The Independent Film Channel (IFC) just released their list of the 50 Greatest Opening Title Sequences of All Time. There’s even an entire web site dedicated to the study of title sequences. Do you have a favorite? Or do you even pay attention?
An opening title is the crash-cart of the movie, jolting you with expectation. Whether it’s high energy or a promise of romance and intrigue, the right title sequence is essential to the enjoyment and understanding of what you’re about to see.
There are two main components to a successful opening title: an original, captivating visual style, and a doorway into the story.
Ardent cinephiles claim there is a difference between a “title sequence” and the “opening credits.” The former is a presentation of key production information, the latter a string of superimposed text over the movie itself. Picky, picky, picky. IFC states, “At their best, opening title sequences operate on the level of pure cinema, translating a movie’s ideas into pure poetic imagery.” Let’s go with that.
Some opening titles set the stage for the film, providing a “backstory” leading to the film’s plot. Men In Black, Lord of War (almost more well-known than the film itself) and Peter Berg’s The Kingdom are examples. George Lucas’s typographic opening for each Star Wars film—the backstory—imitated the cliff-hanger movie serials of the 1940s. But this kind of visual exposition usually spells death to a movie—if the plot is so complicated it requires extensive explanation, it usually loses the audience before it starts. It’s much more common to show the backstory with graphics (and a pop-song soundtrack).
Film credits project the excitement or sense of humor for a film, as in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Thank You For Smoking. Some encapsulate the entire plot, like Catch Me If You Can. Some titles become icons all by themselves, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Pink Panther, the James Bond films, or Gaspar Noe’s epilepsy-inducing Enter the Void (click the video on the left).
Many titles are marvels of pure design, like 300, or designer Saul Bass’s North By Northwest, Psycho, and Anatomy of a Murder. Other title sequences—like Seven, Delicatessen, Vertigo (IFC’s No. 1 trailer), Scott Pilgrim vs the World and the TV series Dexter and Mad Men give a wry commentary on the plot and characters. They don’t reveal much useful information, but generate the emotional equivalent of the film to come. Try to resist peeking at what happens following the opening of Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss. It can’t be done.
By the way, the end credits can be just as satisfying as the opening. Just ask Iron Man. Don’t you wish all the media you consume could translate ideas into poetic imagery?