Friday, August 10, 2007

It's All In The Title (Sequence)...

Little different Friday Fun this week, a look at the TV series title sequence (but not as well as Weinman can)...specifically for North American one hour dramatic series (if we took every type of show into account we'd be here all day).

Lee Goldberg at A Writers Life has been posting an assortment of main titles for the past year or so. He gives a short assessment of what a title sequence should do, and distills it down to this...

Main titles are created to introduce the audience to the show they are about to see. But for the writer, there is much more information to be gleaned. It is a chance to read the mind of the executive producer. How does he perceive the show? How does he perceive the characters? How does he perceives the tone? What kinds of stories does he want to tell?

Most main title sequences will answer all those questions and more.

There are basically three different kinds of main title sequences: Format sequences, that actually tell you in narration and in writing what the show is about; Mood sequences that convey the type of feeling and tone they are going for; and Character sequences, which delineate who the characters are and how they interact.

Many main titles are combinations of these three sequences.

Interesting. Though lately the movement has been toward short and sweet, a la Heroes, Lost, and Studio 60.

Those aren't title sequences where I come from, they're bumpers. But I will generally take them over some of the lonnng intros of days gone by...see Highway To Heaven or Knots Landing or BJ and the Bear or Baywatch (over 2:00!!) if you want to be reminded.

So how do shows get you to enjoy their 'sequences', whichever model they choose?

Some shows hooked you with some memorable theme music, like Hawaii Five-O, Mission Impossible, Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, St Elsewhere, Magnum P.I., and The Rockford Files...

And others used a familiar or catchy song, like Dawson's Creek, CSI: Miami, Fame, Gilmore Girls, Ally McBeal, Smallville, Charmed, or Greatest American Hero...

Most of the intros listed above seem to be either Mood Sequences or Character sequences. But the title sequence using narration or voiceover (or Format sequence apparently) seems pretty old school. In fact, I could find hardly any current shows that utilize it (Life On Mars being the exception). But I kept digging and kept finding some old golden nuggets and it got me thinking....

Were they really so bad?

I mean, at first I cringed...but the more I thought about it, I felt myself coming around. Seriously. At the end of the day the title sequence should establish genre/style, and introduce stars/characters, but most importantly it needs to set you as the viewer up for what kind of show you'll be watching (or clicking away from).

That's where the VO title sequence excels. Sexy images and cool music may create a mood and help determine genre...and if you've got some stars the network's gonna want the viewers to see them, but take all the above and place some narration over top to clearly set up the show and even establish intent and objective of the episodes and the characters, and I say you've hit a home run.

Now, I can already hear many of you whining --- but that's soooo uncool.

It's not about being cool, my's about taking advantage of the 30 seconds to a minute you have to set up and clearly define your show. And I might be setting the bar a little low, but I sometimes think TV series today spend waaaayy too much time and money and energy 'designing' an opening titles sequence (blame the movie Se7en).

But I'm sure some are wondering how one couldn't be mesmerized by the artistic majesty of the opening titles for such contemporary tv series as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Big Love, and Dexter! I mean, how can we even compare?

I'm sure some are also thinking even regular network shows excel these days...the cool cold feel of Nip/Tuck, the sombre subtlety of House, the bombastic energy of CSI: Vegas, and the juicy juxtaposition of Greys Anatomy.

But let's face it, some of today's popular show intros, albeit shorter, feel waaayyy too artsy for their own good...not to mention not really informing the viewer about the series. Try watching the opening titles for Desperate Housewives or Medium or The 4400 and tell me you have any idea what the show is actually about? Not too mention there seems to be some smug 'look at us, aren't we cool and clever' going on.

Nope, if I had my druthers, I'd make that first pass at a title sequence be a voiceover one...get that one right, then make it more complicated from there if so desired.

But that's just me.

So, for your viewing/debating pleasure, I present my 10 Best (Worst?) TV Title Sequences With Voiceover:

Beauty And The Beast - is it a love story? Wasn't sure before, now I am.

The Incredible Hulk - confused about what's going to happen? Not after watching this...

Early Edition - simple, clean, perfect.

The Six Million Dollar Man - okay, it's not exactly a voiceover narration, but it's close enough for rock n'roll in my book. Classic.

Star Trek - the 'original' Format sequence

The A-Team - it's so all there, you can't miss it.

Sliders - almost too much information, if such a thing was even possible.

Hart To Hart - I was befuddled by this title, but not anymore.

The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer actually had this little pre-intro to help set up the show before evolving into one of the best title sequences ever...

And finally, the piece de resistance...Charlie's Angels - the all-time tell-all title sequence

Okay, seriously for a moment...that's all I got, and these are just the ones I came across at TV Intros and Retro Junk. I'm sure there are plenty more that I missed or aren't posted online yet.

But I leave you with this question: can we love a show but hate the title sequence? Or will we always enjoy the title sequence from a show that we love?

Just curious...


Good Dog said...

Whoa! Not just a trip down memory lane, that’s more of a stumble. Actually it’s like being sent ass over tea kettle down a stairwell.

The Rockford Files has to one of my favourites. After a different answerphone message each week, the montage of still images told you everything you needed to know about the character. After that Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue.

I have to say, I think the HBO dramas, starting with Oz really raised the bar. Rome... ah, a bit of a stumble, but John From Cincinnati’s title sequence is just perfect.

Not to be snarky, but from watching the first episode of Desperate Housewives I got the impression that it so wanted to be an HBO show. And the title sequence reflected that. Kind of reminded me of Carnivale with the use of images popping up and shifting around.

But... back to the seventies shows... Actually, if I remember rightly, all the Quinn Martin productions – woohoo! – and Irwin Allen shows had big explanations. Could it be that because there wasn’t the media saturation back then, the only information we got about the shows was from TV listings magazines or newspaper schedule guides for that day?

Now, with Entertainment Weekly other media mags, entertainment shows on TV and information on the internet, we know almost everything about these darn shows before they start filming, let alone airing. When I was growing up, all we had here in the UK was Radio Times listing the BBC1 and BBC2 channels and TV Times listing ITV and then Channel 4.

To find out what the show was about you basically had to watch it or hear word of mouth after it aired. So the narrated intro basically filled you in.

can we love a show but hate the title sequence?

Yep! Homicide: Life on the Street. The first few years it had a bitching title sequence – all raw black and white footage with great shots of the cast moving in and out of the light. Then, in the wake of Kyle Cooper’s title sequence for Seven, the titles just went nasty. I mean really nasty. But it was still a stonking show.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I was going to point out Bionic Man but you got to it. I have always loved that sequence. My brother recently re-edited the audio, taking out the blank spots so it goes by quicker, and it is my ring tone now. (Anyone wants it I'll send it to them)

Remember the show Crime Story? I was too young to understand the show, but I tuned in every week to watch the title sequence.

I also loved the Dallas title sequence but was too young to watch the show.

So in answer to your question I can only say I have loved title sequences, but not shows.

Ahh, you should post a clip for BATTLE OF THE PLANETS, which has a GREAT title sequence.

Piers said...

The title sequence for Peter Davison era Doctor Who is a bad one for a show I like.

It's a star field. That makes up his face. Er, why?

It doesn't give the sense of travelling into the freaky unknown that the other versions do. It's a mood sequence with no mood.

On the other hand, The Persuaders has a lovely format sequence that tells you everything you need to know, but I could never get into the series itself.

Some great title sequences from the UK attached to shows worth watching:

Format: UFO, Sapphire and Steel

Mood: Thunderbirds, Doctor Who (Tom Baker and the Ecclestone/Tennant ones are the standouts here, but with the starfield exception they're all good), The Tomorrow People, Hustle

Character: The Avengers (both of the Rigg versions are good, but I prefer the B&W photos one.)

Kelly J. Compeau said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kelly J. Compeau said...

Great post, Will. So much research and thought put into it.

I like some voice-overs (i.e. original BSG, Knight Rider and Star Trek) but others are just so corny (Buck Rogers) -- and, y'know, maybe that in itself helps set the mood.

I always love a good theme song. Preferably something I can actually sing along to. While I loved the Angel, Buffy, and X-Files intros, it's hard to hum or sing along to. But the Sopranos, 4400, Magnum P.I. and Greatest American Hero tunes are awesome. Why, just yesterday, I was singing The Littlest Hobo theme song, and that show went off the air in, what, 1982?

Bill Cunningham said...

Will you're forgetting that many shows these days - example: DEAD ZONE - have what they call "The Saga Sell," that 30 second to 1 minute recap of what the show is all about.

Then they go into the episode teaser then the main titles.

So you get the exposition, the setup and the mood all in one five minute or so chunk.

Beyond all that, I've always liked the opening titles for THE EQUALIZER. Mood and energy.

wcdixon said...

good dog points out something very true...we know and are aware of so much more about TV shows these days, the title sequence can be shorter or do less than before. And Homocide's was sweet.

I should make some addendum's...'Crime Story' was memorable. And sorry to focus mostly on North American...Piers has some good UK samples.

'Littlest Hobo'..."shiver", but must go check it out again.

And Bill, are you creating a 4th category with the Saga Sell? Or would that fall under Format sequence. But you're right, a lot of syndicated genre or scifi shows have 'the explanation': 'Seaquest', 'Babylon 5', 'Xena', 'Mutant X', etc. etc.

Bill Cunningham said...

I think that it deserves it's own category primarily because it is specifically not part of the main titles.

I think the more serialized nature of television, with long arcs going through series spawned the necessity for the Saga Sell (a term I first heard used by Shawn Piller in a commentary on a DZ DVD set). I know they also use it for THE 4400, BURN NOTICE and EUREKA.

I think you're right in that genre shows tend to use them more.

And, I just remembered they are different than "Previously on....". (The Recap)

So -

We have The Saga Sell, The Recap, The Teaser and then The Main Titles.


But I would imagine the network's thinking is this:

"Every episode is someone's first."

Good Dog said...

Will, yes shame on you for concentrating on US shows. Piers reminded me of the old English ITC shows like Department S, The Champions, Man in a Suitcase, and certainly The Persuaders! which had a theme by John Barry and just introduced the two stars as “Curtis & Moore”. The shows always used contrasting colours and mixed graphics with live action footage to great effect.

Then of course there were the Gerry & Sylvia Anderson shows. As a kid watching them it was spectaucular. In fact, wasn’t Ron Moore inspired by Space:1999 when it came to the new Battlestar Galactica - showing clips from the actual episode in the titles?

Of course in a lot of these instances, the titles have weathered a lot better than the episodes themselves.

The problem with Doctor Who was, after years of Bernard Lodge creating interesting images with video feedback, computer graphics came in. So the Peter Davidson era – which I think was created at a company called Cal Video Graphics (now long gone) – and everything since then was CG because it was... well, the new thing and used whether it was relevant or not.

One of the guys I was at art school with went to work at what is now one of London’s biggest post-production/facilities houses. This was long before Henry and even Harry, back when it was pretty much just Paintbox. He once told me that the title designers for light entertainment programmes used to arrive with a big bucket of money and little or no ideas and ask what could be done for them. For a long time titles just became irrelevant spinning shapes.

But... back to dramas...

Probably the best UK drama title sequence was for the BBC’s Secret Army, a wartime drama about the Belgians who would help downed RAF bomber pilots get back to England via escape routes that ran through France and into Spain.

Created by designer Alan Jeapes, the titles were a comparatively low-key affair using a series of stills looking directly down farm tracks, roads, canals and railway tracks. Using a computer-controlled rostrum, it started in the countryside and through controlled zooms and mixes ended up at a safehouse in town.

For the end credits it went from the town to a final shot of the sea, indicating the pilots had escaped from occupied Europe. Accompanied by Robert Farnon’s music it was simply magnificent.