Game of Thrones yanks you across a clockwork Westeros. House of Cards takes you on a red-eye time-lapse across Washington, D.C. The Sopranos drives you from glitzy Manhattan into the bowels of New Jersey.
Opening credits are key to establishing a place, time, and tone for TV. And that’s why it’s so remarkable that for six seasons, Girls–the HBO show about millennial women coming of age in Brooklyn–has managed to pull off this feat with nothing but a title card.
It simply reads “GIRLS.” The colors, backdrops, and musical score can change week to week, but that’s the most creative freedom allowed. It’s on-screen for a mere seven seconds. Six seasons into the show, I still can’t define why it feels so perfect. So I asked Howard Nourmand, who designed the title for the show with his firm, Grand Jeté, to explain how he created the mood.
Sometimes used dramatically, other times, melodramatically, it always follows a cold open, but the card can serve as both the setup to a joke and a punchline in one. In some of my favorite moments, it’s as if “Girls” is being said with a head slap and a sigh.
Take the open of season six, episode six. Hannah and Marnie have, over the course of about a minute, encapsulated the perfect train wreck of a Girls dialog, in which the two friends have gone from passive aggressively arguing about proper salad dressing application, to celebrating Hannah’s newly announced pregnancy with borderline misty eyes, to angrily debating the ethical rights of mothers versus fathers.
“I knew that you were going to be controlling, and control the entire way that I brought my child into this world, and I probably shouldn’t have told you until I was in labor!” yells Hannah as she rushes to the bathroom.
“Oh my god, this is first trimester hormones, isn’t it?” Marnie quips.
“No!” Hannah shrieks back–both defying the pigeonholing sentiment and confirming it at the same time.
Cue title card GIRLS as the audience laments, “Oh, Girls,” from their bedroom laptop streaming a shared HBO Go account.
“It didn’t start off that way,” says Nourmand. “It started off like so many sequences [you know].” Originally, Nourmand pitched a more typical approach, a montage that would take you inside Brooklyn apartments, and follow the lives of the characters, setting up the show’s mise en scène. “There were so many different things, but what we were trying to do was understand the world these characters were living in in that moment of their life in that city . . . that very special population [Lena Dunham] was able to capture,” Nourmand says.
“We pitched a bunch of stuff, and then Lena said to us, ‘Why don’t you guys come down to the edit suite and watch a little bit of the show. Because I think that will be empowering,'” says Nourmand. “She set me up with a little editing room, and they left me alone for a while. I basically watched the first season.” At this point, Nourmand got that his approach had been all wrong for the particularly raw and quirky portrait of youth in Brooklyn.
Dunham also gave Nourmand a key restriction that would define the product to come: She wanted a cold open. No big sequence but something bold. And over conversations, those guidelines solidified into restrictions.
“We started asking ourselves how can we create something memorable with the restriction knowing it’s only going to be on for seven seconds and a solid card. Then the answer we had was, ‘What if it’s a different color, texture, the background changed, and the music changed?'” says Nourmand. “How could we make it feel like something that hadn’t happened before in television with those very specific variables in mind. I don’t know another show offhand that changed their title card every episode. That made it very unique and special, and gave the audience another thing to look forward to in that surprise moment.”
The typography itself is actually a customized riff on Neutraface, an art deco sans serif with a sleek, modernist stature. After obsessively coaxing it to the exact proportions he wanted, Nourmand rendered a “gajillion” versions of the card in different colors and textures to hand over to production. With all these options in hand, editors had the freedom to put a unique stamp on each episode. “Just like a script was written for each episode, this was part of the expression of each episode,” says Nourmand. “And that’s unique and something that’s hard to put your finger on.”
In some cases Nourmand built custom cards for special episodes, in others, these custom cards are actually designed in-house by the Girls production crew. In season one, episode seven, “Girls” is rendered like a cheesy marquee (it’s the episode where Hannah and Adam dance silly in Bushwick). When we get a peek into Shoshana’s life in Japan in season five, “Girls” is spelled out in three symbols of kanji. In these moments, the title card feels both self-aware and self-effacing, as if the show is broadcasting its own farce.
When I ask Nourmand, again, why the card works–despite what looks to be a complete lack of a brand standardizing color system that could easily offer variety within boundaries–he argues that it’s specifically the lack of rules and logic makes the opener so successful.
“You know . . . I had a drawing class once, and the professor–I wasn’t the most naturally gifted illustrator, but I was so careful with my lines–and the professor said, “even if you draw your lines wrong, but do it with an authority, people will believe it,'” Nourmand says. “I feel like this title sequence is just bold, even if the colors don’t match. It owns it in a way . . . that’s true to the character of the show. And if I was to describe the color, combinations, patterns, even the shapes of the letters, I’d say that’s the spirit of it all. Instead of trying to say something perfectly, just kind of let it riff a little bit. If it was too matchy, or perfectly calibrated, it would kind of lose some of its soul.”
And to think about it, you could really say the same thing about the entire, fantastic series of Girls itself.
The Girls’ finale runs this Sunday. And yes, it will feature a never-before-seen animated card that Nourmand calls his favorite of the series.