For years, Michelle Dougherty had a dream. She wanted to create titles that echoed the work of Richard Greenberg, who created the opening credits for ’80s movies like “Alien,” “Dirty Dancing” and “Blow Out.”
As creative director at title-design powerhouse Imaginary Forces (“Mad Men,” “Boardwalk Empire”), Dougherty created many iconic title sequences of her own — but when she pitched the concept of an ’80s homage to showrunners and directors, no one was interested.
“Richard is the one who really pioneer this idea in movies that you can create mood with just typography,” said Dougherty. “It was incredibly avant-garde for the time period.”
And then she met the Duffer Brothers — and they were the ones who brought up Greenberg in their initial discussions of what they wanted from their Netflix show, “Stranger Things.” Not only were the Duffers familiar with his work, they considered it an iconic part of the ’80s movies their show referenced.
Dougherty was thrilled — but the Duffers rejected her first pass at creating the “Stranger Things” typography as too modern.
“They were influenced by book covers as kids,” said Dougherty. “They sent over a Stephen King book with ’80s typography, which was big, bold, chunky, almost decorative.”
Dougherty was able to trace back the particular typeface to the famed 20th-century typographer Ed Benguit, who created over 600 typefaces, including the self named ITC Benguit that was popular on ’80s paperbacks like the one the Duffers sent her.
The Imaginary Forces
However, getting the right ’80s typeface was only the first step in creating the feel the Duffers wanted.
“Originally we had these kind of snappy, modern-looking moves,” said Daugherty. “The animator I was working with, Eric Demeusy, is a genius, but he’s younger. He wanted it to feel very fresh. I remember the ’80s, things didn’t move that quickly because of technology. During that time, the beginning of my career, I remember we use to film things out, which is a different process. The movement isn’t as slick as it is now.”
As Dougherty started to think of the imperfections in ’80s titles, she also remembered that things weren’t perfectly uniform. Slightly jagged movements, flickering lights, and color inconsistency were natural products of transferring to film. However, research proved her wrong: Such imperfections were more prevalent in the ’60s and ’70s.
“I checked with Dan Perri, who did titles for “Star Wars,” and he said that by the ’80s that type of stuff meant you didn’t have the money for a good optical house,” said Dougherty.
Still, Dougherty felt there was something too clean about the otherwise beautiful work Demeusy created. She liked the idea of the tactile, almost handmade feel of those imperfections. She started studying ’60s and ’70s titles to find examples that she could share with Demeusy.
“When you look the titles for ‘Stranger Things,’ when the type fades up and down, there’s a little pink residual color that we added in there,” said Dougherty. “We added those things because we wanted to make it feel like film. We actually wanted to film something out, just to do a test, but we couldn’t find anyone in L.A. that could do it for us.”
One of the struggles title sequence designers face is they often have to work before music has been selected.However, the Duffers had already identified the synth music (by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the experimental soundscape band Survive), and that’s one reason Dougherty thinks the “Stranger Things” title sequence works so well. Matching the tone of the distinct music greatly informed the movement, feel, and texture of the animated typography.
In the age of binge watching, Dougherty has heard complaints that opening titles can be boring. On other shows, she’s often having to find ways to embed Easter eggs and story details to keep the titles fresh. With “Stranger Things,” that isn’t the case.
“What the Duffers did that was really brilliant was the placement of the title sequence right after a very dramatic moment,” said Dougherty. “It’s almost the palate cleanser, or moment of breath. I think part of the reason these particular titles feel fresh is because it’s become integral to the storytelling.”