Let Your First Attempt Be Cliché

Lessons about life from an Emmy Winning Intro.

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Anyone who has watched can recall the iconic introductory main title sequence. The roughly one-and-a-half-minute show open is composed of one ethereal scene after another, punctuated with staccatos of orchestral strings and chimes written by Thomas Newman, who won an Emmy for his work. The main title sequence takes the viewer along the path of a body on its journey from the gurney to the grave in short clips, as designed by Danny Yount. Yount even won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Main Title Design in 2002.

One of the title sequence’s iconic scenes features a table lined with framed pictures depicting an older woman. To make this scene, the production and direction crew used what was available and found some family photos of Yount’s still-living grandmother at the time. Several years later, those same photos were used and displayed as part of Yount’s grandmother’s actual funeral, held in the same family funeral home where I lived and worked at various points in my life. ’s logo depicts the stark, black and white artwork featuring a tree, with roots spread just wide enough and just deep enough to accommodate a casket — but in its place lies the show’s title. A printout of this logo signed by Danny Yount, which he was kind enough to offer in passing before his own grandmother’s funeral, still sits in one of the arrangement offices, placed discreetly between an urn and informational pamphlets.

However, what viewers often missed in the show is the life knowledge and realistic confrontation with death and mortality that the main title scene broaches with the audience. In a talk, courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Danny Yount, the director, and designer, spoke on his thoughts on the themes behind the scene.

“So for , […] I really liked the singularity of the imagery of the foot and the gurney. Those are the two things that kind of set me off on this, and I liked that you couldn’t see the person,” Yount said, referring to the person on the gurney in the opening scene that maintains anonymity through the sequence of scenes only being caught in glimpses.

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Then Yount dove into something that went a bit deeper, discussing how the topic of death and mortality developed in the scene's design.

“I was a little bit concerned about the death metaphor in that whole theme, you know, that the show deals with, and I didn’t want it to be something negative. This gave me a chance to really test my abilities as a communication thinker, how do I turn this into something that is more ethereal and surreal and something that’s more that has a lot of depth to it,” Yount shared.

This gave me a chance to really test my abilities as a communication thinker…

The reality of death being more than a singular topic that instantly brings up a personal memory of loss in a person’s mind was in Yount’s mind after beginning his work on this scene. The idea of death is a complex weave of emotions and thought that carry large amounts of weight in our minds. “Life and death are very serious matters, especially what our approaches to it are and what we believe about it. So, I kind of went down that road. They liked it. Obviously.”(1)

Yount then went a little deeper and addressed the process and initial designs he had to go through by showing much more detailed scene sketches. These initial sketches went more in-depth into the life and imagery associated with a mortician’s life and the confrontations that exist with death. They showed more graphic moments and focused more on the individual who was the funeral director and what was being done than the anonymous figure escorting the deceased body on its journey to the grave.

“I had made some [thumb]nails to kind of try to test my idea. I wanted [the scenes] to be centered around the life of a mortician. Sort of a daily working process. I think I was a little more literal about it than I should have been [in the initial designs]. But you know, you have to go there first,” he said. (1) Yount quickly realized that his mind needed to play through and process the extremes of the idea and images of death before looking at the subject in a new way.

“And I think as a younger designer, I used to be afraid that if I did something that was clichéd or literal just straight out that it would ultimately become the end product. Whereas now I kind of look at it like, sometimes you have to start there, you know. Sometimes blue is blue, and red is red, and you just kind of start there, and then as my process develops, you really question yourself, and you really kind of sort these things out as you go along. And that’s how I like to work anyways.”(1)

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Photo by DEVN on Unsplash

By confronting the images and ideas around death and the life of a mortician in his mind first, Yount was able to refine the image he had created and begin to process his thoughts on the image of death. After his first attempt, he realized that he would not have reached his final product without taking it farther and letting his mind process what it needed to do first before beginning to understand the ideas that surrounded the subject. This process is similar to our need to relate the topic of death to a personal loss we have experienced before we can think about the how’s and why’s that surround the ideas of death and dying as a topic.

(1) FORA.tv, “Designing the ‘Six Feet Under’ Title Sequence — Danny Yount,” January 15, 2010, video, 4:42.

Author of ‘Digital Remains’ available now. Proven Industry Expert. Sharing thoughts and ideas on the world we live in from birth to death and beyond.

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