I admit it. I binge-watched the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” last week.
Aside from the compelling character development, the spot-on production design and value and suck-me-in-and-never-let-me-go storylines, the opening title sequence is its own little masterpiece.
It features closeups of faces of actual female prisoners — complete with tattoos, piercings and bad teeth — with a superimposed distressed type for the credit roll. In between there are quick flashes of razor wire and other clues that the location isn’t all that pleasant. Most of the closeups are stills, but every once in a while eyes blink or a mouth twitches, reminding the viewer that this series gets its inspiration from real women in real prison.
The kicker is a small and subtle graphic at the end, where vertical lines race across the screen mimicking the bars of a cell. And it’s all wrapped up and tied with a not-so-pretty bow in a song performed by Regina Spector, written for the show.
Alfred Hitchcock used a similar technique in “Vertigo’s” opening sequence. He started with an extreme closeup of Kim Novack’s mouth and panned to a single eye. The film’s title flies out of her eyeball followed by spinning Spirograph-like hypotrochoids that hint at the dizziness to come. It’s an early use of graphics after decades of using simple type on cards.
Title sequences get as much attention as the entire film. Director David Fincher collaborated with designer Kyle Cooper on his 1995 film “Se7en” to create a rich montage of images that draw the viewer into the dark world of a serial killer as he constructs journals filled with rambling writing, artifacts and found objects that chronicle his killing spree. Cooper etched handwritten type directly into the film emulsion that jigger across the screen to emulate John Doe’s rambling and raging psychopathic mind.
Regarding the title sequence, Fincher has said: “The sequence for ‘Se7en’ did important non-narrative things; in the original script there was a title sequence that had Morgan Freeman buying a house out in the middle of nowhere and then travelling back on a train. He was making his way back to the unnamed city from the unnamed suburban sprawl, and that’s where the title was supposed to be — ‘insert title sequence here’ — but we didn’t have the money to do that. We also lacked the feeling of John Doe, the villain, who just appeared 90 minutes into the movie. It was oddly problematic, you just needed a sense of what these guys were up against. Kyle Cooper … came to me and said, ‘You know, you have these amazing books that you spent tens of thousands of dollars to make for the John Doe interior props. I’d like to see them featured.’ And I said, ‘Well, that would be neat, but that’s kind of a 2D glimpse. Figure out a way for it to involve John Doe, to show that somewhere across town somebody is working on some really evil s—. I don’t want it to be just flipping through pages, as beautiful as they are.’”
Cooper figured it out and the result is gripping cinema.
Title sequence design doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. There’s no Academy Award and there should be. When done well, a title sequence is an elegant (not to be confused with graceful and beautiful) introduction to the story that’s about to unfold. It provides clues and context and engages the viewer from frame one. It’s an undervalued art form.
But then, I’ve always been a sucker for good titles.
Michelle Venus is a freelance writer living in Fort Collins. She is working on an art book titled “And Tomorrow Comes Again,” which features the art and writing of people who have lost a loved one to suicide and are using Design Thinking and creative processes to promote healing. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.