If you’ve seen Netflix’s Stranger Things then you know that its creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, have a potent ability to channel the vibe of the early ‘80s, and of the pop-cultural ephemera contained therein. But as deep as you might think their vision for this supernatural drama goes, it’s probable that it runs even deeper. For evidence of this, look no further than Stranger Things’ colossally satisfying main title sequence, a masterpiece of mood and momentum that the Duffer Brothers were mapping out with design studio Imaginary Forces before they had even started filming the show’s eight-episode first season.
“We got started in the process way earlier than most titles that we do,” said Imaginary Forces creative director Michelle Dougherty, who was impressed with the Duffer Brothers from the very first call with them, during which they mentioned Richard Greenberg as a reference point. Greenberg is a figure who design buffs will know as one of cinema’s great main title designers, but who most people have likely never heard of. “When they mentioned his name on the call, I was like, ‘wow, that’s incredible,’” she said. “The Duffer Brothers are very into main titles.”
Greenberg’s body of work includes some of the most evocative title sequences ever put on film, especially in the categories of ‘70s and ‘80s horror and sci-fi. Stark and minimal, with an almost fetishistic reverence for the type itself, his mesmerizing openings are high points in creepy classics such as The Dead Zone, Altered States and Alien. The parallels between these works and Stranger Things is readily apparent.
“I think what they really loved was the simplicity of some of those titles that Greenberg had done,” Dougherty said. Pulp literary works from the era were also prominent influences. “They talked a lot about Stephen King and sent us some covers of his paperbacks. They loved the feel of those, and the typography.”
The Duffer Brothers had even, prior to that first phone call, put together a rudimentary motion schematic for the opening that was “hearkening back to when they were kids and reading those books and how they would open them up and see the first chapter,” Dougherty said. Transitioning into episode names such as “The Vanishing of Will Byers” and “The Flea and the Acrobat,” the movement used this “chapter” text as a kind of tunnel into the opening image, pushing into and through the words with exhilarating forward energy.
Dougherty was delighted to keep this chapter-push detail intact as Imaginary Forces took over the project—because it’s cool, but also because it’s reminiscent of yet another legendary designer, Pablo Ferro, and his work on the open for the 1968 thriller Bullitt, which she called “one of my favorite titles.”
The Duffer Brothers’ initial contributions to the title combined into an unusually cohesive starting point for Imaginary Forces to work from. The studio was even provided early on with a rough track of the show’s sinister, John Carpenter-esque opening music. Created by Boston-based synth-masters S U R V I V E (sic), the eerie yet propulsive tune melds with the onscreen images in a way that is utterly transfixing, a harmony of sound and visuals that could only come from being a fixture of the design process from the get-go. “We were really lucky to have that great track to work from because it influences the movement and everything,” Dougherty said.
From there, it was up to Imaginary Forces to flesh out the details that make the title sing. Working with animator Eric Demeusy, “we went down a rabbit hole in our research,” Dougherty said, a process that yielded some telling attributes of titles from the early ‘80s. “Back then they were still doing things optically. Instead of having this digital process they did it through film. With the optical process there’s this lush, haptic quality, because you’re watching light pass through film. So we really tried to capture that.”
Demeusy did tests early on with kodaliths–-black pieces of test film that had the title’s red lettering on them. He shined light through the pieces “to see what that would look like,” Dougherty said. “He saw these things that were happening, like the edges weren’t very smooth, or there was texture where the light was shining through.”
Though the Stranger Things title was ultimately produced digitally, the final product has a tactile quality to it that feels you could almost reach out and snatch the letters off the screen. Dougherty credits that quality to small tweaks that mimic the filmic inconsistencies of yore, such as overlaid grainy filters and slight color shifts applied to fade downs. Additionally, the lettering itself, a retro poster-ready font called Benguiat (the smaller text used for the credits is the more familiar Avant Garde), exudes a dense, palpable presence.
But it’s the way the text of the title moves that ultimately sets it apart. As letters float toward one another from different angles, the sequence cuts between closeups and wide shots as the full words materialize, inducing an effect that is somehow both disorienting and inevitable—which is maybe the best way to describe what dread is.
Dougherty said that in early manifestations of the title, the letters slotted into place in a way that felt a little too modern. This was eventually replaced with the “drifting” action seen today. It’s a slower, steadier pace with a lurking quality that is so creepy it almost outdoes the show that follows, which feels lighthearted at times in comparison. “Things don’t move as slow as that now,” Dougherty said, trying to explain why this element comes across as so chilling. “We’re used to things moving really fast, or snappily… I remember when we were making it thinking that this would be powerful.”
Executive Creative Director: Peter Frankfurt
Creative Director: Michelle Dougherty
Executive Producer: Ben Apley
Head of Production: Tina Starkweather
Producer: Dunja Vitolic
Designers: Arisu Kashiwagi, My Tran, Eric Demeusy
Lead Animator: Eric Demeusy
Compositor: Eric Demeusy
Flame Artist: Eric Mason