PBS Off Book has a nice video about the design of opening credits. Karin Fong compares a great title sequence to raising the curtain before the show.
Not every movie needs elaborate opening titles — the trend recently has been towards simply giving the name of the film and moving on with the story. But I’m a fan in general. Opening credits can be a terrific way to establish the world, so I try to anticipate them when writing the screenplay.
Here’s the opening sequence for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was shot largely as I wrote it:
As OPENING TITLES begin, we find ourselves in a swirl of liquid chocolate, spinning clockwise down a funnel. The accompanying MUSIC is jaunty but mysterious -- we’re clearly in for a ride.
We emerge as the chocolate pours into a mold, one of hundreds inching along a conveyor belt. This isn’t any ordinary factory. Bathed in amber light, the machinery is ornate and polished, with shiny brass joints and spindly levers. Complicated gears tug on oiled canvas ropes, slipping through swinging pulleys.
As the chocolate bars continue along the belt, great bellows swell and gently PUFF on them. A moment later, a press SLAMS down, lifting to reveal the word it has imprinted:
W O N K A
Still moving, we look back along the belt as hundreds of bars line up to be stamped. The molds suddenly flip over, dumping each bar onto its own set of wire fingers. These “hands” zip straight up along an elevator track.
We RISE with them, a good hundred feet up, getting a bird’s eye view of the factory floor. It’s quite dark except for the golden lights right along the machinery itself. Strangely, we don’t see a single person working.
As the chocolate reaches the tip-top of the track, a mechanical arm THWACKS a small package to the underside of each bar. Just as suddenly, the track flings each bar over the top.
The candy bars plummet in free-fall, until the tiny packages pop open, revealing parachutes. Their descent slows until a pair of giant scissors deftly SNIPS the strings on each chute, leaving the candy to drop onto another conveyor belt.
Each piece of chocolate lands perfectly square on its own sheet of foil paper. Looking ahead, we can see the machine that bends the foil around the chocolate. But before we get there,
A HUMAN HAND
reaches in and lifts five bars off the belt.
We only see this man’s hands and the cuffs of his velvet jacket as he sets a thin
on the back of each of the bars. One by one, he places these five special bars back in the queue, where the foil-folding machine does its job, perfectly encasing each piece.
Another device attaches the paper wrapper, printed to read: WONKA BAR.
Further down the belt, we find stacking and sorting machines loading up boxes and cases of bars. A mechanical stamp THUMPS down on each cardboard box, marking its final destination: TOKYO, SPRINGFIELD, BRIGHTON, ADDIS ABABA.
EXT. LOADING DOCK – DAY
Huge snowflakes drift down out of an icy sky that is the color of steel. WORKMEN load pallets of Wonka candy onto waiting trucks.
It’s hard to say what time it is, exactly: there’s no sun to be found, and the streetlights are always on. For that matter, it’s hard to say what year it is. From the trucks, to the clothes, to the typeface on the clipboard, the world seems to exist outside of ordinary calendars. All we can be certain of is that it’s winter.
The last container loaded, the FOREMAN bangs on the side of the lead truck. The convoy moves out.
Keep in mind that the first frame of the film might not be the right time for opening titles.
For example, James Bond movies traditionally stage an entire sequence before the main titles, which serve as a bridge between his last adventure and the new story. It’s like an extra act break.
If you have sequence that sets up the world, the opening titles can help you set up the hero. That’s the approach I took in my will-never-get-made Barbarella:
At the time, no one knew this child would one day become their destroyer, and in the process, their savior. No one knew her name would become legend. At the time, they knew her only as...
A BURST OF COLOR
At first, it’s not clear what we’re looking at. Abstract shapes form a kaleidoscopic swirl while COCKTAIL MUSIC sets the mood.
A PAINTBRUSH reaches into frame. The brush holds steady while the canvas moves across it, creating a graceful line. It’s only now that we...
BEGIN MAIN TITLES.
In VARIOUS SHOTS, we start to see more of the paintings and the artist:
A THUMB flicks droplets of paint, which hang in mid-air. LIPS blow the paint at the canvas.
TWO COLORS are swirled together on a palette. Going WIDER, we see the palette has a navel -- it’s the artist’s stomach.
Looking past a canvas, we see the artist’s DARK HAZEL EYES as she works.
From behind, we see the bare back of the artist as she paints in the nude. She’s slowly turning counter-clockwise, while the canvas stays relatively still.
Unused brushes float past a window, showing outer space beyond. We MATCH CUT through the window to go...
EXT. SPACE SHIP / SPACE – CONTINUOUS
Where we get a look at Barbarella’s ship. It’s a tiny skiff, perfectly round, driven by gravitonic induction. If it were a car, it would be a VW Bug.
INT. SHIP – CONTINUOUS
Just because it’s a spaceship, doesn’t mean it can’t be comfortable. The walls are lined with carpeting, while the seats are agreeably plush. If it weren’t for the navigation controls and the windshield, it would make a groovy studio apartment.
As she moves the canvas down, we finally get a good look at our artist, BARBARELLA. Now 25, there’s an exuberant innocence to her, like the first day of spring made flesh.
Her greatest strength is her complete lack of worry. She’s never had a bad moment in her life.
As the TITLES END, she tucks her brush behind her ear, finished with her work. Her painting shows an abstract daisy, bursting with life.
I think I’ll call it, “Anthem to the Glory of Eldoria’s Magnificent Spirit.”
(to the air)
What do you think?
Her question is met with an EXPLOSION, followed by a blaring SIREN.
The ultimate decision about a title sequence will come down to the director, but if you’ve scripted it in a way that helps tell the story, you’re likely to see it used in some form.
One caveat: If your script starts with a montage of smaller moments that you intend to play under the opening titles, write the words OPENING TITLES. Otherwise, you may end up with both a title sequence and an empty-feeling minute of movie at the start.