Opening Titles: Westworld (2016)

In All, Television by Kyu

In this irregular feature, Kyu analyzes and elucidates the meaning of title sequences both new and classic.

Welcome to the introduction. This is normally where I would discuss HBO’s new show, Westworld, a sci-fi/Western blend based on the 1973 film by Michael Crichton, introducing its themes, giving my general opinion of the show, and contextualizing the rest of the post.

But I can’t, because I haven’t seen Westworld yet. I’ve only seen the opening credits. As an experiment, I’m about to perform for your edification and amusement a cold close reading of the show’s title sequence. I’ll offer my thoughts, shot by shot, on what these images may have to say about the show that follows them–and those of you who have actually seen Westworld will have to be the judge of my success. Without further ado:

One minute and 43 seconds long, the sequence consists of 34 shots of varying levels of abstraction in a black or white space. These shots interweave four separate sequences. In the most elaborate, machines construct an artificial horse, then a woman, then a gun, then the woman holds the gun while riding a horse. A minor sequence depicts two artificial humans in mid-coitus who are then repaired. The most thematically resonant sequence depicts artificial hands being constructed to play a piano, which then begins playing itself; above the piano, a light moves to illuminate a metal circle, in which we later see an artificial human form sinking into a milky white liquid and revealing the show’s logo. Finally, an abstract set of images depict an eye, also artificial, which does various things; particularly it reflects a desert landscape.

Let’s break those down in a little more detail.

1 – Construction

We all know that Westworld is about robot cowboys who appear perfectly human (savvy sci-fi prognostication or merely a budget-conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers?), because I’ve seen the movie and you’ve probably seen the show (and if not that, the trailer). This first sequence uses 11 shots to tell a linear story indicating the presence in this show of robot cowboys–first a horse is built, then a woman, then a gun, A then B then C–but also frames that story through the lens of storytelling, particularly cinematic storytelling.

The opening shot of the sequence is deceptive; at first glance, it is a landscape, a pale horizon line, perhaps a desert, with a sun rising from left to right. As the shot nears completion, the “sun” is revealed to be one of the manufacturing arms we’ll see throughout the trailer, and the desert is really a body. (Careful examination reveals it as the back of the horse.) Deception and illusion are natural themes for a show where objects are made to seem like flesh and blood, and those themes recur throughout the title sequence.

Subsequent shots depict the process of building limbs out of the pale white material; finally these are revealed as parts of the horse. There’s a very key shot here of the whole horse running in place, while a bar of light moves left to right underneath the horse. This composition is a deliberate reference to the foundation of cinema and the moving image, the famous Muybridge photos:

Muybridge entered into a bet as to whether a galloping horse ever had all four hooves off the ground, and used a series of split-second photographs activated by trip-wires along the route to prove himself correct. By capturing the illusion of motion in a series of still photographs, Muybridge essentially invented movies, which are simply still frames shown in quick succession. The visual reference in Westworld‘s opening titles to this foundational illusion connects the idea of constructed bodies and constructed images, a notion reinforced by the bar of light, which seems to connote the movement of the artificial horse across a span of time, like a digital progress bar in video playback or editing software.

We return to this sequence at 0:50, as the same machine limbs which built the horse now build a revolver, moving in sync like dancers in a ballet. At 0:54, the gun turns, revealing a light behind it in a somewhat confusing composition that, for me at least, evokes either an old-fashioned film camera or the front-on view of a film projector, light shining at us. The gun dry-fires, a preparation for violence.

Next, the titles cut to an artificial woman’s face, which appears beautiful but is revealed to be horribly scarred on the left side (our right). Another illusion, and given the cut from the gun to the face, perhaps a representation of the effects of violence.

01:02, the sequence climaxes as all the pieces come together. Godard said, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” Westworld adds the horse.

“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”

The way the total structure, horse and woman and gun, is placed center frame in a spotlight, constructor arms pulling away, suggests a stage, or staging; the orientation along two-dimensional lines, as opposed to facing us, returns us to the element of cinema rather than the theater, particularly because the “scene” that has been built is a traditional Western image, the gunslinger riding and shooting–a chase.

The effect of this sequence is to tell a story. It begins with an apparent landscape, which becomes an animal (action without intention), then adds a weapon (action with consequence) and a person (human intention) who is characterized (a unique face with an implied history). The combination (action with intention and consequence) is narrative, and the visual framing and spotlighting brings to the forefront the idea that this story is being constructed for us. This isn’t robotics, it’s HBO.

2 – Flirtation

But this isn’t just an action Western show; the sequence also includes a pair of artificial human figures who appear to be making love. 0:35, a passionate embrace, two pale bodies exposed and entwined. A close-up at 0:43 depicts both figures with their eyes closed, bodies moving in the traditional arc of pleasure.

Two welding arms move in close to attend to them in the first shot of the sequence, and later we see that, too, in close-up (0:47 and 0:49). The touch of a lover is replaced by the touch of the constructor arms, which passes a light (a stylized representation of welding, perhaps) down the back of one lover’s neck and the other lover’s spine. The spinal column leading to the brain passes physical sensations from the body into awareness and emotion. When the sex is artificial, this short sequence tells us, so is the love–yet the pairing may still be a source of light in a dark space.

3 – Automation

This sequence, while containing a sense of musical play, is really about the alarming progression of artificial intelligence. It’s fitting that the first image in the sequence here is of a hand, first being constructed and then playing the piano (0:32). Hands were the first tools of man, appendages that we use to interact with our environment, to shape it to our will. From hands wielding stones to building robots is in one sense the story of our entire species:

This Westworld title sequence demonstrates the fearsome evolution of technology that occurs as soon as our tool-making processes are themselves automated. The first shot is of one of the constructor machines, which have replaced human hands as the means of creation. That crude approximation is used to create the much more elegant, human-like hand of the robot man. This new appendage is sophisticated enough to play the piano (the notes helping to create the otherwise non-diegetic score):

Note the shift with this shot (0:38) from the previous few. Another pattern emerges of shifting perspective. At first we’re looking in close-up at the robot hand being “strung” by the constructor arm, as if we are the makers. Now the piano is played by two hands in a point of view shot–we are now the robot itself. But the sequence continues to showcase a disturbing evolution–01:05, the hands lift off in surprise as the piano begins playing itself.

Live piano players are a classic element of Old West settings, particularly when it comes to saloon scenes. A thin man plonks away at a pleasant tune, even while hard men threaten violence around him. It’s a trope that’s been fulfilled, subverted, and reinvigorated repeatedly over the years:

But player pianos in an old West setting are at best anachronisms. First invented in the late 1800s but not widely sold until the turn of the century, well after the West was “won,” these machines were really the first objects in the home that could play music automatically and on demand–replacing the need for family members to learn to play in order to entertain. The player piano threatened to make the piano player obsolete.

The shot at 01:08 shows us the paper reel whose abstract pattern tells the player piano which notes to play. It’s no accident that this brings to mind the early days of computing, when paper punch cards would tell machines what actions to take:

Pay close attention, too, to the music here, as a single run of notes repeats itself during the sequence. First the robot hands play it (0:38), then the piano plays the same notes on its own (01:05), then the music repeats over the reel turning (1:08), and one more time in grander fashion as the evolutionary sequence completes itself:

Ascendancy of… ?

The progression of replacement has advanced so far that the robot player is no longer visible; the piano plays itself along, heralding the rise of evolution’s next step. This artificial sunrise calls back to the very beginning of the title sequence. That false sun was a constructor arm, the closest level of automation to actual humanity; this one exists at the other end of the scale. From human tools (the constructor) to human-crafted tool simulations (robot hands) to tool-less processes (the player piano) to… what?

The shot at 01:15 shows the beginning of a new construction process, a circular stand held up by the constructor arms. 01:22 to 01:30 completes the sequence: a robot man is attached to the stand, which tilts down to submerge him in a milky white fluid.

I’m going to skip the puerile interpretation there and point out associations with purity and rebirth, with the manufacturing processes around molded plastic, and the interesting association with one classical cinematic representation of humanoid robots:

Alien, 1979.

Then, of course, there’s the new robot’s pose. Arms splayed, legs apart, subtle strings connect his limbs and head to the circular device–suggestions of control, of the robot as puppet, or as slave held in bondage. But undertones of forcible transformation aside, the pose is immediately familiar:


Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man explores the proportions of the human body as suggested by the architect Vitruvius, who wrote in his De architectura:

For the human body is so designed by nature that the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead and the lowest roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the whole height; the open hand from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger is just the same; the head from the chin to the crown is an eighth, and with the neck and shoulder from the top of the breast to the lowest roots of the hair is a sixth; from the middle of the breast to the summit of the crown is a fourth. If we take the height of the face itself, the distance from the bottom of the chin to the under side of the nostrils is one third of it; the nose from the under side of the nostrils to a line between the eyebrows is the same; from there to the lowest roots of the hair is also a third, comprising the forehead. The length of the foot is one sixth of the height of the body; of the forearm, one fourth; and the breadth of the breast is also one fourth. The other members, too, have their own symmetrical proportions, and it was by employing them that the famous painters and sculptors of antiquity attained to great and endless renown.

Does the reduction of the human body to its proportional measurements seem a little… artificial, to you? As if this were a guide for reproduction in flesh (or alloy) as well as in ink?

At the same time, the Vitruvian Man implies a kind of physical perfection, the attainment of an ideal. This, then, is the pinnacle of robotic evolution (even as the process continues ad infinitum with this robot’s liquid transformation). Man creates tools; tools create more sophisticated tools; as the process continues without human intervention, it takes a leap toward heights which man can only dream of attaining, creating a perfect form… one perhaps barely held in check by the systems man designed. The final dissolve, then, into the logo of the show and the park–a stylized W whose lines recall the splayed form of the Vitruvian bot–is an ironic warning of the lackluster efficacy of taking an almost religious advancement of science and papering over all the terrors it implies with a comically thin veneer of commercialism.

Or in other words, borrowing from another Michael Crichton work… God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates robots. Robots recreate God. God is probably happy to be back, but not so forgiving about the earlier stuff. And the horses inherit the earth. Welcome to Singularity Park.

4 – Perception

The final motif of the Westworld credits is a series of disparate shots suggesting an eye, series of eyes, or possibly eye-like cameras. Despite the severe abstraction of these images, they make up a significant portion of the titles, shots 7 through 9, 15, 28 and 29, and with shot 34 finish out the credits. So it’s worth delving into some of the possibilities evoked here.

At 0:25, the delicate metal “finger” of a constructor arm glides across the surface of an eye–based on the previous shot, this may be the horse’s eye. The next shot shows an eye reflecting a rock formation, hints of the desert landscape the show’s Western portions will likely involve. A third shot (0:27) depicts a pupil dilating, a common physiological response to increased light in the environment, but also one indicative of emotion, stress, arousal, and decision–the stuff of drama. In total, these three shots continue the overarching theme of an artificially constructed emotional experience–both the show we’re about to see and the subject of that show, a theme park designed to involve the attendee in a series of narratives. For the attendee and for ourselves, those narratives will be observed through the eyes, and are meant to evoke the internal reactions which may generate a dilating pupillary response.

0:45 presents another landscape as seen through the eye, but 01:17 presents something new, a kind of God’s eye view of a toroidal Western desert:

God signs his work.

Although very similar to the eye imagery we’ve seen before, this also evokes the distorted lens of a ceiling security camera. Westworld must by necessity be controlled and observed; this God’s eye view reflects the vision of those who created and shaped the land as well as the experience–a status that also applies to Jonathan Nolan, who helps to author the entire show and its narrative landscape.

The next shot (01:19) returns us to what is more clearly an eye, still looking at the landscape but no longer from above. Taken together, the two shots suggest a dichotomy of perspective between show and audience, park and visitor. The God’s eye view is comprehensive, if distorted, while the view from the ground presents an effective illusion of reality.

Finally, after the main portion of the titles have been completed and the logo displayed, the remainder of the credits play out over a shot that is not full black, but marked by the striations present earlier in this motif. This dark eye could represent the pause before the show, like the momentary darkness of a movie screen between the dimming of the house lights and the beginning of the projection. But it could also another grim warning, to go with the pale rider and the constructed Vitruvian, that all of these processes–the ill-advised progress, the rampant evolution, the intimations of violence and violent usurpation–are allowed by the blindness of those meant to be observing. As viewers, we know less than we should. We might be about to learn more than we wish.

5 – Connection

One minute and 43 seconds. 34 shots. I’ve considered them each in sequence, demonstrating their individual progression and unpacking their symbolic and stylistic associations. But now it’s time to consider these opening titles as a whole–and reveal the connections between these intercut sequences established through composition and editing. Because none of these ideas stand alone.

0:08–a constructor arm strings a piano. In the following shots, other arms draw tendon-like strings across the limbs of an artificial creature. The juxtaposition suggests that both are artificial, human-designed constructs intended for the purpose of entertainment–a piano for music, a horse for a Western show.

0:19–that horse, running, evoking the Muybridge photos. The next shots are the first three of the eye motif, ending with the dilating pupil. This constructed, cinematic horse will be perceived through the eye of the audience, who will react with emotion and excitement.

0:32–a repetition of the “stringing” imagery reminds us that both piano and piano players are tools, but the hand plinking out the non-diegetic score is unusually flexible and life-like, animated in an alluring dance. The next shots establish the lovers, slowly shifting their bodies in mid-coitus as the constructor arms tend to them. The movement of the composition is itself balletic, suggesting a tableaux both passionate and carefully staged.

0:52–constructor arms swoop in to make the gun. The placement of this part of the sequence within the overall titles suggests a subliminal progression from music to sex to violence, an arc of increasing emotion comprised of some of the main elements of today’s successful dramatic television. The movement of the constructing machines here seems to continue the elegant ballet, as if to emphasize the skill and diligence of the people who built the show (as well as the park within the show).

01:01–the pale rider on her horse completes the construction sequence. That the next shots depict the evolution from piano player to player piano suggest that the dangerous, runaway progression of robotics beyond human control is the inevitable cost of building the artificial Western itself. From a literal perspective, what was once controlled may break free of its intended purpose; but given the piano’s association with the show as artistic work, this may also reflect the way narratives attain their own momentum and purpose beyond the original intentions of the authors.

01:15–the circular stand for the Vitruvian ‘bot is moved into place and lit. The thrust of the image suggests a stage being set, but the key connection here is the way the empty stand resembles the eyes we’ve seen throughout. The process of making Westworld is that of arranging imagery for our eyes; this crucial shot therefore connects the meta-narrative of the show’s production with the building and transformation of the dangerously God-like ideal man. The very next shot is the Jonathan Nolan credit; as gods go, perhaps it takes one to make one.

01:23–the final shots of the Vitruvian sequence. The strings holding him within the circular frame may now remind us of the strings of the piano and the tendons of the earlier constructed robots, telling us that creation brings with it a measure of control. If this circular frame is also the eye, in which images are constructed by the filmmakers, then the Vitruvian is not only held here but deliberately on display, splayed and chained for our entertainment like King Kong before his audience:

01:26–submerged in the liquid, head back, the Vitruvian accepts his fate. Like the park visitors, like the ridden horse, like the robot lovers trapped in passionate embrace, like the programmed piano, this new form of Man surrenders to Westworld, in all its expert design.

And so should we.