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The 'White Lotus' design team on why the opening credits went viral

"Mood is what we're good at, and making you feel something,” says Plains of Yonder creative director Mark Bashore.

Images courtesy Plains of Yonder. Illustration by Anita Goldstein.

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2.1.2023

8 min read

Last November, actor Adam DiMarco, who plays Albie Di Grasso (self-proclaimed "nice guy") in season two of HBO’s White Lotus, tweeted out a poll: “watch the entire white lotus opening credits/theme song every week OR skip intro?” Over 75% of people responded with the option: “Whole theme song babyyy.”


They’re not alone. In fact, the entire internet’s been lusting over the show’s heady opening credit sequence, designed by Seattle-based Plains of Yonder creative directors and co-founders Katrina Crawford and Mark Bashore; and its score, by Montreal-based composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer, since it premiered. And the fandom hasn’t stopped just because this season ended.


The title sequence has gone viral in its own right, especially on TikTok, where soundbites trend as much as hashtags or aesthetics. Most are a variation on a simple take: don’t skip the opening credits. And they’re garnering millions of views. In January, the Rijks Museum even showcased paintings in its collection using the credits’ editing style.


It’s not often that a title sequence enters the zeitgeist of general pop culture. While Crawford and Bashore have a hard time explaining why exactly it went viral, Crawford has one working theory: like the show, the title sequence design tapped into something human and primal. Here, we chat about why they lean into ambiguity, the difference between an art direction and an idea, and their advice to designers on how to tell better on-screen stories. In the words of White Lotus character Lucia Greco: “Let’s fun.”


Image 1: A WIP illustration. Courtesy Plains of Yonder. Image 2: capturing reference images on site in Italy. Screenshot Plains of Yonder BTS video.



Plains of Yonder designed the title sequence for season one of White Lotus as well—how did your design approach evolve for season two?


Mark Bashore: It was a little different from season one. We came up with the wallpaper concept [for season one] out of the blue, among other concepts that were pitched by competitors. It’s very different for a main title because it’s almost a throwback in its beauty and simplicity—and everybody was of course wondering what the new version of that would be [for season two].


Mike [White, White Lotus director] shot some scenes at a villa that had these murals on the wall, and he goes, “I feel like that would make a really good base for a main title for this year.” This was actually more challenging because you have to build a story out of this room full of existing paintings, versus starting in the clear. So, how do we make a story from these really old paintings?


Katrina Crawford: We used a lot of backgrounds and architecture from the actual walls of the villa. They’re 16th century, so we had to paint them [with illustrator Lezio Lopes] to look like they're 16th century. But that didn’t look like a Mike White TV series. There's a lot more bite, and more modern elements. That’s why we wanted to bring an edge to it, while looking like it was part of the wall. That was more difficult to do. [Seasons one and two] share a lexicon in terms of simple illustrations, but hopefully it feels like an evolution.


 

Famed tv and film designers on how they get users to press pause.

 

How did you use pacing to keep the user—or in this case, the viewer—engaged? How important is pacing to experience in a digital space?


MB: It's almost the most important thing, even more so than design. When you get up around 90 seconds, you have to have a beginning, middle, and end—whether it's main titles or short brand films, or whatever else we do. And that can be done through music, imagery, sound design, or hopefully all those things, to bring a sense of surprise. People's attention spans are short. There's a lot they can watch. And there's a lot out there in all categories that stay in third gear, and after about 30 seconds you're like, “I know where this goes.”


White Lotus has three really distinct chapters that are in the music, imagery, and the pacing of the edit, which starts to ramp up hard when the music changes. We used very quick slides, so there might be a castle on fire, which zooms down to a fisherman, which zooms to [sexual imagery]. So four images all push together in about five or six seconds. That’s where the music starts to ramp up into this sweaty club lead. It's a huge departure, almost like a totally different title sequence, than when it started. They're almost like two different movies.


Details from the opening credits. Images courtesy Plains of Yonder.



KC: Mike White described the show as “a bedroom farce with teeth,” and it's completely focused on relationships between people. Even the pacing of the title sequence mimics a relationship. There's a romantic beginning, and then you start to notice things about them, like, they didn't pay the check, and then you take it to a new height at the end when things start to go crazy.


We had fun with a viewer’s expectation of beautiful, romantic paintings, and then, suddenly the birds are pecking feathers out of each other. All of that happens before the show starts, so we're in the mindset of the psychology of the show when we get there and we're ready to think about these things: the dirty looks, jealousies, and cheating. It's subliminal.



Title cards, which have a succinctness that incentivizes users to watch another episode, have been on the rise among streaming platforms for a while now. Why was a longer title sequence the right fit for White Lotus?


KC: A title sequence can live on its own nowadays. They become their own tiny stories. We didn't know this at the time of creation, but HBO also used the title designs for other aspects of campaigning the show, so it became the show brand, like an outer wrapper.


MB: It's hard to create a mood with a title card. We're not font people. I can't even name the typeface in White Lotus. It’s on every computer on the planet practically. It's not the most important thing. Mood is what we're good at, and making you feel something. I think it's a little overstated to say a font, or a five second title card with a spectacular camera move on type, can achieve that. At least for us. It's not where we apply our trades.


KC: We think about the psychology, and it is very tricky to do with something that's up for five seconds.


Illustrations for the White Lotus title sequence. Images Plains of Yonder.



What advice would you give designers to better tell stories on screen?


MB: One of the things we've seen over the years is that people get too attracted to a style. Maybe it's something that's very popular right now, or a trend, or a look. That's an art direction, not an idea. Years ago, I had a mentor who would look at storyboards for main titles, commercials, everything, and oftentimes he'd say, “that's an art direction, that's not an idea.”


It's a harsh thing to say to somebody, but it's also the most honest thing. You have to separate the two, and come up with a mood. It's not stylistic, or an art direction, but it's a feeling. Like a dream, or something like that. So many people gravitate toward a style first and then they shoehorn in the show. In the best title sequences that we see, you can't put your finger on the style. You're putting your finger on how it makes you feel.


The use of metaphor [is also important]. There's so much rational information out there, and the tools are so powerful that you can just put stuff in front of an audience, and pretty soon you realize you’re just impressing people with spectacular tools. Our favorite moments were when people would debate online about what something might be about, like, “is that what I think it is?”.



How does that play out in your White Lotus design concepts?


KC: Like, for Theo James’ [title slide], there’s a naked statue and a dog peeing on the statue. People have asked us, “which one is Theo James?” And my answer is maybe neither, maybe both. They cover different aspects of his personality, right? People are really busy, and if you're taking someone's time, even moments for these tiny sequences, reward them for watching.


MB: The wallpaper is funny. Wallpaper is a terrible idea for a main title sequence because wallpaper doesn't move. Flat art and television don’t belong. But that's why I like those title sequences. They’re instantly different because they're not made for TV.



A White Lotus title slide depicting a Roman statue with a dog peeing on it.
The title card illustrations like this one are imbued with multiple meanings. Images courtesy Plains of Yonder.

It seems to also make smaller animations that much more noticeable.


KC: That's great that you noticed that because we took some out to keep it super minimal. The eyes moving on the fountain felt important to me—as though it's winking at the audience.


I did like that there's this little interaction, and there are little story lines. Some of them connect directly to the show, but some don't. Like the boar hunt that goes through [the credits], and the guy coming back with the boar on his shoulder. Yes, it references masculinity and all these different things, but it's also an extra story line that's fun. We really think about trying to respect the audience, that they're intelligent, and can figure out and make their own stories, by making things open-ended enough so there's room for interpretation and divergent thinking.


Moments of subtle interaction and layered storytelling. Images courtesy Plains of Yonder.



Sound design was also incredibly important to the title sequence’s popularity–it went viral on social media. Why do you think your collaboration with composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer was such an effective pairing?


KC: I’m guilty of hitting skip, but there’s certain ones you never skip, right? They are integral to your experience. It’s that portal effect. 99.9% of the time, that happens when there’s magic between the visuals and sound, where the music so perfectly encapsulates the world and they’re not just running on parallel tracks. You can put music under something that looks great—but are they synergistically creating something new? Cristobal's work is amazing. People are very excited by it because it tells a story. It has a whole narrative construct.



Did you design the title sequence with social media shareability in mind?


KC: It was a side effect.


MB: It’s just one of those things, like catching lightning in a bottle. Once in a blue moon does a TV title or show make that jump into culture where people have heard of a show but never seen it. That happened with White Lotus. The music. The vibe. It's a phenomenon you cannot engineer. If anybody could, they'd be super rich. It just happens once in a while, like with The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, when it makes the jump and it's no longer a TV show.


KC: Those things are extensions of a universe. It's another point for people to interact with the White Lotus sphere. It's a parallel way to have more of something that you enjoyed.



So the title sequence is also like a brand extension of the TV show itself.


KC: Yeah. I think of the music in the same way. There's an attempt to try to get to the authenticity of what is being said. We're not just making quirky things. It's a certain animal for a reason. It's because, “okay that cat is a predator, and it's both beautiful and alluring, but it also has this innate nature to devour.” I think that's felt. I think when we see something that's really intentional, we feel it intuitively in our body.


White Lotus title sequence illustrations. Images courtesy Plains of Yonder.


Are you returning for season three?


KC: We haven't heard anything. We would love to work with Mike and his team. All of them are amazing.



Anything else we should know?


MB: Our only regret is that we didn't create a contract where we can sell the wallpaper. I can't tell you how many designers from all over the planet have been like, “my bathroom needs this monkey wallpaper. I will pay any price.” We're just kicking ourselves. We don't own that artwork, but man, if we did, we'd be in a whole ‘nother business. We'd be out of this TV game in a heartbeat.



This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.