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Design | Media

Short but Sweet: How Motion Design Pushed the Boundaries of the TV Intro

The past 15 years have been a golden age for television. The rise in demand for home-entertainment has brought us waves of amazing, high-quality shows that blur the boundaries between the standard TV we’ve previously been used to and the gloss of major studio releases. Shows are now virtually indistinguishable from their cinema counterparts, with big-name directors increasingly drawn to the enticing possibilities that come with longer-form storytelling. But for motion designers like me, one of the most exciting things about this new era is that the title sequences have evolved right alongside them, resulting in a torrent of excellent design, 3D and motion graphics that have been a great source of inspiration for some of my recent work at ICE. 

In the 80s and 90s, title sequences were usually just a short montage of the characters you’d be spending the next 22 minutes with: shots of the car they drive, the city they live in, etc. Or if the concept was a bit complicated, a narrator could explain the premise to get you up to speed (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s intro is basically just a long-winded rap rundown of the plot). Now however, intro sequences have blossomed into an art form in themselves, many of which are just tone-poems, which aim to distil the show down to its very essence. Rather than just give you the facts, these seek to remind you of how it feels to watch it. This results in some masterpieces of mood, that can often feel more nuanced than the shows themselves.  

When you’re given 25-35 seconds to encompass the soul of a 60-hour series, you’re forced to pare it back to a singular function. The Game of Thrones intro seeks to get viewers acquainted with a place rather than a plot. We as the audience see the different structures of each kingdom in 3D growing out of an actual map of the locale. Hameed Shanukat, the intro’s producer, said;  We wanted to make sure the audience knew which families of characters were associated with each location”.  They understand that giving the audience a sense of this world’s geography and emphasis on borders is more important than just a tedious mosaic of faces. With such time constraints a designer needs to use every opportunity at their disposal to convey meaning. To get across a sense of the era, not only did they opt for an old fashioned medieval map, they also cleverly built each city out of the materials we associate with that time: weathered wood textures bound in leather and worn steel;  

Our goal was to make the map seem like it was built by these mad monks in a monastery someplace.” 



Stranger Things has been one of the most lauded of the new TV wave, however their technique was the complete opposite to GoT. A simple logo intro with a Stephen King-style typeface as homage to pulpy horror mystery book covers, but in steamy 80s neon which oozes with nostalgia. Their goal was to say less with more, creating an inseparable fusion between name and font, seen through the smoky mist of an old horror movie. It’s creative director Michelle Dougherty explains,  

“Simple isn’t always easy. We looked at title sequences from the past. We were looking for the inconsistencies. That’s what makes it feel tangible and warm.” 



One of the pioneers of this new style is True Detective. Its opening montage of sultry southern heat and broken characters literally fractured by their aggressive environment inspired trends for years to come. Creative Director Patrick Clair has said that; 

 “Using human figures as windows into partial landscapes served as a great way to show characters that are marginalised or internally divided”.  

He showed that by merging double exposure photography and 3D, you could create a dreamscape that is much more evocative than simple video could be. And, because the images are so faded and drifting, virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. By not constraining himself to specifics, he was able to step back and see the wider picture;  

“Many of our pictures of the cast come from the rushes, but they’re abstracted to the point where they don’t feel part of any specific scene”.



This is a technique I employed in some of our recent work with Maincoms, a telephony solutions company. They requested a short elegant piece that evoked the abstract ideas of communicationsinterconnectivity and data in the mind of the viewer.  


To achieve this I first built a catalogue of phone paraphernalia, cords, satellites and 3D symbols of global infrastructure. Then, using particle plugins in Cinema4D, I rendered thousands of data-strands coming together to form these shapes. In this way, rather than being about any one specific solution or offer it covers the overarching values and qualities of the company as a whole.   

Maincoms from The ICE Agency on Vimeo.


Sadly the growth of our binge-watching culture has led streaming sites to shorten title sequences for their original content, or in the case of Netflix adopted a ‘skip intro’ button (which many see as the death knell for this often-undervalued medium). Hopefully this won’t result in an end to the creation of these pithy tone-poems, as this would be a huge loss to the world of television. What is clear, however, is the lasting cultural impact that these intros have had on society, as well as the ongoing need for the techniques used to create them in other industries such as advertising. Thankfully, this means that we should see the creativity and innovative techniques of motion designers develop and flourish for many years to come.

"Now however, intro sequences have blossomed into an art form in themselves [...] which aim to distil the show down to its very essence.
By James McDonnell
Posted: 19th November 2018
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