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."