Can the title sequence of a film or television show ever be good enough to justify its own Eulogize This? Well… right now, I make the rules. So yes. Just as you can single out a single track on an album, I think you should be able to single out something that can set the tone of a film or show so profoundly. And the title sequence that made me realise that is for a television series called Black Sails.
Black Sails is one of those projects where anyone can guess the exact wording of the pitch that got it greenlit: “Pirates of the Caribbean meets Game of Thrones”. And I have to confess, I have never actually watched an episode (it seems fun, but it’s not on any streaming service I’m subscribed to, and not quite fun enough to buy). In fact, I first came across the serious when YouTube searching for a trad English tune — The Parson’s Farewell — and I wrote an article a while back about the version I found that was recorded especially for this TV series. That track was so good that I thought I’d check out some of the other music for the series, and I came across the title sequence.
It starts with such a wonderfully simple but utterly sinister shot. White moonlight (from a moon that is not visible) on a sea of utter blackness. The sky, the waves, everything, all dark and devoid of colour. And there is this strange wailing sound: the creepy, scratchy grown of a hurdy-gurdy, a sort of mechanical cross between a violin an accordion that is thought to have been invented around 1,000 years ago. And over it, a big low clanking piano bass note.
And then, similarly surrounded by darkness, the camera shows us slow zooms towards and away from a series of incredibly intricate figurines, made from what looks like ebony and ivory. And this is the gist of the whole title sequence: it’s just a bunch of figurines. Which possibly sounds a very boring concept, because nothing actually moves. But they are… so amazing, so beautiful, so gothic, so subtle. Yes, it’s what you might expect from that ‘Pirates meets GoT’ pitch, with cutlasses and flintlock pistols, skeletons and lustful embraces, sea monsters with tentacles wrapped around cannons and men falling headfirst from masts. But they are created with such detail and nuance. The more you look, the more you feel you get a sense of their personality.
And none of them… seem fantastically friendly, incidentally. You don’t get the sense of loveable quirky pirates with a heart of gold and a secret desire to see justice prevail here. The last shot is gloriously iconic: an ebony skeleton racing an ivory sailor to the top of the mast of a sinking ship, both reaching for the billowing black sail. (Here, incidentally, is an interview with the people that made it.)
I think perhaps title sequences are generally under-appreciated. They are perhaps thought of as cheesy, and that’s understandable, because if they’re done badly then they undermine credibility in the story before it has even had the chance to start. But if they’re done well then I think they can have a transformative effect, and not just on the audience.
Here’s a bold statement, but I hereby propose the theory that films with separate title sequences (where the film actually stops momentarily) tend not to have ‘tone problems’. A ‘tone problem’ is something that we tend to hear again and again in modern film criticism: Is it a horror? Is it a comedy? Is it a romantic drama? It shifts uncomfortably between different styles and genres, unintentionally subverting the one that came before. (The comedy makes the horror look silly, the romantic drama makes the comedy seem out of place, and so on.)
Basically the entire purpose of a title sequence is to clearly establish, outside the film/show itself, what the tone is. Precisely so that the audience knows what to expect throughout. Thus, in order to make a title sequence, the filmmakers have to think consciously and specifically about what the tone of the film should be, and how they should represent using just visuals and music in a simple 2 to 3 minutes.
Here are what I consider to be some great examples.
First, a classic example of ‘Less Is More’:
Then, in my opinion, the best of the James Bond title sequences (even if it is one of the more recent ones). You can clearly see its influence on the title sequence to Mad Men a year later: –
But perhaps the most celebrated of the movie titles creators was design legend Saul Bass. Here are no less than 39 of his classics, dating right back to 1954:
What makes the Black Sails titles work so well in boiling the intended style of the show so succinctly? I think part of the credit is due to film Pirates of the Caribbean, for so skilfully resurrecting a cinematic genre that everyone assumed had been dead for half a century.
Its writers had written a film a few years before called Treasure Planet (pitch: “Treasure Island in space”) that only made back around 80% of its $100+ million costs, and then clearly thought long and hard about what the tone of a great pirate film should be. And they did two things that I don’t think they get credit for.
Firstly, they grounded everything in historical accuracy. Which may sound absurd to anyone who only knows it as a huge Hollywood blockbuster based on a Disneyland ride. But the Pirates Code was actually a thing, and many of its stipulations were at least partly based on research. And the East India Company was… definitely a thing. A vast, imperious, murderous and corrupting thing. And it is a measure of the English-speaking world’s collective amnesia about the British Empire that this was its first big appearance in cinema.
Secondly, however, they were quite happy to sacrifice historical accuracy (and a bit of realism) to create a great adventure story. They managed to condense that culture down into a gorgeous backdrop, and then insert immortal pirates who turn into skeletons in moonlight.
As someone who spends a lot of time adapting traditional music, I find myself trying to do a similar job with music — to take actual historic ballads and find entertaining ways to present them. And it occurs to me there’s a reason why Hollywood and the big studios occasionally make the big bucks. They make it look easy.
Here’s the video: