As I’ve developed my argument through the process of actually writing, rather that doing a plan first (maybe this hasn’t been the easiest way to do this…), I’m posting my draft up here, in case anyone has the patience or is curious enough to want to read it.

Any comments very welcome, although don’t feel obligated – I am putting it up also as a record on the blog of the development of my thinking, as the next stage on from my previous post with its list of seemingly unconnected questions.

PS – I’ve not yet included any of my quotes or references to the title sequences I will be using as illustrations…

Thanks all 🙂

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Title sequences, synonymous with cinema but also now becoming more elaborately used in television, can be seen as part of the packaging of films and programmes, an expected prelude to watching the main piece. We only see them once we’ve chosen to watch a film, but this does not necessarily mean they are not influential in our initial decision on whether to / what to view. They are also an inextricable framing element without which the film/programme has not actually begun, and without which a film would seem incomplete.

So in what way are title sequences important in the process by which film/tv or other cultural artefacts are commodified – turned into marketable/sellable commodities? Are title sequences a worthwhile space in which designers can work? What possibilities could lie ahead for title sequences?

What does a title sequence do anyway?

Title sequences “…[focus] on the the situation of distractedness and diverging expectations, namely, in providing a focus that allows for a transition into the movie.” They are a lead in to the film, and point to it’s genre, its mood, and influence the expectations of the audience so that these can be satisfied by the film. [Reading the Title Sequence, p.44]

[incomplete as yet]

Title sequences map out the landscape of choice

Title sequences have a role in influencing the expectations of a viewer and are an important part of the packaging of films and programmes. While some titles are very functional and basic involving the bare minimum of typographic intrusion, they are often more elaborate and can be a paradigmatic introduction or frame to the viewing experience.  Much of Saul Bass’ work has been said to embody this and some of his work has become seen as iconically representing the films it precedes – acting as a recognisable shorthand or a sign standing in for the film or making it immediately recognisable.

Wherever a title sequence falls on the scale from quietly unobtrusive to stylistically or narratively overt, the opening sequence helps to establish or reinforce a film or programme’s location within the cinematic or televisual cultural space too – it has the potential to communicate what the film stands for, what values, tropes, cultural codes, myths, and connotations the film is alluding to.

This has important consequences as they help to clarify to viewers in precise yet subtle ways how to categorise the film – in its most basic way in terms of confirming genre, using established “codes” shared with the title sequences of films in the same genre, and “codes” used in other genres and films.

The evolution of these codes throughout a film genre’s emergence/development, involved the repeated use of similar imagery/treatments, referring to the same categories of cultural ideas – for example the wide arid expanses of the American West standing in for the genre of Westerns, together with references to frontier risk taking, independent self-sufficiency, the border between civilisation and the wild.  It is this intertextual relationship of cross-fertilised messages and codes between films within and outside a genre which gives title sequences their power of “pointing” at the meanings of a film using what might be termed a shared language of visual codes, together with newly introduced syntax specific to the film – which in turn may be reused, appropriated, referred to by other films, and which may therefore emerge as new codes or syntax for future genres or sub-genres.

At a meta level the waymarkers within title sequences are a kind of dynamic language which describes or maps out what we could call the choice-landscape of film or television. At the level of an individual film, it helps us to locate it relative to other films – to navigate the choice-landscape. But what is the wider system in which viewers go about choosing what they want to watch?

The mechanism of choice

We are acculturated to the societies we live in – consciously and more unconsciously aware of the fundamental assumptions, and choices of value and belief inherent in living in them. We’re also on some scale of being conscious / articulate / or critical in terms of our visual / televisual / filmic / and information literacy. As such we’re aware of what we like culturally and have a fairly developed understanding of the choices available when we choose to view something on TV / a film / go to the theatre and so on.

In addition to being aware of the choice-landscape and the location of possible choices within it, our choice is based on what we like. What exactly is that based on? It seems to be some amorphous sum-total effect of our alignments to and reactions to those values / ideologies / tropes within our wider culture. These being underpinned at any particular time by our individual contexts – intellectual capital, psychological makeup, economic situation, our interrelationships with others, our cultural capital.

How is having choice important to us? In whatever system we live in, having choices and making decisions about what we choose (or the illusion of choice) is fundamental to our sense of self-determination / free will / agency – that we are the agents of change directing some part of the course of our lives. In capitalist societies consumer choice is particularly fundamental to the system – the proposition is that we exercise our free-will by having an abundance of choice which represents a wide horizon of possibilities. By making choices from this wide range of possibilities we feel like we are in some way exercising our freedom.

This feeds the cycle of consumption as we consume products and services, and in a neutral interpretation, advertising is the intermediary between producers and consumers, facilitating this exchange by providing “information” to consumers about products/services. A less neutral interpretation would be the continual manufacturing of desire, which involves the devaluing of existing products and the promotion of the new.

Having taste is no longer a matter of taste

It used to be that taste was Taste with a capital T. It referred to elitist notions of connoisseurship and narrow definitions of correctness based on specialist knowledge. It seems to be the case now that taste is not reserved for the connoisseur in the sense that everyone is expected to have some, and is expected to have their own portfolio of preferences as a means of expressing themselves.

Consumer choice seems to have expanded logarithmically in the past 30 years, in particular in step with China’s economic unshackling under Deng Xiaoping, and China’s imminent rise to become the world’s largest economy in a few years from now. Amongst other factors including massive economic growth in the leading economies over this period, this hyper-inflation of choice as part of the acceleration of the consumption cycle has meant that we have come to expect enormous choice as a norm.

This has changed our habits – a large proportion of us in the rich developed countries express ourselves increasingly via consumption – the items and services we buy are expressions of our taste, personal constellations of products acting as cultural signifiers and signifiers of personal meaning. We express ourselves not only to others but probably more importantly (as perennially with clothing and adornment) – to ourselves. We make, reinforce, manage our identities via taste – it has become the glue of self-hood for many of us to an increasing degree.

Commodification: titles and taste

So mass populations having been exposed to excessive choice have developed a taste for taste, and the phenomenon of taste as a mechanism for self-expression and identity making in turn drives consumption. The positioning of entertainments such as film and television within society as valued cultural fields intensifies their importance to us as signifiers of our cultural capital. Title sequences in their role as part of the packaging of film and television arguably offer the most nuanced space for locating a film/programme within cinema or TV. They do so in the following ways…

[Discussion about role of TS as being both packaging and part of packaging

Discussion about internet, reviews, and word of mouth – ie that TS perhaps matters more now that before

Also role of TS in terms of incompleteness without one and the pressure to polish the product

Discuss the TS as a conflicted space – with conflicting roles, but also because of it’s odd in-between-ness, a space for experimentation and risk-taking

Possible importance of the once-removed – ie that titles may sometimes have more impact in a different medium than live-action.]

Conclusion

Titles offer the the potential to provide a nuanced and compressed space in which films, television, and possibly other cultural products can be measured/judged/weighed within viewers systems of taste. Taste is a key driver of the consumption of cultural products, via the intertwining of fundamental drives to form our identites, with consumption of cultural products which act as signifiers – viewers systems of taste are the crucial mechanism by which film and television culture are commodified.

An awareness of how title sequences function to locate a film/programme within the choice-landscape of film/television could help designers to understand better the importance of including genre-pointers and other established or common or shared “codes”.

[incomplete as yet]

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