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A title sequence is the method by which films or television programs present their title, key production and cast members, or both, utilizing conceptual visuals and sound. It usually follows but should not be confused with the opening credits, which are generally nothing more than a series of superimposed text.
Since the invention of the cinematograph, simple title cards were used to top and tail silent film presentations in order to identify both the film and the production company involved, and to act as a signal that the film had started and then finished. In silent cinema title cards were used throughout to convey dialogue and plot and it is in some of these early short films that we see the first examples of title sequences themselves, being quite literally a series of title cards shown at the beginning of a film. The arrival of sound did little to alter the convention except that the sequence was usually accompanied by a musical prelude.
This remained the convention for many years until the advent of television forced the major film studios to invest in developing cinema in order to win back a diminishing audience. The "cast of thousands" epics shot on various patent widescreen formats were a direct response to television's successful invasion of the leisure marketplace. Part of cinema's new prestigious and expansive quality were orchestral musical preludes before the curtains opened and long title sequences — all designed to convey a sense of gravitas it was hoped television would be unable to compete with. As cinema's title sequences grew longer we begin to see the involvement of graphic design luminaries such as Saul Bass, which directly influenced the 1960s television predilection for creating strong graphics-led sequences for many shows.
Film-Makers at the beginning of the 21st century have many options open regarding title sequences. Some films superimpose opening credits over the opening scenes, while others elect to do away with titles entirely, instead including elaborate title sequences at the end of the movie.
Due to the commercial environment of television broadcasting, most series have regular and identifiable title sequences.
Many films have used unusual and fairly elaborate title sequences since the 1930s. In the 1936 Show Boat little cut-out figures on a revolving turnable carried overhead banners on which were displaying the opening credits. This opening sequence was designed by John Harkrider, who created the costumes for the original 1927 Broadway production of the musical.
In several films, the opening credits have appeared against a background of (sometimes moving) clouds. These include The Wizard of Oz (1939), Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), the David Lean Oliver Twist (1948) and the 1961 King of Kings.
In the 1959 Ben-Hur, the opening credits were seen against the background of the "Creation of Man" in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. As the credits progressed, the camera slowly zoomed in on the Hand of God outstretched toward Adam.
In a trend increasingly common since the late 1950s, film title sequences have been a showcase for contemporary design and illustration. The title sequences of Saul Bass and Maurice Binder are among the best examples of this. They also inspired many imitators both in cinema and on television.
Kyle Cooper's celebrated title sequence for David Fincher's Se7en (1995) again influenced a whole host of designers. Nevertheless it also remains common for titles that superimpose text over a black background.
Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet does not actually have an opening title sequence. The only credits seen at the beginning are the name of the production company, Shakespeare's name, and the title of the film. However, the title is shown by means of the camera slowly panning across the base of the statue of the dead king Hamlet, whose ghost will appear in three scenes of the film, and who will play a crucial role in the story.
In general, a television title sequence will at some point badge the show with a typographic logo. Around this key element can be incorporated shots of highlights from earlier episodes or shows and key presenters' or cast members' names. Musical accompaniment can be either instrumental or a song and aided by the visual treatment of the images helps to convey the tone and mood of the programme.
Television specials, especially of classic works, sometimes contain unusual opening credit sequences. In the title sequence of Mikhail Baryshnikov's 1977 version of Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker, for example, we see closeups, freeze-frame and slow-motion shots of Baryshnikov and female lead Gelsey Kirkland "warming up" for the ballet. When the actual title appears on the screen we see Baryshnikov in his nutcracker costume and mask leaping into the air in slow motion and freeze frame. The Overture Miniature is heard during the opening credits.
In serials, because a title sequence is produced at the outset of a series, it will usually include scenes from early episodes already shot when the sequence was prepared. Short clips of key characters will often climax in a freeze frame as that cast member's name is superimposed. In and around these elements will be other footage depicting the locale (a particular city, country, building or fictitious location) in which the series is set and therefore its era. A title sequence might also be used to explain the premise of a series, traditionally utilising clips from its pilot episode.
Although a title sequence may be modified during a series to update cast changes or incorporate new "highlight" shots from later episodes, it will tend to remain largely the same for an entire season. Such is the strength of a title sequence in expressing the concept of a show, it will sometimes be the key element a producer will target in order to revamp a show between seasons. Therefore some shows have enjoyed several quite different title sequences and theme music throughout their runs, while in contrast some ever-popular shows have retained their original title sequences for decades with only minor alterations. Conversely, retaining a series' original title sequence can allow a producer to change many key elements within a programme itself, without losing the show's on-screen identity. Other variations include changing only the theme music whilst keeping the visuals or vice versa.
In contemporary television news a title sequence can be changed every day by including footage of that day's news with a presenter's voice "teasing" the items. This ensures that the title sequence appears fresh but still identifies the news program by its music and visual style.
In 2010, TV Guide published a list of TV's top 10 credits sequences, as selected by readers. The series, in order of first to tenth, were: The Simpsons, Get Smart, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the original Hawaii Five-O, True Blood, The Big Bang Theory, Dexter, The Brady Bunch, Mad Men, and The Sopranos.
- Acknowledgment (creative arts)
- Billing (filmmaking)
- Character generator
- Closing credits
- Credit (creative arts)
- Digital on-screen graphic (BUG)
- Lower third
- Opening credits
- Production logo
- Theme music
- WGA screenwriting credit system
- Georg Stanitzek, Reading the Title Sequence (Vorspann, Générique), trans. Noelle Aplevich, in: Cinema Journal 48,4 (Summer 2009), pp. 44-58.
- The Art of the Title Sequence – A compendium and leading web resource of film and television title design from around the world
- Forget the Film, Watch the Titles – A collection of title sequences and interviews with their creators
- Detailed dissection of the title sequence for Space: 1999
- Original Doctor Who opening credits