First impressions matter — especially in movies, television shows, and video games. That’s why title sequences are so crucial. They’re also often overlooked. Art of the Title, a popular online publication focused solely on the making of pop-culture’s first impressions, has done a lot to change that.
Founded in 2007 by graphic designer Ian Albinson, Art of the Title has peeked behind the curtain on projects like The Avengers, Dexter, Dr. Strangelove, Game of Thrones, The Last of Us, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. It has become a must-read resource for title-sequence lovers, movie buffs, and graphic designers. Even director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, The Social Network) has said, “I love the site.”
We sat down with senior editor Will Perkins to talk about how the site approaches title sequences, what the process is like, and what insights they’ve gleaned over the years about TV and movie title design.
Shutterstock: What would you say is the main objective of The Art of the Title?
Perkins: To shine a light. There are just so many fascinating stories. We recently did all of the Sergio Leone title sequences for the Dollars Trilogy. When you think of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, you think of that opening title sequence. It’s fantastic, but who made it? Nobody knew anything about the designer, Iginio Lardani. There was one picture of him online. We connected with his granddaughter and just dug and dug to paint a picture of this guy who created so many iconic pieces of cinema.
What’s your selection process like? How do you determine which movies to tackle?
Often, a studio or designer will tell us about a piece they’re working on, or show us a sequence in advance, in the hopes that we’ll put it on the site. We also consume a lot of media individually, which organically exposes us to a lot of work. I get to see a lot of stuff early covering movies and film festivals for other sites, so that gives us a bit of a leg up. We can reach out to designers or filmmakers well before the movie hits theaters. Aside from that, managing editor Lola Landekic and I watch Twitter very closely for mentions of “title sequence” and “opening credits.” It gives us a good pulse on what people are currently digging in title design, be it in the movies, on TV, in a video game, or elsewhere.
You’re also branching into older films. With so many to choose from, how do you narrow those down?
With the historical stuff, we take a few approaches. Mainly, we’re trying to feature work by important or under-appreciated designers, or work that is either significant to the art form as a whole or just different. We have a Google doc called “Titles to Consider” with a list of thousands of title sequences, new and old. Basically, we’re just trying to slowly (but surely) chip away at that and tell people’s stories while they’re still with us.
How does the team research? Do you only watch title sequences? Do you watch the whole movie?
We’ll definitely try to watch the film in question, because there’s a context. They don’t exist in a vacuum. You want to experience the whole thing just to get an idea of what the title designer’s thinking was.
What is the value of a main-title sequence?
It’s the first thing the audience interacts with. It’s an invitation to come in. A good title sequence tells you so much about the movie you’re about to see. It’s like a microcosm. It sets the mood. It’s the same role that overtures play, but in a visual sort of form. They are these little short films of tone and meaning.
David Fincher said that he loves your site and praised it for creating “the proper context for this conversation” of main titles. That has to be a sign you’re doing something right.
Hearing that from him was just like, “Whoa.” That’s hugely flattering. But it also felt like “Okay, we’ve got to get our shit together, because that’s a lot of pressure.” He’s one of the reasons we exist as a site. His films are responsible for a resurgence of the title sequence. Fincher with Se7en just completely redefined what a title sequence could be, and was part of this second renaissance of title design.
Let’s talk about that. There’s a lot of awareness these days, even among laypeople, around title sequences, especially on TV. HBO was also helpful in bringing about that second renaissance.
HBO definitely played a huge part in the early 2000s to propel the medium forward. Look at a show like Six Feet Under or The Sopranos. When I think of The Sopranos, I think of Tony driving down the New Jersey turnpike with “Woke Up This Morning” playing. There was something about the title sequences that HBO started churning out that was a piece of branding for those shows. It was how you identified with them.
Now, it feels like there’s even more pressure for TV shows to deliver great title sequences.
I feel like new shows on AMC or HBO are now saying to themselves, “We’ve got to do something cool here. We have to set ourselves apart in a cool way.” Like I said, it’s a piece of branding. It is a great opportunity for these shows. If you look at a studio like Elastic, which made Game of Thrones, True Detective, Halt and Catch Fire — all fantastic title sequences — they constantly raise the bar. So I think, at the studio level, there is pressure to one up themselves time after time.
These days, it feels like we always talk about TV when we’re praising title sequences. Are movies not doing great opening-title work any more?
Good title cards? No. If they do anything title sequence-wise it’s going to be at the end. We’re just not seeing a lot of mainstream directors getting behind the idea. It’s all about, “We’ve got to get the action. Go away, we’ve got to get the big movie.” It’s ridiculous, and Hollywood’s missing out. They need to step up their game. Television is where the interesting stuff is happening.
Does that make it hard to find movie titles to highlight for Art of the Title?
It’s definitely becoming more of a challenge. Don’t get me wrong, great title design is still happening in cinema, but you definitely have to be looking beyond Hollywood to find it.
In looking so closely at title sequences over the years, have you picked up any tips on what makes a good one?
One of the things that people take for granted about title sequences is the music. A good title theme makes or breaks a title sequence. Take Cosmos. It has a great title sequence, but they’ve paired it with boring orchestral music. It doesn’t fit what the show was about. We saw an original cut that the studio that made it put together; they cut it to M83, the Oblivion soundtrack or something like that. The piece of music was perfect for it, but for whatever reason, they weren’t able to use it in the final. So yeah, music can make or break a title sequence.
What are some of your favorite title sequences?
If I had to narrow it down, I’d say The Third Man (1949) and Grand Prix (1966). The Third Man is basically just a two-minute close-up of a zither being played with the credits type lined up nicely on the strings. It sounds pretty simple on paper, but it captures the feeling of the film so perfectly. Anton Karas’ sad, slightly twisted music totally transports you into the world of post-war Vienna. You also have to remember that this movie came out in 1949, a time when film titles were pretty basic affairs that were there almost purely for legal reasons. This is a great, early example of a filmmaker using the title sequence to its full effect — setting the tone and mood in a way that connects to the movie.
What about Grand Prix?
I like it because it’s a masterful piece of editing and montage from Saul Bass, a designer who’s not normally associated with those particular disciplines. When most people think of Bass’ work, they think strong lines, animation, and situational type — his work with Hitchcock and Preminger mostly. For Grand Prix, Bass created the titles, but was also credited as “Visual Consultant; Montages.” He puts you in the pit, in the driver’s seat, to the point where you feel like you could almost smell the gas and exhaust. It’s a pretty experimental piece and not something you’d expect to see in a major Hollywood release from 1966.
You joined Art of the Title in 2011, a few years after it began. What drew you to the site and what has its affect been on you in terms of how you see title sequences now?
I’ve always loved films, but the idea of zeroing in on one element of a movie really fascinated me. When I got involved with Art of the Title, it opened my eyes to this world of incredible craftsmanship and this art form that really isn’t getting its due.
Any features in the works that you can tease?
There’s a guy called Wayne Fitzgerald who no one has ever heard of, but he’s the most prolific title designer in Hollywood. He’s in his 80s now and he started in the ’50s under Jack Warner as an uncredited title guy. He went on to make Deer Hunter, Godfather: Part II, Apocalypse Now — he did the title sequences for some of the most significant American films of the 20th century. He has 450 title credits. Where do you begin? It’s crazy.