We’ve reached that time of year again – when it gets dark out quickly, and the vast majority of the globe slinks back into their living rooms early on a Monday evening.
Winter is coming.
Setting the scene
HBO’s Game of Thrones, which debuted in 2011 and has since built a viewing audience of 12.1 million, will go down in history for many reasons. Among them is the show’s iconic opening sequence – a one and a half minute long tour of Westeros via animated map, soundtracked by sweeping strings and rumbling drums.
But why animate the sequence? Why not film it? (Our best guess would be it has something to do with ‘tour of’ and ‘Westeros’.)
“Animating a sequence is a way to create something based around the theme of the show – to create an abstract or graphic world to put viewers in the right headspace for when they watch it,” Jumbla Creative Director Oz Smith said. “It’s important – ever since Saul Bass revolutionised the practice in the 60s, it’s become a way we teach the audience what they should expect.
“And with Game of Thrones, it serves a dual purpose. The opening sequence performs the same role as a map on the inside flap of a book. Westeros is such a big world, so the sequence helps us understand the unique geography of each city or stronghold, and how it relates to other locations.”
Jumbla Senior Motion Designer Cornel Swodoba adds that for HBO, it’s also about a point of differentiation.
“As TV shows started to tell more complex stories that blew up in scope and budget, so too did they have more budget and scope for complex opening sequences,” he said.
“It’s understandable why they’re putting more effort into them. There’s a lot of TV shows out there, and in order to build hype within the first few seconds, you need to be making specific choices and artistic decisions to evoke the right mood.”
Saying goodbye to Westeros
For nine long years, Thrones’ opening remained unchanged. But as of season eight's debut, the sequence has been reenergized.
GoT’s new (and final) set of titles follow the established tour-of-Westeros model, but in an intimate deviation, now guide the viewer into the very heart of strongholds like the King’s Landing’s throne room and Winterfell’s frosty crypts.
According to both Oz and Cornel, it’s a sign of the times.
“Back when HBO first launched Thrones, there was no way of telling how the show would be received, “ Oz said. “It was based on a book series not everyone would have known, with a complex setting, so it was important for the first opening sequence to perform the same introductory function as a map.”
“I always felt that the production values weren’t as polished as they could have been,” he added, “which I think Elastic (HBO’s partnering animation company) must have felt as well.
“So now, years and years on, they’ve been given the opportunity to revisit the sequence and bring it up to industry par. You can see it in the way they move the camera -- they’re now trying to achieve as much as they can in one shot. There’s tons of depth of field and detail and texture, both as we glide, and in the Westerosi we now get to explore
“ A lot of extraneous detail which was originally in place to guide viewers, like place names and ‘travelling’ across the map has now been cut, as we’re familiar enough with Westeros. Quite honestly, this updated sequence is now on par with the depth of detail and we expect in the industry. The first version had become dated.”
Like a good fan always does, Cornel has theories about what the sequence could mean for the hotly-awaited final season of GoT.
“I’d put good money on the first few locations featured in the new sequence – the Wall, for example, and the stream of blue coming through it – playing an important part of season eight,” he said.
“They’ve also stripped down the number of cities featured in the title sequence, which I can understand; there’s no point in referencing sets we won’t visit or need to remember.
“I’d also guess from the way they’ve stripped down unnecessary cities in the opening titles that we should expect to see fewer locations this season, but experience even higher production values.They’re effectively honing in on the final few elements that matter in Thrones, and beginning to wrap things up.”
Fundamentally though, both Cornel and Oz believe the new title sequence represents the show’s evolution both in its own universe and in ours.
"It's been nine years," Cornel said. "We've spent a long time in this universe, and with this title sequence. So in some ways this sequence would feel like a gift to the long-term fan for sticking it out. It'll be such a pleasure for so many people – myself included – to turn on the TV and see something like this when we didn't expect it."
The future of the opening sequence
While GoT’s animated titles have electrified the world, Cornel’s quick to point out that they’re hardly an outlier in that respect. He lists The Defenders, Star Trek, Westworld and American Horror Story as examples of other shows currently using critically acclaimed animated titles.
Adds Oz, “we’re seeing big-name studios like Netflix, HBO and Amazon Prime lean into the recent trends in motion graphics, like using Cinema 4D artistically, hand-drawing sketches, and layering artwork. And they’re hiring specialised studios, who now have access to specialised software, to help them.”
That doesn’t mean a show’s title sequence has to be GoT-level splashy, though. Cornel points to other animated title sequences, like Black Mirror’s, as an example of how you can effectively convey tone, mood and direction in under 20 seconds (and presumably on a smaller budget).
“Quite frankly, audiences won’t stand for title sequences that aren’t designed to have an impact or impart meaning — not like the way we used to with The A-Team, for example,” he said.
So when it comes to measuring the industry impact of GoT’s sequence – which ranks as one of the best of all time – the pair are certain it’s a good omen.
“That sequence is pretty much perfect,” they said. “There’s little we would change.”