Title Sequences set the mood for a film. They give the audience a chance to settle in and switch their brains from real-world to fantasy-world. Great directors use this time not just to introduce the team that created the film but also to introduce the audience to the themes (musical and otherwise) that will be explored throughout. Credit Where Credit Is Due is a column that examines the fine art of opening credits.
In this two-part edition, we will discuss the evolution of Tim Burton's title sequences, following his career as it evolved over the course of three decades.
1985 - Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure marks a lot of firsts. It was Tim Burton's first feature, as well as Danny Elfman's and Paul Reubens' (and Pee-Wee's, for that matter). The budget was modest, which led to the simplest opening titles in Burton's career.
Elfman does the heavy lifting on these minimalistic credits, bringing momentum to the static black and white text plates. The music mixes carnival bombast with manic cartoon energy: a perfect promise of the 90 minutes that will follow.
1988 - Beetlejuice
Beetlejuice is important not just as Burton's first stab at an original property but also his first proper opening title sequence. While Pee-Wee was an established character, Beetlejuice was not and these titles had to meet the challenge of introducing the world and setting the proper tone. It does just this, hinting at the screwy post-mortem irreverence that will consume the quiet New England lives.
The credits open on a haunting, ethereal music bed that is soon complemented with Danny Elfman singing a tiny excerpt from The Banana Boat Song, as made famous by Harry Belafonte. It feels at once distant and unsettling while still being strangely familiar.
Before the production house plate is even off the screen, one important rule of the film has been established; It will be spooky and goofy and the line between the two will be meaningless, if not entirely non-existent.
As the harps get busier and busier, a piano drops with a couple of hard notes that seem to be promising a dirge. The title plate welcomes the full piano part and, without changing the established motif, the dirge instantly transforms to carnival-style bombast of oompah proportions, augmented by a helicopter shot that flies over an idillic New England town.
As the music continues, the town changes imperceptibly into a model of the same town, the camera landing on a very strange house with a spider crawling over the roof. In a mere two shots (and an outstanding score by Elfman), Burton has set the stage for everything that will follow and has tucked a wealth of secret information that will reward the audience for repeat viewings. The town, the house, the river, The Banana Boat Song, it all means something.
1989 - Batman
Three films in and we get the feeling that Burton is starting to rely a bit too much on Danny Elfman. Visually, this is a simple affair, not unlike his previous two films. It's nothing more than a camera navigating a cold, stone environment that eventually reveals itself to be the Batman logo. Elfman is working overtime on this score, blasting the brass and drums at unprecedented levels. Visually, it's neither over nor underwhelming—merely satisfying. Any and all momentum is directly derived from the music.
1990 - Edward Scissorhands
This is cinematic ceremony at its finest. From the snow-covered logo before the picture starts proper, the promise of another world is made stunningly clear. And, it is an intriguing world, cold and snowy, peaceful and fantastic. As with Beetlejuice, before the production house logo is down, Burton has established the visual mood and Elfman is laying the groundwork for the musical mood.
From there, we are guided through the door of the old castle, past the statues and up the stairs, all this melting gothic imagery being accompanied by a music box and a boy's choir. The mood established over the logo is maintained and amplified. There is a clear feeling that this is going somewhere, but where?
We know we have reached the inner sanctum of this castle by the introduction of almost-but-not-quite-human robots and a lonely, chilling oboe. As the music crescendoes, Burton continues to pile on mysteries. The machines are as cold as steel can be, their faces lifeless and forever grinning, and they exist for the sole purpose of ... making cookies? Clearly, this castle is a place where function comes in a distant second to form (this being perhaps the most common praise and common criticism that Burton regularly receives).
A few more mysteries are added on top of the cookie-machines—hands, a corpse, scissors, a castle on a hill—all painted in pale blues and deep blacks. From the opening logo, we are given the feeling that everything will fit together. But the sheer variety of images and the deep somber mood make it seem all but impossible to tie these disparate elements together.
1994 - Ed Wood
Significant as Burton's first film without Danny Elfman (don't worry, he'll be back), Ed Wood is a biopic about a really crummy director, the greatest z-lister who ever lived. Burton has been public about the liberties he chose to take with the story, aiming to highlight the passion and energy of filmmaking instead of Wood's notorious alcoholism and womanising.
The credits lay clear Burton's ambitions to celebrate Wood's abysmal creations, building a world of hyperbolic (and largely meaningless) promises of excitement to come, graveyards populated by cardboard headstones, flying saucers clearly made from paper plates and monsters of clay brought to life through stop motion animation. All these ingredients are painted in rich inky blacks and almost blown-out whites with little in terms of grey.
1996 - Mars Attacks
Mars Attacks (two words that represent the title, the plot and the entire pitch) posits a world in which Earth is easily seen from the surface of Mars and martians are, with all likelihood, going to attack it. There is no science or logic in this world; just Mars and the attacking it will do.
This sequence really shines when placed back-to-back with Ed Wood's sequence. The paper-plate saucers are now being rendered using high-tech computer animation while the war-march theme (welcome back, Elfman) guides the aliens to the blue and green orb we call home, where they will probably attack.
This title sequence functions more as a declaration of purpose than a simple tone-setting device. Burton is almost defying the audience to reject the torrent of nonsense he has in store. It almost has a stand-offish "this is what we're doing so deal with it" attitude.
This sequence plants its tongue firmly in cheek and promises all the intellectual refinement of an Ed Wood film (or a Topps trading card series, for that matter). No matter how strange or silly or stupid or implausible this film becomes, don't expect an apology.
Come back on Wednesday for the second half of Burton's career. Watch in wonder as the skill and precision that made Burton famous degenerates into noisy, CGI... Ah, we'll get into it on Wednesday.