It started with a body bag. Before the Emmy-nominated design team behind Altered Carbon's main title sequence settled on a snake motif, they toyed with the idea of placing a woman in a shrink-wrapped medical sack — the kind used for cryosleep. While in stasis, she would perceive herself as floating, as Joel Kinnaman's character did before he was sliced out of his sack in the first episode, and her respirator would come around to meet her face. We, however, would see both the sack itself and the body within — the sack would have beautiful reflections all over the plastic, and it would be backlit to resemble a fetus in utero.
"It would have been very arresting imagery because you don't necessarily see a body in a bag every day," creative director Lisa Bolan told SYFY WIRE. "It would have been beautiful, very slick and glossy, and also a little sad."
But as luck would have it, the marketing team hit on a similar idea. They set up an unlisted booth at CES, displaying realistic bodies in water tanks, including a lifelike replica of Kinnaman's body in the cryosleep sack, as part of a demonstration of how the cortical stacks could be shared in different body "sleeves."
"When they did that, we were like, 'Ah! Maybe that's why they weren't into [our original idea],'" Bolan says, laughing. And so Bolan's team at Elastic started brainstorming again, until they came up with what sounded like "a crazy idea on paper," she says. "We'll have these snakes, and they'll mate, and they'll molt, and they'll change into a medical symbol! And then there will be a woman, and her face will molt, too!"
Of course, the final sequence turned out to be more intricate than that, as Bolan demonstrated when she broke it down for SYFY WIRE. "The meaning of the snakes keeps changing, just like the characters keep changing in terms of their identities," she says. "In this world, you can be one body, then another — you can change your gender, your race, your age. And a lot of people trade up for younger bodies as their own bodies start to fail."
In other words, in Altered Carbon, they can shed their skins, or "re-sleeve."
While re-sleeving would offer some advantages, Bolan also felt there would be some sadness about the loss of identity. "Imagine the daily trauma of looking in a mirror and not seeing a reflection you recognize," she says. There would also be some trauma for those separated from the ones they love, and Bolan started thinking of the title sequence as a reflection of that. "There's a moment when you realize, 'Oh! This is a fever dream Kovacs is having about his soulmate,'" she says. "This is also about him struggling with her loss of identity and his own loss."
Kovacs' fever dream, then, starts with a spark of energy — with the carbon nanotechnology forming a circuit and igniting the power of the cortical stacks. The first stack we see powers up on the back of the neck of a snake, which slithers around doing the usual snake-y things — shedding its skin, mating — until it finds a winged human figure, which it coils around, twisting itself into a semblance of the Rod of Asclepius and the caduceus — the traditional symbols for medicine and commerce. "It's sort of a hybrid between the two," Bolan says. "And it wraps around the woman as if she were a rod."
At this point, the snake begins taking on the aspect of a dragon and starts wrapping itself into an ouroboros, as if it were going to eat its own tail, a symbol of infinity. The snake-dragon ouroboros then becomes a tattoo, which is how re-sleeved characters identify one another as their bodies keep changing.
"That whole sequence was very challenging," Bolan says. "Anytime you have the realistic movement of something organic, such as the snakes shedding their skin, or skin separating from the woman's legs and her face, it's a big visual effects shot."
Altered Carbon fans might also recognize another reason for using snakes in the title sequence: characters are warned not to download human minds into animal bodies — it could lead to madness. The kind of madness which leads to fever dreams?