Remember the Titles?

Title cards are used in many trailers to varying degrees, most often to call out: the title, release date, actor names, to help tell the story, or features in a game. When is it necessary to use them, and are they effective?

I think title cards should be used sparingly, and avoided entirely if possible. The first reason is because they tell, rather than show. Title cards are like the trailer creators poking their head out, and selling to the audience directly. People tend to be suspicious of marketing and sales people, so it's best to avoid making the audience feel like they're being sold to. Using only footage from the game or movie shows confidence, and lets the material speak for itself.

The second reason I don't like title cards is because typically they're unmemorable. Let's do a little test; watch this trailer for Inception:

What do you remember? The music? The actors? The dialogue? The visuals? I'm willing to bet you don't remember what the last two title cards said. It could just be me, but I've watched this trailer so many times, and I never remember "YOUR MIND... IS THE SCENE OF THE CRIME." 

I've watched so many trailers, but I have trouble recalling the title cards even when I watched them explicitly so I could write about them. For example, the first Matrix trailer has some fantastic dialogue and visuals in it, but do you remember the title cards which say:

FORGET EVERYTHING YOU KNOW

FORGET EVERYTHING YOU'VE SEEN

ON APRIL 2ND, THE MATRIX HAS YOU

This could just be me, but I think these title cards simply do not make any impression at all. Best case scenario, in the moment they help us understand the story, but in the worst case they're a total turn off. 

You might wonder: are there any memorable title cards out there? There are a handful I can think of, but the trailer for 2002's The Count of Monte Cristo always comes to mind first, and it's not because it's good.

I've also watched this trailer a ton of times, because of that one title card: "COUNT ON REVENGE." It's ridiculous not just because of the pun, but because it's there to hype up the audience. I find it incredibly awkward because at that point in the trailer it's been over a minute since the narrator last said anything, so it doesn't feel like a contiguous thought. There are also no other title cards or narration surrounding it, so it's just left out there to dry. Yes, this is a memorable title card, but it's memorable because it's awful.

When is it best to use title cards? I've narrowed it down to a handful of situations:

  1. To provide information not in the source material

  2. To build context which cannot be made with source material

  3. To make a hard sell

  4. Emphasize a point with a clever tagline

Providing Information

The first category is reserved for things like critical accolades, award laurels, actor names, and certain gameplay features. There's simply no way to show "THIS HAS WON AWARDS" using the source material. Same for actor names, etc.

For game trailers, some features cannot be shown in a way where the audience is 100% sure of what they're seeing. For example, a game might have online multiplayer or co-operative multiplayer, but how is the audience to distinguish humans playing together rather than one person playing with or against computer controlled characters? The problem is, title cards for gameplay features are an easy way to make a trailer look very generic. Think about how many trailers list their features out to hype the audience by saying:

PROCEDURALLY GENERATED LEVELS
CUSTOMIZABLE WEAPONS
MULTIPLE LEVELS
EPIC BOSS BATTLES
LOADS OF CONTENT

These lists don't speak to the experience of a game, and feel too familiar. When the audience is watching a trailer, everything should feel new; as soon as it feels like a known quantity, they're more likely to tune out.

Building Context

This is when the trailer simply cannot tell a compact version of the story using only sourced dialogue because at no point do characters say anything which spell it out in simple terms. In these situations, Movie trailers frequently "Frankenstein" multiple lines of dialogue to create a new one, but the alternative is to use title cards to spell things out. I consider this a last resort, but it's one situation where using title cards makes sense.

This title card from the trailer for  District 9  gives information no one says in the film.

This title card from the trailer for District 9 gives information no one says in the film.

Title cards are also used when it's necessary to build context QUICKLY. For example, TV spots liberally use title cards because 30 seconds is only enough time for a few lines of dialogue, and if there are no lines which declare plot events or character motivations, there needs to be a short hand to make the spot comprehensible.

The other scenario where building context with the source material is difficult or near impossible are certain video games. Voice acting is rare especially in indie video games because it's very expensive and time consuming to implement, so there are a lot of games whose story is told through text, and unless the text is shown in a trailer friendly way, it's often preferable to simply spell out the story in title cards. For example, I ran into that exact scenario when making the trailer for The Adventure Pals.

In the game, enemies revert to their original form as old people, but I didn't think it would be clear enough from just seeing it happen.

In the game, enemies revert to their original form as old people, but I didn't think it would be clear enough from just seeing it happen.

Making the Hard Sell

I frequently poo poo the idea of making a hard sell because I think it turns people off, but regardless of its efficacy, title cards will certainly help the trailer or TV spot make a hard sell. Some movies or video games are a natural fit for a showy and unabashed trailer trying to sell the audience on it. 

For example, the Broforce trailers by my friend Kert Gartner are about as bombastic and in-your-face as a trailer can get, and it works perfectly with the tone of the game.

Title cards for game trailers can also be very quantitative instead of qualitative, which is typically not a good place to be in, but for DLC trailers they make sense because they're targeted towards the existing audience who are curious how much more is being added to the game. My general rule is: the later in the trailer campaign, the more acceptable it is to use title cards. 

Emphasizing With a Clever Tagline

"Count on Revenge" is a terrible, yet memorable tagline for an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, but in all the trailers I watched, it seems like puns were always the most memorable, and when well thought out were surprisingly good. 

Here's a look at some of the best ones I found.

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This is from a trailer for the new Doctor Who starring Jodie Whittaker, the first female Doctor. This title card both references the role of time travel in the show, and how this is the first female Doctor after twelve male Doctors in a series which started over half a century ago.

This exact same tagline was used in the 1989 teaser trailer for Back to the Future Part II. The double meaning in that use was to acknowledge the four year wait between the first and second film (Thanks to my friend William for pointing it out to me!).

Another clever tagline is in the first trailer for Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums which is the story of a dysfunctional family reuniting after several years. The title cards in that trailer are: "Family isn't a word, it's a sentence." That's a great tagline which sums up the story nicely.

Another recent memorable use of title cards was in the trailers for Captain Marvel which read: "Discover... What Makes... A Hero." There's no pun in the full read, but the last title card starts with "Her" and is then revealed to be "A Hero." With the animation, it ends up reading: "Discover what makes her a hero." 

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There might be more circumstances where it's appropriate or even desirable to use title cards, but these are the scenarios I see most often. I clearly have my biases about title card usage based on how effective I think they are, but maybe I just need to try harder.

Hopefully this either makes you more mindful of when title cards are used, and if you're making a trailer it'll help guide you towards how to add this tool to your belt.

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