The main title for a show can serve several functions — it can set the mood (The X-Files), provide clues and reveal themes, (American Horror Story) reflect timelines and alternative universes (Fringe), map out a world (Game of Thrones), enthrall viewers (Halt and Catch Fire), or simply hypnotize them (Stranger Things).
Counterpart, one of the best new shows you may not be watching yet, has a main title sequence that does many of those things all at once. Its designer, Emmy-nominated Karin Fong of Imaginary Forces, shared with SYFY WIRE the process of how the sequence came together and what clues hidden within it reveal the show's true nature.
First, let's start with a friendly game of Go, which makes our opening image. Howard Silk, one of the main characters on the show — or at least one version of him — enjoys this game, but he never wins. Like chess, it's a game of strategy. Unlike chess, it has endless permutations. Some players consider the game to be a microcosm of the universe, with the board representing a complex and chaotic universe.
Players of Go see the board in all of its complexity, allowing them to utilize intuition in speedily acquiring (and defending) new territory. But here, in the main title's opening shots, we cannot see the whole board — only one black stone. And this black stone multiplies into two black stones — a reflection of how in Counterpart, there are two parallel worlds, with each person having a double on the other side. The stones keep multiplying, and soon we're playing two games.
"It's very much a metaphor for identity and fate and the permutations of your life," Fong said. "Who among us hasn't asked themselves, 'If I had played things a different way, what would the outcome have been?'"
The black-and-white colors in the game also reflect the black-and-white ideologies of the worlds of the show — both the two versions of the same character (eg., Howard Alpha versus Howard Prime) and the Cold War-era split between the two societies. We see an abstract landscape — one that Fong said that she and showrunner Justin Marks wanted viewers to understand this as another symbolic representation. The two people we see walking are the two players of the game, their walk through a grid-like world which emerges a representation of their gameplay. "They're searching for each other," Fong said, "and maybe not even knowing that they're searching. It's that feeling when you know something is missing in your life, but you don't know that it even exists — this other side of you."
The players' paths are festooned with the iconography of spycraft and espionage — "not the James Bond action, the rat-a-tat of a gun," Fong said. Instead, we see the bureaucratic side of things – the file folders, lie detectors, vintage typewriters, reel-to-reel recording equipment, dot matrix printer paper, surveillance cameras, passport stamps. All the boring, everyday materials. Patterns emerge. We start to realize that we're being shown two competing worlds — one with older technology, one with modern equipment — and that all of the items we see speak to the origin of the Office of Interchange.
"Nothing is random," Fong said. "Everything has a reason. Even the time on the clock. If you look at the typewriter keys, it's not your English QWERTY keyboard — it's German." Fong said she toyed with the idea of showing the passport stamps becoming 3D, MC Escher-esque constructions, with the stamps' stripes becoming steps in an infinite loop. She discarded that idea, however, as well as a shot of a phone that could only receive calls, but not call out. "For me, it's always great to go too far, and then pull it back," she said.
One of the figures in the main title sequence ends up in a dream-world version of the Crossing — the fissure between the two worlds. The two versions of this character appear to be on opposite sides, and then in different windows of a fluorescent-lit office building — the lights forming yet another grid pattern. They walk by large circular openings which seem to dwarf them. "We're alluding to very specific Mies van der Rohe buildings," Fong said, "but in a dream state. There's a psychological break expressed through the architecture." The files, the grids, even the buildings become part of the Go game, a sort of 3D board where the bleak landscape takes on an extra dimension.
"It's both literal and abstract at the same time," Fong said. "It translates to its own language, with this pathway that's mutating and multiplying on its own. Two figures ultimately end up in the same place — what does that mean? That's what we want viewers to wonder about."