A creatively done title sequence is one of the little pleasures of movies and TV shows. In the age of Peak TV and accessible VFX, it has become increasingly sophisticated, more imaginative. Plexus is a Mumbai-based independent motion design and VFX lab established in 2014, and much of their work includes creating title sequences – from the music show The Dewarists to feature films like Gangs of Wasseypur, Angry Indian Goddesses, to the recent Netflix series Sacred Games.
We interviewed Vijesh Rajan, Director, Motion Designer and VFX Supervisor, Plexus, about meeting Tibetan artists for mandala art in Sacred Games, being censored in Angry Indian Goddesses, and his favourite opening credits.
How do you think the opening credits add to the storytelling?
Title sequences are a modern and exciting form of visual storytelling. They are used in different ways in different films – for some, they are solely used as visual branding. For some, they are used as a way to artistically interpret the characters and events in the film, like The Incredibles.
Some of them are used as a backstory, like our title sequence for Double Barrel. Some of them are used as dream sequences that lead into a film, as in OK Jaanu. In Sacred Games, the opening credits were a window into Gaitonde's mind. Here is a man who has seen so much prejudice, hatred and suffering. He clouds it with his illusions of grandeur and assumptions of political and religious animosity. The events of Sacred Games exist in that limbo space.
Tell us about your experience of working on Sacred Games. What were you looking at for inspiration while working on it?
It was an amazing project to work on, throughout those two-and-half months. Vikramaditya Motwane, the show-runner, has such a focused and clear vision that collaborating with him was practically a piece of cake. He ran us through what he thought was a good title sequence and several concepts that were tied to the undertones of the show. We were then given the episode screenplays which itself had a wish-list concept for the title sequence.
(Excerpt from screenplay)
"On black – motifs of histories of religion, overlapping with the visuals of vintage Bombay – the 80s and 90s. The mafia, the riots, news stories, Bollywood stars dancing at mafia parties in grainy VHS footage, cops, current global events. All done in a Mandala structure."
At that point, Plexus had just returned from a trip to Leh, where we met a lot of Tibetan artists and bought some of their Mandala art. We jumped at the chance of using the Mandala as the chief visual motif, possibly even making it the main logo of the show. In further meetings with Vikram, we realized that the Mandala actually plays a very important part in the universe of the show and there are several plot twists that centre around them.
In our meeting with Netflix, we were made aware of the new trends in title sequences in their upcoming shows. They asked us to come up with an organic title sequence which would change with every episode. We found that challenging, and came up with a solution to create a Mandala logo for the show. It contained 8 symbols based on the titles of the episodes which were coined by the writers Smita Singh, Varun Grover and Prashant Nath. Each of these symbols would themselves expand and become Mandalas of their own.
We knew that Sacred Games, like any good Netflix show, would turn out to be a binge fest—at which point title sequences are usually skipped. That's why the concept of episode logos made so much sense.
We knew that Sacred Games, like any good Netflix show, would turn out to be a binge fest—at which point title sequences are usually skipped. That's why the concept of episode logos made so much sense. We hoped that even if people skipped our title sequence, they would see the title of the episode and the logo/mandala attached with it. And basing the symbols in the logos on mythology was something we hoped would get the audience to come back to it and interpret it in the context of the episode. Just like the show has layers and clues embedded within, so do the episode titles – and that credit we have to give to the writers. The design of these intricate mandalas by Aniruddh Mehta.
Is there a difference in ideation when you work with already shot film footage and when you create them from scratch using VFX (OK Jaanu)?
What it all boils down to is the question: what is the title sequence trying to say and what value does it add to the entire film or series? So the initial process in both cases is to lock the concept and narrative of the title sequence.
We're not big fans of using already shot footage in title sequences because that's a very dated approach. But we do try and shoot a lot of things for our title sequences. The biggest advantage of using VFX or animation over film footage is the amount of control you get over the visual design of the sequence and the freedom to take calculated risks in the overall presentation.
The censor board blurred out 80-90% of graphics in its opening credits of Angry Indian Goddesses… Has there been any other similar situation that you have faced till now?
It was really sad that despite the title sequence being appreciated by the film fraternity, we were robbed of the opportunity to showcase the sequence to Indian audiences. Apparently, even the versions of the films that have released on Netflix and TVF had the censored version of the film, but only within India. When it initially released, our hearts sank. But when you lose some, you win some. I had been a huge fan of the international design publication ArtOfTheTitle.com for years – it's a website I have frequented for many years. When Angry Indian Goddesses premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, we were contacted by the Managing Editor Lola Landekic and she interviewed us. That was a dream come true for us.
But yeah – after AIG, we have learned to be very cautious with ideation, as you grow to be, in a mindlessly censored environment. We had some reservations for our Sacred Games title sequence, too – but we were assured that because it is Netflix original content, there won't be that kind of censorship.
What has been your favourite opening credits in films or TV?
Who could say anything apart from Se7en? But yeah among my recent favourites are Deadpool, Stranger Things, Jessica Jones, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Daredevil, Westworld, Narcos, The Night Manager, True Detective.