THE TITLE SEQUENCE AND THE TRAILER: Whether Peritext or Epitext, Almost Always More Interesting Than Their Feature!


My friend and colleague, Dr. Enrica Picarelli, writing on her smart and rigorous media studies blog, Space of Attraction, recently steered me to the website ART OF THE TITLE, “a compendium and leading web resource of film and television title design from around the world,” as the editors it. Above, you’ll see a brief video put together by chief editor Ian Albinson (who runs a motion graphic design studio) of titles by legendary graphic designer and title-sequence director, Saul Bass.

After visiting the site and watching various title sequences, I was reminded of an essay by Georg Stanitzek, a professor of German Literature at the University of Siegen, Germany, entitled, “Reading the Title Sequence (Vorspann, Generique),” which I include on my seminar reading list, but never get time to discuss.

In today’s post, I wanted to quote liberally from Prof. Stanitzek’s essay, first to share his persuasive understanding of title sequences and later to address the similarities between trailers and title sequences, both of which are fascinating, formally dynamic, underexamined but indispensable film texts that mediate and comment on the feature-film they either herald or introduce.

Here’s Stanitzek opening salvo about the title sequence:

“The opening titles of a feature film are embedded in a complex intermediary
zone. The movie begins, but where and when exactly? Viewers find themselves in a
threshold situation that, to be sure, consists of far more than just the title
sequence. And yet the title sequence itself is part of it, and as such it takes
this intermediary zone into account. It is a zone of announcements, movie
reviews, trailers and posters, box offices and admission fees, good seats or bad
seats, commercials, conversation, and popcorn.” (For some of these insights, Stanitzek’s offers a shout out to Prof. Vinzenz Hediger, with whom readers of this blog should be well acquainted.)

Even for audiences enjoying the feature in their own home entertainment environment, where fees and tickets, box offices and advertisements are typically concealed or suppressed, but in which conversation, popcorn and trailers endure, title sequences separate “the inside from the outside….the play of the narrative from what is documenting the production, cinematic narrative from film commentary, intradiegetic from extradiegetic information.”

In “reading” the title sequence, Stanitzek moves methodically through the array of critical functions a title sequence has to perform: copyright law (establishing legal “title”), economics (the division of labor in the making of a film), certification of employment in the context of careers (credits for free-lance production professionals), movie title (the name of the feature), entertainment (compelling, engaging content to draw the audience from conversation to contemplation), commercials (marketing appeals for the feature being presented), fashion (in relation to or inspired by the design and look of the film itself), and art (the artistry of the graphic designer).

This list struck me, both for its indisputable truth, but also because so much of this vital work was sublimated, as it were, in our consumption of these often beautiful and dynamic visuals. It’s worth repeating that they’re called title sequences, not because of the “title of the film,” but because of the need to assert or claim “legal title” or ownership of this potentially valuable piece of art, craftsmanship and intellectual property.


Finally, jumping over many other significant, insightful and startling claims in Stanitzek essay, I wanted to focus on the comparison he offers to trailers, my own particular obsession:

“Its playful nature and the particular freedoms granted to the title sequence are what set it apart from the other short, semi-autonomous cinematic form, the film trailer [my emphasis]. However, there are things that the two have in common, as they are both, in principle, concentrated forms. That there is little formal similarity between them results from their different paratextual positions. It is not for nothing that one of the most important differentiators in a paratext analysis is the question of where a paratextual element appears and where it is placed. Peritexts are found close to the text to which they refer, are affixed to it to some degree and enter into view with it, whereas epitexts are located at a greater distance from the text to which they refer, so that they can—in a temporal dimension as well—provide commentary in the forefront or as follow-up. In the sense of the distinction named, the title sequence is a peritext; it is tied more or less securely to the film it introduces. On the other hand, the trailer—like movie posters, newspaper advertisements, stills, “Making of ” accounts, press conferences, and the like—constitutes an epitextual form. With these “sites” go very specific paratextual functions, which, in turn, have consequences for degrees of freedom with respect to representational form and design. This is especially true of the film trailer; here it differs from the bundle of heterogeneous functions that characterize the title sequence. For it is central to the trailer that it fulfill the function of announcing and advertising and this restricts it to a certain representational redundancy. With a certain regularity a promotional voice, usually off camera, transposes the heralded film to the future perfect: “This is the experience you will have had (and of which you will be able to tell your friends).” And since the eighties, trailers have used the recurring formula, “Now, in a world where.. .” to mark the exceptionally interesting prospective diegetic world as an incipient aesthetic experience. In a very general way, in this respect also, a parallel could be drawn to the title sequence announcing the film to come. But this aspect of announcement has—by virtue of its paratextual positioning and function—a very different quality.”

Did ya’ll get that? The title sequence is a peritext; the trailer an epitext. The title sequence, despite its proximity to the feature, has greater formal variation and experimental possibility. The trailer, given its function, is more constrained.

I’m thinking another post or two is in order to explore the eye-popping world of title sequences and the eye-opening things Stanitzek says about them. And perhaps, I should also develop further this comparison contrast between trailers and titles.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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2 Responses to THE TITLE SEQUENCE AND THE TRAILER: Whether Peritext or Epitext, Almost Always More Interesting Than Their Feature!

  1. Pingback: Iconicity and “screen attachment” in title design « spaceofattraction

  2. Pingback: TITLE SEQUENCES – The Cart that Pulls the Horse | REVIEWS OF PREVIEWS

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