Why I Love Main Title Sequences

Main Titles create an emotional link between the viewer and the show. But for a writer, they are so much more. Here is an excerpt from SUCCESSFUL TELEVISION WRITING, the book I wrote with William Rabkin. The excerpt will be followed an example, along with text from the book.

Main titles are created to introduce the audience to the show they are about to see. But for the writer, there is much more information to be gleaned.  It is a chance to read the mind of the executive producer.  How does he perceive the show?  How does he perceive the characters? 

How does he perceives the tone?  What kinds of stories does he want to tell? Most main title sequences will answer all those questions and more.

There are basically three different kinds of main title sequences:  Format sequences, that actually tell you in narration and in writing what the show is about; Mood sequences that convey the type of feeling and tone they are going for; and Character sequences, which delineate who the characters are and how they interact.  Many main titles are combinations of these three sequences. 

Since TV changes so fast, we’ve chosen some examples from some established series you probably know very well and, if not, can easily find in reruns…

The rest comes after the jump…

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

The title alone should tell you a lot. But beyond that, the brilliant main title sequence does an exceptional job selling the mood and format of the series.

Part of the brilliance of the main title sequence is that it goes against everything we’ve been taught about what is dramatic (not coincidentally, much like the show itself). While other main titles are full of slickly edited explosions, car chases, amazing stunts, and scenes of conflict, this one features shots of evidence being collected and analyzed.

How exciting can looking at a piece of lint under a microscope be? Very exciting, judging by the way these shots are cut into the main title, which also tells you something about how the producers approach story. The forensics are the story.

We see quick shots of crime scene tape, finger prints, broken glass, drops of blood, a strand of hair, a bullet moving through water, a guy setting his equipment case down beside a body. Here, the mundane is edited like a martial arts sequence.

The producers could have included shot of cops kicking down doors, buildings exploding, moments which have happened during the course of the series. But those action-packed shots aren’t in the main title. Why? Because while those were exciting moments in the show, they aren’t what the series is about. It’s a show about forensics.

Look at the way the characters are introduced as compared to, say, the main titles of any other show. No attempt is made to reveal character, to tell us who they are as people, or even to make them look particularly heroic or attractive. Each character is introduced peering at some tiny piece of evidence under a microscope or between a pair of tweezers, squinting at some computer print-out, crouching over a corpse, or aiming a flashlight into a dark corner. Because, like Law & Order, this isn’t a show about the characters. It’s a show about forensics.

The series also takes place in Las Vegas, but with the exception of two quick night shots of the city, you don’t see the typical glittering footage you’d expect of the Strip, showgirls dancing, and roulette wheels spinning. Why? Because this isn’t a show about Las Vegas. It’s a show about forensics.

And if the visuals didn’t pound home the point hard enough, let’s consider the theme song, The Who’s “Who Are You?” The cost of using that song every week is probably larger than the national debt of several third world countries, so it’s obviously important to producers. The fact that it’s a classic, and catchy, song by a legendary rock group doesn’t hurt. It sticks in your head. In fact, it was probably there long before CSI came along. That alone would probably be worth the hefty price tag. But what really makes this song worth every penny is the simple lyric: Who are you? Who? Who? I Really Want To Know. That lyric is repeated again and again over the visuals, combining with them to send you a message you’d have to be deaf and blind not to get.

It’s a show about forensics.

The producers don’t care about car chases, or explosions, or gun-fights. They don’t care about romance, sex, and witty repartee. They aren’t particularly interested in moving, character drama either. They care about cool forensics and intricate mysteries.

You’ll notice that just about every scene in the main title was either shot at night, or in a darkened room, which should also tell you something about the mood. This is not a bright and cheery show. In fact, just about the only light you see is coming from flashlights. What are they saying? That the stories, and the characters, move in the shadows.

The title of the show is Crime Scene Investigation. The visuals are only about evidence collection and analysis. The song asks over and over again Who are you?

Someone who has never seen a single episode of CSI, someone who doesn’t even speak or read English, could watch the main titles and tell you what the show is about and what the center of each story is.

This is a perfect main title, and about as clear an indication as you could ever get into how the producers see their own show.

6 thoughts on “Why I Love Main Title Sequences”

  1. House is definitely a mood sequence, although I’m not sure how effective it is. I love the song, but I don’t really pay attention to the pictures itself.
    I love watching CSI’s opening sequence, though. I think that the opening sequence does a good job of showing us the characters too. It doesn’t go too in depth, obviously, but I think the Eric Szmanda character is kind of silly, the Paul guilfoyle character is not one of the scientists, and all of them really care about their work. It also gives us kind of a story order of importance. And if I’m remembering correctly, the szmanda guy was a recurring character before being made a full time character, so it would be interesting to compare the opening visuals between the seasons. I once knitted a baby blanket while watching the entire first season of CSI. I wonder what kind of vibe that gave the blanket. If that baby does anything with law enforcement, I will laugh quietly to myself and not inform that mother that my blanket helped her child move into such a dangerous career.
    The opening sequence I hate the most this season is Justice. I hate the song, which conveys nothing of the mood/pace of the show. The pictures don’t tell us anything about the characters, and there is no nice law and order style overview. The words of the song say something, but in my opinion, not nearly enough.
    Lost can get away without having a true opening sequence because that music and the words Lost moving across your screen says enough… and maybe lack of a true opening sequence in and of itself speaks to the writer’s commitment to mystery.

  2. The titles sequence also shows off the series’ moody, colorful lighting, which I think is a factor that sets the original CSI apart from its other-regional spinoffs.
    It also shows that evidence gathering can be kinetic, with the shots of the bullet shattering the apple and the ax slamming into the blood-filled dummy head. The latter hints at the series’ willingness to show gore.


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