Nothing makes a series or film stand out like a memorable theme song or title sequence. Often, including in live action, a memorable credit reel can come in the form of an animation. It would be hard to find someone who, when thinking about The Simpsons, didn’t begin to automatically conjure up the musical intro that accompanies it. The title sequence can sometimes be as popular as the film itself.
The title sequence is a chance for the production crew to use powerful visuals to draw the viewer into the plot before the first frame of the series or film is actually shown. And while, more often than not now, there is a cold open for sitcoms or drama series to set up something shocking or story driven so the viewers can anticipate what will happen as the credits roll, title sequences are still commonly used – the animated ones usually providing the most striking designs.
Mad Men does this superbly. Through its unique silhouetted animation, we get a sense of the themes and tone of the series to come. This is no different in films. We need not turn any further than to title sequence auteur Saul Bass, who for years developed animated titles for films covering a wide variety of styles. From the arm cutout of The Man with the Golden Arm to the skyscraper in North by Northwest, we see an early experimental morphing animation style.
This early style became the influence for many modern-day title sequences such as for Steven Spielberg’s biographical crime caper Catch Me if You Can. One of the greatest animated movie intros of all time, it was created by Paris based animators Oliver Kuntzel and Florence Deygas. Creating it was a four-month project that had the duo using a South Park-esque cutout style to scan ministamps of character body parts onto an animated backdrop. The result is a gorgeous cat and mouse sequence that when added to the music is as breathtaking as the film itself.
We also see 2D and 3D title sequences on many occasions. The powerfully dramatic opening credits for Game of Thrones smashed expectations in its depiction of a vast fantasy landscape, with buildings rising from nothingness into vast sprawling complexes. David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake creates an eerie design thanks to its black on black dark style and fast cutting, setting the viewer up for the serious tone to follow. Rat Race on the other hand uses a wacky opening, featuring photos of the actors photoshopped onto a simple animated backdrop for comedic effect, establishing the light tone of the movie.
Sometimes a theme can spawn a whole franchise of its own. The intro to The Pink Panther for example inspired an entire franchise of toys, animated series and comic books around the lanky cartoon cat. One series, ironically, swapped the movie style of animated intro to live action film and had a live action intro lead into the animated show.
Subtle animation can also be deployed in order to set a more brutal tone in the title sequence. This is used in the Nicolas Cage starring arms dealing thriller Lord of War. Here, we get a sequence that takes us through the life of a bullet from manufacture to use. Even the iconic Star Wars intro is an animation of sorts.
Meanwhile, throughout the James Bond’s film franchise we have been treated to title sequences that hammer home spy intrigue set to superb musical ballads. Sure, some of them are a mess and feel lazy and poorly produced. When they get it right though, it is incredible as a tool to set up the spy action to come. Some of the greatest of these are from the Craig era. In Spectre, we see a smooth transition of animation from the tentacle that wraps seductively around a loaded gun to a recap of the previous Craig entries in shards of glass. The modern visuals are fantastic and show how animation has developed.
However, the best title sequence is from Craig’s Casino Royale, an intricate opening that drags Bond into the modern era, using action and card themed imagery to blow a hole in how we saw 007 before this. These complex visuals are what pave the way for the rest of the reboot to succeed.
Title sequences can be as pivotal to the narrative to come, in terms of setting up iconography, tone and themes. When production crews create such sequences, they do not do so lightly. We need to give credit to these credits and appreciate them not just as intros but as movies in their own right.