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Emmy Awards: 'True Detective,' 'Turn,' 'Masters of Sex' set tone early

'True Detective,' 'Turn' and 'Masters of Sex' make a good first impressions

Who in attention-deficient Hollywood doesn't grasp the importance of the first impression, the pickup line, the elevator pitch? With television's new Golden Era well underway, opening titles — those clever or mesmerizing gambits that set the tone for seduction by an entire series — are being rendered with ever more creativity and edge. And, yes, there's an Emmy Award for main titles. Episodic series are typically eligible during their first season only; here's a brief look at current examples that illustrate the vibrancy of the form.

The photographs by Richard Misrach in the book "Petrochemical America" formed the visual touchstone for the haunting, Emmy-nominated title sequence for "True Detective," the eight-part HBO series about lawmen tracking a serial killer along Louisiana's industrialized coastal plain.

"The goal was to use that poisoned landscape as a metaphor for the ways these characters had been ravaged and exploited, much as the drama does," says Patrick Clair, who directed the sequence at Elastic, a design firm based in Santa Monica. "That led to the use of double exposure to create fractured portraits of these characters that incorporate the landscape."

The show's producers had already chosen the music: a propulsive but doom-laden track called "Far From Any Road" by the Handsome Family, which Clair used as a basis for structuring his 90-second visual opus. As it builds in intensity, imagery of religious salvation clashes with glimpses of gun violence and sexual deviance while animated apocalyptic flames appear to consume the ghostly, abstracted characters. To create the surreal, dreamlike quality he was after, Clair used 3-D modeling and projected photos, bringing them to life via ultra-slow virtual camera moves.

A strikingly different but equally inspired example sets the tone for "Turn," AMC's drama about how homegrown spies outsmarted the Redcoats during the American Revolution. Although it didn't turn the Emmy voters' heads, the fast-moving, animated spot is just 30 seconds and is done entirely in hollow-cut silhouette, a popular form for the portraiture of the era. It illustrates with M.C. Escher-like precision and flow some ways spy craft was then carried out — including a polygraph duplicator used to forge signatures and letters, a simulated public hanging that lets a man escape underground and a pedal-powered "turtle submarine."

"Some of these technologies don't exist anymore, so we quickly realized that depicting them with graphic means, rather than live action, was a better way to go," says Michael Reilly, creative director at Shine. "We also wanted to communicate that while spies often worked in the shadows, they pulled some things off right in front of people's eyes."

Says "Turn" executive producer Barry Josephson, who worked closely with the design team, "We really liked that these black cutouts set a symbolic, clandestine tone, rather than being too literal. You see these spy techniques like the dead drops, the hidden notes, the invisible ink, and it gives you a sense of things you can never know." The graphic cleverness extends to the actual title, in which the letter N flips backward (get it?).

That's a touch seen elsewhere this season in Showtime's "Masters of Sex" title, where the letter E in the final word, in case anyone has failed to notice, has been flipped on its side to suggest a female derriere. Pair that with the cheeky, double-entendre title sequence, also done at Elastic, and you have another Emmy nomination.

Whatever the show, the goal is to find creative ways to set up the tone and character of the story being told, say veterans of the form. "It's done right," says Clair, "when it's revealed to have more complexity and relevance over the course of the show." Adds Reilly: "As a designer, I can propose interesting visuals all day. But if they don't really integrate with the series and set up the story, it won't be a great title sequence."

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