Credits Where They’re Due
Editing tips # 2: Preparing a title sequence
Much has been written on the art of the title sequence, and I plan to cover it myself at some time, but first I thought it might be useful to provide a more practical guide to designing a title sequence.
As the assistant editor on features, this was part of my job for many years. Not preparing the finished titles, you understand – that was usually down to a professional title designer – but timing out the sequence and providing a draft version for test screenings, to give the composer timings and as a template for the designer.
There are two types of title sequence: graphic and live-action. Live-action titles are where the credits run superimposed over the opening or an early scene of the film; these have been more common for years. That said, graphic title sequences – which are where the credits sit over animation, a montage of photos, stock footage or even live action footage which doesn’t move the narrative forward – are coming back into fashion. It is, of course, also possible for the title sequence just to be white text on a black background, but whichever way you want to go, a lot of the same concerns apply.
Timing it Out
With both graphic and live-action titles the first thing you need to do is work out a length. For this you’ll need a full list of all the cast, crew, producers and production companies who will need to be credited in the sequence; everyone else goes on the end roller. This list is most likely to be provided by the producer or someone in the production department. Not only will you need them to give you the names, you’ll also need to know any conditions that the agents of actors or heads of department have in their contracts as to how they should be credited. Which of the actors should be billed before the title? Whose credit has to be the same size as someone else’s (often contracts state that the heads of department will have their credits of the same size and prominence as the Production Designer)? Which actors will have a card all of their own, and who will have to share? Gentle enquiries to production to make sure that they have checked the spelling of everybody’s names with their agents don’t go amiss.
Once you have your list – which will always take much longer than anyone thought possible – you can begin making rough titles on the edit suite. I always made sure I got the list as a Word document, so that I could copy and paste the names into the title tool: my spelling is awful, so best to avoid introducing errors. Don’t worry too much about design at this point: it will change. Many times.
Opinions vary on how long each title card should be on screen. I default to two and a half seconds for a single card, including fades up and down, and three and a half if there are two names on the card. Apart from these joint cards, it’s important to keep the length of the cards uniform at whatever duration you select.
If you’re doing a live-action title sequence, the space between cards will depend on the length of your shots. It’s best to avoid putting title cards over edits in the background picture: the result is messy to the eye and draws attention to the cut. This means that you’ll have to edit the action to take account of the titles.
Of course, there are fast-cut title sequences, where the cards need to sit over edits if they are to be of a readable length. Homeland is a good example of this, in this case the editing is deliberately abrasive, so the placing of cards over cuts doesn’t really matter.
Once you have your rough credit sequence, it can be passed across to the composer, and the title designer if you’re getting a graphic sequence made. If, however, you’re doing a live action title sequence, it may pay to do a bit of design work yourself. You may want to show the film to a test audience, in which case a rough sense of how the film starts will help you to understand how the film’s playing. If you’re on a really tight budget, you might end up doing the final title design yourself, or at least a blueprint to which an online editor will work.
Designing the cards
As with any piece of text design, font, size, case and colour are all important decisions. Picking a font that echoes the style of the movie is usually a good idea. If it’s a period film, a typeface originating from that era can help set the mood. Or if you’re feeling rebellious, you can go entirely the other way, as with the title for Marie Antoinette.
Fonts might also speak to the genre of the film – blocky or stencil-like for war movies, arcane or degraded for horror flicks. You might want to select your font to relate to the milieu of the film – a headline-like font if your characters are newspaper journalists, a computery font if they’re hackers. Bear in mind, however, that legibility is always a concern. If the first images the audience sees of your film are frustrating to read, you’ve dampened the audience’s confidence in your movie from the off.
Next concern: font size. This will depend very much on where you expect your film finally to be seen, specifically on what size of screen the audience are likely to watch it. If it’s for the cinema screen you can make the lettering surprisingly small. It’s a counter-intuitive thing: the smaller the titles, the bigger the background image – the film – appears to be. Many short films go too big with their credits and the result looks clunky and amateurish. Look for example at the credits for Scorsese’s Casino:
Here the smaller letter are 1/15th of the height of the screen. Surprisingly, even on a television these letters are perfectly legible. If, however, your film is primarily intended to be seen on a TV screen, or even on a tablet, it might be appropriate to make the text bigger.
Case is also worth thinking about. There’s no rule as to whether names should be in upper case or sentence case, but when the name is joined by other text, like a job title, it usually helps to change the case between the two, so:
Designer or DESIGNER
JACK JONES Jack Jones
Changing the font size between name and job title can also help the eye to scan the text quickly. I’d always favour making the name bigger than the job title.
Coloured text is relatively unusual in movies these days – most lettering is white. Other colours are usually reserved for comedies, kids’ films and Tarantino who wants to make all his films look like they were shot in 1978. Also for some reason horror movies are often drawn to colouring their titles red…
Placement on Screen
The first and most basic rule, and it is a rule, it to use the ‘safe area’ guides in your edit software. These are there because many TVs and projectors don’t show the whole image: there’s usually a bit of cut-off. Keep your title within the guide lines and you’ll know there’s no chance that it will fall off the edge of the screen. Within that rectangle however you have carte blanche.
One key factor is the background image, and this takes us back to the editing of the title sequence. It’s best to avoid using frenetic handheld camera-work in a credit sequence. Because the credit is a steady reference point for the eye, it will emphasise the movement of the camera, sometimes more than you want. When selecting shots for this sequence, look for ones where there are empty areas in the composition – sky, blank walls, fields – these will hold credits without them clashing with the action. Placement against these featureless areas will also make the cards more readable.
If your footage doesn’t include shots like this, you might have readability issues. But worry not, you can make your credits more legible by a number of different means. A bold font will help a title stand out against a busy background. Adding shadows to the text will give it separation from a bright image. Giving the card a little bit of movement will also help with readability, especially for faster cut credit sequences – movement draws the viewer’s eye more quickly towards the title.
Front or Back?
The really big decision is whether to put this sequence at the start of the film or the end. For decades it was standard for the title sequence to come at the front of the film, but in the last twenty years or so a growing number of movies have chosen to go for an end title sequence, leading directly into the roller. I believe that this fashion has come from an increased desire to get the story moving and not to let the pace drop at any point in the first ten minutes, for fear of losing the audience.
Whatever the reason, the approach of having the credit sequence at the end has a problem. It has the perverse effect of getting us in the mood for the story just as half of us are walking out of the cinema. To me it feels like a waste, but it may be that Hollywood studios are trying to use it to get us all excited about the next film in the franchise.
My own preference it to keep the credits at, or near, the front. They can act as an overture, allowing us to settle and lulling us into the right state of mind. Alternatively you can play a scene or two and then go into the credits. This approach is part of the Bond movie format: a teaser scene to get us excited, followed by a designed credit sequence to bring us into Bond-world. Other movies have taken this idea even further: Leaving Las Vegas, The Departed and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind all run the story for between 10 and 20 minutes before introducing the credit sequence. This can backfire, throwing the audience out of the story just as you’ve got them in there, although in Leaving Las Vegas it does useful work as a chapter point, defining where the long introduction ends and the story begins in earnest.
Wherever you put your titles or however you style them, remember that they are taking up valuable screen time. Whether you are running them over the start of your story, in order to make best use of your opening minutes, or using them to express the tone, theme or feel of your film, make sure they earn their keep.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2015
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge