Why should those who watch a film be interested in contract negotiations between actors, agents, and production companies as well as the union agreements on which these negotiations are based? But it is exactly this, dealing with this tension, responding to it, that is the task of the title sequence.

A few days ago, I stumbled into a minidoc entitled “The Art of Film & TV Title Design” which I have watched twice and plan on watching more. Not only is the documentary fun to watch, it is also instructive to learn about how credits are made and what kind of logic inspires them.

The video lets the creators of some great title sequences of American movies and TV shows speak of their work. These are Peter Frankfurt and Karin Fong from Imaginary Forces; Ben Conrad from Logan and Jim Helton, film editor of Blue Valentine (2010 dir. Derek Cianfrance). All of them are behind some very artsy productions. Imaginary Forces is responsible for the credits of hits such as Transformers (2007 dir. Michael Bay), The Pink Panther 2 (2009 dir. Harald Zwart), Boardwalk Empire (HBO 2009-), Mad Men (AMC 2007-), Hell on Wheels (AMC 2011-), The Pacific (HBO 2010), and more. Logan created the opening sequence of Zombieland (2009 dir. Ruben Fleischer) and a variety of commercial ads, and Jim Helton’s work on Blue Valentine is certainly a proof of his ability to create stirring audiovisuals compositions.

Watching the documentary, with its selection of moments from various title sequences, one is impressed by the degree of aesthetic refinement, inventiveness and heterogeneity in terms of montage, rhythm, photography, that they radiate. This is certainly nothing new. Entertainment media have long been an experimental ground to test innovations in audiovisual techniques, becoming, in the last decade, the platform of election of the digital/design revolution that Anne Balsamo discusses in her new book Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work. My last post was about Saul Bass, the undisputed forefather of contemporary title design, who, starting in the 1940s, elevated a cinematic form, whose existence is tied to legal and economic exigencies, to new artistic heights.

So it is not like we didn’t already know that title sequences can be fun and beautiful to watch. What the academic in me brought home from watching the documentary is that not enough is being said about them. Although its short-form and short-time span qualify the title sequence as an “ephemeral medium,” the publications dealing with this topic, most notably Paul Grainge’s edited anthology Ephemeral Media, make no reference to them. You get scholars discuss different incarnation of media “paratexts,” meaning, in Jonathan Gray’s definition, the extras like posters, press reviews, making-ofs, DVDs etc. that provide the “early frames through which we will examine, react to, and evaluate textual consumption” (26),” but almost no literature in English has been published on title sequences proper.

It seems that the difficulty in exploring title sequences lays in their ambiguous position that makes them more than advertising, yet less than stand-alone productions. Whereas trailers, for example, are easily categorised as promotional material that must raise awareness and draw people to the theatre (or TV set, or video store or online aggregator), title sequences are unburdened with this task in that their function is to ease your dive into a world of fiction (at the same time as they straighten some legal matters concerning property rights). They are supplements, not advertisements. I know that a lot has been written about this and other related issues in German, so I’m hoping that one day I’ll master the language enough to read it, but for now I am left with very little knowledge on credits besides what I gathered from the documentary.

I learned that marketers and producers regard the title sequence as a “movie inside a movie,” as Jim Helton maintains. This means that it is approached as a self-conclusive work made of different acts that embed title cards, photography, typography and music into an edited progression that is, ultimately, a form of storytelling. Analysed in this way, the title sequence emerges in all its artistic integrity which is, not by chance, the work of specialists who are often not part of the crew assigned to producing the movie or the show. This might lead one to argue for some sort of autonomy of the credits, as if they accounted for an alternative medium. Rather, Peter Frankfurt and Karin Fong remind us that title sequences exist to reference them to the point that, ideally, one can’t exist without the other. The same idea of credits as a movie’s double is expressed by Georg Stanitzek who, in “Reading the Title Sequence,” refers to them as paradigmatic texts offering a “preferred arrangement of reading and commentary.” [Something Fred Greene also discusses in his blog post of 5 April]

Yet, this is not a mirror relationship, where the credits are compelled to faithfully reproduce what the movie will be about. On the contrary, their paradigmatic status requires  a level of abstraction able to “encompass” and “reinforce” the spirit of the production, as Frankfurt and Fong say about their work for Se7en (1995 dir. David Fincher). This is especially true of the credits for TV shows, whose life is genetically programmed to last longer than any movie’s. In this case, titles must be generic enough to give life to a universe that exists just in blueprint form. Since the decision to keep a show on the air or renew it is taken several weeks (if not months) into the broadcasting of its premiere season, its potential narrative development is, for the most part, either non-existent or underdeveloped. In this respect, the title sequence cannot be based on plot elements, not even on star performance. The “intermediary zone” (Stanitzek) between announcement and beginning that it presides over becomes one where copy and design, the substance and form of a production, blend into each other. Here, the credits become prospective, staying on the surface while creating an illusion of narrative depth. They entice viewers and set a mood, becoming not descriptive but iconic. Stanitzek: “The tile sequence does not compel you to pay attention. However, it focuses on the situation of distractedness and diverging expectations, namely, providing a focus that allows for a transition into the movie.” In this instance, design becomes storytelling and climax turns into “splurge” (Montagu 1964): “an exuberant cinematic celebration” (Stanitzek).

What is then that this specific take on the expressivity of form accomplishes? According to Ben Conrad and Jim Helton is an affective connection with the audience. Either by referring to the use of design tricks that instigate a feeling of “anticipation” in the opening of Zombieland, or to the “rhythmic editing” of Blue Valentine’s credits, both directors imply that title design creates a special form of screen attachment emerging from the creation of “special little moments” that resonate with “you.” Read in light of Stanitzek’s reference to the state of distraction that credits presuppose, Conrad and Helton’s observations recall those advanced in Catherine Fowler and Paola Voci’s study of the “ambiverted” nature of viewing. In an essay published online, they maintain that the “temporal formation of the viewing experience” in contemporary times is characterised by the consumption of video fragments performed while on the move (in the metro, on the bus, while working). Marked by “interruptions and interferences,” this experience is necessarily one of “dis-order” that challenges entrenched ideas that watching a film (by which they mean any kind of video production, for example gallery films and portable movies) entails watching at “length and in isolation.” On the contrary, productions now account for viewing experiences characterized by phases of fleeting rapture and “momentary attachment” that, far from weakening, strengthen “the attachment between viewer and images.”

References

Balsamo, Anne (2011). Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work. Duke, Duke University Press.
Fowler, Catherine & Paola Voci (2011). “Brief Encounters: Theorizing Screen Attachments Outside the Movie Theatre.” Screening the Past, 33. <http://www.screeningthepast.com/2011/11/brief-encounters-theorizing-screen-attachments-outside-the-movie-theatre/&gt;
Grainge, P. (ed.) (2010). Ephemeral Media: Transitory Screen Culture from Television to YouTube. Basingstoke, Palgrave McMillan.
Gray, Jonathan (2010). Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers and Other Media Paratexts. New York and London, New York University Press.
Montagu, Ivor (1964). Film World: A Guide to Cinema. Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Stanitzek, Georg (2009). “Reading the Title Sequence (Vorspann, Génèrique).” Cinema Journal, 4 48: 44-58.

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