Rian Johnson’s case-of-the-week mystery series “Poker Face” is a hit with audiences and critics, but the Peacock show’s stylish throwback title sequence has its own devoted fanbase.
“People have been writing to say, ‘I cheered when this yellow type and a copyright block came up,’” said Marke Johnson, the founder and creative director of The Made Shop, the Denver-based design studio behind the credits. “It’s funny that whether you know the type or not, it’s this alchemy of details. This shade of yellow, this type of shadow, this type of optical effect, all coalesces, and it has been really rewarding.”
Inspired by TV mystery series like “Columbo” and “Murder, She Wrote,” “Poker Face” follows human lie detector Charlie (Natasha Lyonne) as she travels the country, always managing to stumble into a murder. “Poker Face” isn’t Johnson’s first collaboration with the filmmaker, who also happens to be his cousin. The pair started discussing the project while wrapping work on “Glass Onion.”
“Rian texted me and was like, ‘First of all, you’re doing this,’” Johnson recalled. “I was hoping and waiting. He always comes with a specific vision but not necessarily all the details, so it’s a pleasurable collaboration to get into those nerdy typographic details that are my world.”
He added that the writer-director might not know the names of fonts but “immediately knows what every font evokes.” That was key for a limited series that takes its inspiration from detective series of the ’70s and ’80s. “Rian knew that this was going to be a yellow sans serif with a black shadow, but the rest was up to me,” Marke explained, adding that it was “ultimately a tougher nut to crack than the more creative or elaborate or designed titles” of the Knives Out films.
“Poker Face” credits
Describing the typefaces of the era as “kind of grotesque and pretty utilitarian,” the designer admitted that the type of font they chose left them “nowhere to hide” because of their simplicity which meant every decision mattered more.
“This wasn’t meant to be ultra nostalgic or an homage to any specific show,” he said, adding it “needed to set up an expectation but also feel like completely of the moment.” Although they didn’t create a custom typeface, they created a mood board of inspirations, including “The Rockford Files,” “Dallas,” “M*A*S*H,” “Magnum, P.I.,” and other shows.
“If you squint at them in a mood board, there’s a continuity, but as you start taking apart the details, there are all these little differences,” Johnson clarified. “Our approach was rather than trying to recreate one thing, we would take apart why they had got there on the board. Instead of recreating what they had done, it was about figuring out why they did what they did and then having us achieve that with modern ingredients.”
Because the sequences on the original shows always started over picture, they never knew what would be behind or under the lettering. “There’s this modern approach to that, the drop shadow, which is much maligned,” the creative director described. “Instead of that drop shadow, they had this thick, inky black extrusion baked into it that was almost structural, so it feels like this three-dimensional object. You can put any picture behind it.” That meant that Johnson could put “almost any image behind it, and it would pop.”
The next significant consideration was the color of the lettering, which was almost universally white or yellow for the type of show. Rian wanted yellow from the get-go. Despite white being “more legible,” it was the odd man out. “You would see it two times out of 10.”
Once the color was decided, the Johnsons needed to find the correct shade. After considering 20 shades, five were selected to present to Rian for final selection.
“He knew instantly and was like, ‘That one.’ I can remember the hexadecimal color code,” Johnson mused. “It’s FFC640. In typesetting, Process Yellow is pure yellow; it’s the unmixed ink. This is a shade off, a little less punchy, and almost as if something has been physically printed.”
That textured look was something both Rian and Marke wanted to capture, so even though the titles were created digitally, they referred back to the technique of manufacturing optical titles.
“Optical titles were painted on acetate and photographed in camera,” the creative director clarified. “They would take on the kind of aberrations of the camera, so the focus wasn’t perfect, there was grain, and a slight distortion.” To get it just right, the team worked with cinematographer Steve Yedlin to replicate the effect, down to the text “slightly shifting relative to the picture, the halation and all of these super nerdy things. That all made it feel married to the picture.”
One element of the titles wasn’t in Rian’s original request, but Marke was delighted made it in the cut was the inclusion of the copyright block on the title card.
“As we were typesetting it, it kept feeling ungrounded to me, and it took me a minute to realize why. Most of those shows of that era had that copyright block up top, and it’s fallen drastically out of fashion,” the designer recalled. “I added it almost just for myself, using random Roman numerals, and I accidentally showed it to Rian in the early versions.” However, for the final version, Marke delivered it without, and Rian noticed, asking where they were.
What followed was “a back and forth with lawyers and legal, and even Natasha Lyonne got involved and went to bat for it,” he said. “Everyone fought for this copyright block. It seemed like such a small thing, but in my mind, it makes it.”
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