Like the TV shows they introduce, title sequences range from forgettable to sublime. Some are so bland and by-the-numbers (or so long and earnest), viewers simply tune out (or press fast-forward). The best ones, though, keep audiences rapt, building anticipation for what they’re about to watch. They’re also great for branding: In one gestalt stroke, a single visual frame or music riff has the power to instantly recall a show.
Even detractors of FX series American Horror Story have agreed that the show’s creepy title sequence falls squarely in the latter category (it received an Emmy nomination this year for Outstanding Main Title Design). With the second season set to premiere tonight (October 17), we spoke with the director about how to design an iconic title sequence that works on both branding and artistic levels.
Co-creator Ryan Murphy hired Kyle Cooper at Prologue Pictures to direct the 60-second title sequence for Season 1, which was set in a haunted house. It was a natural fit for Cooper, a veteran title sequence designer with a penchant for dark material (he’s famously collaborated with David Fincher on some of the director’s seminal work). When Murphy started work on Season 2—called Asylum, the season will star some of the Season 1 actors but take on an entirely new plot and characters—he asked Cooper to reinvent the title sequence. They decided to keep the music and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired font, in order to maintain brand continuity—"it seemed weird to deviate from the brand to that degree," Cooper says—but they completely replaced the imagery.
Though the title sequence is new, the goal was the same: to push the limits of absurd, evil imagery. After reading scripts for the first four episodes, Cooper shared his shot lists and storyboards with Murphy then spent two days shooting on the show’s Paramount set—amassing several hours of footage of deranged mental patients, sinister nuns, Virgin Mary statues. Cooper has been doing this long enough to understand how fine the line is between scary images that work and scary images that flop. One technique for avoiding the latter was to blur images that were too on-the-nose. "The DP was saying to me, ‘Why did you need to have that shot out of focus?’ But I think it’s better that it’s soft. What is that? Is that a torso? What is that bloody thing?" In another instance, Cooper cast himself in a scene when the hired actor failed to recreate the freakish convulsing effect that he’d observed in asylum photos (you can spot him as the restless patient towards the end of the sequence).
The sense of horror is defined as much by what’s in the sequence as by what is not in the sequence. For example, Cooper omitted exterior shots of the asylum in order to convey claustrophobia. He also removed images that seemed too hokey or staged—because "you don’t want it to look like a haunted house"—while skipping shots that seemed borderline distasteful, such as a statue of the Virgin Mary covered in rivulets of blood. Though it did make the final cut, he still feels uncomfortable about a scene in which a nun mounts a mental patient.
"I had some new music composed for Asylum and everybody just decided it was better to be consistent and have the same score," Cooper says. "I’m glad they did. I like the piece of music we used the first time." That piece of music is so perfectly suited for the show, you’d never guess it was written years before American Horror Story, let alone the FX network, even existed.
The song was composed in 1998 by César Dávila-Irizarry. Today he’s a television sound editor in Los Angeles, but back then he was just a sophomore at the University of Puerto Rico, living at his mother’s house, futzing around with digital remixes on Windows ’95. "I started playing around with the software that other people were using then, which was Cool Edit 96," he recalls. "I was just getting some demons out." He grew attached to a particular sparse, haunting melody and added sounds of clattering metal hangers, dripping water and white noise—all distorted beyond recognition. To some ears, the hangers might sound like an electric guitar.
He gave the song to his friend Gabriel Diaz and didn’t think much about it until Diaz—now an editor at Prologue Pictures—dusted off the track a decade later and slotted it in as a temp track for the American Horror Story title sequence. (A temp track is placeholder music that editors use while working on rough cuts.) Everyone at FX and Prologue grew so accustomed to Dávila-Irizarry’s song, they decided to keep it—even after hiring composer Charlie Clouser (formerly of Nine Inch Nails) to write entirely new music. Clouser submitted four of his own demos, but each time was told to make the music sound more like the temp track. "I remember there was one quote that came down from the producers, ‘What we need to play for Ryan [Murphy] is a version that sounds better but that he won’t know is different from the original.'"
Dávila-Irizarry’s version had been recorded on a single track, which made for difficult sound mixing, so Clouser was eventually asked to simply recreate the song (which FX bought from Dávila-Irizarry) and allot each sound its own track. Clouser calls it "an exercise in sonic reverse engineering," but agrees it was the right decision, albeit challenging. "There was a lovable inaccuracy and crust to the sound that was becoming lost when I tried to regenerate it using pristine modern technology," Clouser says. "It became a challenge to duplicate a lot of the spontaneous magic that he had in the original piece."
The song is arguably the show’s most powerful bit of branding, evidenced by the fact that it’s used in every Season 2 promo. "It blows my mind that such a song is now so present in the American mainstream," marvels Dávila-Irizarry. "It was only present in my mind and has been in a coffin for a decade."