The screen goes completely black, and then the synths kick in with the thud-thud thud-thud and that spooky arpeggio. Huge letters start to edge their way onto the screen, outlined in glowing red light, and slip slowly into place to form the words: STRANGER THINGS.
The opening credits for Netflix’s cult thriller may take less than a minute, but they are absolutely integral to the show – throwing us right back into Hawkins and the Upside Down and the world of the Demogorgon. They’re so 80s! They’re so mysterious! They give you that vital buzz of anticipation!
But what looks simple is actually extraordinarily complicated, creative director and graphic designer Michelle Dougherty tells RadioTimes.com.
The opening credits for Stranger Things and Stranger Things 2 (with the addition of a giant red number 2, of course) were dreamed up and executed by Dougherty’s studio, Imaginary Forces, which is also behind the opening credits for Mad Men, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Boardwalk Empire, Gypsy and Pacific Rim.
It all started when Stranger Things showrunners the Duffer Brothers – identical twins Matt and Ross Duffer – approached the studio with their brand-new project. The name they kept mentioning was “Richard Greenberg”, the man who designed some of the most iconic eighties sequences: Superman, Alien, Die Hard, The Goonies, Flash Gordon.
“Richard’s work tends to use a lot of typography to set the tone,” Dougherty explains, “and then they also referenced covers of Stephen King books that they loved, and so it was kind of I think the marriage of those two things.”
With all those images in their heads, the title designers struck on the idea of “kinetic typography” – that is, letters that move around a bunch. The font they selected for Stranger Things is ITC Benguiat, created in 1978 by Ed Benguiat and used in everything from Stephen King novels to the main titles of the Star Trek films.
But to make an eighties title sequence, Imaginary Forces wanted to stay true to the look of the decade. “I remember that time period and the process it took to make title sequences, because I started my career at the end of the era where titles were being done optically,” Dougherty says. “I still remember the process, and the result and also the restrictions you had.”
So how do you bring back the feel of the eighties in the digital age? How do you strip away the perfection of a computer-generated image? How do you revive the messiness and imperfections of an old-school title sequence?
Dougherty explains: “We added a lot of ‘mistakes’ into it because we wanted to give that kind of like very tactile feel. When you have those tactile elements, you kind of bring another sense. Your eyes want to touch it. So we added probably a few more ‘mistakes’ than normally what has been seen during the eighties.”
In fact, she may have gone a little overboard – at least, according to Star Wars title designer Dan Perri.
Perri was the one who created the famous opening crawl, using individually typeset words pasted on a large piece of black poster board and scrolling them along in front of a camera.
Dougherty recalls: “He said to us, ‘You know, probably if you put all those mistakes that you’re putting in now, you would have been fired.’ The optical house would have been fired for adding as many inconsistencies as we did.
“I didn’t think there were too many, but if you really did take a historical look back, in the eighties they were looking pretty clean and pretty good. We would have been considered the cheap optical house.”
So – what kind of mistakes and inconsistencies have been intentionally snuck into the Stranger Things titles?
“Like when we fade up the type it turns a little pink during that fade up, and it’s very subtle, but that would be considered a bad optical,” Dougherty explains. “And the edges aren’t super super clean when you look at them close up. We put a little bit of rough edges on them, and small little things like that that help make it feel more tactile.
“The jittering light that passed through the film, since that’s how they were done, we tried to mimic that so that it felt like it was actually filmed.”
— Imaginary Forces (@imaginaryforces) September 15, 2017
One way to recreate an eighties ‘feel’ would be to use actual eighties filming techniques – but in the digital age that’s not an easy task.
“Actually we looked to see if anyone still ‘filmed out’ in Los Angeles and believe it or not it was very difficult to find. We never found one,” Dougherty says.
“In the end we did some faux ‘film outs’ here, using these things called Kodaliths where we printed out on basically these pieces of acetate and we shone light through them.”
That meant printing the logo and the black background on a clear sheet and shining a light through the letters. “It was like a poor man’s ‘film out’,” Dougherty jokes.
Once the team had got stuck into the animation, they received the music – created by composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein.
“We were thrilled, obviously, when we received that piece of music, because it’s not always the case when you are working on a title,” Dougherty says.
“Sometimes you fall in love with a piece of music you’re working with, and then it changes. But in this case we were so happy when we heard it. We couldn’t believe it.”
In the on-demand age, Netflix provides that tempting little “skip intro” button as soon as the opening sequence begins.
But once the hypnotic Stranger Things titles kick in with the big red letters and the booming synth, how could you bring yourself to click it?
How have the opening titles changed for Stranger Things 2?
The Duffer Brothers were keen to keep the title sequence exactly the same, with one exception: a red number 2 flashes up behind the words STRANGER THINGS. It’s a throwback to the eighties, when sequels would be announced with a large graphic number.
“We kept the original animation of the word mark coming together and animated the ‘2’ using light beams,” Dougherty explains. The animation was designed to mimic the old optical style we saw for the first time in season one.
Stranger Things 2 arrives on Netflix on Friday 27th October