we began discussing it and developing ideas with the showrunners, and it evolved more and more to parallel changes to the show itself.” Ultimately Clair and his team opted for “a very similar structure of emotional beats” to underscore a major new theme: “that the androids might be capable of experiencing love for each other — true love.” Clair also incorporated images of a mother and child, “which I found so compelling,” and was a key thread for Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) storyline.