Graphic Trends in 21st-Century
Film and TV Title Sequences

In the time when movie theaters and conventional TV receivers are steadily giving way to cutting-edge screen devices, the ways films and TV shows look are now more diverse than ever. As a result, the design of 21st-century opening title sequences became crucial in attracting audiences and honoring themes and vibes of films and TV shows they announce.

The century we live in was so far marked by several distinctive design styles when it comes to the look of opening credits. Here is a quick recap of the most popular trends that influenced the title sequence design in the digital era.

Bass is dead: Long live Bass

One of the longest-surviving legacies of the 21st-century title sequence design is undoubtedly one of Saul Bass. This iconic filmmaker and graphic designer, widely known for the opening credits he created for The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), Vertigo (1958), and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), helped establish title sequence design as an art form of its own.

The renaissance of the late ‘50s- and ‘60s-inspired opening credits began in 2002 with Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. The look of this film’s opening titles marked the beginning of a trend which proved to be very influential in the decade to come.

The opening credits for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Thank You For Smokingfrom 2005 followed the look faithfully, but the homage to the aesthetics introduced by Bass was most prominent in the title sequences of Mad Men (2007), Inception (2010), and Whiplash (2014). Unpretentiously animated rough-looking shapes in black and white with a touch of one or two accent colors also marked the opening credits of Handmaid’s Tale and Feud from 2017.

Shot from the opening credits: Mad Men (Imaginary Forces, 2007)

The stories announced by credits that pay homage to Bass, interestingly enough, always revolve around similar notions: Crime, deception, dystopian realities, or personal struggles which often derive from protagonists’ needs to achieve perfection or come to terms with their troubled past.

Shadows and rust: Landscapes for the broken souls

During the ’90s, Kyle Cooper was one of the first “next-generation” film-literate creatives who kickstarted a new trend, the starting point of which is evident in the opening sequence of David Fincher’s Se7en from 1995.

The Walking Dead (2010), Orange Is the New Black (2013), and Banshee (2013) followed, each carrying its interpretation of the vibe which Cooper introduced in the opening credits of Se7en: Imperfections, blood, rust, shadows, all to announce we’re going to meet some troubled people along the way.

Peaky Blinders from 2013 initiated the double- and multi-exposure trend, but it was the title sequence of True Detective from 2014 that really made a bang (and earned its creator, Patrick Claire, his first Primetime Emmy). The dark, ominous feeling induced by witnessing “broken portraits out of broken landscapes” (consisting of abandoned homes, playgrounds, refineries, and railroads) was a great way to prepare viewers for the stories that were about to be told in the series.

Shot from the opening credits: True Detective (Antibody, 2014)

When Westworld premiered in 2016, its opening credits undoubtedly showed that Clair’s aesthetics were still relevant and intriguing. However, the approach to this trend has somewhat changed, shifting to more elegant and sophisticated (although no less disturbing) look.

Revamp of the flamboyant ’80s: Vintage, metallics, and neon-noir

Although it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the ‘80s-inspired craze began to influence the design of opening credits, it must have been around the time when Enter The Void (2009) was released:

We get the classic Noé tropes: throbbing ambient soundscape, murky lighting design bursting into unwatchable vortices of dazzling, flickering light, explicit sex and violence, colossal sans-serif lettering for the title- and end-credits. (P. Bradshaw for The Guardian)

The upcoming years will, however, tone down the trend and take some of its elements to create somewhat different results. Drive from 2011 focuses on simple retro typography and neo-noir-like palette, while the opening sequences of Better Call Saul and Mr. Robot from 2015 offer their own take on the ‘80s-inspired design.

Strong flashes of vibrant neon colors marked the title sequences of Stranger Things and The Young Pope from 2016, soon to be followed by similar aesthetics portrayed in opening credits of American Gods and Glow (2017).

Shot from the opening credits: The Young Pope (Elastic, 2016)

The era of title sequences inspired by the works of Bass and Cooper was recognizable by the roles of tormented people struggling to fight away their demons (with the visuals and typography to match the atmosphere). The “neon-noir” era in film and TV often tells somewhat similar stories, but with a touch of a strange, unexplainable, and at times, supernatural vibe.

A city tells the story: Embracing the minimal approach

Although they might seem to pale in comparison with showy titles that harness the legacies of old masters and the flamboyant ’80s, there is a group of films and TV shows which minimalist opening credits focus on evoking the feeling of being in someone else’s shoes in this time and day.

Opening credits of High Maintenance from 2012 are a very good example of this trend, and title sequences of House of Cards (2013), Gone Girl (2014), Big Little Lies (2018), and Morning Changes Everything (2018) follow the same visual recipe: Letting the city tell the story.

Shot from the opening credits: Morning Changes Everything (April Studio, 2018)

Less can sometimes really be more, and these examples are here to prove it. The filmed footage, tastefully accompanied by simple typography and music that fits the mood, lets us feel the pulse of the cities and towns where people spend their days and nights, trying to live their lives the best way they can.

Title sequence design in the era of streaming TV

It comes as no surprise that title sequences are these days designed to intrigue the viewers and lure them into clicking the “play” button (especially when browsing through an endless flow of possibilities on various streaming services). With the arrival of the “skip intro” button, however, the situation took a sudden turn.

The critically acclaimed British sci-fi TV series Black Mirror (2011) was one of the first shows to introduce the trend of the opening sequence that lasts for no longer than just a few seconds. To make such an intro memorable, the title and sound design were noticeably well-coordinated. As a result, most of its audience remembers the Black Mirror opening by a distinctive sound of glass shattering, illustrated by the words breaking on the screen.

Shot from the opening credits: Black Mirror (Painting Practice, 2011)

More than a few other films and TV shows subsequently followed this pattern. Birdman from 2014 opens with a short sequence in red and black that slowly, a group of letters by a group of letters, introduces a quote from Raymond Carver’s Late Fragment. The opening sequences designed for TV shows like Fleabag (2016) and Happy!(2017) take up only two to three seconds of the viewer’s time, each showing the title of the show alongside recognizable sounds in the background.

Acknowledging the viewers’ lack of patience for long overtures, the opening credits of the Academy Award-winning The Favourite from 2018 and When They See Us from 2019 were also designed to fit into this trend.

What will the future bring?

It’s been a long time since opening credits outgrew their fundamental purpose, which is to serve as a list of names giving credit to the people who took part in the production process.

Inspired by the works of the competition, rapid shifts in visual trends, and viewers’ ever-wavering interests, the creators of movies and TV shows work harder than ever to attract and keep the attention of their audiences.

The art of the title sequence is changing, but one thing’s for certain. Designers will keep looking for effective ways to pay homage to the stories behind each opening sequence, while still paying close attention to the viewers’ responses and upcoming trends.

Written by Dunja Sretović, Content Strategist at April Studio

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