Brow Beat

How to Make a Great Title Sequence

Still of the title sequence for Mad Men from “The Art of Film and TV Title Design.”

If it was up to me, we’d rarely see opening credits at all. Many of my favorite movies of the last decade—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, There Will Be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love, Children of Men, The Dark Knight—have almost no opening credits or opening titles, opting instead to immerse the viewer in the world of the film right from the first frame. Directors like Paul Thomas Anderson often prefer to leave these formalities for the end—even though that can involve tough negotiations to make sure each cast and crewmember is still happy.

But when a title sequence is done right, setting the perfect tone for the film that follows, it’s hard to imagine the movie without it. Can you imagine Star Wars without the opening scroll?

In the video below, PBS Arts’ Off Book series looks at a few of the greatest title sequences of recent years, speaking with the designers behind such iconic title sequences as those for Se7en, Blue Valentine, Zombieland, and—a Slate favorite—Mad Men. I’d be happy to look back at any of these great sequences any time, but even more interesting is hearing the designers talk about their subtle touches. For Zombieland, for example, it was important that the font be inconspicuous, so that viewers focused on how the characters interacted with the titles.

If you like this video, there’s plenty more title-design geekery around the web. I saw this video on Press Play, the video-essay blog started by Matt Zoller Seitz, who has himself collaborated on great video essays concerning the credit sequences of both David Fincher and The Wire. The website Art of the Title shows the making-of many great sequences, including Catch Me If You Can, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the overwhelming titles for Enter the Void. And one can’t talk about titles without mentioning the undisputed champion of title design, gushed about at length in the video above:  Saul Bass.

For more videos from PBS Arts, check out Off Book’s YouTube channel.