The Purpose and Functions of a Title Sequence (Title Sequences: Function With Form) (Motion Graphic Titling)

You sit in a movie theater. The lights go down. The music and picture start. The opening titles fade in, and you know you’re in for a journey! On the surface level, the primary purpose of title sequences is to accurately credit the cast and crew, or even more simply, to give the film’s title. But if we dig a bit deeper, title sequences offer much more than that. In some ways, the function of a title sequence is very similar to the cover of a topi. It not only gives the title and relevant authorship information; it also attracts the curiosity of the audience, encouraging them to open it up and start reading.

The music of title sequences could be compared to the concert overture of a classical musical performance or opera. A typical overture precedes the main performance by introducing the main musical themes. It is like a musical call for attention, as if to say, “Everyone! We are starting now! So hold onto your seats!”

Title sequences are a powerful expression of motion graphics. They are a prelude to the movie. They engage the audience by hinting at what is about to start, whether it’s a movie, TV show, or Web animation.

One of the primary functions of a title sequence is to set the tone of the movie you are about to see. Even if you didn’t know anything about the movie—and whether you are watching at a movie theater, at a TV in your living room, or at your computer— you get a sense of the genre and pacing of the movie simply by experiencing the first few seconds of an opening title sequence.

Imagine watching the opening title sequence of a horror film such as Zach Snider’s Dawn of the Dead (1994), created by Prologue, versus a comedy-drama such as Jason Reitman’s Juno (2007), with a title sequence created by Shadowplay Studios. Or imagine watching the fast-paced sequence made by Jay Johnson for David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) as opposed to the calmer and dreamier pacing of the title sequence made by yU+co for Kevin Lima’s Enchanted (2007). Even if you stumbled into any available room at a multiplex without checking the show title first, at the end of the title sequence you should know what genre you are about to experience.

Effective title sequences engage and excite the audience by hinting at some of the topics, themes, and, in some cases, the challenges that characters will be facing. The intention is to build anticipation, sometimes revealing some of the main character’s traits and possibly setting the stage for questions that will be answered later in the movie. Successful title sequences create an emotional reaction from the audience, leaving them glued to their seats, waiting for more.

Effective title sequences foreshadow themes of the movie without overshadowing the movie itself: They anticipate what will come later in the movie but do not give away key plot points. Title sequences shouldn’t summarize the plot of the movie or give away a perpetrator’s identity that is supposed to be revealed only at the ending.

Sometimes a title sequence can be designed so ingeniously that it adds additional meaning, or, even better, exposes some details that are missing from the movie or could go unnoticed. Maybe the scenes that contained the specific details got cut; maybe the script wasn’t developed enough, so the title sequences need to clarify a confusing detail; maybe the movie was taken in a different direction in the editing room; or maybe details were intentionally omitted in order to let them thrive in the titles.

At times, the most interesting and enduring title sequences offer the audience details whose significance will be revealed by the end of the movie or after a second viewing, such as the one created by Kyle Cooper for David Fincher’s Se7en (1995).

While fulfilling these functions, the author(s) of a title sequence must visually capture the essence of the movie. You have an arsenal of elements at your disposal to accomplish this task. The following are some elements that as a designer and animator you will have to keep in mind while beginning to work on a title sequence:

•    Typography

•    Color palette

•    Textures

•    Lighting

•    Camera/movement style

•    Editing

•    Imagery (video footage, still images, 2D or 3D animation)

•    Styles/techniques (cell animation, CG animation, stop motion, video, match moving, etc.)

By carefully picking these elements, you are making a statement about the look and feel of your work and carefully directing the audience’s emotional response toward the desired result. Before we dive into all these topics, we’ll explore title sequence processes and their history.

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