How to keep TV title sequences relevant in a post-“Skip Intro” world

And/Or’s Kelli Miller explores the creative trajectory of TV opening credits, as designers try to lure viewers away from the Skip Intro button with motion graphics that capture the essence of their show.

Date
6 May 2020
Reading Time
5 minute read

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When Netflix premiered its Skip Intro button in 2017, the feature was met with cheers from some and boos from others. Imaginary Forces, the influential studio behind the titles for Stranger Things and Mad Men, protested with a #DontSkipTheTitles hashtag launched at SXSW, while The Atlantic praised the development for its forward-thinking savvy. Casual viewers were generally in favour of the new option, while film buffs worried that skipping intros would cheapen viewing experiences.

But the truth is, people were channel surfing during title sequences long before the Skip Intro button invaded our screens. Still, good title sequences have always found ways to live on in the cultural consciousness.

Title sequences aren’t going anywhere. And these days, with TV and film viewership on the rise as people seek out escapes and fresh windows on a locked-down world, we have the opportunity to recapture attention, and to think about how we can create engaging, delightful, and unskippable title-sequence experiences for viewers.

The best television title sequences have historically interacted with viewers and their relationship to the show on some level. Think about season-to-season changes accounting for changing cast, locations, and themes, one-off sequences for holiday specials, or inside jokes and fan service. Remember The Simpsonsparody of the Mad Men opening?

Title sequences often gain cultural lives of their own in a way that a lot of commercial work doesn’t. Look no further than the title sequences for the fourth season of Key & Peele, which pokes fun at True Detective’s opening sequence. And then there’s Make It Stranger – the online app that generates any text into the Stranger Things title style… launching a thousand fan parodies.

But now, with more films and TV to catch up on than ever, the standard for watchable title sequences is higher. Audiences have less patience for sequences that don’t add real value to their viewing experience.

And that’s a good thing. The challenge to tell more compelling stories through titles should be a welcome one for designers looking to upend the status quo and find new ways of conveying narrative succinctly and powerfully.

In the fight to make title sequences unskippable, we’ve seen a changing approach to what constitutes a title sequence and how to ensure they work in service of the wider story. To do this, designers should work closely with directors, showrunners and in-house production teams to create titles that are relevant and adaptable, with strong narrative devices.

To bridge the gap between the show’s content and the branding work a title sequence can achieve, more and more shows are using modular title designs that can be updated on an episode-by-episode basis. Modular toolkits are a win-win for designers and in-house teams, offering a chance to get creative with motion and delivering tools that help in-house production teams constantly keep their title sequence relevant with changing content.

This works really well for weekly airings with rotating guests and topics, like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Paramount’s Lipsync Battle, but you see it across genres too, from Game of Thrones and Westworld to Better Call Saul.

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Trollbäck+Company: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

We’re also seeing a move towards shorter sequence lengths, with tonal clarity relying on colour, typography, motion, and sound. Take Sam Esmail’s Homecoming and Mr Robot: both cleverly integrate the title into the edit of the shows using a minimal but bold approach, typography, colour and editing to quickly and effectively set the scene. Or look at Killing Eve: the titles cut sharply and swiftly away from the action setting, using strong type, bold colour, and subtle but effective motion to imply tone and create anticipation.   

High-value live action production offers another way of sparking a fresh relationship with the story through titles. The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend created an on-brand theatrical affair through highly choreographed, full-cast opening numbers that evolve with each season and often mixed live-action and animation, while FX’s comedy series CAKE uses titles and cuts to and from commercials to spin new mini-stories with each episode.

When it comes down to it, to make unskippable title sequences, we need to be able to impress their importance as a storytelling tool on showrunners, and provide in-house production teams with everything they need to integrate the titles into the world of the show and its fans. After all, the title sequences that stand the test of time – whether the epic visuals of Mad Men or Westworld, or the sharp, succinct but undeniable on-brand openers for shows like Girls, or anything in between or beyond – are successful because they’ve been integrated into the overall approach to storytelling and prioritised in budgeting, time, and strategy.

Like the designers behind #DontSkipTheTitles, I see title sequences as an opportunity to bring narrative design and branding together to tell a story and design an experience about the main event that follows the title. An unskippable element of the creative process that turns a show or film into a recognisable brand and contributes to an experience that resonates long after the closing credits roll.

And as for Skip Intro? Maybe some people will always click it, and maybe that’s OK – because some people won’t, because they know what we do: no story is complete without that first moment, that all-important invitation to watch what happens next, that comforting welcome back to a world you can’t get enough of.

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Matt Willey: Killing Eve opening credits

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And/Or: The Case Against Adnan Syed title sequence

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Claus Studios: Homecoming title sequence

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And/Or: Lip Sync Battle title sequence

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Curtis Thurber: Better Call Saul title sequence

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Further Info

About the Author

Kelli Miller

Kelli Miller is the co-founder of creative production studio And/Or, and has worked in motion design and branding for 15 years with brands like HBO, Netflix, and MTV. She is a graduate of Cranbrook Academy of Art and has taught and lectured at the College for Creative Studies, Pratt, NYU, SVA, Yale, and RISD.

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