Title bout

The opening titles of films no longer grab cinema-goers the way they once did, but TV viewers are spoilt with high-quality credits. As Oscars week approaches, Yolanda Zappaterra talks to five leading designers about this apparent contradiction

If film title design goes in cycles of highs and lows, you could be forgiven for thinking mainstream Hollywood currently resides in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Sure, titles for Up, Sherlock Holmes and Cirque du Freak stood out on the big screen last year, but it was in TV offerings like True Blood and United States of Tara that impactful innovation was to be found. The question is, is this a temporary blip, or is television the future of great title design? Who better to ask than some of the best title designers practising today?

Susan Bradley, title designer for Pixar and creator of titles for Up and Ratatouille, says, ’There are several things to consider, that parallel the differences between the media of television and film themselves. The inequality of TV title design and film title design begins with the market, the culture, the missions and the budgets being so dissimilar.’

’The wonderful sequence designs on television grab the audience in a necessarily short span, and earn their keep with inventive, highly stylised concepts that have to cleverly brand the show with its characters, yet avoid giving it all away, and do something brand new at the same time,’ she explains. ’With film titles, they actually begin or end a story in a visceral, synchronised way as part of the storytelling process itself – it’s the “hand of the body”, whether at the beginning or the end. And you need your hand for a hand-shake, coming or going.’

Bradley’s reasoning is backed up by other title designers, who add extra factors into the mix. For example, Garson Yu of Yu & Co, which works across both film and television to create titles for TV shows like Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives, and films such as Cirque du Freak and the forthcoming Tooth Fairy, says, ’The visual of a TV title has to be bolder and more aggressive because of the distractions inherent in watching TV. With film, the design of a title sequence allows the imagery to unfold slowly because we watch a film in the non-disturbed environment of a movie theatre.’

Damien Smith, director of Edinburgh’s ISO Design and creator of titles for The History of Scotland and Ian Rankin Investigates, backs this up, saying, ’On TV, titles must be short and punchy, whereas on film they have to have a scale – emotionally as much as physically.’

Danny Yount was arguably responsible for the resurgence in TV titles with his designs for Six Feet Under in 2002. He also, more recently, designed the titles for the films Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, both created at Prologue, where Yount works with legendary titles designer Kyle Cooper. He pinpoints a trend that suggests film title design isn’t dying, just moving – to the end of the film. ’Avatar’s titles weren’t inventive, but if I were James Cameron I wouldn’t care because the movie was genius. And I believe that’s part of the reason – a great film does not always need an introduction. But I do remember that Avatar had wonderful end-titles, which to me is just as good. Iron Man took the same approach and it worked well,’ he says.

Joe Berger, of Berger and Wyse, which co-designed the titles for BBC’s grifter drama series Hustle, agrees, saying, ’The recent trend of sticking a fully realised title sequence at the end of the movie is something that I personally enjoy. The Star Trek titles are a recent standout for me – they were a fantastic Technicolor take on the original TV titles, and played out the movie brilliantly. They would have been utterly wrong at the front, setting up the movie as a pastiche of the TV show.’

Berger and Wyse’s exuberant work on Hustle nicely pays homage to great film sequences such as those for Casino, but other TV titles, such as last year’s Emmy award-winning United States of Tara, which uses stop-motion and paper pop-ups created by Duck Studios, seem to spring from nowhere, offering a degree of innovation that does seem to be missing from film title design. Yu agrees, but counters, ’TV titles are becoming more innovative, but film is a very detail-oriented, traditional medium. It’s about the story and emotion, not about an innovative visual style.’ Cost plays a part in the differences, too. Smith says simply, ’Lots of film folk don’t have an appreciation of graphics or titles – they want to spend the money on the film.’

So if that’s true – Yu concurs that ’sometimes title design is just an afterthought for some filmmakers’ – what is the future for title design in film? Is it an expanding or contracting market in terms of creativity? ’I think it’s expanding in many ways, and I hope its expectation of continuing to thrive creatively is appreciated for the time and energy it takes to do it justice,’ says Bradley.

Yu is ebullient. ’There are many ways title design can help a film or show, so I believe title design will continue to rise in popularity for both films and television,’ he says. ’Yes, everything is moving to small screens, but it’s still all about storytelling. It all depends on how we tell the story visually for title sequence design,’ he says. ’Creativity has no boundary. It is all about the designer’s imagination.’

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