Running up that Hill

November 28, 2023

Job Description

Chris Crow, the creator of the title sequence that accompanies Welsh drama Pren ar y Bryn (Tree on a Hill), discusses how he sought to capture the essence of this absurdist crime drama to draw viewers into the series.

In Pren ar y Bryn (Tree on a Hill), creator Ed Thomas invites viewers to enter the colourful world of his childhood for a crime drama set in a fading frontier town.

But the series, which debuted earlier this month on Welsh channel S4C and BBC iPlayer, also embraces the absurd.

To many in the town of Penwyllt, a town inspired by the place where Thomas grew up, a way of life seems to be changing in front of their eyes. No one feels this more acutely than long married couple Margaret and Clive Lewis (Nia Roberts and Rhodri Meilir), who suddenly find themselves slap bang in the middle of a mystery that gets the whole town buzzing and looking over their shoulders. But thankfully they also know how to find light in the darkest of places.

Richard Harrington, Suzanne Packer and Hannah Daniel also star in the series, which was filmed at the top of the Swansea valley in and around Ystradgynlais and Abercrave.

It is a Fiction Factory coproduction with S4C, BBC Wales and distributor All3Media International. The series will also air on the BBC in 2024.

Charged with capturing the essence of the show in its title sequence – which can be seen at the top of this page – was title designer Chris Crow, who tells DQ about the role of such introductions and how he embraced its “absurdist mischief” to create a snapshot of the show.

Tree on a Hill debuted this month on S4C and BBC iPlayer

What do you believe is the role of a title sequence of a show?
For me, a good title sequence should offer an abstracted, exciting view of the show’s world. It shouldn’t be too obvious, nor signpost the story. They should work to entice and intrigue the audience, to set them up for the world that follows. They should also feel luxurious and enjoyable. After all, it’s a real joy to offer something that’s so visual and abstract.

What was the initial inspiration behind the sequence?
When I initially started talking to Ffion Williams (series producer), Adam Partridge (producer) and Ed Thomas (creator, writer and director), they mentioned the miniature model town that the character Clive builds in the cellar of his house – a recreation of the world he thinks is disappearing. That jumped out to me straight away as a possible backbone for the title sequence. It felt really powerful and a great way into the story – and I’m a huge fan of macro imagery.

How did early conversations with the production team shape your thoughts of what it might look like? What was important for it to include?
Early on, the show was pitched to me as “A big little story about love, change and belonging set in a town that knows how to find joy in the absurd and light in the darkest of places.” This was a great starting point for our discussions. It was a brilliantly collaborative process from start to finish. We all loved the idea of the model village, and mixing that with ‘actual footage’ of the landscape and locations. Using a Super-8 was mentioned from the beginning, so we embraced that throughout. We discussed the importance of psychogeography at length – in other words, the effect a sense of place has on the story. This is something that’s been really important in a number of my own features, but here, that notion felt especially relevant and important.

What symbols or motifs from the series have you used? What do they represent?
Ed himself describes the series as part autobiography and part made-up story that’s been mixed up to create a slightly offbeat absurdist universe, so we used some symbols to create this feeling. For example, we top and tail the sequence with a shooting star (over the model world, then finally over the actual tree on a hill). We also use footage of the character Clive moving figurines around the model world, suggesting his story within that world, as it is his voiceover at the beginning of the show. He is the audience’s route into the story. I think that idea worked really nicely and bridges the model and real worlds. We also used props from the show and then projected footage over them in a few areas. Again, I think these work brilliantly in bridging elements of the real world and model world.

The absurdist comedy is said to be about as ‘love, change and belonging’

What is your approach to planning and developing title sequences?
It often varies, but it always starts with me creating a rough storyboard and moodboard in Photoshop. When those initial elements are working or have been signed off, I then start in After Effects. With Pren ar y Bryn, our initial ideas worked, so it was then a case of creating the moving sequences.

What technology or techniques did you use to create the sequence?
I brought in my regular DOP and collaborator Alex Metcalfe to shoot the model village. He shot my last three features where we began experimenting with old lenses, creating or altering lenses, shooting through broken glass and other weird elements. We shot this sequence on a Black Magic camera with old Soviet lenses (such as Helios 44m), which Alex had had rehoused as proper prime lenses. They look great. I’m a huge fan of doing as much ‘in camera’ as possible. It’s just far more organic than post-production filters. Saying that, there’s a load of processing going on in places. This was all done in After Effects with a mixture of third-party plugins. There’s a lot of Super 8 looks too. Nothing says fading memory, places changing or Hiraeth (a Welsh word to describe a sense of longing or yearning for something long ago) like Super 8.

Was there anything unique or unusual?
For me it was a joy to do something that embraced fun with a bit of absurdist mischief. I normally do a lot of crime and horror titles (which I love) but it was lovely to tackle something that was less grim. Completely off topic, but when I was still in art college, Ed Thomas commissioned me to create this huge sculptural collage display for his play Song From a Forgotten City at London’s Royal Court Theatre. It had replica guns, dolls heads, flickering UV lights, all sorts – they’d hang it in theatre lobbies whilst touring the show – and it was basically a primitive title sequence for a live show. It was a lovely circular thing to work with Ed again on this show.

Were there any ideas that didn’t make it?
Not ideas as such, but sometimes I go way too far and way too out there, so Ed, Ffion and Adam were always up for a sit down where we could look at what was working and what was getting out of hand. It was far choppier initially, way too choppy (I’m a nightmare for that), so we really slowed it all down and found the stuff that we could focus on and let breathe.

What reaction or response do you hope the sequence receives from viewers?
I really hope that the sequence hints upon the world and the ideas in the series as well as exciting the audience from the off. We wanted to do something that was fun, vibrant, absurdist and a bit bonkers.

Title sequences can vary from show to show. What is the future for them and why might they be a vital part of a show?
The show often dictates the titles (a full on mini-movie, or quieter animated text across show footage) and I’m not a fan of them ever being forced. They really need to suit the show, to elevate it rather than detract or jar. They’ve become a language of their own, I think, and I look forward to seeing how that evolves. I never use the Netflix skip button as I feel that they’ve been a considered addition to the show that they serve.

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