If you have Netflix, you may have spent the festive break watching Marco Polo, the new original drama series currently running on the streaming service.
You won't have failed to be impressed by the title sequence, created by Mill+, which offers a sumptuous and sometimes shocking unfolding of ink-drawn illustration and typography on textured paper.
The series, written by John Fusco and produced by The Weinstein Group, follows the famed explorer’s early adventures as he travels the exotic Silk Road to Kublai Khan’s court in 13th century China.
From exquisite costumes to sweeping landscapes, the series recreates a rich and lavish world for Marco Polo to navigate as he accompanies Khan in his violent quest to become the emperor of the world.
The titles offer a stunning sequence of subtle subliminal metaphors inviting the audience to follow Marco Polo’s epic journey.
The title sequence mimics the duality of Khan’s world through visual metaphors drawn from the show’s themes of greed, betrayal, sexual intrigue and rivalry, but communicated through the beauty and grace of the ink-drawn medium.
The elegant, abstract images flow and evolve into shocking scenes, introducing viewers to the contrasting opulence and violence Marco encounters throughout the series.
Co-directors Ben Smith and Bryce Wymer used the decorative art techniques of traditional Chinese painting to tell the story in the titles.
The ink creates abstract shapes that transition into ‘traditional paintings’ As the images become clear and take on form, the audience is introduced to dark and shocking images reflecting the show’s key concepts.
Smith chose ink because of its mercurial, expanding nature, allowing it to metaphorically mirror Marco Polo’s journey and Kublia Khan’s expanding empire.
As the shots pan out, the ink evolves into symbolic imagery.
To create the appearance of an invisible hand ‘painting’ the visuals, Smith and Wymer tested a variety of papers and liquids to achieve the desired viscosity, grace and control.
After experimenting with liquids like vodka, and the use of magnets and ferrofluid, they developed a technique using sumi-ink and a dense paper stock that allowed the water to sit on the surface of the paper.
The ink was shot mostly in-camera, with The Mill’s 2D team compositing in the wider images of the army, the bird, a severed head and fighting wolves.
Mill colourist Mikey Rossiter graded the final sequence, giving it a warm wash to emphasise the time period, while also enhancing the variation in the ink from dark to light and giving it more dimension.
The paper’s texture was also intensified, contributing to the elegant and handmade feel.
The team explored numerous looks for the typography for the title sequence, ranging from ink-like to handmade, to clean and crisp typefaces.
To contrast the handmade feel of the title sequence, a more graphic approach was decided upon, resulting in the final font being chosen.