For a company steeped in a history of creative excellence, creative studio Elastic—known for its iconic, stunningly crafted main title sequences for TV and film—has been on a particularly remarkable run lately.
Elastic created four of the seven Emmy nominees this year for Outstanding Main Title Design. (The winner will be announced this Saturday.) Each of them is very different, and just as impressively, each was created for a different network or platform—Watchmen for HBO, The Politician for Netflix, Carnival Row for Prime Video, and The Morning Show for Apple+.
Below, we hear from the lead designers on all four projects about the inspiration and execution of their titles.
HBO asked Elastic to build a system of title cards for the Watchmen series. The cards needed to be conceptually and stylistically integrated into the opening shots of each episode. Creative director Paul Mitchell and his team designed and built brief, bespoke title cards based on each episode like easter eggs.
"The show creators had a strong opinion about not necessarily having a full minute for a title sequence," says Mitchell. "We came in and said, 'Let's talk about the themes of what each show is. Let's really dive into textural qualities of each one.' It's really about all the imperfections and the unseen things that are inherent in the things we use over time, and how you weave that in graphically."
Mitchell liked how the neon ones turned out, in particular.
"I thought the blue was very unusual, pertaining to Dr. Manhattan," he says. "I liked the typewriter because I thought that was quite dynamic in the way that set that up. The radio tune—I like the style of it, the art direction of it. It's not necessarily animating the words. It's more about animating the dial and playing with the sound design that then leads you straight into a new shot."
Having just a few seconds for a title card obviously forced the designers to be more creative—it's the old adage of finding possibilities within limitations. "You don't have all the bells and whistles. You go, 'Let's be creative in this limited space,' " says Mitchell. "Also, the sound design leads you into the show, so it was seamless in that way as well."
The titles are also clues to what each episode is promising, and so, not surprisingly, they became fan favorites. "People started to follow it because they wanted to know the clues," Mitchell says. "You look at it to understand the premise of what this particular show is going to be about, and I feel that was really interesting."
The title sequence for The Politican on Netflix imagines the hero being put together piece by piece out of the things he hoards and fixates on—experiences, friendships, relationships, represented by school pins, books, blank checks, drugs. The result is an ideal presidential dummy, built from the ground up for the job. The visuals are bright and saturated, and hint at the darkness metaphorically rather than stylistically.
Creative director Heidi Berg and their team had a mostly blank slate to work from on this one—rare for a Ryan Murphy production. "This was probably the first time we met with him where he's just like, 'You know what? Here's a couple of scripts. Go read through everything and then let's just see what you come up with,' " Berg says.
Berg and co-director Felix Soletic found the show's color palette intriguing, which inspired them to go back and explore Wes Anderson's aesthetic. "There's a beautiful attention to detail to objects a person holds dear to them, and that was kind of part of the genesis," Berg says. "We wanted to think about, with each of these characters, how can we visualize what they're about in terms of objects? So we did a whole bunch of crazy explorations around objects."
Then one day, Soletic had an epiphany.
"We were on a lunch break and he came running up to me and he's like, 'I have this insane idea. What if we just make him like a wooden mannequin and we bring him to life? Let's pretend he is this cabinet of curiosities and all these little objects live inside him,' " says Berg. "It was hard to wrap our brains around in the beginning, but it was the beginning of imagining the metaphor of this person, Payton, this character who is essentially a sociopath and has these aspirations to become a politician. What is it that's making him tick on the inside? And how could we really get in there and see that, visualize it, in a metaphorical way?"
They add: "We got really excited because not only could we put this focus and this beautiful attention to detail on objects, but we could also turn these phrases and idioms into actual figurines and little creatures and devices that exist within Payton, foreshadowing what's going to happen in the show itself."
The piece is mostly CG, with a bit of live action. As with Watchmen, there's an easter-egg element here, with fans trying to work out what all the objects signify—many of which became clearer as the viewers progressed through the show.
"We definitely know what each little piece means, and the metaphor there, the foreshadowing we put in there," Berg says. "I think we also wanted to leave this very much open to interpretation so the viewers almost get this additional meaning every time they watch the opening title sequence. We really wanted to make it accessible to our fans as something that could generate additional views."
Carnival Row's creature/human conflict, and the show's gorgeous production design, were themes Elastic brought to the main title—which also features a unique take on Muybridge motion studies. Travis Beacham, the screenwriter, came to creative director Lisa Bolan and her team with the Muybridge idea and was also looking for ways to expound upon the museum featured in his Prime Video series.
"The observers view the creatures first as scientific specimens within a natural history exhibit with engraved labels designed by Henry DeLeon," says Bolan. "We hinted at the carnage in the show with clipped Fae wings suspended by ornate pearl pins. The exhibits dissect the flight of Fae and their magic through epic, backlit dioramas. At times viewers see the creatures through the lens of a voyeur, and where the bigotry and caste system of the Burgue restricts contact and equality, here there's a lengthened gaze—they can almost touch if not for the puckered glass. With reflections in the glass we sought to connect viewer and subject and mirror them. The child's reflection was especially important because she does not yet know how society outside the museum views its subjects."
The team played with the idea of Muybridge motion studies as massive installations within the museum, "with each state of motion a being a CG sculpture to scale," says Bolan. "In the zoetrope moment, the floor of the museum rotates to create the illusion. Star animator Yongsub Song created the real functioning zoetrope in Cinema 4D. He's amazing!"
The impeccable craft of the show is mirrored in the title, which features the work of a number of artists. "Travis created a world with lush and imaginative production design," says Bolan. "We sought to celebrate and reflect that. It's very evident in Mert Kizilay, Kaya Thomas and Alex Silver's shots in the sequence. We really enjoyed this collaboration."
The Morning Show
We spoke with Elastic designer Hazel Baird about this title sequence for a story a few weeks ago. Baird worked on the piece with Elastic founder Angus Wall, the two-time Oscar-winning editor (for The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Wall is also an accomplished title designer, having won Emmys for his main titles for HBO's Carnivàle and, perhaps most famously, Game of Thrones.
Wall says there were a few false starts with The Morning Show's title, as the team tried to find a way to visualize the interpersonal dynamics of the show.
"There's definitely a feminist streak in the show," he says. "There is this idea of individuation. What you think something is versus what it actually is. We played around with a bunch of different approaches about how to show that, but they all felt a little bit didactic, and they didn't have an evocative feel to them. The show is not necessarily just a feminist show. That's one thread of a much larger canvas."
Wall and Baird began to explore the positive vibe of morning shows in general, how they're sunny and set you off on your day. Subverting that straightforward sunniness then became a promising avenue.
"A lot of the show is really about people breaking out of the perceived path they were supposed to be on, and going on an emotional journey where they're colliding with elements from outside," he says. "Or their behaviors are being discovered, part of their true nature is being discovered, or they're in a situation they've never been in before and they behave in a certain way. There's this idea of what you think something's supposed to be—which is what morning shows usually present—and then what things actually are. So it's this idea of having dots represent people and having them all be the same size and look the same—this abstraction of reality—and then you take that grid in a very mid-century design aesthetic and really blow it up. One of the dots gets fed up and says, 'Fuck it. I'm gonna go the other way,' and causes mayhem."
The challenge became how to convey convincing human interactions through such simple atomic elements intersecting.
"Can we be descriptive enough with these elemental graphic pieces to evoke the feeling you get if you're not included in something, or somebody's mean to you, or if you do something to someone where you inadvertently upset them," Wall says. "Or you see someone who's happy to step on people on their way up the ladder. There's a mix of things that happen if you live in a city, and you live in a corporate environment, and it's like, 'What are the abstract ways to describe those things?' "
Taken together, the titles for these four shows demonstrate an impressively varied bag of tricks over at Elastic. And the Emmy nominations show that each has connected in its own way. (The other three Emmy nominees this year are HBO's Westworld, Netflix's Abstract: The Art of Design, and EPIX's Godfather of Harlem.)
"You go on our website, and there's a lot of macabre, dark fog and blood everywhere," Elastic executive producer Luke Colson says. "Carnival Row is this kind of classic, dark Elastic special. But this time we have The Morning Show, which is a punchy motion-graphics piece. We have the Watchmen, which is these title cards we assembled into the series—I'm not even too sure we were even confident that was allowed to qualify [for the Emmys]. And then we have The Politician, which is this mix of live-action and CG. I think it's just a good cross-section of our capability across the board."
Looking ahead, something like the Watchmen titles seem to embody a changing view of the traditional main title. With so much competition, the networks and streamers are always looking for innovation—and of course, creatively it can be good to shake up the format.
"The last three inquiries I've taken for good shows we're pitching on now, it's been wide open," says Colson. "We've been slightly concerned that our whole 30-, 45-, 60-, 90-second, wonderful title sequence is in jeopardy. Fr sure, HBO love a good punchy, 60- to 90-seconder. But the couple of Netflix projects we're working on now, we've been told they want to see ideas for something different and something original that isn't even a selection of title cards and isn't even a long title sequence. What's the next thing? I think everyone just wants it to be relevant, but different and surprising. So it's kind of like a blank canvas again, which is wicked for us."