Watching the opening title sequence of the FX original: The Americans can be exhausting. I find myself playing it over and over again. Finally, my wife yells, “Can we just watch the show already?” Why watch the show, when you have twenty-five second of commie glory to decipher?
More than 20 years ago, The Cold War, as we know it, officially ended. That’s not really that long ago. The Americans takes place in the not-so-distant past. Many viewers of the show still remember it vividly. That’s why it’s so important to get it right. Boy, did they get it right.
The same guys who brought you the opening title sequence for Game of Thrones, Masters of Sex, and True Detectives, also take you inside the KGB. I chatted with animator Jon Forsman with Elastic.tv.
How did you guys get the idea for the The Americans opening title sequence?
We did so much research. We looked through posters, statues, all these things that were built around the Cold War – when tension between the Soviets and the Americans started really building.
We started noticing similarities in both country’s propaganda. We found these two propaganda posters, one American and the other Russian, with both women pressing their fingers to their lips. They were both saying the same exact thing – Silence, talking can lead to espionage. We started noticing all these similarities. We juxtaposed them right next to each other. The characters on the show, are Soviets, but are posing as Americans. It turns out that growing up in Russia is really not that different than growing up in America. Tracking down who owned the rights to these old Soviet propaganda posters was going to be hard and expensive. It was almost easier to recreate it. My responsibility was to recreate these posters to match the message.
The best part about this title sequence is that it’s better frame-by-frame. Where did the style of editing come from?
Subliminal messages was a big propaganda technique, during the time. We wanted to bombard people with sensory overload. You know what you’re looking at but you don’t know which side it’s from. We wanted to create something that spoke to the idea of the show.
You guys nailed it. The textures and colors are so convincing. I would have bet that these posters were original.
It’s amazing to look through all this work, from the 50s and 60s, during the height of the Cold War. Especially on the Russian side. The Russian’s posters are so well drawn and illustrated. I tried to do my best to recreate the level of detail and care that they put into their drawings. They really wanted me to recreate this one poster, of clawed hands gripping a pair of binoculars with Russia in the reflection.
What about the typography?
A lot of the words start out in Russian, then turn into English. The problem is, none of the people we work with speak Russian. So, we copied and pasted from Google Translate. They finally brought somebody in that spoke Russian and they sent back a whole bunch of notes saying, “This doesn’t make any sense.”
Do you remember the Cold War at all?
I wasn’t around for it, so, it took a lot of research. We tried to make it as historical as possible. A lot of the photos of the statues, we made sure were authentic. The research and fact checking made us feel more like journalist than animators. Half of the time I’m designing, the other half I’m on research duty.
How much of the show did you have to go on?
For this one, they gave us the pilot episode. We also got a summary about the show. We knew it was about a family where the mother and father are soviet spies while living an American life. I’ve been watching the show since we worked on it. I spent so much time on it, it better be a good show.
You work on so many cool projects. Is this one you will remember?
These are always my favorite projects when the client says, “I want something really cool – go for it.” The pitch was very similar to the end product. It ended with Khrushchev on one side and Kennedy the other. It was that exact image in the pitch that made it all the way to the end.
What’s your background?
I went to film school at SCAD in Savannah, Georgia. I moved to Los Angeles and worked as a PA at Rock Paper Scissors. Anything to get in the door. I did that for about two years. My job was to get coffee, park cars and buy lunches. I wanted to try the animation side of the business. I knew Photoshop and Illustrator from school, but, I didn’t know After Effects. I started doing all these tutorials. I was reading the article on Creative Babble about Evan Abrams – that’s exactly what happened to me. They threw me into work and now I’m working on all this stuff.
If you enjoy opening title sequences, you should check out one of my favorite blogs Art of the Title.
FX Producer Elizabeth Knight
Leanne Dare, Art Director
Henry DeLeon, Art Director
Jon Forsman, Animator
James Vogel, Animator
Patrick Murphy, Lead Flame
Kate Rentz, Producer
Megan Meloth, Executive Producer
Jennifer Sofio Hall, Executive Producer