Most indie filmmakers make some common mistakes... maybe they don't spend money to color correct, or pay for a good soundtrack, or tweak the sound enough. Maybe they don't even spend money getting good sound to begin with.
Yet the most common misstep for indies is treating credits like an afterthought. Most indies resort to printing credits in 30 point white courier font on a black background. Oh no no no no no no no. Credits are a wonderful and special opportunity to set the stage for whatever shall follow, and all low-budget indie filmmakers should try hard to take advantage of that opportunity.
I suppose indie filmmakers see title credits as "merely" the ribbon one ties on a gift, and thus not as important as the gift itself. The truth of it is that the ribbon, the wrapping, even the fluffy bow... all of it is part of the gift. One might even argue that, because the ribbon and gift-wrap and fluffy bows all happen before the gift, they are as important, or even more important, than the gift itself. First impressions last.
In my mind, opening and closing credit sequences are like an appetizer and digestive at a sit down dinner: at the start, a credit sequence whets the palate by setting the tone and pace of the story, by introducing the setting—and in a best case, also sets up the characters and sketches out the backstory—and at the end of the film, a closing title sequence leaves the viewer with an lasting aftertaste.
How do you make good credits? What consists of a "good" credit? The answer is simple: integration. Find the core element of your film, whether it be comedy or horror or sci-fi, and use that to make your credits so unique that the title credits could only introduce your film. Look to the story's subject for inspiration. For example, if you're making a movie about a cleaning lady, draw title credits on a wall with crayons and have them get "cleaned away". I'm merely thinking off the top of my head, but if you think long enough, you will probably find something so unique for your story that's it's probably not been done yet.
Here are some of my favorite title credit sequences, with a few comments about each.
Jeunet and Caro do some great titles with all their movies, but this is perhaps their best. If you're a fan of Delicatessen, check out the simple credits for their brilliant short film Foutaises.
David Fincher hired Kyle Cooper to do these credits as a "mini-film", and the results speak for themselves. Following Se7en, Cooper went on to do over 150 movie credits sequences.
These are not my favorite, but they do capture the spirit of the film.
By splicing real news, fake news, and chaotic shots of zombies, these credits set a perfect tone for the film. Not to mention that the title sequence bridges the time gap from when the lead character goes to sleep and wakes up the following morning. Credits again by Kyle Cooper.
Serenity's first 15 minutes are more than just title credits—they deftly outline a complicated backstory, introduce you to the Firefly ship, all of the Firefly's passengers, the story's villain, and finally hint at where the story is headed. This part of the title sequence starts with the main title and ends halfway through the credits. I challenge you to remember how many names you see on the screen.
I put these in not because they're my favorite credits, but because they contrast so much with Serenity's credits, the movie version of the Firefly TV series; these credits introduce the series' characters and clearly set the tone of the series as half sci-fi and half Western.
Genius imagry set to music by Thomas Newman. If you knew nothing about this series, you'd get a pretty damned good idea after watching these credits.
From a cancelled series, but still fun to watch. You get a sense of the kinetic when watching these credits.
This is a clever 3 part mix: 1st part tells you what you need to know about the Cylons, 2nd part sketches out the backstory of how they Cylons are chasing humans, and the 3rd part shows lightning flash clips of the show for that episode.
(TV show, 60s)
Battlestar: Galactica got their 3rd part technique from an old 1960s show. Sure, this dates a lot now, but it still captures a feel for the action spy genre. And remember that these kinds of clips were done on film, not video, so you can just imagine how hard it was to do each opening sequence.
(TV show, 1988)
A little more slick than the 60s, but the format is generally the same.
Tomorrow I'll show how I'm doing credits for a low-budget film... for less than one dollar.