The Art and Craft…of the Title Sequence

Part of my blathering, both here and in my accompanying websites (such as The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies & TV), is to consider and opine on the storytelling process.

As a kind of minor example example of that — a microcosm, if you will — I was thinking about the credit/title sequences in TV series. Now such sequences are becoming rarer, as it’s thought that it’s better to keep the title sequence to a minimum, so there’s more time for the actual episode. I can appreciate that — but I can also feel that an art is being lost, that sometimes a signature of an old TV series was its title sequence, and theme songs were often so good, so popular, they actually went on to become radio hits that still get played today (Welcome Back, Kotter or The Greatest American Hero, or instrumental pieces like The Rockford Files). The theme tune to the original Hawaii 5-0 was considered so good — so much a part of the series’ identity — that when they “re-imagined” the series recently…one thing they carried over from the original was that tune!

A good title sequence can almost be worth watching on its own, regardless of the episode it precedes — a nice mix of a well chosen theme song, with a carefully selected montage of images that highlight the core aspects of the show (if it’s an action-comedy, it’s not enough just to show action images…you’ve got to convey the comedy too) all edited with a music video precision to match the beats of the melody. I seem to recall the light-hearted U.S. private eye series, Simon & Simon, as being a good example of capturing these elements — from the country-blues theme music with its slide guitar, starting lazy, then getting more boisterous (suggesting “action”), yet maintaining a “lighthearted” feel, and quickly edited images simultaneously suggestive of the buddy-humour and the crime-action, even opening with a sign saying Welcome to San Diego (just so we know the setting) and all timed with the beats of the music.

And, of course, let’s not forget the old catchy voice overs: “Space, the final frontier”, or “Want to know a secret?” as Stephanie Zimbalist would tease at the beginning of Remington Steele‘s first season. Again, it’s all about setting up the series in just a few seconds of film — a voice over sometimes needed if the premise isn’t altogether straight forward (I think Remington Steele dropped the voiceover after a while, presumably once they figured the audience knew the premise).

I’d argue one of the all-time best series title sequences was in the 1970s U.S. series Kolchak. A kind of X-Files progenitor, Kolchak starred Darren McGavin as a reporter who investigated the supernatural. And it boasted a brilliant title sequence. With a jaunty, minimalist melody playing over the images (can’t remember it if was whistling, or a piano) we see Kolchak entering the brightly lit but deserted newspaper bullpen office first thing in the morning. He blithely tosses his coat on a rack, settles at his typewriter, all so far seeming as innocuous as an episode of Lou Grant or even Mary Tyler Moore. Then he starts typing — words about murders and disappearances. The melody takes on a darker, more sinister theme. The lighting starts shifting, the shadows growing longer. It’s still just Kolchak alone at his desk in his office, but a definite sense of unease is building — finally Kolchak turns toward the camera, a horrified look in his close up eyes. End of sequence. As I say — brilliant stuff. No monster. No mayhem. No action. Yet with just a change in tune, a shift in the light, a quickening of edits, we go from a bright cheery scene to a creepy disturbing scene all within 30 seconds or so — and it conveys the two keystones of the series: he’s a reporter; and it’s a horror series. Honestly, aspiring filmmakers could study that sequence.

The subtle art involved in title sequences can be seen when a series goes from a good title sequence…to a less effective one (or vice versa). Sometimes it’s because there was clear, dramatic change (new music is used) or otherwise a re-thinking of the sequence…and not necessarily to good effect. What’s more intriguing is when the changes are so subtle as almost to be not worth mentioning, but it still affects things.

An interesting example is the fondly remembered U.S. series Veronica Mars (one of those series which most people who saw it, liked it — but not enough people saw it). A sharp, smart series about a plucky teenage amateur detective clawing her way back from a fall from social grace, the series employs an edited version of the Dandy Warhol’s song “We Used to be Friends” that nicely captures the series’ themes — from the melancholy opening lament of “A long time ago, we used to be friends” evoking the heroine’s isolation then blasting into the raucously defiant “Come on now, sugar — Bring it on!”, embodying her current “Mad as Hell” philosophy. And it’s laid over a slickly edited montage of images that, though not intrinsically exciting, nonetheless convey a sense of energy and drama and character — star Kirsten Bell’s head laid sadly across her arms at her desk; Jason Dohring stabbing a finger accusingly toward the camera; a low-angle shot of Percy Daggs III hoisting himself onto a fence; Francis Capra sauntering away from his gang. All done over a foolscap motif with doodled images, both suggestive of the characters, and evoking the milieu of a high school. It’s a great title sequence. The song and the motif is maintained for the second season, but using different shots — and it’s not as effective. Oh, it’s not bad — but it’s what I meant about how subtle these things can be. The shots of the actors are just, well, shots of the actors, lacking the almost subliminal drama that the first season images conveyed. The third season deliberately took a sharp turn in a new direction — using the same song, but re-orchestrating it, and laid over completely re-conceived imagery. It grew on me a bit as I got used to it — but it’s nowhere near as strong, as compelling as the first season. And perhaps that was a reflection of the series itself — by that point the series itself had moved away from the initial dramatic themes that had so enlivened the first season, Veronica was no longer the underdog outcast, the series less interested in the original themes of rich-poor schisms. Maybe the first season title sequence was better because it had more it was trying to convey — like the first season itself.

Title sequences are becoming less mandatory in TV — some use them, some don’t. And, to be fair, the new, shorter titles can also be reflective of art, this time trying to convey it all in just a single image (or title font) and a single bar of melody! Think of a 30 to 60 second title sequence as a poem, and the modern single-shot titles more like haiku. Castle with its four or five deliberately melodramatic notes, and the nib pen stabbing knife-like into the ground (encapsulating the notion of a writer, menace, and tongue-in-cheek all in a second or two) or Revenge with its title superimposed over a (CGI) storm tossed coast.

But as I say, the longer title sequences are still around. One of the best is for The Walking Dead which creates a creepy, eerie opening sequence while never actually showing any of the title monsters — more overt than Kolchak all those years ago, but a similar intent.

Of course, a title sequence doesn’t always reflect the quality of the series it represents. Good series have been fronted by indifferent title sequences, and great title sequences have introduced middling series. But as I say, it is an art form in itself — one many of us probably don’t give too much thought too (we might say that was a cool opening and that wasn’t so good — but we might not ask “why?” we feel that way). But it requires a few different disciplines to come together — a selection of music, slick editing, even a sense of “narrative” (it’s often overlooked, but good title sequences aren’t just a random collection of head shots and action scenes, but are arranged to tell a kind of “story”, or at least a progression) that all has to be utilized to bring out the themes and flavours of the series. In other words, a good title sequence doesn’t just front a TV series…it has to understand what that series is about, and convey it to the audience! In that sense, a title sequence is a bit like a TV commercial or trailer for a movie or TV show — the commercial too in a few seconds has to interest the audience, entertain on its own, while conveying what the movie or TV series is about, and whether it’s funny, or dramatic, or scary, or whatever.

Looking at the history of Canadian film and TV I’ve often grumbled that commercials advertising some productions can be a bit, well, uninspired (often, admittedly, because the programs they’re hyping are themselves uninspiring — but even good movies have been ill-served by lacklustre ads).

In Canadian TV, there have been some good — and not so good — title sequences. And many inbetween. King of Kensington’s catchy, European-folk flavoured title song both captured a sense of whimsy (good for a sitcom) and, ironically, evoked more of the character’s Jewish ethnicity than most of the series scripts actually did! The 1970s Littlest Hobo had a great theme song…but the series itself was hardly a highpoint of TV drama. Seeing Things’ opening song left me a bit mixed — it was definitely, um, off-beat and quirky — not exactly top 40 stuff. Yet, conversely, that’s kind of why it grew on you, and it boasted clever lyrics that, if you listened to them, nicely explained the series’ premise — both about the hero’s psychic powers…and his marital problems. Adderly was an enjoyable action-comedy…but its title sequence was fairly bland. Generic theme music laid over rather generic images of action and exploding cars…not necessarily evoking the series’ equally important humour aspect. Although, to be fair, the assembled images did convey a bit of the necessary back story (the hero a secret agent, wounded in the line of duty, and demoted).

Arguably one of the first Canadian TV series to boast a truly slick title sequence was Due South (appropriate given it was a big budget series aimed at conquering the U.S. airwaves). And, like with the better America series, you can dissect the elements, and how they conveyed the nature of the series itself, from the opening shot of the Mounty hero in the wintery north, cut to a plane, then he’s shown striding into Chicago, so we immediately get the sense of the “country mouse in the big city” premise, while the ensuing shots alternately convey the sense of humour & whimsy, and action & suspense, well timed with the music. I particularly like a shot — and they must’ve liked it, because they maintained a variation on it during a few changes in the edits — of a figure falling forward, rolling, then coming to his feet (editing a couple of unrelated scenes — with different characters — together!) creating a sense of action and energy, all synced nicely with the music. And then there was the music itself, a bit of jaunty urban country-rock…again, capturing the sense of the rural hero in the big city.

Durham County boasts one of the most interesting, moody title sequences in Canadian TV — with its montage of eerie, unsettling imagery (yet like with Kolchak — many not overtly so, making it all the more disturbing) and a haunting melody. Although in its case — I might quibble about its juxtaposition with the series itself. The title sequence, frankly, seems like it should be introducing a horror or supernatural series. Which is kind of the makers point, as their police drama series was meant to have a disturbing, almost horror movie undercurrent. But it was, at the end of the day, just a police drama — and the title sequence maybe promises more than is delivered.

Currently on the TV schedule are some nice examples of title sequences. Arctic Air, with its opening shot of a caribou, then planes, and continuing to alternate shots of the majestic tundra with technology and city lights which nicely conveys the sense of a world straddling the fence between urban city and the vast wilderness. Slickly edited against a dramatic melody, mixing inuit throat singing with a pop melody, with even the shots of the actors superimposed over a white background as though the skyline (as opposed to simply shots of them in their offices) to further convey the sense of these knights of the air.

Blackstone is a gritty drama about life on an impoverished Indian reserve. For its title sequence there’s a rendering of the playground song about One Little, Two Little, Three Little Indians. It creates a subtle sense of unease, because it’s a song that, though not intrinsically offensive, nonetheless feels uncomfortable (I mean, one can’t put your finger on why it’s rude — it’s not like it’s using slurs or saying anything derogatory…but you can find yourself going, um, why are we counting Indians…and “little” ones to boot?) And they get it performed by kids voices, with a kind of echo-y tone as though an old, or subversive recording, furthering a sense of unease (and kids singing a song introducing a decidedly adult show further creates a sense of discordance). And this is laid over a slick montage, not of the actors, or the setting, but what look like archival photos of Native people, as seen through black borders as though suggesting — what? Charring? It’s stylish and compelling. And it too could be seen as conveying a sense of the series, even as it tells you nothing about the characters or the plot. Blackstone isn’t really about “white” bigotry — it’s more about problems on the reserve, perpetrated by Natives themselves, with white people peripheral…even sometimes victims. Yet you could argue the point is it’s not about “direct” racism, but “indirect” racism, systemic racism, a history of racism that has led to a culture of poverty and despair, so the uncomfortableness of the Little Indians song, and the montage of historical photos perhaps cleverly exposes the undercurrent of the series — it’s not telling us about the series, it’s telling us about the history that led to the events in the series.

Less Than Kind has had some great title sequences (even though it’s altered them for different seasons). Starting with the selection of a theme tune which manages to be quirky and melancholy…and even stating the series’ location. It kind of put me in mind of those ’70s sitcoms where they’d cleverly juxtapose a goofy comedy with a title sequence that hinted at a little more gravitas. Adding to the interesting aspect of the sequence is the use of street sign motifs…which only really strikes you once you’ve watched a few episodes and realize the characters run a driving school. So in that sense — it’s a title sequence that actually takes on meaning the more you watch.

Canadian TV shows also eschew the title sequence — indeed, a couple of recent series have gone even farther than a lot of American series (at least that I recall seeing). Instead of cutting to single frame shot of the title, series like Bomb Girls actually super-impose the title over the scene itself. It further creates a sense of “we’re not wasting time with a title sequence” (even though, y’know, they are, since it’s not like it’s being super-imposed over important action or dialogue) but also maybe evokes an almost cinematic resonance — like you’re not watching a TV series, but a movie that just happens to be airing in hour long instalments with commercial breaks. While a series like Combat Hospital made good use of font, with a title logo that instantly evoked the sense of a drama about combat medicine.

Just thinking about some current and or recent Canadian TV series. Call Me Fitz has a great, quirky title sequence — funnily, it doesn’t maybe bespeak “ribald comedy”, as the series is, being almost dark and unsettling, but in that case, it works precisely by creating an almost sombre contrast with the show itself, and it does offer psychological insight into the relationship between the two leads so that you almost appreciate it more after seeing an episode or two. Flashpoint has a good title sequence, a moody tune, well edited; there’s no “progression” particularly, although there maybe is some attention paid to individual characters — Hugh Dillion with sniper rifle, Enrico Colantoni shown standing back from the action, suggestive of their different functions in the unit. The Lost Girl is a solid title sequence, with a voiceover to explain the premise, a decent tune and images — nothing exceptional but solid. Likewise, King (at least in its first season — the second is still a few hours away from premiering as I write this), is decent enough, particularly given its brevity, establishing a tone, a milieu (cop drama) and a heroine all within seconds. I actually really like the opening to Haven (more than the series itself!). The title sequence to Endgame (cancelled, but with rumours still abounding that it isn’t yet fully checkmated) did establish the background for the series in a montage of images (the hero’s trauma and celebrity) but, I’ll admit, I’m not sure it effectively portrayed the series itself (which was, after all, a light-hearted mystery series about an eccentric detective) with an unmemorable melody — not a bad title sequence, but not quite a winner.

Now, as I say — there is a worth to looking at title sequences.

Aside from simply acknowledging the artistry that goes into the better ones. It can reflect part of the narrative process — and an understanding of what your series is about.

In the sitcom Corner Gas, the title sequence segues from one regular character to another, in scenes that were shot for the title (as opposed to culled from the episodes) and it’s clever how they manage to convey the essence of the various personalities with just a single shot…basically introducing the viewer to the characters. Oscar raging on about something, Chief Davis sleeping in his car, startled by efficient Deputy Karen. They didn’t just get the actors to grin at the camera (well, they did) but they strove to present their personalities in a few seconds of film. Clever.

I was thinking about this watching a few re-runs of ReGenesis, the techno-drama about health officials investigating rogue science and virulent outbreaks. Whereas a lot of series have moved away from title sequences altogether, ReGenesis (maybe because it was made for commercial free cable) actually had an unusually long title sequence. That can be problematic…because even if it’s a good sequence, it can get old after the third or fourth episode. Anyway, for the first couple of seasons, the title sequence eschewed shots of the actors, for utilitarian shots of medical research (slides, needles, etc) while presenting a “mini-drama” chronicling the outbreak of an epidemic, following a sick guy, and the hands he touches, before he collapses in the street. So, it certainly conveys part of the point of the series…but maybe is too focused. As not all the plots in ReGenesis revolved around out-breaks and communicable diseases. It doesn’t really give you much sense of the characters (since none are featured) or anything — and, as I say, it’s a bit protracted. Laid over it is a theme tune that, likewise, gets marks for being off-beat — not top 40 stuff — but as such, isn’t really that catchy or memorable.

Then for the third season of ReGenesis, they maintain the use of medical minutia, but drop the mini-drama idea for more traditional shots of the stars (with the same theme music). And it was actually watching that which kind of inspired me to write this post — rather, it, and then contrasting it with my thoughts about Corner Gas. So, to be fair, you certainly get the essence of the series in that title sequence — that it’s a drama about medical research, though now with less sense of danger or menace that the first seasons’ title sequence conveyed (other than by using a dour blue tint over the images). But it was in the shots of the actors that it became interesting…or, rather, uninteresting. As they were basically just generic shots of the actors, looking pensive, peering at microscopes, or charts (granted, a series about lab work doesn’t necessarily offer a variety of imagery to employ). It conveyed they were medical researchers — it didn’t convey anything about them as individuals. They might as well have just had the actors flash big toothy grins at the camera while an old Quinn-Martin announcer reads their names for all the shots of them were keyed to their individual characters. The shots also seemed a little too obviously posed for the montage, as opposed to culled from actual scenes in the series. As well, for such a long title sequence…it didn’t really have a narrative drive to it, the way its early season credits did, or the way I said other series do — the melody doesn’t change much and you could have shuffled the order of the images without really affecting the “feel” of the sequence.

The point is — there was nothing terrible about ReGenesis‘ third season title sequence. It was a perfectly serviceable, perfectly okay title sequence (if, y’know, long). But it’s what I mean when I say there are good such sequences…and not so good ones. It felt as though someone was told, hey, can you edit together a few shots for the opener? And so someone did — but without really putting the thought into it that, say, the Due South people did, or some of the other series I’ve listed. And even with the first two seasons, with their much more elaborate, involved (and expensive) sequence following an unknown Patient Zero, it maybe felt like they were too focused on the “gimmick” of the mini-drama…and less on really bringing out the elements of the series itself. Likewise, the music felt a bit too self-consciously like they were trying for “mood”…and not fully pulling it off.

But as I say — it wasn’t bad. No one watching the ReGenesis openings would, I think, say there was anything wrong with them. ‘Cause there wasn’t. But like with so much else in entertainment — and in the Canadian entertainment biz inparticular — there can be a distinction between doing a perfectly professional job…and doing a good job, an inspired job. I job that makes you say, man, I’d like to shake the hand of the person who did that.

Given how Canadian film and TV is so often struggling to get a toe hold in the market place, that’s my point. It’s not enough to do a good job, a professional job. Everyone involved, yes, even the music composers and the people who edit together title sequences, have to bring their A-game, to realize that there is a method and a mechanism underneath the art.

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