When streaming giant Netflix introduced the 'Skip Intro' feature back in 2017, it perhaps didn't anticipate a peak in the interest levels of an increasing audience with limited retention span. Otherwise on the hunt for snackable, easily bingeable content, they were on the look-out to find a way to shorten the experience of 'time-consuming' opening credits and jump directly to the beginning of the film or series.
Opening credits aren't novel, of course. They had always been a part of Indian – and Western – filmmaking. But somewhere down the lane, the interest among filmmakers to want something fascinating in the first couple of minutes was overshadowed by a rising demand of… getting to the point.
However, a steady trend that has kept the same audience hooked since the beginning of the pandemic is a new way of looking at opening credits. Backed by intense, story-driven visuals summarizing the core of the story, while being complemented by catchy musical tones, the first couple of minutes of recent films and shows like Navarasa, Ray, Scam 1992 and Ankahi Kahaniya have made people sit up and take notice. So much so, that some credit sequences have received wider acclaim than the films themselves. From the use of smart typography, animation and stop-motion, to unique experimentations with live-action and direction, the use of opening credits – in recent times – has been creative, reflective, mesmerizing and delightfully witty.
The creators of these sequences talk about their process of hooking the viewers in a limited time span, the growing demand for crafty opening credits in the country and some of their own favourite title sequences.
Believe it or not, the aesthetically sound Navarasa teaser, which also served as the opening sequence of the nine-film anthology, was shot in a span of two days. Calling it an 'opera of emotions,' ace filmmaker Bharatbala says, "I didn't take too much time conceptualizing the film. I wanted to go into the macro moment of the emotion. The idea of how I wanted to do it came together in a couple of days." The main challenge, however, lied in the technical aspects of the shooting process. "We were shooting with a high-speed camera to capture it at 1000 frames per second. We had to use a motion-control rig – we had to test on them first to be sure that we'd be able to get what we wanted."
The idea seemed simple on paper – creating a unique theme sequence for the nine shorts. When producers Mani Ratnam and Jayendra Panchapakesan reached out to him with the work-in-progress edits of each of the episodes, Bharatbala decided to conceptualize something that would stay true to the idea of the anthology without getting into the stories. "Different directors were making the films, and I wasn't creating a promo for that, I was highlighting the emotions of Navarasa using the talents that were there in each of the shorts," he explains. Capturing the macro moments of the nine contrasting emotions in slow motion, with actors like Prakash Raj, Suriya and Revathi leading the monochromatic frames, the final product on camera was an artistic amalgamation of a wide range of shots – from raw close ups to complex juxtapositions – meant to give a closer look into what the characters went through without giving away any of the plot.
Adding AR Rahman's expertise to the video then became extremely crucial. "The more challenging the project, the more fun we have," says Bharatbala, who has had a long-standing personal and professional relationship with the maestro, having directed the evergreen Vande Mataram. "I wanted to have an instrumental theme instead of a song. If you watch early movies like The Ten Commandments (1956), you will notice something called an overture in the first 3-4 minutes, where the theme of the story is presented. That emotion is presented right through the background score of the film as the scenes unfold. Navarasa was like that overture for me. The theme will remain timeless even if it's watched separately from the film."
Talking about his process, Bharatbala says, "It's all about finding and capturing the right moment." The secret lies in the emotions. "For me, the sense of any creative cinematic expression comes from the emotions, be it in 10 seconds, 30 seconds or more. The aim is to create an empathy among the audience towards the idea." Having directed hundreds of cult advertisements over the years, the filmmaker feels that the art is derived from shooting with real, everyday people. "Vande Mataram, for example, was not a music video for me," he says. "We took real people across villages. We didn't make them wear makeup or costumes. There was a sense of beauty and honesty as we could capture and present these real people, their real emotions through the whole packaging of shooting and editing for cinema."
With the boom of the OTT space, he feels that there are many more opportunities for upcoming artists to explore their own space today. Just the way independent music created its own identity in the music industry, the birth of shorter forms of content now has the potential to yield exciting results. "Every film needs attention, so you try to create an opening sequence which becomes part of its campaign, which connects the audience. In OTT though, the world becomes flat. You're competing with everybody," he says. What matters then is originality. "The idea to tell and pull an audience to watch a show then becomes very powerful."
Opening credit sequences he loves: True Detective (2014) and Tehran (2020) – They pulled me towards the shows. I liked how they stayed true to the show's idea.
Run by Pratheek and Tina Thomas, Studio Kokaachi has created several animated opening credit sequences in films like Lust Stories, Ghost Stories, Paava Kadhaigal and most recently, Ankahi Kahaniya. Interestingly, the studio – named after Kokaachi the monster, an interpretation of the bogey-man in central Kerala – started as a publishing house specializing in comics and graphic novels in 2014. What the couple didn't see coming was their small venture transitioning into animation.
The two were originally a part of a separate publishing house called Manta Ray, which Pratheek co-owned. Three years on, a decision was made to shut down the venture – paving a way for Pratheek and Tina to continue creating what they loved. However, in one of the final events for Manta Ray at Café Papaya in Kochi – a café partially owned by Malayalam filmmaker Aashiq Abu – their lives took a major turn. "Somehow, Aashiq Abu and his team saw our books in their library in the café. They then got in touch with us and offered us to have a book launch there," says Tina. Three months later, they called again – this time, asking them to work on the animation sequences for Abu's then upcoming film, Gangster (2014), starring Mammootty. "We had no experience in animation but he trusted us with such a big project by just seeing the art work and design aesthetics in our books. That's how our journey took off," Tina says.
Soon after, the game designing sequences and the much-loved epilogue of Mani Ratnam's Ok Kanmani (2015) followed, eventually leading them to their first Bollywood project – the film's Hindi remake, Ok Jaanu (2017). As luck would have it, they then signed for Kaalakaandi (2018) and formed a long-standing professional equation with producer Ashi Dua – who went on to produce the Netflix anthologies that the artists eventually worked on.
Talking about juggling so many diverse projects, Tina gives huge credit to the fact that both her, as well as Pratheek, are writers. "Conceptualizing stories then came naturally to us," she says. "Whenever we land a new project, we sit and brainstorm. It's just the two of us till the script gets locked." The brief that they had received from Dua, while working on their first OTT project, Lust Stories, was to create something simple, without any narrative involved. What they created, though, was a pleasant surprise for the production team. "We wanted to do something really nice there. So, we brought in a narrative where we could connect one thing with the other. We watched the film first and listed down the little things we saw in each film – a tea strainer, someone taking a bath, the mithai – and then connected them all together," she explains.
While most of the time, they get a free hand in creating what they visualize, there are times when they struggle with locking in a concept. They like to conceptualize their creations by creating a narration that could form a connect. For Ankahi Kahaniya, that connectivity came from the concept of love. "In fact, it was originally supposed to be titled, Love Stories," she reveals. "We conceptualized it thinking about moments of love across ages. We used shutter-stock footages and drawings to depict these moments. When there is autumn, you can see an old couple. Then there are two children in the park. We took inspiration from nature to show their bonding."
Tina feels that especially since the last couple of years, the inflow of projects that they have received has seen a significant growth. This leads her to believe that more people are paying attention to title credits now than ever. The only roadblock, however, is the lack of time generally given to animated projects. "Here, a project generally comes to us just a month before a film's release. Time is the most important element to get the details right, to get them cleaner."
Opening credit sequences she loves: Catch Me If You Can (2002), Death At A Funeral (2010) and all the work by Elastic – the studio behind the title sequences of Game Of Thrones and The Crown. Their work has been incredible.
The man behind the viral opening credits of Hansal and Jai Mehta's Scam 1992, motion designer Jishnu Chatterjee sums up his journey so far in one line: "From zero to 100, real quick." Not many would know that Chatterjee, in fact, only graduated from college this year. Collaborating with a few friends from a similar space, Chatterjee now runs his business virtually. "The pandemic shaped our business model, and it's working just fine," he says. "The internet speed and work flow has reached a point that we don't need to be in the same place."
The last six months of his college comprised an internship, which he worked under Plexus – the Mumbai-based VFX studio behind the title sequences of Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016), Angry Indian Goddesses (2015) and more. "Of the 30-40 places that I applied to, they were, in fact, the only place that got back to me," he laughs. "I was eager to get started and they provided me plenty of opportunities. They took me under their wing and most of what I know, I know from them." His mentor at Plexus, Vijesh Rajan, then introduced him to Jai Mehta, who was looking for a title designer for Scam 1992 after the original designers had to pull out of the project. "I was the savior in the situation," he laughs. "Jai wanted something different for the project and once we spoke, we instantly hit it off. He then took a leap of faith with me and afterwards, I took a leap of faith too by promising something that I didn't know if I could deliver."
The promise was a huge gamble for Chatterjee – who didn't have, up until then, the high-end computer that would support 3D animation to create the design. After watching all the episodes, it took him a month to finalize the concept for the video. "Once the idea was approved and I received the advance paycheck for the project, only then could I buy the computer," he reveals.
Crediting Jai and Hansal Mehta for being patient with him, even as he came up with the idea of "a James Bond meets Mad Men" as a pitch, Chatterjee says they weren't bewildered by it. "They just wanted to make something cool, and so did I." His inspiration came from The Matrix – his favourite movie of all time. "I wanted to use that green and that profit bar. I decided not to show any numbers just because it was about stocks. I wanted to take a more cerebral approach," he explains. Through immense research, Chatterjee wanted the title credits to dig into Harshad Mehta, the titular character's head, and conceptualize it from his own point of view – of how he would perceive himself and his situation.
Calling the title montage a glorified poster of a show, he believes that credits can delve into a lot more than just limiting itself to being a montage of scenes. "How I like to approach a project is to look at it from a filmmaker's perspective," he says. "I like to research on and analyze a show or movie and get the same kind of an understanding about its context as the creators of the show have. I like to read their references and get an idea of what they were thinking when they were conceptualizing the scenes." Once he feels he's at a stage when he can look at the project as close to the way its creator would, he finds himself in a better place to draw his own interpretation through visual storytelling. "I have a very heavy conceptualizing pitch and focus a lot on storyboarding. I don't touch the animation until a storyboard is locked. So, just like an animation movie, a film is made before the actual film is made," he explains.
Chatterjee takes every single project as a research project. "Some days, I'm learning about Kerala and its culture, the other days, I'm learning about the dark underbelly of Mumbai," he says. He feels that TV openings are currently a global trend – something that filmmakers are now putting a lot of thought into and treating as flagships. The sheer number of films and shows now in the offing for visual artists like him is something he finds incredibly encouraging. "The OTT explosion that has happened, especially since the pandemic, has taken the motion design space by storm. There's a whole branch that has opened up, enough to occupy many designers in the same space," he says.
Opening credit sequences he loves: True Detective: Season 1 – it was like art in motion; American Gods – it had such an incredible visual appeal.
When the showrunners of Ray had reached out to Improper Design And Animation, what they had in mind, essentially, was a homegrown team of people who understood Satyajit Ray. For Mehr Chatterjee and Aditya Dutta, the opportunity instantly meant nostalgia. Growing up on Ray's films and philosophy, the two found a connect to the project that resulted in the charming and smart opening credits of the Netflix anthology. The brief they received just added on to their fascination. "They wanted us to come up with something original. They wanted the sequence to refer to Ray's work but not copy it – it should call back to it but in a modern way. Just like the anthology itself," says Mehr.
Filled with tiny Easter eggs and sharp detailing, the animated sequence was an ode to Ray and the short stories the anthologies based themselves on, without revealing too much of the plot. "Once we understood what the project was about, we came up with several ideas and feedbacks on how we could visualize the sequence," says Mehr. "For instance, we had thought about the mask from the first scripting in itself. It sort of takes you back to Ray's Bhooter Raja instantly [from the film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969)]."
Mehr and Aditya, from thereon, put their focus on the scripting of the project, which in a way, could reflect specific elements from the screenplay of the film. "Each section of the intro is actually something that reflects a particular scene from the shorts without giving too much away," she says.
Graduates of the Rhode Island School Of Design, the two decided to take their love for design and animation a notch higher with Improper. Ask her why the name and she gives an interesting perspective: "We realized that it's quite trendy to see clean, minimal graphic designs everywhere. Both of us, on the other hand, like things that are messy, that have texture, that have a strong voice of their own, where you can leave a mark of the artist," she says. This love for raw, hand-made and personal made it unconventional, and therefore, 'improper.'
For an opening credit sequence to resonate and hook people into the story, Mehr believes that the core lies in research. "We usually sit with the script a bit. We read it a lot and make a list of everything that we feel is important and whatever stays with us," she says. They then plan on how to link all things that resonate with them to lock in a separate script for their sequence. "Once we have an idea in place, the last thing we think about is the design. The design should always serve the idea," she explains.
From there, the team starts drawing and brainstorming, taking ideas and feedbacks from each other. They then come up with style frames, which gives the producers a better idea of what they are aiming for. "Style frames are basically one or two frames of what the final product will look like – not the whole animation, but perhaps just one frame."
While the pandemic meant the stalling of several projects, the demand for animation – and her work load – invariably went up. "There has always been an abundance of people wanting to make something with art and design, more than what we are led to believe," feels Mehr. "A lot of live-action had stopped in 2020 since filmmakers didn't have the permission to shoot and crews didn't want to gather. This resulted in many people, including the ones who hadn't looked into animation before, trying it out," she says.
Opening credit sequences she loves: Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) – such a fun aesthetic that paved the way for contemporary design; the end credits of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) – it was very cool to see something as mainstream as a superhero movie incorporate a more raw, experimental look.