With the latest season of HBO’s Game of Thrones almost upon us, the first thing many fans will be anticipating is the show’s opening credits.
Such is the power of the modern opener that, regardless of whether you’ve been bitten by the GOT bug, you’ll certainly be aware the series boasts an Emmy-winning title sequence that commands an almost obsessive amount of attention.
This sequence showcases the world’s map brought to life through glorious animation. However, its most interesting quality is how the landmarks are updated in accordance with the show’s plot. Smart quirks such as this have become increasingly common in opening titles, as the best of them strive not just to look the part, but to truly set the scene of what we’re about to watch.
In years gone by, such adulation for what would simply be a bi-product of a drama might have seemed unusual, but the TV opener is far more than the mere necessity it used to be: it has undergone a transformation into a fully fledged art-form.
There’s something reassuring about a great title sequence introducing us to a new show; done right, it projects a seal of quality on what we’re about to watch. “Here’s the tone we’re going for, look at how carefully we crafted these graphics,” and “damn right this production is expensive,” are the kinds of subliminal messages we’re processing as we sit back and hope we’re going to be impressed by the rest.
Epic openers of this kind clearly began in cinema, but have become even more important on the small screen, where high-quality dramas are now very much the norm. In this ‘golden age’ of scripted we’re faced with a vast choice of binge-worthy shows, therefore making a series stand out from the crowd with an impactful first impression has become a must.
A good title sequence may make a viewer stick around longer, even if the first few scenes don’t thrill, because the show’s tone has already been communicated. It can be a promise of what’s to come and, in some cases, a way to provide exposition that isn’t intrusive to the plot.
The expositive opener is a great way of easing in new viewers and has been making a comeback over recent years. It works particularly well for serial comedies, where the backstories are less dense than dramas but still central to the plot, and – most importantly – the laughs. Notable examples include the OTT musical number from The CW’s Crazy Ex Girlfriend (which updates every season) and the news footage mashup of Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, set to a catchy autotune remix that playfully riffs off 2013’s viral video Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That.
Of course, drama openings can also feature exposition, although the “jump in at any time” motive isn’t a necessity here. Rather, it is used in more of a traditional sense; to emphasise character, such as James Delaney’s haunting memories in BBC’s Taboo, or setting, as with Frank Tagliano’s move from New York to Norway in NRK’s Lilyhammer. Each of these shows boast big names in the form of Tom Hardy (The Revenant) and Steven Van Zandt (The Sopranos), but you’ll notice that, whilst they might feature in the visuals, the actors’ images are far from the focus of the opening sequences. Where montaging shots of the stars might once have been the standard approach, now the famous faces have been replaced with engaging visuals loaded with the show’s identity.
In the midst of a marathon binge, cramming in episode after episode of our latest must-watch, the titles offer our only breathing space between a dramatic cliff-hanger and the next thrilling instalment. Whereas one whole week and a ‘previously on Dallas’ would have once given us a chance to process and reflect on developments, now we have just two minutes to reset. With GoT those understated plot references in the titles subtly remind us of where we’re at as we prepare to dive back in.
It’s worth comparing modern sequences with the rather-less captivating titles that were commonplace on our screens just a decade or two ago. There are some fantastic parody opening credits on YouTube which show how Game of Thrones might have been introduced if HBO had launched the show in the 90s; replete with synthesiser theme music, clunky edits and knowing winks to the camera. Though created in jest, they offer perhaps the clearest indication of just how far the medium has come.
Tone, character and setting: these elements, combined with a stylistic design, can transition audiences into another world. Whilst the residents of Westeros may be preparing for their darkest Winter yet, the evolution of this exciting art form shows that, for TV audiences at least, the future of the title sequence has never looked brighter.
James Conibear is a researcher at K7 Media.