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Approaching the Movie Inside Your Movie - the Art of Title Design

Do you remember the grimy creepiness of Se7en‘s opening, or the elegiac power of Blue Valentine‘s title sequence?  Some films keep titles to a minimum, jumping into the story as quickly as possible.  Others approach the sequence as a kind of overture, giving audiences a taste of the story-world they are about to enter.  Look into the art of Film and TV title design through the latest episode of PBS’s arts-focused webseries, Off Book.  How do some of today’s top title designers approach this task?  And what can we learn from them?:

Interviewing the title designers of films and shows like Se7en, Blue Valentine, Mad Men, and Zombieland, the episode reveals the kind of creative and practical problem-solving they must undertake:


The episode does a great job of hitting the heart of title design — how do you create something that is both an organic part of the film, yet separate from it?  I think Jim Helton has the right idea — the title sequence is a kind of movie within the movie.  But it doesn’t try to ape or imitate the actual style of the film, instead the title sequence is an opportunity to expand and approach the same thematic matter from a more experimental or poetic direction.  Think of the difference between a short story and a poem.  In a short story, we try to create a narrative that carries us through the thematic tensions and conflicts, moving in time, explaining the why and where of how these characters behave.  The poem can be more like a frozen moment, it is allowed to focus exclusively on a feeling, a mental state, a single thought.  Great title sequences do just that — they can present us with an emotional dunk, intriguing in its creepiness or sadness or excitement, and propelling us into the narrative that follows.

Title sequences can also be nothing more than text over the narrative’s opening moments, or a plain black screen, and still be very effective.  But if you can pull off a memorable title sequence that adds and informs what is to come, you should go for it.  Blue Valentine’s opening title sequence does an exemplary job:

What are your favorite title sequences?  How about your least favorite?  What do you think makes or breaks a great title sequence?

[via John August]

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  • I was very impressed by the title card for The Cabin In The Woods. Very random and got a cheap scare from teh cinema audience.

    • Buahaha I was just thinking of that.
      In a way it’s doubly effective because you’ve been reeled in to the status quo of this mundane, non-horror and comedic scene and then BAM- you remember you’re watching a horror film, but the tone of your experience is shaped for the next two hours as a result of that MASSIVE RED TITLE CARD.
      It’s simultaneously subtle and… not. :)

  • Mat Sliwinski on 04.19.12 @ 8:50PM

    How was that film anyway, The Cabin In The Woods?

  • wait? what? NAB is over? you guys covered sony, canon, Red, Arri, but what about (panasonic)?

  • john jeffreys on 04.19.12 @ 10:11PM

    making the titles and intro credits are like my favorite part of filmmaking. i put “un film de” instead of “a film by” next to my name to make it super cool and pretentious. and i make sure the letters are extra huge to rape your eyes and dominate the screen, it looks so cool in auditoriums

    • Hehe, yes. And you always make sure that your name is on the screen longer and bigger than even the title of the film. Because that’s what film making is all about: YOU, the star of stars, the great Director! ;)

  • I loved the beginning sequence for Adaptation. That one’s always a weird flick to compare others to, since it’s all about itself, but that opening is simple, quick, funny, and engaging.

  • Glad to see Blue Valentine’s credits getting a little love. Nice topic!

  • “Catch Me If You Can” stands out to me. Seems a bit of a homage to Saul bass actually.

  • the opening credits to watchmen were great!

  • Acopylse now, Iron man, The great lebowski, Up, Rango, City of God, Children of Men, Baraka, The Godfather, Resvoir Dogs, Requiem for a dream, Elite Squad II, The fall, Inglorious bastards, Star Trek, every one of PT Anderson’s films and anything by Kyle Cooper are/have my favorite opening sequences or credits. Although I have to say most of the bond films have great openers. What else should I check out? (not all of the above films are ‘great’ they just had great openers and sometimes don’t live up to it in the rest of the film)

  • Przemek Lizakowski on 04.20.12 @ 6:02AM

    “The Vampire’s Assistant” title sequence is a mesterpiece for me.

  • Saul Bass is a legend!! So glad they mentioned him at the end.

  • Aren’t those the END-titles of Blue Valentine though? Can’t remember the opening
    of the film, but that end-sequence is forever imprinted in my memories.

  • Favourite one, Sherlock Holmes, the movie from 2009, no doubt.

  • The girl with the Dragon Tattoo for me is one of the best open titles I have seen in a long time. It really shows what the movie is about in a subtle way!

  • I really enjoyed the title sequence for Juno. The cartoons transitioning with live footage was amazing.

  • ex drummer and enter the void. the titles are superb. there are more examples at watchthetitles.com its a really complete site about the art of opening seqs.

  • The Shining opening sequence with the flying glidecam!!!

    The newer action movies (Mission Impossible, etc) and Bond movies always have great opening credits.

  • The beginning to Hulk (2003) the Ang Lee version is fantastic.

  • I loved Tintin’s opening titles.

  • I always thought Fight Club intro was cool and how it end on the eyesight of the gun. Those type of titles gear you up for a cool story, damn near makes you anxious than before. Same for Zombieland.

  • I always thought Fight Club intro was cool and how it end on the eyesight of the gun. Those type of titles gear you up for a cool story, damn near makes you anxious than before. Same for Zombieland.

    • The first Alien movie in 1979. The way the title creepily unfolded upon the screen set the tone for the horror to come. It was so so effective. In fact, I just searched it on youtube and it still sent shivers down my spine.

      • woops. that wasn’t supposed to go here. Anyway, yes, Fight Club was what I was thinking as well. And was going to reply under this post. But changed it once I recalled Alien.

  • This is probably old news, but this site complements this nicely: http://www.artofthetitle.com/

  • The Last Emperor

  • I love the titles in Dexter, these are truely a film inside the film. With all the macro shots of things being smashed, slashed and cut it really tells the whole story of Dexter in a nut shell.

    • Daniel Mimura on 04.30.12 @ 1:03AM

      Yeah, the Dex titles are very clever. And the music is so incongruously upbeat it makes it even better

  • Daniel Mimura on 04.30.12 @ 1:05AM

    I just saw Charade (on the big screen) and forgot how great the titles are. Henri Mancini really can do title music. (Touch of Evil and original Pink Panther come to mind, speaking of good title sequences.)

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