The Most Iconic Title Sequences of All Time and Why They Work
If you love movies, you’ve seen at least one great title sequence in your lifetime if not more. You can probably remember a title sequence you saw that was better than the movie it preceded; it may even be the only thing you remember about that movie. Can you describe the feeling a good title sequence gives you and how it does that as you watch it?
Some directors, such as Christopher Nolan for example, never use them. Steven Spielberg was even cited in The Economist saying that audience surveys show that people prefer “films which start without any preamble, so he snips the opening credits off most of his movies (the snazzy cartoon at the beginning of Catch Me If You Can is a beloved outlier).”
The web is full of “the best title sequences of all time” posts, sometimes with fifty or more of them without explanation or analysis or even any kind of categorization. And yet title sequences run the gamut from a single very long take that lasts several minutes and introduces the setting, characters, and the storyline; to an introduction to the protagonist; a foreshadowing of the action or a counterpoint to it; a condensed representation of the story or plot; a prologue or the beginning of an epilogue; an abstract representation of the story or its themes; or multiple combinations of the above or something else entirely.
(The 8+ minute opening to Roger Altman’s 1992 film “The Player” famously praised long opening one takes by having one of its characters make a meta comment on the brilliance of Orson Welles’ opening to “Touch of Evil”.)
So what makes a title sequence truly unforgettable?
We picked six iconic film title sequences to see what makes them work and how they keep standing the test of time. Some of you will disagree with our picks. Some of you will dismiss our list because we didn’t include a sequence you love. These aren’t the only memorable title sequences worth examining, but they are a good start.
And because we know how subjective this topic is, we talked to three amazing Creative Directors in the field of title design and film marketing—Karin Fong and Michelle Dougherty of the award-winning creative studio Imaginary Forces (behind iconic titles like Se7en, Mad Men and Stranger Things) and Jon Berkowitz, Creative Director at Aspect, Hollywood’s oldest film advertising company known for trailer campaigns from Forrest Gump to Deadpool to Solo: A Star Wars Story. They give us their perspectives on what makes a title sequence for the ages and why they’re a powerful tool for filmmakers.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD : When less is more
This may sound surprising to some, but when asked to name iconic title sequences off the tops of their heads, Karin, Michelle, and Jon all spontaneously cited this black and white classic from 1962. The title sequence, designed by Stephen Frankfurt, is composed of shots of the “treasure box” that belongs to the young narrator Scout, a child of between six and eight. We see her hand as she writes and colors; the camera is positioned so as to give the audience her POV on what she’s doing. At one point a marble from the box rolls down from left to right, taking us from one title card to another. Scout hums first before the music swells, giving us even more of a sense that she is taking us into the story.
The sequence is very simple and probably easily replicable aside from the music composition. Explaining that “titles may be the very first thing you see, dropping you right into the narrative, perhaps giving you some backstory,” Karin finds it remarkable “how the opening titles get you right into Scout’s mind and world. The macro-shots, those intimate compositions, and how you move from scene to scene is perfection. Not to mention the sound design and music.”
By 1962, titles were already elaborate enough that the title sequence could have been much more complex; but actually, simplicity is what makes it stand out. You could say that because it’s from a child’s point of view, it had to be simple, but if you think about it (and especially if you’ve read the book), there were many options available to Stephen Frankfurt and yet he picked this one. Jon opined that “While so many title sequences these days are style over substance, this sequence was so confident in its understatement.”
To highlight how the same concept can be accomplished in different ways, we asked our interviewees if any of this year’s Oscar nominees displayed some of the qualities of great title sequences. In terms of simplicity, Karin thought Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri had a deceptively simple title sequence with shots of the weathered three billboards that opens the film perfectly. “I’m a sucker for the cinematography, with its deliberate and graphic framing of the faded advertising images. It was intriguing, and gave me a feeling of tragedy and a sense of the drama to come.”
She also noted the opening shot, and end titles of The Shape of Water. “The credits appear over an underwater sequence that sets up the fable perfectly with both beauty and foreboding. The water was used in the crawl as well, echoing the beginning—a nice touch.” In this instance, keeping the animated element of the water pared down was a way to add an air of mystery and magic and introduce the overall tone of the story.
SE7EN : The merits of typography
You’d be surprised at how little thought many filmmakers put into typography for their titles, and how much it can add, as it does in the case of Se7en. Whether it’s the fonts you use, or even something as simple as lower thirds, typography and titling can convey a lot about story, brand, and/or feeling.
As Karin points out, “Often the title sequence is the rare place to have type be expressive—you do have to display the credits and the film’s title, after all! And many of the best ones consider that.” The typography in Se7en’s title sequence, designed by Kyle Cooper (another Imaginary Forces co-founder and alum), is particularly striking because different styles were designed for the crew’s titles, for the names, and for John Doe’s notebooks.
All three styles are designed to convey that the film is about a disturbed individual and that the story will be disturbing.
Everything is off, whether it’s the fact that the hand printing for the names isn’t straight, that the typesetting on the titles is offset in a way it shouldn’t be, or in the obsessive scrawl covering the notebooks. You could argue that the title sequence would still be disturbing because of all the other elements, even if the typography were normal, but it adds a great deal to the overall effect of making the audience uncomfortable.
Michelle Dougherty considers this title sequence iconic because “the typography, the editing, the music, and the cinematography all create such a visceral reaction.”
If you don’t have a budget for a fancy title sequence or your movie doesn’t lend itself to one, the typography you use can convey everything you need and sometimes more. As Michelle recalled, a simple sequence which uses typography effectively in a film that could have done something much more complex is Alien (also a film everyone thinks had a huge budget but which actually didn’t). “The typography creates a mood that still feels fresh to me. The fragments of typography build on as if they were signs from the alien. The tension with the pacing and the music is also great because it works in concert with what is happening with the picture.”
Typography and titles can also be used as a counterpoint, as Karin felt they were in the title sequence last year’s critical darling, Lady Bird: “How they are edited into the film is a contrast to the opening scene and the music gives a great energy. The type, from the blackletter Lady Bird and the font used for the credits complemented the footage and expressed the tone w/ subtlety.”
Michelle felt that the title cards for Lady Bird, Call Me by Your Name, and Phantom Thread were all set or created in beautiful, thought-provoking typefaces. If you’ve seen any of these three films, you’ll note that all of them used typography as the primary element to convey the tone of the film. Lady Bird’s title sequence is very simple and carefully thought out. The title card is in an ornate gothic font while the rest of the titles are in a pared down contemporary font, letting the audience know that under the guise of the average modern teenager lies a more complex character.
In Phantom Thread, the title is literally a single title card of the name of the film, but the typeface and the ornate calligraphic style of the card immediately tells you that obsessive and immaculate attention to detail will be a central theme of the story. As Karin put it “titles needn’t always be loud to be effective.”
IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD : The legacy of Saul Bass
No discussion of title sequences would be complete without mentioning the originator of title sequences as they are used now: Saul Bass. There’s a treasure trove of videos on the internet about his influence over title sequences to this day. Originally a graphic designer for advertising, he brought sleek graphics and animation into film titles, starting with The Man With The Golden Arm and continuing with classics like Vertigo, Psycho, Blow-Up, Goodfellas, and countless more. Before Saul Bass, titles consisted entirely of glass plates and basically no graphic elements, like shooting a book cover with different names over it.
When it came out in 1963, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World had the first completely animated title sequence for a live action film. Michelle Dougherty considers it one of her top iconic picks. “It manages to use a simple globe as the center of the sequence. The visual puns Bass created with it are unexpected and memorable.”
His work was emblematic of cinematic craftsmanship which Karin considers an indispensable component of a great title sequence “whether in cinematography, or music—which is often such a key element, but also frequently in animation and especially typography.”
The carnival-like music begins and a little man stumbles into the frame carrying a globe which is clearly way too big for him. He’s crushed by it but more likely swallowed, then reappears later as we see a succession of visual puns using the globe’s spherical shape (it’s a ball! It’s an egg! It’s a wheel! It’s a tire! It’s a balloon! Etc…) as well as its latitudinal and longitudinal lines.
This sequence encapsulates how Jon defined a great title sequence in that it “accomplishes the goal of putting the audience in the right frame of mind with sophistication, with apparent effortlessness, and with delight, especially by surprising the audience in its aesthetic or technical approach.”
No one should ever read YouTube comments but, in viewing different clips of this title sequence, I was struck by how many of the comments were about how delightful people of all ages thought it was, some of them even reminiscing about their childhood memories of it and how great they still think it is now. It shows how Bass’ work was emblematic of cinematic craftsmanship.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN: Clarity of Purpose
Speaking of Bass, his influence is felt today and continues to provide inspiration. Nowhere is that more evident than in Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can.
Spielberg rarely uses title sequences, but for Catch Me If You Can’s tale of a seemingly improbable yet true cop and robber chase, he got designers Kuntzel + Deygas to plunge the viewers straight into its 60s setting by using a style that was frequently seen in title sequences at the time: Bass’ paper cut-out. They combined that aesthetic with other graphic elements of that era, such as airplane company poster designs with the plane leaving straight condensation trails, and used visual puns to highlight crewmembers’ specific jobs which added layers of meaning for different viewers. The extra magic touch is the jazzy, playful score by John Williams.
Michelle expressed how fun these titles are to watch. “They set the mood of the film right off the bat and you immediately feel entertained. This cat and mouse game in the film has been reinterpreted in the title. They created a vibe of the 60s by having the characters illustrated in a way which makes this feel authentic to the era.”
Jon agreed, adding that “Kuntzel + Deygas just found the perfect way to bring that Saul Bass aesthetic into a modern film. This sequence blends perfectly with the cinematic score, where each uplifts the other.”
Karin observed that a great title sequence should invite you in and the emotion it should evoke depends on what the story needs at that exact moment—from humor to suspense to an adrenaline rush. The “cat and mouse” chase depicted in the Catch Me If You Can titles expertly illustrates this.
Jon commented on the importance of tone and mood that a sequence can convey. “Even if the sequence can be purely tonal, it can get the audience in the ‘mood’ of the movie or nudge the audience into the right emotional state, just as the right music cue will do.” His point is a good one. Nonetheless, it’s clear from a lot of movies that knowing what the precise tone is supposed to be can be a difficult task.
Maybe having a clear idea of your visuals first can lead to clarity of tone which can lead to clarity (and possibly daring) in every element that is employed to depict that tone…or vice-versa. (Chicken, meet egg.) One of Karin’s iconic picks was the original The Pink Panther, for its horribly good visual and verbal puns. “It really played with how the names appeared. Also, it introduced a whole metaphor for the story with animated characters. Bold move!” Not coincidentally, aside from the distinctive animation by Fritz Freleng, all of the graphic elements in The Pink Panther title sequence are a straight outcome of Bass’ contribution to the form.
DR. NO: Signature Styles
There is perhaps no other title sequence which has both carried a series of well-known books on its back, and managed to do so (mostly) with style, than James Bond? For Maurice Binder, designing the title sequence of the first James Bond movie from the highly popular series of spy books by Ian Fleming had to be a tall order.
Binder turned to a variation on Saul Bass’ “graphic line” style (as established in 1955’s The Man With The Golden Arm), but used dots for the barrel of the gun and bullet holes, instead of lines. Where Dr. No went its own way was in introducing the motif of see-through silhouettes which would be copied to great effect in multiple later Bond films, notably Goldfinger. That part of the Dr. No title sequence is often forgotten though because by then the James Bond theme music is over.
As a title sequence that normally comes in after the first scene of the movie but always with the same beginning motif where Bond walks into the line of sight and shoots, its function is to tell you that you are entering a world you are already familiar with. This is particularly useful with each change of actor playing Bond. The imagery that follows changes with each film in the same way that the music has evolved over time.
Of course, it would be silly to dismiss the impact of the music on the power of the Bond opening. Whether or not a title sequence is basic or elaborate, one thing all creative directors agree on is that outstanding sound design and/or music is key to its overall success. One point, which is key to the Bond title sequence with the lone gun shot, is where the initial sound or music cue comes in. Some films start the sound over the production company credits. Others leave the sound until after the picture portion has begun. Some titles also incorporate the studio in the animation, drawing the audience in even before names of the production companies.
It’s impossible to tell exactly, but it’s likely that, having come out in 1962, Dr. No’s explosive style with the gunshot and the strong music influenced Saul Bass in return while he was designing the title sequence for Charade which came out the following year. Expanding on that thought, it’s possible that most opening sequences which start suddenly with a hard cut to a loud sound or riffing music now are a part of the Bond legacy.
LORD OF WAR : Challenging The Audience
Lord of War’s title sequence, supervised by Yann Blondel of l’E.S.T., and for which Imaginary Forces did the typography, combines the novelty of having both the narrator break the fourth wall, and it gives life to the inanimate object at the center of the story.
The sequence focuses on the lifecycle of a bullet, presenting it like any other commercial product that’s made somewhere and shipped across the globe to its end user. The bullet always points forward throughout the sequence, like the main character’s pursuit of arming the whole world throughout the movie. The action is accompanied by the song “For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s that Sound)” by Buffalo Springfield, an iconic song of the movement against the Vietnam War. While we have been told directly by the narrator and are then told visually that guns are an economic product like any other, the use of the song and its lyrics reminds us of the generally accepted moral view of war as bad and alerts us to the overall tone of the film as tongue in cheek.
“Great title sequences contain some sort of essence of the film,” Karin explained. “And they do it in a way that not only draws the audience in, but gives them something memorable, something that they might return to later with a deeper understanding.” A more basic view of this would be that titles should contain references, teasers, and plants that are all paid off later in the movie. Lord of War manages to do both the simple and the complex versions of this.
Between the bullet’s “life-cycle” and the occasional snippets we get of those who interact with it (Eastern European factory workers manufacturing them; a humorless Soviet army officer who checks the crate of bullets along the journey; African port workers who unload the crates) we get hints of where things will go wrong. The audience is asked to consider the horror of the topic in combination with the nonchalance of the narrator, the hints it is given of how many ways this can go sideways when you’d rather none of it were happening to begin with, and the realization of war profiteering happening every day with the counterpoint of the music. This sequence works on multiple levels.
Jon drew my attention to the title sequence of David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, directed by Tim Miller at BLUR, as a tonal tour-de-force in the same vein. “The imagery teases the themes, characters, and story points of the film, but more than anything, this sequence grabs the audience in its claws and drags it kicking and screaming to a dark, suffocating place. It makes you feel really uncomfortable. There’s the over-loud, menacing cover of Immigrant Song which puts you immediately on edge. Then there’s a lot of imagery of humans covered in sticky liquid,drowning them; and the imagery of elements coming out of or being poked or stabbed into eyeballs makes the audience just cringe and recoil. This sequence is relatively new, but I’m confident that it will stand the test of time because it so impactful and just wonderfully awful to watch.”
How They Do It
Overall, every single element of a title sequence should be considered carefully in order to come up with one that will match the project as closely as possible in myriad ways. So how do creative directors and designers go about creating title sequences?
Karin commented that understanding what the film is about is essential: “The most important thing in developing a sequence is to listen to the film itself—really understand from the director and the filmmakers what the film is really about. Not just the plot, but what it needs to trigger emotionally. This is one of my favorite parts of the process—the research. Reading the scripts, visiting the set if possible, seeing dailies, having conversations. From there, we work on ideas, which can take the form of storyboards, written treatments, and sometimes motion tests.
“For instance, we might take some images and set them to music. Or maybe, there are some references to the kind of animation or cinematography we’d like to pursue in the project. Each film is different. One might need a fully graphic, animated idea, but another might be all about shooting something either on location or on a tabletop set. There’s definitely not a formula.”
Michelle honed in on the conception process. “We always start with an ideation period, which is when we think of a concept and we find the emotion we want the sequence to convey. Then from there, or sometimes in tandem, we try to find a visual form for that emotion. We do this with storyboards and designs. After, we will make animatics of the sequence with music that is temp or a chosen track. With this, we establish the overall pacing of the sequence.”
The process Karin described is pretty different from what Jon Berkowitz shared. Whereas Karin and team are often starting with the script, Jon’s team comes in towards the end of the post-production process.
“We are contacted by the post-production supervisor on the movie. We meet with the film’s director(s) and editor(s) for a discussion where they show us where they think the title sequence should belong. Sometimes they have specific ideas about a concept to pursue. We ask lots of questions about tone and overarching purpose, timeline and budget, and then we come back to Aspect to brainstorm. The team here watches the movie and then we all individually go off to write up our concepts. We usually write a paragraph or two for each concept and try to find an example or reference that visually communicates where we would like to take the sequence. Then, we pitch to each other.
“Together as a team, we decide which 2-4 concepts we want to develop. Then we work as a team to build pitch elements. Sometimes we pitch to the client as a storyboard sequence. Sometimes we pitch motion tests(short, animated examples of 3-4 credits in sequence, complete with music and sound effects to help communicate the idea.) If we win the pitch, we meet up again with the filmmakers to discuss next steps. Often, they simply say, ‘We like concept A, how do you see this panning out across the entire sequence?’ and through the conversation, we figure out what the complete narrative of the sequence may be.
“In the case of a sequence where narrative elements are told, like in Game Night, we did a lot of writing to refine each beat and make them as funny as possible. We usually board out the entire sequence, or we create a rough animatic of the entire sequence so we can get buy-in from the filmmakers and the studio before we go through the animation process. Once we have an approved structure, then we begin to build elements and animate. We usually show the full sequence at least twice before final approval. We also have clients who simply want to continue to refine until the due date.
“The very end of the process involves rendering the sequence at high-resolution, sending the sequence to a digital intermediate facility, and viewing it there under close scrutiny with the client. We make final color adjustments there, on the big screen, and make any technical fixes.”
No matter what tools or methods are used, what transpires from just these examples, as well as Karin, Michelle, and Jon’s discussions, is that story is the only thing that matters—knowing the story you are telling, the story you want to tell, and the story you want your audience to come away with. It’s important to know what emotions you want the viewers to feel and when you want them to feel those emotions.
Whether you’re using an iPhone or an Alexa, simple live action or complex CGI, people can grasp what you want to convey if you are clear about what that is. And since title sequences are short, you have to find ways to communicate that that are highly visual and succinct. It’s much harder than it seems; but if you get it right, it can add a whole new dimension to your film.
Your turn—we’d love to know what film title sequences you think stand the test of time and why. Share in the comments.
Learn more about design in Karin’s interview on “The Futur”:
Original photography by Irina Logra.