Fifteen seconds to set a TV show's perfect tone

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For the past two weeks, Synderela Peng has been immersed in the typical worries of a bride-to-be: invitations, bridesmaid gifts, who to photograph and when. The recent Cal Arts graduate even has a cute photo shoot scheduled for the family's pug puppy.

But all this hoopla has nothing to do with her own marital status. Ms. Peng is part of a team that has been assembling the opening few moments, otherwise known as the title sequence, for a new TV show, "The Wedding Bells," a dramedy about wedding planners. The show debuted on FOX March 9 with a "cold open," a sort of no-nonsense approach to storytelling that jumps straight into the characters and storyline with no preamble. Now, creator David E. Kelley wants to take a tiny breather to set the tone of the show ("humorous"), and he's turned to one of the oldest devices on TV, a carefully crafted minimovie, typically no longer than a minute or two, to usher the viewer into each episode.

Once upon a time, every TV show had one, many of them memorable, if not great. Viewers who never sat through an entire episode of "The Beverly Hillbillies" or "Gilligan's Island" can nevertheless hum the songs and recall the little stories these title sequences told. In recent years, pressure to keep viewers from flirting with the remote when familiar theme music starts up has made the cold open more popular. But the memorable title sequence is far from dead. These days, when a show wants to stand out from the increasingly crowded competition, producers task a handful of pros to grab the viewers attention, sell the concept of the show, and credit the top-billed cast members, writer(s), and director. All within mere seconds.

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"I consider myself a storyteller," says graphic artist Garson Yu, who created one of the most distinctive title sequences on air: the apple-dropping jaunt through the women of art history that opens ABC's "Desperate Housewives." "These are like little haiku films, a chance for me to sum up the essence or the deeper themes of the show," says Mr. Yu as he walks from a couch to a nearby mismatched chair inside the Hollywood headquarters of yU+co.

The Hong Kong émigré's glass-enclosed cubicle, part of yU+co.'s 8,000-square-foot, two-story warehouse, is stuffed with creative clutter as well as numerous statuettes and various awards he's garnered during his relatively short seven years in this business.

Key to Yu's success is the ability to heed a client's directions. "Housewives" creator Marc Cherry approached Yu and his team with the concept of desperate women as seen in fine art from the dawn of time. Cherry envisioned a montage of images, but Yu wanted to make the images tell a story. He came up with the idea of the two dimensional, pop-up book, which turned into the definitive "look" for the opening sequence.

"We wanted to send the message that this storytelling hour was like a fairy tale," he says, pointing out that he took this cue from the voice-over narration that drives the show.

"It's in another time and space," says Yu. He adds that the title sequence is a way to prepare the audience to leave everyday reality and enter this heightened, dramatic, and occasionally comic world of these women.

Yu drew inspiration from earlier TV animators, such as Terry Gilliam and Monty Python and the Flying Circus, both pioneers in the art of using two-dimensional graphic elements to tell a story.

"Even back then, they had a sort of retro but also contemporary look," says Yu, who says this combination fit perfectly with the tone of "Desperate Housewives." "The show is surreal, and retro in a way, but also very postmodern and we needed to find a visual way to include all that."

Once the visuals were complete, composer Danny Elfman was brought in to finish the project with his signature brand of music.

Budgets, audience retention, and artistic vision all play a role in whether or not a show gets a snappy title sequence. News divisions led the way, emphasizing the cold open to draw audiences in, says Lori Pate, executive producer at Lee Hunt, a TV strategy firm. "It's all about the immediacy of a story," says Ms. Pate, "rather than building anticipation for an upcoming narrative."

Title sequences can cost more than $60,000 and take weeks to create. Even if an artsy sequence is located after a cold open, as seen on many shows, producers fear audiences will still flip around the dial when it comes on. "There are no rules any more," says Pate. "It's all about audience management and flow."

Indeed, these defining vignettes have morphed significantly as the technology and audience consumption habits have changed. Back in the days of few networks and no remote controls, shows could afford the luxury of lengthy openings with original lyrics and music. Besides setting the tone, these opens served another important purpose, points out Robert Thompson, Director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.

"They told entire back stories for the show," he says. "Everything you needed to know about Eddie Albert, or Gilligan, or Jethro and Ellie Mae was in that song and minimovie."

Which meant, adds Mr. Thompson, that each episode could then stand alone with no obligation to fill viewers in on the characters' past. The familiar, "previously on ..." montage now fills that function, says Thompson. Modern shows typically use songs with "appropriate" lyrics – think of all the CSI shows – rather than composing original themes.

All of this has allowed the more ambitious title sequences such as those now seen on a number of cable shows – think "Deadwood," "Six Feet Under," "Rome," and "The Sopranos" – to become small, metaphoric works of art.

"The greatest of all time for me is 'The Sopranos,' " says Thompson. "It's brilliant in the way it tells the entire American immigrant story from Ellis Island to a mansion in the suburbs in one 60-second open."

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