A moving map of a fantasy world. The eerily lifelike movements of theme park androids. Elements from the periodic table against a smoking backdrop. It’s not something viewers often give much attention to, but the opening and/or closing credits of television shows and movies can be works of art in their own right. No doubt, you knew we were talking about Game of Thrones, Westworld, and Breaking Bad just from those opening descriptors and that’s because the opening title sequence have the ability to set the tone for what we’re about to watch, whether it be drama, comedy, science fiction, or horror.
Take, for instance, Stranger Things. The Netflix series takes painstaking lengths to re-create an all-inclusive aesthetic recreation of the 1980s so that you actually feel like you’re there or at least watching something made from that time. And yes, that extends to its unique and synthy opening titles, whose backstory is so unbelievably involved and fascinating that you need to read about it to believe it.
It all began with a fortuitous phone call from the Duffer Brothers to Imaginary Forces, a creative company that specializes in visual storytelling and brand strategy. Among its prolific resume, they have done design work for Disney, HBO, Marvel, AMC, McDonald’s, Skydance, Paramount, Hershey’s, Sony, Nike, Amazon, SYFY, Comedy Central, NBC, and of course, Netflix.
The award-winning Michelle Dougherty (Jessica Jones, Boardwalk Empire, Vinyl) was put in charge of the project as Creative Director and so began the process of bringing the Duffers' retro vision to life. There were a lot of influneces: cheap dime store paperbacks, bulky typography, and the process of optically filming titles that no one in Hollywood even does anymore. Just like the unbelievable practical effects of '70s and '80s-era franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, the entire mindset behind Stranger Things was to use old school methods of filmmaking for period accuracy in every detail of the series.
"We talked to the Duffer Brothers and they gave us their vision of what they wanted this sequence to be and they referenced Richard Greenberg right off the bat and Richard was a title designer from the '70s [and] '80s," Dougherty told SYFY WIRE. "He was one of those designers that used typography to really kind of set this mood and tone. He did Altered States and Alien. He did a lot of the greats, so we knew off the bat that they wanted to use typography to set this mood and tone, which was really kind of a designer’s dream."
Originally, Dougherty and her team came up with more modern-looking designs until the Duffers provided them with some great reference material.
"They sent over the covers to the Stephen King [paperback] books and we imagined that they probably read those as kids, right? And when you look at those covers, there's definitely a kind of '80s vibe to them, because I think typography, in that time, was kind of chunky and big."
Michelle also told us this was before any of the show had even been shot yet, meaning the brothers were already invested in making the titles as amazing as they could be so early in the process.
"The Duffers, they love sequences," Dougherty said, which isn't always the case with showrunners and producers. "They wanted to be a big part of it and that was really cool. You know they're filmmakers too [and] have such interest in this craft so that was wonderful."
When it came to the typeface, the font that was actually a mish-mosh of several different works, starting out as an in-house typeface Netflix used for advertising. And things only get (dare we say it) stranger from there.
"It was Benguiat, which is a typeface designed by Ed Benguiat and [Netflix] had a designer that had made a lockup for them," she said. "We outlined it in the red outline and we created the bars on the top and the bottom and we made the ’S’ and the ‘R’ larger. [The final typeface] was really kind of like a combo thing that we took this beautiful type that [designer Jacob Boghosian] had chosen with his ligatures and then we added the flourishes that we were adding to the original sequence when we started."
What makes those fonts so nostalgic?
"I think it’s the typefaces that were quite big and clunky. You don’t see that very often now. To me, that really says '80s. It's almost like some of them were almost garrish-looking, they’re so big and clunky. But that was the style of the '80s and then, of course, everything else comes with it. The thing you see on the book and then you see the paper and you're like, 'Wow, I haven't read a book on paper for a while' and then you start imaging what the smell of the paper [is] like and you remember where you were sitting when you read that book so it’s like all those things."
Color and movement:
The idea of using red and black was in the hopes of essentially evoking a visceral response from viewers, according to Dougherty.
"I’ve always loved that combination, red on black, but I think because when we’re coming up with a main title, we always try to define the emotion we’re aiming for," she said. "And I knew that this was mystery and drama and so it’s suspenseful. Red, the color — they say — helps make your heart palpitate so we thought that that was a good direction and the Duffers seemed to like it so we created a whole board using this outline typography and the idea of them coming together.
"Originally, I think, our letters were much smaller, almost like little pieces of a chess game that you saw right away," she added. "But as we evolved the sequence, we focused on the big pieces of the type so you didn’t really know it was a typeface yet, you just felt like it was these forms coming together, using that same idea of pieces of a puzzle or pieces coming together."
Here are some of the early animations:
Music plays a large part of any show, especially during its opening credits where the words, designs, and graphics must go along to the beat of the score. The way in which that comes together always differs from show-to-show, Michelle told SYFY WIRE. The soundtrack can come right at the beggining or right at the very end. In the case of Stranger Things, they actually had Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein's music very early on, albeit a slightly different version.
"It really helped us when we were creating the motion, like it set the tone for how slow things should move or where there could be a cross dissolve or where the lines come on," she explained about the constant back and forth between visual and audio. "Ultimately, they ended up scoring to our picture."
When you watch the opening titles to Stranger Things, you'll notice that it's not just the font that's old school. Look closely and behold a collection of pops and crackles as if it were shot on actual film stock. And while Imaginary Forces totally animated this particular sequence, the titles of the '70s and '80s (and even before) were done by hand and then run before a camera in what is known as opticals, something that Dougherty wanted to emulate, if not recreate.
"We did our research, looking at old sequences," she said. "I remember looking at one sequence [with] the fade up and the fade down of the type — the color change between the fade up and so we adopted that. If you look closely at our sequence, we have a little bit of pink that shines through and I think those little things really help."
However, locating someone in Hollywood who still did opticals was a major challenge.
"We couldn't find anyone in Los Angeles who actually did opticals anymore, we really wanted to film out the sequence," Michelle stated. "Maybe there's somebody that still has the setup in their garage, but we couldn't find anyone."
Even the creator of the now iconic Star Wars opening crawl, Dan Perri, was no longer into opticals. She recounted the following anecdote about him:
"He was in our office one day and we were showing him and kind of picking his brain and he was laughing, saying ‘Why do you want to film it out? Just do it digitally!'"
Moreover, Perri pointed out that opticals had been so perfected to a point in the '80s that you could no longer tell they'd been run before a lens. Therefore, the inconsistencies (i.e. pops and crackles) in Stranger Things would have been done by a "cheap optical house" working on a budget movie during that time. Nevertheless, if you think about it, the show is partly an homage to those cheap B-grade monster movies that didn't have massive studio budgets.
In the end it was done digitally and animator Eric Demeusy played around with Kodaliths, which, according to Dougherty, "was basically a black piece of film and where the type would be lined up, it was clear so [Eric] shined this — basically like a flashlight or a light behind it — just to see what would happen and what we were trying to do is emulate a real piece of film."
It brings to mind the film-within-a-film — The Case — in J.J. Abrams' Super 8. Abrams wanted to shoot it on original 8mm film, but Industrial Light & Magic found it to be too grainy for the addition of CGI. As a result, it was shot on the larger Super-16 instead.
"I really wanted you to feel like you were watching a piece of film and I think giving that extra quality, it gives you that extra sense like a sense of touch. Your eyes basically wanna touch it," Dougherty said.
Imaginary Forces uses the entire Adobe Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, Premiere) for its projects and that the Stranger Things titles were ultimately animated using Maxon's Cinema 4D.