We've been lucky enough here at Boom Box Post to be working on a lot of new series lately. And with new series, come main title sequences, that thirty or sixty second piece that kicks off each episodes of a television series. The goal of any great main title is to stick in your head, typically achieved by a catchy, music-driven sequence. So where does that leave us sound designers? Sound effects can be infectious too! The challenge here is that for the most part, creators don't typically expect sound design in their main title which makes it our job to convince them. Here are some tips to help you succeed in getting sound effects into the next great main title sequence.
Music is king
This is pretty much the most important rule. There are so many opportunities for sound design to shine in television. The main title sequence is typically not one of these. That doesn't mean our contribution can't be significant; on the contrary, good sound design can be a huge help. But knowing that the creators of a show have likely worked for months on finding the perfect main title music really puts our things into perspective. That's where their preference is going to lie.
With that in mind, this is the one and only time I would advocate for what we call 'rubbery' sync. When you cut sound effects for a main title, it is absolutely essential that you have the main title music on hand (cut to picture) and that you defer to the beat over true sync to picture. Of course this needs to be within reason, but when your sound effects work with the music, the entire sequence starts to gel. Find the musical beats that exist around each sound design moment and make them work together. If you think of your design as part of the music, it's much more likely to stay in the mix.
Keep it sparse
It's important to stay out of the way. Should you decide to over-cut a main title sequence, the knee jerk reaction is going to be to simply mute everything and roll with only music. You need to think of a main title as a completely different project than the body of the show - cutting in the same way you would cut for a music video or a montage.
An easy first step is to avoid cutting background or ambient effects. These will just muddy up the soundscape and will not play in the final mix. To that same end, don't cut foley unless it's truly called for. Lastly, don't try and create any new moments with your sound design, such as imagining what's happening off screen. In fact, you may not want to cover every action on screen. Simply hit the featured moment of each shot. Odds are the pace is frenetic and the material constantly evolving. Making an effort to provide complete coverage will likely result in over-cutting and thus muddying up the mix.
Make deliberate and simple sound choices
Main tile sequences are not the time for complicated sound builds. You want to make simple and concise choices of single files that you know will punch through in the mix. Again, working with the music, try and pick sounds that land in a frequency range that won't compete.
Wherever possible, work in the DNA of the show
It's a bit of a pet peeve of mine to hear sounds in the main title that don't match those of the actual series. Personally, I like to use a main title sequence to highlight some original sound design. Often times main titles come in at the last minute, needing to be finished on a tight turnaround. That's no excuse for simply pulling generic sounds from a library. This is your chance to establish an overall sound for the series, bolstered by the fact that this will repeat before every episode, week after week. Elements that will occur regularly throughout the series, like signature vehicles or weapons need to be created for inclusion in the main title. There may be a hefty amount of up front work, but you (and the fans) will be so much more pleased with the results down the line after your 100th viewing of the main title if you took the time to work out some custom effects.
There are so many great main title sequences to seek out for inspiration. The first one that comes to mind for me is the main title for 2007's action-comedy Chuck, designed by Supervising Sound Editor Greg Gerlich. Watching this down, it's easy to see how a masterful hand used sound design both sparingly and effectively to create an infectious introduction to each episode.
And of course I'd be remiss not to blatantly self-promote this brand new main title for the new season of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, designed by the amazing Boom Box Post sound design and mix team of Jessey Drake and DJ Lynch.