The craft of main title design has become more prestigious in TV since “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones” won Emmys in 2008 and 2011. And this season the race pits three Best Drama contenders (“Westworld,” “Stranger Things,” “The Crown”) against Limited Series contender (“Feud: Bette and Joan”) and “American Gods.”
Three of the five main title designs come from Patrick Clair (“Westworld,” The Crown,” “American Gods”), last year’s winner for “The Man in the High Castle,” and a previous winner for “True Detective” (2014). If the goal is to encapsulate the essence of a show in a graphically striking, attention-grabbing manner, then all five shows fit the job.
As far as winning the race, “Westworld” stands out for its complex design, poetic beauty, and melancholy mood, But both “Feud” and “Stranger Things” boast distinctive retro vibes— that brilliantly play off the nostalgia appeal of their series.
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From the galloping horse to the dancing robotic tools to the passionate embrace of two unfinished lovers, the “Westworld” main title design captures the essence of HBO’s re-imagined amusement park run amok from showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. Clair, Elastic’s creative director, was tasked with doing justice to the sweeping aesthetics and moral tone of the sci-fi western.
Creation of the robots emerges from milk. The key, though, was capturing the hosts in moments of humanity: two lovers stealing a moment of passion together, the exhilaration of riding on horseback across the iconic American landscape, and the sadness of a piano player playing his final notes. At the same time, Clair echoes the show’s philosophy about “consciousness, intelligence, and the human experience.”
“Feud: Bette and Joan”
What’s fascinating about Ryan Murphy’s main title design for his show about the bitter rivalry between Bette Davis (nominated Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (nominated Jessica Lange) is the overriding sense of melancholy. Pitted against one another while co-starring in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” brought out the worst in both actresses long past their prime. Behind the feud, though, was insecurity and pressure fueled by Hollywood, and using animated silhouettes like cutout paper dolls by Kyle Cooper accentuated their vulnerabilities .
The look was evocative of the early ’60s title designs (Saul Bass meets Paul Rand), with lots of bright colors. But as the sequence ran through many of the show’s highlights (including the fight for the Oscar), the recurring symbol of the heart, a link to “Baby Jane,” added an extra layer and carried the most emotional weight.
Apparently you can judge a book by its cover, which is the point of the iconic main title design for the Duffer Brothers’ sci-fi thriller from the ’80s. Michelle Dougherty came up with a Stephen King-like paperback cover as an homage to that fondly-remembered era of spine-tingling storytelling.
In fact, they utilize the Benguiat typeface most associated with King covers as the prevalent image. The style depicts type in motion reminiscent of “The Dead Zone” movie. Like the creepy alien universe that invades the show, large, hollow letters assemble slowly, with glowing red edges underscoring the dread. Meanwhile, smaller credits fade in and out. It’s minimalism at its best.
Clair and his Elastic team depict the magnitude of the Crown itself, signifying the importance of the monarchy above all else. Destiny demands it. But there’s a personal price to pay for Elizabeth (Claire Foy), who endures a rite of passage throughout the first season.
Elastic once again relies on CG liquids to transform molten gold into the Crown, springing to life like rough tree branches. It’s a powerful statement about Elizabeth’s rough transformation as well, with the Crown obviously possessing a dark side. Thematically, the concept became a tricky balancing act between duty and sacrifice.
Clair and Elastic team up for the ultimate tribute to ancient and modern symbolism in the main titles for Neil Gaiman adaptation about the battle between the Old and New Gods. It’s a surreal journey filled with eye-popping imagery, forming a totem pole, and the sequence provides a road map to what the series will explore in the quest for meaning and transcendence.
Branding may change but human nature doesn’t. Highlights include the World Tree of Yggdrasil from Norse mythology, symbolizing everything connected to life, and which binds Mr. Wednesday/Odin (Ian McShane) to Shadow (Ricky Whittle); Medusa, whose head fuses old and new through fiber optics; and a neon cowboy, revealing the legendary frontier that lies ahead.
Will Win: “Westworld”
Could Win: “Feud: Bette and Joan”
Should Win: “Westworld”