From Sherlock to Succession: designing the perfect title sequence

Designers for Netflix’s Glow, BBC’s Sherlock and HBO’s Succession reveal the secrets of a compelling title sequence, and why they matter now more than ever.

“There’s a time and a place for a title sequence,” says Peter Anderson, who runs the eponymous London-based studio, which has created some of the most recognisable sequences on British television. Highlights include: Benedict Cumberbatch’s fast-talking Sherlock Holmes (2010), BBC’s Dracula (2020) and the 2017 adaptation Little Women. The time and place for a sequence depends, he believes, on how quickly you are binge-watching. Sometimes he wants to skip through them, but if he’s taken a break, they’re an invaluable way to be “transported” back into the show’s work.

This elucidates the two functions of title sequences, according to Anderson. The first is to “lead the audience into the world or story”, and the other is to act as a quality litmus test. “My view is that if the title sequence is a bit rubbish, the drama is going to be quite rubbish,” he says. “It’s a great signifier of what’s to come.”

The BBC’s Dracula was a three-part series from Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, and an updated version of Bram Stoker’s classic (and frequently told) story. The new take drew Anderson in. He was intrigued by the idea of Dracula as “absorbing knowledge from his victims”. The atmospheric titles takes you inside Dracula’s blood system as viewers witness the “gradual formation of Dracula through his devouring of different characters”. It sets you up, before the show even starts with the question: “What type of Dracula is this?”

How does the process work?

Usually the studio is given a script, or an episode or two if lucky, and Anderson stresses the importance of collaboration of the work. It is a team effort in and and outside the studio. The most fruitful design process relies on trust between the creative team and the television show, Anderson. “When we work with clients that trust us, we almost always get the best results,” he says.

Like the sequence for Good Omens, an adaptation of a Terry Pratchett book from BBC and Amazon starring David Tennant and Martin Sheen, which centres around an angel and demon duo. With this project, the show runner simply asked for wild ideas. “A title sequence is an island or a signpost that exists in a different universe,” Anderson explains, and for Good Omens it created an eclectic universe with references from the underworld to the M25.

Sherlock was a highlight for Anderson, as the studio embraced the “contemporary approach” of the show. “As a viewer, you got to be Sherlock – for thirty seconds, you were inside his head.” It showed the detective’s ability to close in on detail and then zoom out to see the whole picture. The sequence was overlaid with moody shots of London, which gave viewers a glimpse into this modern take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective.

The studio was also responsible for the in-show graphics which were revelatory. As characters received and sent texts, the messages would appear on the screen as graphics. This extended to characters’ thought processes: when Sherlock is thinking through a mystery, or making a deduction, the clues appear to the viewer. The graphics helped to give the viewer a more intimate look into the mind of the characters.

In 2014, Fast Company wrote that Sherlock “fixed” the Hollywood’s text problem, and Wired reported that the graphics showed viewers’ “transhumanism”. Anderson tells Design Week that it “changed the landscape of British television”, though it’s fair to say that it’s spread internationally. It shows how the graphics – in and out of title sequences – can affect a show’s DNA.

A title sequence is like a book cover

One of the highlights of designing titles is the variety it offers creatives, according to Shynola co-founder Richard Kenworthy. He likens it to the work of a book cover designer: “when you’re asked to do the cover, the novel’s already written and you’ve got to make something that’s sexy that goes on the front end.” Shynola is based in London, and recently designed the titles for Netflix 2017 series Glow, about women’s wrestling in the 1980s.

It’s based on a real life wrestling circuit, called the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which provided plenty of inspiration. The result is a neon-centric sequence with familiar 1980s images – from high-top converse to boomboxes. The Warrior, by Scandal and Patty Smyth, is a backing track. The brief was to represent “all shapes and ethnicities” as the early wrestling industry was diverse, and to avoid any overt clichés: “it wasn’t all just mental leg warmers.”

The research process is thorough, Kenworthy says. The studio looked into sports shows from the period, for niche sports that had become mainstream such as ten pin bowling. Glow’s titles could conceivably be the title sequence for one of those shows, he says. The variety is made clear by a recent sequence for the BBC, on 2020’s adaptation of Watership Down. For this, the studio made shadowpuppet animals, and created an elaborate sequence using these visuals. It meant that for months, the team became experts in shadowpuppetry. Shynola has created the title sequences for 2006’s The IT Crowd, which immerses the viewer into a pixelated that mixes videogame visuals with the mundanity of working life.

One of Kenworthy’s career highlights has been working on the titles for Nathan Barley, a 2005 short-lived series from Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris. The show’s a parody of metropolitan creatives, based in the fictional borough of Hosegate. Making fun of what Kenworthy calls the “shit graphic design” of the period, the titles are a mix of Banksy-esque visuals and clipart motion graphics. It manages to mock scriptwriters and photographers while also setting up the tone of the acerbic television show.

True Detective and its knock-offs

When HBO’s True Detective aired – a gritty detective drama set in Louisiana’s swampland – it was accompanied by a set of title sequences (created by Elastic studio) that became almost as popular as the show itself. “Countless knock-offs came in its wake,” Kenworthy says – noting the danger of copy and paste jobs within title sequences. His favourite? The sequence for Cheers, which “settles you in and makes you feel like you’re going into a bar and welcomes you.” “It has exactly the right feeling,” he adds. “It’s just right.”

“Television shows in the last decade have become the predominant art form over cinema,” Kenworthy says. “There’s a lot more competition and content, so the branding of the show has become so important.” He cites another Netflix series, Stranger Things which has a simple, typographic titles sequence. “I could show you one small portion and you’d recognise it.”

But as people binge watch shows and race through episodes, how important are the titles? Do they break up the momentum? In what Kenworthy calls a “strange decision”, Netflix has chosen to show the titles for Glow in full only once – during the first episode. The reasoning for this, Kenworthy explains, is that data viewing habits show that a lot of people skip the titles. “My opinion is that you should at least give people the option to watch it,” he says. “If there’s a button that skips it, leave it at that.”

Creating a cult title sequence

Despite what data may suggest, title sequences still build up cult status these days. Game of Thrones’ – rumoured to have taken around two years and cost close to a million dollars – has a sprawling sequence which maps out the fictional world of Westeros. Succession’s family-focused sequence, designed by Los Angeles-based Picturemill studio, too built up a following for the show about a dysfunctional media family.

The studio’s co-founder William Lebeda explains how it started with a few concepts around themes like poison, corruption, family, wealth, media and death. The studio – which also designed the title sequence for long-running sitcom The Big Bang Theory – took an “allegorical approach” to the visuals, and although the themes were “grim”, the ideas had a “dark humour” which kept them from becoming “too dire or too earnest”. Picturemill was able to watch the first episodes being filmed and edited, as realised that the “heart of the show” is a family. “Succession is a story about a father failing his children,” Lebeda says.

The team refocused, and formed visuals around “bloodlines and media empires and lineage and paparazzi and family photos”. Then the studio shot these images on Super 8mm film, which gives it a vintage feel, adding a sense of heritage to the sequence. Music is an instrumental part of it: Nicholas Britell’s eerie theme strikes a balance between elegance and unease.

The Simpsons meets Succession

Lebeda says that there’s a trend for premium shows to revisit the titles after a few seasons once it has found its feet. HBO – the network the produces Succession – has always been “particularly open” to this kind of evolution, he says. New scenes were recorded on a vintage VHS recorder, similar to the first season’s 8mm technique. “We could have made a whole new sequence just from the VHS footage,” he explains.

But because there was “so much love for the season one sequence”, Picturemill ended up changing only about 20% of the sequence nad most of it is “quite subtle”. For example, the father figure is a “looming spectre” over the kids – “just out of frame, moving away, but ever present”. COVID has halted plans for a season three update, though Lebeda says it would be hard to top it anyway. The cult status of Succession’s sequence has already been cemented anyway, the designer says: it’s been spoofed by The Simpsons.

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  • mike dempsey July 9, 2020 at 3:46 pm

    An interesting piece on Peter Anderson’s design companies title sequence work. But I’d like to give a big shout out to two designers that trailblazed much of what has become commonplace in the area of title sequences and on-screen digital interventions. First is Kyle Cooper Hon RDI for his groundbreaking title sequence for ‘Se7en’ back it 1995. 25 years on it still has a massive influence. The second is the film production designer, Alex McDowell RDI responsible for the look of the 2002 feature film, ‘Minority Report’ with its futuristic use of gestural interfaces, flexible displays of the sort used eight years later in the BBC ‘Sherlock’ series. It’s always kind to acknowledge the pioneers who helped develop these design areas.

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