“You catch these killers by getting into their heads, but you also allow them into your own.” — Dr. Hannibal Lecter
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The best horror fiction sends us into a free fall. With no point of reference, sounds and images take on the terrifying weight of possibility. What looks like spilt wine might be blood. That tree branch caught in the wind and tapping at the window could be the razor sharp claw of a dreadful beast. Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, the 2013 NBC adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon, is a 36 hour case study in this type of storytelling. To watch Hannibal is to plummet through fearful uncertainty, searching for verification, hoping that the worst-case scenario is just a figment of your imagination rather than a terrible, all-consuming truth.
After each episode’s cold open we are reminded that this is what Hannibal is about. A short, sharp, and unsettling title sequence, designed by Emmy and BAFTA-winning design studio Momoco, takes us on a 20-second sink through uncanny imagery. Red liquid splashes over a white background. Dissonant music plays underneath – four pulses of metallic string, each searching for their tone – and the liquid finds purchase on an invisible throat, running up to reveal the surface of a face. The blood (or is it something else?) fills more faces, unrestricted by capillaries or veins, revealing hints of familiar characters. Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), the existentially lost empath; Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), the fisher of men. Finally, as form and familiarity begin to outweigh abstraction, we are shown a final face in full portrait: Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), the man who it’s all about, before a blurred title card quickly shifts into focus.
From its first episode, in which the hyper-empathic criminal profiler Will Graham is partnered with Dr. Lecter to aid the FBI in solving the bureau’s most grisly murder cases, Hannibal frequently uses an unreliable narrator to disorient its characters and audience. Over the course of three seasons, the show sustains its elusiveness, dodging clear definition and keeping that sinking feeling in the pit viewers’ stomachs strong, allowing for optimal chills, creep-outs, and moments of grotesque revelation.
That Hannibal Lecter’s face and name anchor the title sequence, just before the first notes of act one, is appropriate. In those rare moments when we the viewers are rescued from narrative disorientation and given a taste of truth, we’re confronted with the darkness of the show’s brutal reality. It all leads back to Hannibal, the maniac who fed you your daughter’s ear. Hannibal is the voice on the other end of the line, telling you it’s time to kill your family. He is the reason you happily fed your own face to a pack of dogs. Just like in the show it introduces, Momoco’s title sequence gives us splashes of implication and innuendo before we land from our free fall and terrible clarity is forced upon us. The wine was blood. There was a monster at the window. The truth is always as horrible as it seems in the brutal and beautiful nightmare that is Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal.
A discussion with Title Designers NIC BENNS and ANDREW POPPLESTONE of Momoco.
So how did Momoco become involved in Hannibal? Did the showrunners come to you with a vision for the opening?
Nic: Bryan Fuller was exploring a route with another studio. Show director David Slade called with a specific direction he wanted to persuade Bryan with. His rough cut [of the pilot] had some beautiful, surreal, and striking moments.
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