Before a movie or a TV show begins, we’ve already made a critical judgment on its tone, whether we think of it at the moment or not. That’s because every visual story is prefaced with opening credits, a title card, title sequence, or both. The opening credits or title sequence of a movie have an enormous impact on establishing tone, character, plot, and even theme. By understanding how movie opening credits and title sequences are used, we can decide on what kind of opening would make the most sense for our own productions.
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Opening Credits Explained
Opening credits vs. title sequence
Opening credits are the names of the cast and crew, producers, studios, etc. that are displayed on-screen. These can be superimposed over an opening scene, over a black screen, or over a still background.
When these opening credits are given a standalone "sequence," or a series of shots created specifically to present them, we call that a title sequence. A title sequence is a part of a TV show or movie’s intro that is dedicated to crediting the cast and crew and displaying a title card.
A title card is a graphic that says the name of the movie. Some movies skip the opening credits, title sequence, or title card altogether. In other words, there are no hard and fast rules on this topic.
Now that we have a grasp on the terminology, let's look at some examples. This video from Cinefix ranks their Top 10 titles sequences of all time and why they work so well.
How Do Opening Credits Work
The purpose of opening credits
Oftentimes, a title sequence is an integral part of making a TV show/movie memorable or iconic. In television, the repetition of the title sequence can become the most memorable element of the entire series.
Title sequences are capable of communicating something essential to the audience: such as the comedic and absurdist tone in The Pink Panther. In this example, director Blake Edwards uses animation and jazz music to communicate the tone.
Even if you’ve never seen the film, you’ve probably seen the animated pink panther, or heard the infectious music. That’s a testament to great title sequence design.
Vintage Title Sequences
Classic title sequence examples
The title sequence to the 1931 classic The Public Enemy is a great example of how Hollywood studios used to approach movie opening credits; simply to relay a film’s cast and crew.
Way back when, from the 1920s to the late 1940s, nearly every movie's opening credits looked something like The Public Enemy’s.
Text was superimposed onto a mostly static background for anywhere from one to five minutes. Obviously, this wasn’t the most engaging way filmmakers could spend the valuable minutes a studio allocated for a feature film.
The title sequence is much more engaging. The actual title of the film is shown on a real-world street-curb, not superimposed onto the picture.
This example is a grittier and more immersive take on opening credits; the end result de-glamorizes what we think of Hollywood. We know from these opening credits, that we're going to see the darker underbelly of Tinseltown.
The opening credits and title sequence to Dr. No embodied a shift to more radical title sequence design. This sequence is memorable for three reasons: color, music, and unique visuals.
Look at how expressive the colors are, how enrapturing the music is, and how mysterious the visuals are. These characteristics capture the mood, tone, a mystery that point directly to "spy movie."
SAUL BASS TITLE SEQUENCES
Learn From a Master
Perhaps the most famous designer of title sequences is Saul Bass. Whether you know it or not, you’ve surely seen some of his work.
This next video shows the enormous impact Saul Bass has had on movies opening credits, with interview clips and specific examples.
Saul Bass opened the floodgates for other filmmakers and title sequence designers to experiment with their opening credits.
Saul Bass used bold visuals, rich in subtext and foreshadowing, to captivate viewers. Then he layered those visuals with alluring music. The same is done here in Catch Me If You Can.
One great example of a technique that’s had enormous lasting success is the title crawl used in Star Wars. This iconic title sequence is a throwback to the science fiction serials George Lucas grew up watching like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.
The Star Wars films have become synonymous with using the title crawl to relay film-world exposition. This style of title sequence may have been popular before Star Wars but it will now and forever be associated with a galaxy far, far away.
Title Sequences in Television
A guide to TV intros
Title sequences in television can be different from their movie counterparts. That's because there’s often a difference in the intent of the sequences themselves. Whereas in film the sequence is meant to mainly establish tone, in television the purpose can be much more meta.
Over the course of a television season, the opening credits can transform in meaning. Take the title sequence and opening credits of season one of True Detective for example.
At the beginning, the credits instill a sense of mystery and the macabre. This is communicated in the music and double exposure visuals. But once you progress through the season, the visuals start to coalesce. You realize that the title sequence was actually foreshadowing events of the season all along.
Another great example of a TV intro done right is in Game of Thrones. The Game of Thrones opening credits are probably some of the least-skipped in TV history. Why? Because there’s a reason for the viewer to watch them that’s beyond establishing a tone or naming the actors.
Each episode of Game of Thrones has a purposeful title sequence. By this, I mean that there’s relevant content in the credits for each episode. The credits show us where the events of the episode are going to take place, and how the actions of the story have impacted locales.
From episode to episode, the Game of Thrones title sequence is mostly the same. But by adding an additional layer, a non-guaranteed layer, the audience becomes more engaged. Oh, and the infectious theme song by Ramin Djawdi does a great job of keeping viewers attention.
Not every TV show calls for such dramatic opening credits though. Take Full House for example.
This sequence is just as iconic, if not more so than the other examples. Although it’s lacking in motifs, foreshadowing, etc., the sequence still works. With television comedy, establishing tone is king. Full House establishes a singular tone with sweeping shots of the setting/characters and a great choice of music.
Sometimes the opening of a TV show can be as simple as a title card, just like it is in Curb Your Enthusiasm. If you've seen the show, you could argue that Larry David's character wouldn't bother with such frivolity as an elaborate title sequence. What we get is just as "no-nonsense" as the lead character.
Other filmmakers prefer to use more elaborate techniques. Many of the more popular title sequence and opening credit techniques are still used today.
MODERN TITLE SEQUENCES
How are opening credits used today?
Opening credits and title sequences have come a long way. From static titles over a musical theme to complete artistic achievements of their own. This video does a great job illustrating just how far they've come.
Both TV shows and films use text overlays as opening credits too. This is usually followed by a title card or a very short sequence. In the case of Spike Lee’s Inside Man, the opening credits are preceded by a short live-action scene.
Using text overlays to credit cast and crew vs. a dedicated title sequence is ultimately a stylistic choice made by the studio or the filmmaker.
One of the more popular title sequences used in television today is in HBO’s Succession. The Succession opening credits are used to establish an other-worldly, orchestral tone.
By using images from the story’s past and present, the filmmakers are able to juxtapose aspects of the ornate and the futuristic; all tied together by a theme of wealth.
There are examples of films that satirize the typical title sequence, like Austin Powers: Goldmember. Here's director Jay Roach on how they designed and shot their opening credits as a spoof.
By pointing to external references and breaking the fourth wall, director Jay Roach grabs the attention of the audience, and establishes a colorful tone and joyful mood.
Another film that has a really fun title sequence is Deadpool. It combines the high production value and action flick aesthetic with the sarcastic and meta-comedy we will see throughout the film. Everything we need to know about Deadpool, we get in this title sequence.
First we’re given the Marvel title card, then we’re literally thrown into the absurd action of Deadpool. It becomes immediately clear to us as an audience that this is a parody world.
The success of the sequence is in how it establishes tone and communicates comedy, all the while relaying credits. The point is that you should take advantage of what a title sequence can provide to the overall storytelling.
TITLE SEQUENCE CONSIDERATIONS
Credits in your own production
No matter how you cut it, TV and movies opening credits are an essential part of any production. So when considering which strategy might work best, ask yourself these questions:
1: How would a title sequence help to communicate tone, character, plot, or theme? Can it plant clues and foreshadow later events?
2: Can the same effect be achieved with a title card? Including a title card by itself is a statement and maybe that's the best way to introduce this world and this story.
3: Is it worth the time to create a title sequence? In many cases, the title sequence is an entire production by itself and since it's not technically necessary, will the end product justify the means?
4: Should I save time and have the credits superimposed onto the film/episode opening? This applies more to television, especially half-hour shows, where every second of an episode run time could easily be spent without dedicated opening credits.
There’s no right choice, only stylistic ones. But by knowing the different ways in which title sequences and opening credits are used, you’ll be better prepared to use them in your own work.
The Ultimate Guide to Film Credits
Before you plan your credits and title sequences, you have to know the proper hierarchical order for cast and crew. Up next we break down the industry standard hierarchy for film credits, so you can focus on all the fun aspects of making a memorable title sequence without the worry of getting the formatting wrong!