Introducing Echo

Introducing Echo

March 6, 2024

Job Description

Stefan Draht, creative director of Sarofsky, walks DQ through the creative process behind designing the title sequence for Marvel Studios’s Disney+ series Echo, which follows the title character on a journey to reconnect with her Native American roots.

While some television series have done away with title sequences, replacing them with a single title card, others have proven that these short films can still play a vital role in establishing the tone and style of the show viewers are about to see.

One such example is Echo, the Disney+ series from Marvel Studios, which follows Echo, aka Maya Lopez, a deaf Native American Choctaw and former leader of the Tracksuit Mafia working for Wilson Fisk – otherwise known as Kingpin.

Taking place five months after events in Hawkeye, which introduced the character, Echo sees Maya (played by Alaqua Cox) being pursued by Fisk’s criminal empire. But when she finds herself heading home, she must confront her own family, reconnect with her roots and face up to her legacy.

Here, Sarofsky creative director Stefan Draht, who led the creative process on the main titles for Echo, tells DQ about the role these sequences still play in television and how the opening credits for the series were designed and produced.

Stefan Draht

In the modern streaming age, where viewers can choose to skip title sequences, what role do you think they still play in setting the scene for a series?
We tend to think of a good opening title as an ‘on ramp’ to an experience. Often when creating a title sequence, there are specific themes and ideas being explored that are a subset and often subtext of the show itself. This means that what gets built into the title sequence is a re-contextualising and remixing of the show’s ideas — so it’s a different, but related, take. It primes the viewer.

What are the ingredients that some of the best opening credits share?
The best opening-credits sequences express some of the core thoughts and feelings of the show as well as act in dialogue with the show’s content. They don’t try to just explain or summarise the show, but rather craft a world of ideas that upon first viewing seem intriguing and upon subsequent viewings continue to grow in meaning with the added context of each episode.

They all have a perspective – a take that is simultaneously appropriate to the show and unique from it.

How do you approach creating a sequence for a new show?
The process always begins by talking to the show’s creators and understanding what their intentions for the show are, what ideas they find interesting about the show and what they hope a viewer will feel after watching the sequence going into the show. Then we explore within these ideas and try to find a small set of those threads that we find interesting, unique and powerful. A really good title sequence should have one primary idea that can be quickly and easily articulated. This provides a strong foundation to build on visually and to fold additional ideas into.

Often this process leads us into finding visual metaphors for expressing complex and layered ideas from the show – iconic imagery that can capture many ideas in a single moment or a visual language that captures something essential about the show.

The Echo title sequence hints at several themes that are prevalent throughout the series

And what were your first thoughts when it came to working on Echo?
Echo contains a lot of complex ideas and several powerful themes, so our first thoughts were that we needed to find a core idea that could accommodate these themes – a diverse set of imagery – and span time and place. In seeing what the vision was for the show, we were also confronted with the notion that this title sequence needed to both feel like a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe visually and also stand a little bit outside as something unique and different for Marvel’s first Spotlight show.

You’ve worked with Marvel Studios before (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier). What do they look for in the openings to their movies or series?
Every show has something unique going on despite being a part of the same broad cinematic universe. This means each show is looking for a title sequence that feels appropriate to its themes, characters and goals while maintaining that baseline Marvel quality. As a result, it can be hard to generalise beyond saying that everything should feel right for the specific show and give the viewer something new and engaging.

As partners, are they very prescriptive in what they want? How did you work together to develop a concept?
Everything about film is a team sport. Initially, we are tasked with crafting that core perspective in response to our understanding of the show – and while this exploration may have some guardrails, there is no prescription. Quickly the process becomes pretty collaborative and a dialogue of ideas. At the end of the day, the creators know the show better than anyone and they work with us to make sure our unique take evolves in a way that feels in concert with the show while retaining that core idea.

For Echo, we had the opportunity to discuss the show’s ideas with all of the key contributors throughout the process. This collaboration allowed us to zero in on that central theme and then helped us to focus the imagery in a way that works for the show; showing enough, but not too much, of certain characters or ideas, and balancing the tone to reflect the careful balance the creators struck for the show.

How much of the show material can you see/read before starting work on a title sequence?
The volume of show material we are exposed to as we work on a sequence can vary widely between shows. There are times when we begin concepting very early in the process, with nothing but a draft of the screenplay, and other times when the show’s edit is nearly complete. In the case of Echo, we were able to digest preliminary edits of the episodes in order to understand not just how the ideas were translating to the screen but also what the show’s tone and visual style was. Additionally, it was important that the title sequence had a level of specificity to the imagery of the show, which required that we work with footage filmed for the show itself.

As well as the title character, the Marvel Studios show features classic villain Kingpin

Maya is a unique character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How did you want to reflect this?
We began by asking what it is exactly that makes Maya unique and how her story is being told in the series. While there are many characteristics of her person that make her stand out, it actually felt more appropriate to focus on the things that make her story human and relatable. The complex relationship she has with her past, with the idea of family, home and culture – the way she feels haunted by her own life – is what makes her the person she is, even more than any of her physical characteristics. So it was in these themes that we found inspiration.

The Echo opening is notable for its colours, character close-ups and the use of landscapes and shadows. Why did you make these choices and what did you want to achieve?
Maya is a very complex character living in a world of contrasts, layers and dangers. We had to find a way to express these dichotomies and tensions visually, and using this idea of two worlds provided a strong foundation. Sometimes this expresses itself through a blending and nesting of different worlds within each other, while other times this is expressed through the intrusion of shadow or silhouette into a scene – another world lurking beyond this one.

Shadows are a richly metaphorical image. They can represent history, danger, inner narrative and visual tension. In the show, there is a subtle but important reference to shadow puppetry as a storytelling tool, a way of recapitulating the past while linking the idea of hands with that of history and communication. In this way, quite a few of the show’s important ideas are tied together with this one visual metaphor.

Establishing a sense and feeling of place was important to the show’s creators from the very beginning. The landscapes and colour palette helped us to capture this. The wide grandeur of the Oklahoma landscapes is presented in opposition to the density and geometry of New York City, while the breadth of the environment is often juxtaposed with the intimacy of a character’s face. These close-ups invite the viewer to wonder what the character is thinking, and the imagery within gives a hint.

The warm colours in general feel a bit earthy, drawing inspiration from nature elements, while the cooler colours create opposition, contrast and counterbalance. We wanted the sequence to feel rich and colourful but without feeling hyper-saturated or aggressively stylised, which caused us to look for opportunities to increase contrast between colours without needing to crank up saturation.

Draht’s team ‘backed away’ from some of the more violent imagery initially included in the sequence

What other elements did you want to include and why?
Hands are an additional visual refrain – almost like a chorus throughout the sequence. Maya obviously communicates with her hands and they are an evocative visual element in the show. It seemed appropriate to use them in a similar role for the title sequence but in a more expressive way.

How did you choose the music that accompanies the sequence?
We rarely inform the final musical decisions for a title sequence and we are grateful for the work composers and music editors do to make the sequence sound just right, complementing or even enhancing our visuals.

What techniques or equipment did you use?
There was a lot of trickery involving manipulating and layering imagery from a lot of sources – combining show footage with stock footage, and elements created out of whole cloth in CG. Many of the camera moves in the sequence were simulated or heightened by reconstructing flat 2D source footage in 3D so that a camera could be moved through the space. Sometimes this required re-projecting 2D scenes onto 3D reconstructions, and other times this was achieved by completely rebuilding an idea in three dimensions.

All of the compositing work was done using Adobe After Effects, and the CG elements were created using Cinema 4D. Editorial work for timing and pacing was done in Adobe Premiere.

Can you tell us about some of the ideas that didn’t make the cut?
The most interesting ideas can be seen on the screen. Things that didn’t make the cut were more specific shots than entire ideas. At one point, there were shots that leaned a bit more into that ‘M’ rating [for mature audiences], and went a little far in implying the violent elements of the show. It feels better that we backed away from those in the opening sequence.

Alaqua Cox leads the cast of the Disney+ series

What are the biggest challenges you must overcome when creating a title sequence – and did Echo offer any notable obstacles?
The hardest part of creating a compelling title sequence is often the process of curating ideas and not letting too many new ideas later in the process dilute the core concept that inspired everyone at the beginning. As creatives, we are always finding new visual connections, and it’s inevitable that additional ideas creep into the process. It’s a challenging balance because this is generally a good thing in that you want inspiration and creativity throughout the production process, but you don’t want to stray too far from a strong central concept.
The unique challenge Echo offered was how many interesting and complex ideas the show wrestles with. We had to be careful not to allow ourselves to accidentally overload the visuals with too many layers of meaning.

Some series simply use a title card to mark the start of an episode. What is the future for opening-credit sequences?
I hope the future has a place for both quick, impactful title cards and longer, more elaborate sequences, because we love creating both – and as viewers, we love to see both. It all comes down to appropriateness, and different shows need different things. For example, the impact of the title cards we created for [Netflix series] Beef feel really right for the show, while I’m not sure Echo would have felt quite right with just a simple title card. I think viewers appreciate both, and the fact people say things like, ‘I didn’t want to skip the intro’ leads me to believe people appreciate the experience when it’s done right.

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