This spring marked the five year anniversary of Netflix introducing its Skip Intro button, a functionality that would be quickly copied by its competitors. With the volume of streaming television content, it can be hard to remember a time before the button. I remember first using it to skip the intro for “Orange is the New Black,” because that Regina Spektor song got on my nerves; the over-one-minute long montage was repetitive and simple, oscillating between zoomed in photographs of inmates’ facial features as text overlaid. Netflix claims that on an average day, the button is pressed 136 million times, “saving members an astonishing 195 years in cumulative time.” But lately, even with what has become my new normal of pandemic-induced television consumption (you name it, I’ve seen it), I’ve found myself engrossed in title sequences, forgoing the button and giving myself the extra seconds to watch the sequence and settle in to the show. It felt in opposition to my shortening attention span and binging mentality. What design gods had pulled this off?
In our Golden Age of Television, convincing viewers not to Skip Intro is the obvious goal of the creative directors and designers behind TV title sequences, but not all title sequences are created equal. A beautiful opening title sequence isn’t new or unique to television, the medium follows trends in both style, length, and tone. Taking inspiration from the godfather of cinematic title sequences, Saul Bass, some of the most memorable sequences of the 2000s include “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones,” and “True Detective.” With the volume of television shows coming out across the ever-growing Premium and Plus streaming services, it’s fair to worry that this art form may die out.
Turns out, the opposite is true. We spoke to several designers who focus on title sequences, and they say they are getting requests from showrunners and creators to aim for the most beautiful, elaborate, unique title sequences possible. “More money is going into elevated TV content and they want to elevate the entire package and that includes title sequences,” says Adrian Yu, creative director at yU+co, the Los Angeles-based design agency, where he recently designed the lauded “Tokyo Vice” title sequence. “For some showrunners it’s almost a challenge for them to have the best title sequences where people don’t want to press skip.”
The Anatomy of A Great Title Sequence
Most title sequences are the brainchild of agencies, not showrunners. The agencies aren’t given a brief but rather pitch their own vision—and see what sticks. Title sequences can involve anywhere from teams of two to 30 creative directors, designers, animators, producers, and more, costing anywhere from $50,000 to $300,000 depending on the scope of the concept (though that is ultimately a drop in the bucket against budgets like “Tokyo Vice'”s $34 million).
Some title sequences are custom for each episode. While episode-specific title sequences have been done before—in 2010, “The Simpsons” tapped Banksy to take over the title sequence for a one off—it’s becoming the new norm for certain genres. Dramas, especially thrillers, mystery, and sci-fi tend to get the beautiful, intricate sequences that assist with worldbuilding and lend themselves towards fanservice. “It really comes down to world building that you just can’t do with traditional live action title sequences,” says Yu, who cited Disney and Marvel’s “WandaVision” as an example of unique title sequences that cater to an engaged fandom.
In these sequences, designers hide plot-related Easter eggs and hidden messages in their animations, encouraging fans to piece together the puzzle whether they’re watching weekly or in a 10-hour binge. Norn Jordan, creative director at the agency MOCEAN who has worked on dozens of titles across many television networks and streaming platforms, recalls recently creating custom title sequences filled with Easter eggs for FX’s biographical drama “Fosse/Verdon” and Netflix’s sci-fi animated short series “Love Death + Robots.” Now, in the titles for a new show she can’t yet name, she and the team at MOCEAN went as far as hiding a phone number in the animation that will be live, sending fans into a rabbit hole of plot clues and creating a metanarrative that she, along with the show’s producers, hope will stir social media buzz.
Other title sequences are elaborate, 3D animations. Think “Severance” and “Tokyo Vice.” While these don’t have custom Easter eggs for each episode, their subject matter is often made up of metaphors for the plot points to come, and their dark, ominous, tone helps set the stage. “A lot of prestige television these days can feel like a 10-hour movie,” says Yu.”What makes it a series is you’re confronted with a very beautiful title sequence at the start of each episode and it reminds you that you’re watching TV and not a film. There’s a certain way that TV is paced compared to cinema.”
When he and the team at yU+co designed the title sequence for “Tokyo Vice,” they initially pitched three directions. What we see now as the final result is a hybrid of all three, blending 2-D art into 3-D and photoreal animation and moving from tattoo-style art to props relevant to the show’s plot to a Tokyo-cityscape. At face value, it all lends itself to the eerie tone of the show. But Yu explains there’s a deeper story behind the sequence that helped yU+co win the pitch. To avoid spoilers, just know that the tiger, the fish, and the dragon each represent different characters’ journeys on the show—pay attention to who triumphs.
“Severance” is another prime example of the 3D title sequence trend. “The sequence itself is very Instagrammy, very 3D kind of goofy art, with colorful kind of ragdoll animations,” Yu says. The dystopian drama enlisted artist Oliver Latta, known for his bizarre, often gross, animations for its title sequence. The result? An unsettling day in the life of main character Mark that feels like the “Mad Men” titles on acid. “You see copies of his [Latta’s] stuff on Instagram and Vimeo all the time. It’s interesting to see that style on “Severance,” a prestige television show, because no one has really done that,” he says. He anticipates that in the wake of the 3D hype, left-of-center style art and funny, weirder, sequences will dominate in title sequences.
Of course, there’s no proven formula for what will captivate audiences. And not all audiences want to sit through a title sequence (the Skip Intro data proves it). Sequences made up of photo slideshows or existing show footage overlaid with typography are a cost-effective approach for titles, but are the exact kind of titles I found myself skipping. If the titles aren’t adding much and are just delaying the viewing experience, many viewers won’t bother. “I think when the skip button culture came up, people thought, ‘Oh it’s like skipping a commercial,'” says Greg Harrison, chief creative officer at MOCEAN.
But when done right, title sequences are really “the beginning of the story,” Harrison says. And with streaming platforms expected to spend over $50 billion on programming in 2022, viewers can expect to see even more creativity at the beginning of their favorite shows. “Television has really been where filmmakers have gone lately with more complete visions,” he says.”If you’re a filmmaker, you’re thinking cinematically, and what is more cinematic than a main title?”