VISUALIZING HINDSIGHT: The Semiotics of Halt and Catch Fire’s Title Sequence

Halt and Catch Fire  is a show more about time and technological progress than characters, and the intro sequence reflects that.  Currently airing its fourth and final season on AMC, the show charts the evolution of digital technology from the personal computer boom through to the creation of our current portal to the web, algorithmic search engines. The main “stars” of Halt and Catch Fire’s opening title sequence are the racing Tron-like blips of light that shoot from right to left as if they are racing towards an invisible finish line. The five or so lights cut through glitchy silhouette’s of our three main protagonists, underlining the show’s priority of documenting tech’s evolution over character development. You don’t see the characters clearly at any point in the opening, which suggests they don’t matter. After watching the show, one realizes this is largely true. The characters exist mostly to drive the story forward, to play tech archetypes. They are as models are to clothes in a fashion show. The timeline tracking tech’s evolution is the main character.

If we follow Ferdinand de Saussure via Arthur Asa Berger in his assertion that “[i]t is not ‘content’ that determines meaning, but ‘relations’ in some kind of system,” our first step in the semiotic analysis of an intro sequence is revealing its operating system (1998, pp. 6). There is perhaps no more literal personification of this idea in opening titles than those of Halt and Catch Fire. The show’s opening titles always follow a cold open, so to contextualize the intro sequence, we will briefly explore their syntagmatic relationship with the pilot’s opening. The pilot episode begins with what looks like a command-line interface explaining the title of the show:

HCF command.png[All [All screenshots of the intro sequence taken by Cristina.]

While techies would have known from the title, for all us n00bs this is the first we are made aware that competition will be a powerful theme in the series. This tells us that the show, while certainly an attempt by AMC at narrowcasting, is not so niche that those outside the tech world aren’t invited. The racing lights in the opening titles then immediately conjure competition. The race to create a consumer-friendly technology is a cutthroat business. Quite literally.

Armadillo wipe.png

Cold open.png

The cold open features Eisensteinian juxtaposition between a painfully slow armadillo crossing the street and a speeding jet black Porsche. Twenty seconds later, the armadillo is in the car’s grill. This is how we are introduced to Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), the character who more than any other knows that in the technology business: speed is everything.

AMC presents.png

When the opening titles begin, we immediately draw a connection between the racing lights and the main character’s drive, both literally and figuratively. A disciple of the Californian Ideology, MacMillan sees himself as a kind of messiah—if one believes in technological determinism, the inventor is a kind of god. The opening titles present his importance with Lee Pace/Joe MacMillan coming boldly first.

Lee Pace 1.pngThe first hints of a person we see are the eyes of Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), the visionary, the idea man, signified by the fact that he is the only character whose eyes we see in the intro sequence.

Lee Pace 2.png

We then get a little more of the person, a medium close-up of Joe MacMillan with a stern, determined look on his face. We can guess he is a businessman from the suit and tie. The star billing and more defined sketch we get of Lee Pace tells us his character will be the most important. While throughout the series various characters take center stage for an episode or storyline, it is the character of Joe MacMillan that is the engine of the show driving everyone to the next big thing. The rebellious son of an IMB executive, MacMillan leaves the company his father built to make his own big splash.

Gordon 1.png

The next person featured is engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy). Accordingly, this character is the next step in the process of building a great piece of technology: creating the hardware. 

Mirroring the story, the racing lights (our protagonists) hit a wall. In order to move their company forward Joe and Gordon need an amazing developer to join them. We see this as a visual hitting of the wall:

Hitting the wall.png

The breakthrough comes when Mackenzie Davis’ character, Cameron Howe, joins the guys to reverse engineer an IBM to build the brains of their computer. This is represented visually in the opening sequence with our protagonist’s light hitting her brain:

Mackenzie Davis.png

After Cameron joins the three blow up the computer world with their antics, translated in the credits as a CPU square blowing up and coming back together. The rest of the characters are delt with as in the show, minor additions to further the plot. The race completes as the lights hit the CPU and we see the tower of a computer light up: it works. explode 2.png

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The opening title sequence of Halt and Catch Fire not only hints at major narrative structures and devices in the series, but it also provides sets a tone in the minds of viewers. A crucial part of understanding the power of signs and signifiers in title sequences is in how tone and mood are presented. Halt and Catch Fire, with its Emmy Nomination for Outstanding Main Title Design, evokes tone in some of the most effective ways in contemporary television.  

tron.png

Red neon and glitched portraiture saturates the screen as our favorite, little blips of light race through. On first impression, the into sequence evokes Tron and the 1980s nostalgia surrounding the movie with the themes of racing, neon, and lines. The racing beams of light, combined with the overbearing red hues allude to the iconic color palette of the cult classic.  Through these tonal devices, viewers are affirmed and reaffirmed of both the technological nature of the show and the time period it is set in. However, the Tron allusion is not the only vintage aspect of the intro sequence that creates a tonal atmosphere of ’80s futuristic/corporate technologies. Light cuts through.png

The light that cuts through the actor’s silhouettes also connotes the fast and furious ’80s corporate world. The serif font also sets the show as a more serious, as opposed to a casual or comedic romp through the past. This type of serif font was huge in advertising for technology of the time, which targeted their advertising to business industries who were the primary market. In an interview with Art of the Title, title art director, Patrick Clair, and lead animator, Raoul Marks discuss the inspiration behind the font choice. Marks shared initial slides from development meetings.  On one slide discussing typography, Marks says:

Despite their high-tech topics, computer marketing of the early 1980s featured mature fonts and classical layouts.  These were high-end machines, aimed at tech conservative and sophisticated business market.  We’ll use the same approach-counterpointing digital wizardry with timeless typography, a chance to see the 1980s through the lens of the 1980s.

Corporate font.png

Other tonal elements that punctuate the title sequence are the use of color, shape, and sound. Color is a crucial part of the sequence that sets it apart from other shows. The heavy use of red and magenta signals a mature narrative that is saturated in technology.  While contemporarily when we think of technology, we may envision palettes of whites and grey.  However, red is a bold color that matches not only the palette of 1980s model computer screens but also the vibrancy of the decade.  At the end of the title sequence, we see that all the glitches, lights, and red are encompassed in a single computer mainframe: a single blinking red light.  The domineering red serves not only a tonal purpose but a practical and representative one.

Shape also plays a key role in adding to the tone of the show.  As the competing light signals race against each other, they bypass and even produce a large array of geometric shapes.  These geometric patterns can be associated with connotations of math, quantitative data, computer chip patterns, and all things structured.  This element allows viewers to understand the already-obvious technological nature of the show, but also may hint at political structures that are encompassed in the series.  The geometric patterns are also another dual reinforcement of 1980s as a time and more specifically, the business world.  In fashion and culture, repetitive shape patterns were integral in marking the era.  In business are corporations, the geometric patterns represent structure, order, and organization.

Arguably, sound is the most identifying feature of the 1980s, and more specifically, music.  The glitching, simplistic percussion and deep synths that carry the intro sequence do a marvelous job and mimicking the newfound electronic sound of the 1980s.  Musician, TRENTEMØLLER, finds the perfect balance of original and sampled sounds that make the title sequence equal parts nostalgic and mysterious. And as one YouTube commenter surmised it:

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The Halt and Catch Fire intro sequence is direct yet nuanced and intricate, just as the 1980s tech world itself was. By combining elements of color, shape, sound, and structure, the opening titles set a clear tone for the show. This tone of nostalgia, high-stakescompetition, organization, and technological dominance is what Halt and Catch Fire is about. The characters are in a way just as glitched out and hidden in the background as they are in the intro sequence. This is a show that prefers progression and theme over character development; the intro sequence makes that perfectly clear.

 

 

References

Berger, A. A. (1998). Media analysis techniques. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Image courtesy of Art of the Title

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