Thomas Cobb Group designed the opening title sequence for Orange is the New Black, using photographs of real formerly incarcerated women.

Piper Kerman herself (hint: when the credits are in motion, look for the woman who blinks). The hit Netflix series is based on Kerman’s memoir of the same title.

In this Photoshopped and Botoxed age, women with pierced lips, facial tattoos, and less-than-perfect teeth rarely appear on television. The authentic, unedited women in this title sequence makes it a radical exception.

TCG Producer Gary Bryman tells Co.Design that they "directed each woman to visualize in their mind three emotive thoughts: Think of a peaceful place, think of a person who makes you laugh, and think of something that you want to forget."

They found their subjects via Homeboy Industries, an L.A.-based organization that helps the formerly incarcerated and gang-involved redirect their lives through services like therapy, case management, career counseling, and tattoo removal.

“Thomas found this really interesting sweet spot of cropped compositions that would not necessarily reveal who the person was, but at the same time provide a portal into their soul through their eyes,” says Bryman.

The women’s faces flash by in a powerful sequence set to Regina Spektor’s new single, “You’ve Got Time,” written specifically for the show. “The cage is full/Stay awake/In the dark, count mistakes,” howls Spektor.

“Authenticity was the driving force behind showing our subjects as they are,” says Bryman.

Bryman tells Co.Design, “Our initial concept was to create a semi-surreal main title sequence of images from Piper’s point of view that would starkly contrast the hard cold reality of her new imprisoned life against the imagined luxuries of her previous life.”

Jenji Kohan, creator of Orange Is the New Black (and of Weeds), wanted a title sequence suggesting the show would tell many incarcerated women’s stories, not just protagonist Piper’s.

Thomas Cobb Group is also responsible for the 9/11-themed photomontage that opens Homeland, and the Emmy-nominated titles of Weeds, featuring a time-lapse shadow of a growing pot leaf.

Some of the images in the sequence are stills, and others include moments of motion, like blinking or laughing. Bryman says, "This technique was inspired by one of Thomas’ favorite movies, Blade Runner, where in one scene, for just a second, a photograph has shadows that move ever so slightly for a few frames."

Co.Design

Move Over, Dove. "Orange Is The New Black" Celebrates Real Women

A design firm breaks out of television prison with close-ups of real women and former inmates for the Netflix hit.

Any binge TV-watcher knows the rules (and the advantages) of marathon viewing--top of list, skip the opening credits, at least once you’ve seen them the first time. But occasionally an opening sequence is engaging enough that fast-forward is not engaged, or at least not with every episode.

Such is the case with this summer’s wildly hyped Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, which tracks Piper Chapman’s time in a woman’s federal prison for college drug crimes that caught up with her years later. The show’s opening credit sequence, designed by Thomas Cobb Group, has become a Thing in itself--winning nearly 78,000 YouTube views (about 15,000 more than the Emmy-laden and months-older House of Cards, the other hit from the house of Netflix. Also exceptional, the credits, and usually the Regina Spektor song written specifically for the series, have been noted in nearly every Orange review.

The credits boldly spill out the insides of what creator Jenji Kohan called her “Trojan Horse:” Orange sneaks in real, non-TV women of all breeds and creeds under the cover of “the girl next door, the cool blonde" lead of Piper, played by Taylor Schilling.

And credit where credit’s due: Thomas Cobb Group is the independent production and design company also responsible for the 9/11-themed photomontage that opens Homeland, and the Emmy-nominated, pot leaf-growing title sequence of Weeds (the latter show also a Jenji Kohan creation). Gary Bryman, executive producer at the Marina Del Rey, California-based TCG, tells Co.Design about Orange, “Our initial concept was to create a semi-surreal main title sequence of images from Piper’s point of view that would starkly contrast the hard, cold reality of her new imprisoned life against the imagined luxuries of her previous life.”

But creator Kohan wanted a title sequence suggesting the show would tell many incarcerated women’s stories, not just Piper’s. TCG’s solution was to photograph a full range of real women who had been in prison--from a most intimate, up-close, not typically TV-ready perspective, moles and all.

Michael Trim photographed nine women in New York, including Piper Kerman on whose memoir the series is based (she’s the blue-eyed one who blinks). In LA, Thomas Cobb photographed 52 women who he found via Homeboy Industries, an organization that helps the previously incarcerated and gang-involved redirect their lives with education and employment services, therapy, tattoo removal, and case management.

Bryman says, “Thomas directed each woman to visualize in their mind three emotive thoughts: Think of a peaceful place, think of a person who makes you laugh, and think of something that you want to forget. He apologized ahead of time for the last question but found it was incredibly effective in evoking a wide range of unfortunate memories.”

The women’s faces flash by in a sequence set to Spektor’s new single, “You’ve Got Time.” She sings over images of cuffed hands, fingerprints, and barbed wire--interspersed with haunting, never-airbrushed human close-ups--“The cage is full/Stay awake/In the dark, count mistakes.”

Says Bryman: “Thomas found this really interesting sweet spot of cropped compositions that would not necessarily reveal who the person was, but at the same time provide a portal into their soul through their eyes." One woman with a smattering of little heart tattoos on her temple throws her head back laughing. Another has “ROCIO” inked like a mustache right under her nose. Some grin, some scowl, some have rhinestone studs in their cheeks. Eyebrows are un-groomed or over-groomed. Skin is pocked. There are visible under-eye bags, freckles, pimples, crows’ feet, lip hair.

This shouldn’t be radical, but it is. Though the dearth of “real women” in the media has long been blamed for generations of body-dysmorphic girls, the media rarely respond with positive change. Instagram’s popular "no-filter" hashtag garners points for amateur photographers, but the no-filter approach is unheard of when it comes to commercial TV.

“Authenticity was the driving force behind showing our subjects as they are,” says Bryman. “In the end, we are ecstatic with the final results. And we really appreciate Homeboy Industries and all the great work that they do.”

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13 Comments

  • Melissa Savage

    I used to work with a lot of the women in the intro. How nice for the producers, et al, to use their faces to add realism to their show...too bad the women reap none of the rewards of the show's success. Shameful, really.

  • goldenarmz976

    Have not and probably will not read Piper K's book. I did, however, totally watch Orange is the New
    Black on Netflix (classic FOMO). I struggle with anything that
    makes prison look or feel palatable. I feel like (if I was a woman of course) I
    could hang out in that dorm. Eat the crap food. Pull fast ones on Mendez. Trade
    jabs with Pennsatucky. Get head in the chapel. Eat my Cup o' Noodles without
    spilling on Mrs. Claudette's blanket. Make Thanksgiving gravy with Red. Be not
    nearly mad enough at Alex. Fall in love with John Bennett. Throw a pie for
    Crazy Eyes, errr Suzanne. And end my days in Shavasana, with Yoga Jones.

     

    The problem is that is not what prison looks like. Even for
    white ladies, but especially for society’s nameless and faceless incarcerated
    masses.  It's not cute, it's not fun and
    it's not funny. I should be outraged by Taystee's recidivism; instead of happy
    like a friend just returned from vacation (I was the latter, if that's not
    obvious). I should be sickened by John Bennet's inappropriate, imbalanced and
    illegal sexual relationship with Dayanara Diaz; not rooting for their love. I
    should be sickened by Piper's critical beat-down of Pennsatucky; not rooting
    for her and feeling proud of her.

     

    So I've concluded that for me this show can't be about
    prison, incarceration, social justice, sexuality, or any real issue, because
    it's sooooooo not real.  It is
    entertaining.  It's WILDLY
    entertaining.  The characters in real
    time and as presented in their back stories are very well done. Jenji Cohen
    knows how to make the implausible entertaining. 
    We know this because we spent eight years watching a suburban widow
    outsmart the FBI, DEA, CIA, George Bush, Gibbs from NCIS, and every drug cartel
    from Western PA, to Medellin...she was that good.

     

    So too is OITNB.  The
    implausible made plausible:  Having good
    times in prison. Not 'hard time'. Times filled with laughter. Like the times
    Jerry, Elaine, and Krammer had eating cereal in Jerry's apartment, watching
    Rochelle Rochelle (A young girl's strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk).

     

    It's fine. OITNB is a television show.  We never expected Jerry's apartment to make a
    profound statement about apartment living (though it may have,
    unintentionally).  It was a setting. It
    was a place for fictitious stories, of fictitious characters, to play out for
    the viewing audience. This is what the role, in my estimation, of the prison is
    in OITNB.

     

    Jenji is smart enough to not let us get bogged down on rape
    trails, race warfare, and human enslavement. Prison is a terrible place. It
    makes people who weren't that terrible, terrible.  It's reeks of spiritual death. It darkens
    souls.   You may encounter a Taystee like
    character doing the cabbage patch dance [google is your friend, people], but
    it's likely to be after she stabbed you for phone time.  So next time I'm watching (and I will
    definitely rejoin my new lady friends for another season of urine gravy and
    t.v. titties) I'll just picture them all sitting at  Monk's Café instead of  Litchfield's 
    Prison Caféteria.

  • mcpierogipazza

    You're basing this on what, exactly? I've heard and read positive comments about the show from women who've been incarcerated. They mention that it brings back bad memories but good ones too of friendships and of the ways they found to make the place bearable, things you'd dismiss as unrealistic because it wasn't Girls Go Oz. One friend of mine who loves the show spent several years in Sing Sing. The show isn't perfect, but when ex-cons like it, that says something.

    Two friends have had family members in the real life Litchfield, and while it's clearly no picnic, some of the reports were even amusing. Life is messy that way.

    And it's not unrealistic to root for characters who do messed up things. That's the best part about the arts. We get to explore all that gray area in between the black and white.

    But I'm telling this to someone who actually was smug about the Cabbage Patch dance, so I doubt this was time well spent.

  • persephone.flower

    Wow, television doesn't accurately portray something? You're some kind of critical genius!

    tl;dr; you like the show but apparently felt the need to write a diatribe on its shortcomings of accurate prison life in the comments section of a website. You should have just blogged it on your own, man. Hope that soapbox isn't bent in so it's in good shape the next time you need to spend 20 minutes on it.

    I, for one, am in LOVE with the opening credits. They're powerful, and the variety of faces gives me something to notice every time I watch.them flash by. These credits are brilliant.

  • Christian Stiehl

    My wife and I watched this intro once, and realized on the second viewing that we couldn't stand it. From then on, we skipped 1:20 ahead at the start of each episode as we made our way through this great new show. A minute and twenty seconds worth of credits! That's way too long, for several reasons.

    I love Regina Spektor. I even like the song. But whoever bought it is far too enamored of it. We don't need to hear the whole thing every time. And it starts off jarringly, and stays loud the whole time. The pain!

    I get the idea of showing real women's faces, and how radical that is in our culture. I appreciate it. But the rapid-fire pace of cutting takes away from the impact. We don't have any time to connect with any of the images. Also, after ten or fifteen such pictures, *we get it*. Seriously, we see what you're doing there. Giving us 100 more doesn't increase the impact, it lessens it. It starts to feel like being hit over the head.

    And the very fact that it's just a series of gritty, serious images means that there's no story, no movement, no meta-narrative. Meaning is conveyed in context, through a process. A bunch of faces that drag on and on ceases to be meaningful or interesting, because we have nothing to connect the faces to: we don't know the stories of any of these women, nor are we given enough time with any of them to imagine a background.

    Six Feet Under had an amazing opening credits sequence. Game of Thrones has a great one. Both of those go long, but stay engaging throughout. Unless you've got a good idea for something interesting, it's best to stay short and simple, like Breaking Bad.

  • DJ Shiva

    I adore the intro and the song.  Just watching the clip made me want to binge watch the show again.

  • Abby

    Absolutely love this intro, although I wouldn't call it a "no-filter" approach. Similar to how many commercial photos are edited to look smooth and bright, these photos and film clips are edited to be high-contrast, striking and gritty. They work perfectly to create an emotional response from the viewer, and surely capture the individualtiy of the women - but certainly aren't raw or unedited.