Although too often overlooked, the opening credits of a film stand as an essential aspect of the filmmaking process that allows artists the freedom to convey the personality and themes of the work before the movie has even started. Additionally, animation and graphic design have played an integral role in the evolution of opening credits, becoming synonymous with the opening title sequence. The opening credits of a film, aided through animation, allows the audience a glimpse into the heart of the film and can often display expert artistry on their own. As such, today, I want to give a summarized history of animated opening credits sequences, from their inconspicuous beginnings to some contemporary highlights. Also, I will mention that this discussion will focus on animated credits sequences in movies rather than television openings or animated end credits sequences. There will come a day where I will also talk for too long about how good the intro to Cowboy Bebop and end credits of Ratatouille both are, but— alas— that is not today. That said, here is an overview of animated opening credits sequences.
As a brief history: opening title sequences didn’t gain prominence within film until the early 1900s and 1910s. Most films of the time just began the moment the reel started rolling. However, as movies transitioned into the Silent Era, studios began inserting an intertitle (title card) at the beginning of the film to denote declamatory information like copyright/ anti-piracy warnings, the title of the film, and occasionally a director or producer credit. While I personally grew up with PSAs telling me about the repercussions of downloading movies online, people in 1901 had to deal with Thomas Edison beginning the Trapeze Disrobing Act with a 17-second shot of a piece of paper telling them about copyright law.
As the medium and industry of the film evolved further, the unions and guilds of the time began pushing studios to credit their workers for their contributions to the productions within the films themselves— leading to the development and necessity of the credits sequence. As such, these credits intertitles became more common and refined, now utilizing different forms of typography, graphic design, and an overture theme to help immerse the audience into the viewing experience. The artistry of the graphic design in these sequences remained a secondary concern for many classic films, often focusing on expositing the obligatory details in classy fonts— for example, Casablanca. However, some more experimental titles like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920 utilized bold type and design decisions that served as an extension of the movie’s German-Expressionist style— a distinction made even more prominent in its localized American release a year later. Nevertheless, as films developed (pun intended) even further into their Golden Age of cinema after World War II, many filmmakers started treating the opening title sequence less as an obligation and more as an extension of the film.
Of course, you can only go so long talking about title sequences before the art major (me) has to gush about Saul Bass for an extended period of time (note: this is such a niche joke, but, also I don’t want to cut it). Beginning his career in the 1940s, Saul Bass gained prominence as a graphic designer creating corporate logos and movie posters. While Bass was working on the poster for Otto Preminger’s 1954 film Carmen Jones, Preminger approached Bass about creating the opening credits sequence for the film. In many ways, the opening sequence for Carmen Jones not only demonstrated the potential for opening title sequences but also exhibited Bass’ forward-thinking artistry— the opening credits of opening credits, if you will. Bass imbued the film’s opening with his artistic sensibilities as a designer— such as his modernist use of geometric shapes, iconography, paper cuts, and a limited-primary color palette. Additionally, his work innovatively incorporated animation and kinetic typography— elements that he would expand on further in Preminger’s next film, The Man with the Golden Arm. Bass wanted to use his stop-motion animation to help express the visual and subtextual identity of the film, acting as foreword encapsulation of the film.
Bass remains a personal favorite designer of mine, so while I’m tempted to fill this entire editorial with just his intros and posters, for now, I’ll keep it to just a few examples that best illustrate his work (pun intended). The Man with the Golden Arm serves as a great place to start. The film tells the story of a jazz musician battling his addiction to heroin, and Bass translates the soulful but agonous tone of the story through playful stripes of light moving to the opening theme that ultimately animates into a jagged and broken representation of the musician’s arm. Next, his work on Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove presents my favorite use of typography from Bass— juxtaposing the angelic score with these jarringly structured handwritten titles that extend the often erratic and idiosyncratic tone of the film. Finally, I want to mention the intro for It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World for underscoring Bass’ ability as an animator, acting as an abstract comedic cartoon while also displaying Bass’ best use of kinetic type. Saul Bass not only innovated the animated title sequence, but he pioneered it.
And you might be thinking, “That’s all cool— cinema and stuff, that is— but where are the funny cartoons?” Ironically, title sequences for animated films remained stagnant for decades. Focusing primarily on Walt Disney Animation, the most prolific studio producing theatrical animation, especially in earlier eras of the medium, the studio rarely ever animated their opening credits— even as far as into the new millennium. Disney theatrical animated films, specifically those produced during Walt Dinsey’s lifetime, more often than not utilized the old-style format for opening credits: a categorized list of the cast and crew shown on static intercards with an overture theme playing overtop. 101 Dalmatians remains the first expectation of this trend— and the only one under Walt’s supervision— and it’s great. The film’s opening reveals this very exuberant, jazzy sequence that plays with modernist graphic design, abstract and diegetic titles, and character animation with the Dalmatians. Otherwise, the overwhelming majority of Disney’s hand-drawn animated films surprisingly don’t have animated opening credits sequences. Which, granted, is convenient for me since I already measure time based on things per and post 101 Dalmatians, but, was still a jarring trend to discover. As far as I could find, the only expectations in their filmography include the aforementioned 101 Dalmatians in 1961, The Aristocats in 1963, Robin Hood in 1973 (which is oddly styled like the intro to a sitcom), and Oliver and Company in 1988 (kind of, but like not really because it’s just two credits and the film’s logo shown over the first scene of the film, if that counts). The 1985 movie The Black Cauldron doesn’t even have any opening credits at all, and I feel like I’m the first person to check.
Moreover, as Disney entered their Renaissance Era in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the studio often forwent opening credits entirely, instead adding stylized visuals to the end credits of their films following The Black Cauldron— as seen with Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Lion King, etc. That said, there are again a sparse few outliers after this point: Aladdin in 1992 had opening credits, using stylized text overtop the film’s opening theme “Arabian Nights.” As well, The Little Mermaid in 1989 utilizes in its opening credits this ethereal ambient track that leads into the film’s overture theme as it guilds the audience from the known world of the land- dwellers into the whimsical underwater city of Atlantica. This type of title sequence, like Bass’ work, acts as an evolution of old-style— now, creating a visual overture that can further immerse the audience into the world of the film. Although staggered in their filmography, Disney could make these beautiful open title sequences which set the bar and tone for the rest of the film.
Contrastingly, animated characters often made appearances in the title sequences of live-action films. A prime example of this is the 1963 film The Pink Panther, utilizing an animated mascot to help market and establish an identity for the film. The opening to The Pink Panther, animated by DePatie–Freleng Enterprises (DFE), plays out like a Looney Tunes short as the Panther does a lighthearted physical-comedy routine with the credits themselves. The animation by DFE, accompanied by the film’s now-iconic theme, was so well received upon the film’s release that the DFE team received funding from the film’s distributor, United Artists, to produce animated shorts featuring the Pink Panther character. DFE even garnered the attention of Warner Bros, who contracted DFE to produce actual Looney Tunes shorts for them. Additionally, animated title sequences would continue to be a trend in the subsequent films in the Pink Panther series, with the opening for Return of the Pink Panther being headed by Who Framed Roger Rabbit director Richard Williams. The Pink Panther films exhibit how an opening credits sequence can breathe life into a film while also having a life of its own.
It’s at this point— 1523 words in— that I will now start to be concise. Here are some additional examples of interesting opening sequences that were either not animated, unconventional, or otherwise didn’t fit into the prior discussion but are still worth mentioning.
- Dr. No began the trend of the James Bond franchise of films having these extravagant opening sequences; this film, in particular, introduced the iconic “gun barrel sequence” as well as implementing a lot of exciting, Saul Bass-esque modernist design for its credits.
- ELF pays loving homage to other Christmas films, particularly the Rankin/Bass animated Christmas specials, while also introducing the storybook motif the rest of the film will continue.
- Enter the Void loses points for being the only entry on this list that I have to issue a flashing lights warning for, but does use type and music in an interesting, disorienting, and maximalist way to prime the viewer for the film.
- Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of a novel in which books and literacy are made illegal, has its open credits redacted from the film instead of having a narrator read the credits aloud to the audience. It’s tense, uneasy, and perfectly conveys the film’s theme of governmental control and censorship.
- Final Fantasy VI, one of the first opening credits sequences in a video game, acts as this melancholic piece following our unintroduced protagonist trudging through the snow on their way to warn the town about the awakening of an ancient evil.
- The Graduate immediately sets its tone through its dissociative cinematography and use of “Sound of Silence (Electric Version)” as an opening theme.
- Napoleon Dynamite uses a wide variety of home-cooked meals and mundane personal items to display its opening credits, all scored by the White Stripes’ song “I Think We’re Going To Be Friends.” It instantly creates this idiosyncratic, comedic, and comfortable atmosphere.
- Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater employs inventive visuals, slithering kinetic typography, and the greatest opening theme humanly possible to prepare its tale of romance and espionage.
- The Shining utilizes its otherworldly score, forebodingly ethereal camera work, and suspicious typography to punctuate the uneasy nature of the film.
- Skyfall remains my favorite James Bond opening. Not just because of the incredible Adele song scoring the scene but also because of striking and inventive visuals.
- Space Jam certainly deserves a mention for how exuberant, stylized, and aggressively-90s it is— bonus points for listing Bugs Bunny as an actor in the film and never elaborating.
- THX-1138 demonstrates its dystopian society through a deliberately eerie, minimalist, and impersonal text crawl.
- Touch of Evil intersperses its opening credits throughout a now-famous long take following a bomb in the minutes leading to its detonation in an unsuspecting car.
Of course, I couldn’t cover every opening title sequence in every film— in fairness, I did try— but these are a collection of some of my favorite ones that have inspired my personal work in this field in one way or another. I’d love to see what some of your favorites were in the comments, and hopefully I’ve put you onto a designer or movie that has your interest.