First Impressions Matter: Crafting a Great Opening Credits Sequence

In the past, movie credits used to be nothing more than glorified title cards set to music. They were mostly static, with maybe a page turn effect to transition between credits. They were boring, but got the job done. After all, you didn't plunk down your hard-earned cash to watch a bunch of words, right?

Well, time's have changed, and for good reason. Since the first thing you are going to see in a film is the credits, why not make them the best thing possible? If you are going to be immediately judged, you had better do something great right off top, or you risk your viewer tuning out. Some movies do away with these entirely, but they can still be a great hook to precede a great hook. I say don't make the credits the last thing you think about, but one of the first.

I think a good credit roll has three things in common:

1. The right font
2. The right music
3. The right visual

All modern Non Linear Editors allow you to use system fonts, and there are a ton on the web available for free. I've found a great selection at FontReactor that cover just about every kind of mood. Download, install, and use! It's that easy.

Music and visuals are paramount in any movie, and it is no different here. Get a composer to tailor something to your credits and shoot something specifically for them. Make them their own "mini movie", and you'll set a good precedent for the rest of your film. Hopefully your titles aren't the best thing you have to show, so be careful about where you set the bar.

The following are five examples of really great opening credits. There are many more that you or I could cite, but I've tried to focus on those that could easily be duplicated by us film jockeys with little or no money to spare. RSS readers can click on the movie title to access the YouTube video directly.

Seconds (1966)
This film centers around a guy who "trades in" his old body for a younger model. The open definitely creates a weird, disturbing vibe with the warping facial images and creepy music. The font is normal, but the images (created in-camera with something akin to a fun house mirror) and the music are surreal and set the tone that something uneasy is approaching. Created by the late, great, Saul Bass.

Napolean Dynamite (2004)
Here's a nifty departure that perfectly captures the whimsical lighthearted feel of this quirky flick. There are no fonts at all, only credits written in various condiments, drawings, and product labels. The colors are bright and fun, and remind me of the very first credit sequence you'd try as a kid. The music fits right in, becoming a nice frosting to this yummy cake.

Memento (2000)
This example is about a simple as you can get, and employs a very easy post production trick--the backwards shot. In the movie, the protagonist has memory problems so he takes Polaroid pictures of everything he wants to remember. The movie also has a timeline that moves in reverse, which keeps the audience in the same mindset as our poor hero. These credits perfectly embody both of these plot elements, and the sad music wraps it together in a very melancholy package. Hang around after the titles for more backwards weirdness.

Enemy of the State (1998)
This film deals with the invasion of privacy from snooping government goons on wrongly accused Will Smith. This sequence really hits home by mashing up footage we've all seen on the news. Sure, there are custom helicopter aerials, but most of this is just tinkered with public domain footage. Any of us could find a ton of this stuff on YouTube and do the very same thing. The fast cutting and sped up nature of this clip also prepares you for the kinetic action that is to come. Well done, and very Orwellian.

Sex Machine (2005)
Here's a great example of doing a lot with a little. This sequence uses the "hook within a hook" method by interspersing story with every title featured. While our hero runs away from a massacre he apparently caused, we see animated titles (created in After Effects) in between his sprint to safety. What makes this even better is the credits are made up to look like the tattoos that we later see cover one of our hero's arms. Excellent implementation, especially for an $8000 movie.

Any of you have a credit sequence favorite? Tell me which one and why by leaving a comment below!


Cunningham said…
Thanks for the shout out to SEX MACHINE - I know Christopher Sharpe will be pleased.

Along the lines of great opening credit sequences:

THE AVENGERS TV SHOW (B&W Emma Peel episodes) which feature still photos instead of footage.
INTELLIGENCE - the Canuck tv show which uses sat pictures (Google Maps?)and conversations to instantly set the mood.

Also Lee Goldberg runs a regular clip every week of a different tv show title sequence.
jmontreuil said…
The title sequence to Se7en still remains one of my favorite. The clips totally set up the upcoming story and it does a fantastic job of getting under the viewers skin.
AlBaraa said…
The opening sequence of "THE KINGDOM"

Its on Yahoo:
The Kingdome Opening Sequence
Scott Eggleston said…
I like those Psycho credits as well (another creation of Saul Bass), but they would be a bear to reproduce.

The open for Se7en was pretty unsettling (you know it's bad when someone is opening a safety razor), and seems to be the favorite of many. Love that wicked font as well.

The Kingdom's open was also good, giving a fast history lesson among fancy graphics. Another one I wouldn't want to try, but effective at getting the viewer up to speed and explaining the meaning of the title.
Anonymous said…
Nice Examples ...