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Fifteen seconds to set a TV show's perfect tone

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 23, 2007


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.

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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.

"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.