A creative statement, made right up front

Newest art form, not unlike poetry or painting: a show's opening credits

December 26, 2004|By Lynn Smith | Lynn Smith,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD - When Desperate Housewives airs on Sunday evenings, the first thing viewers see is Adam and Eve, dressed in fig leaves, standing beneath the apple tree in Lucas Cranach the Elder's 16th-century painting. When she picks her apple, a Volkswagen-sized fruit falls, crushing him to the ground, leaving her to contemplate her prize.

Next comes a 3-D hieroglyphic of an Egyptian temple, where a woman in royal dress sinks into a growing pile of children, arms waving helplessly. Then, on to the Renaissance flat of Jan van Eyck's "Betrothal of the Arnolfinis," where a pregnant wife sweeps up after her husband throws a banana peel on the floor.

The 30-second opening represents a new, high-concept kind of introductory segment on television.

The old style, called "turn and look," centered on the show's stars looking into the camera as their names scrolled underneath. The new openings are sophisticated mini-movies, complete with their own scores, celebrating ideas, metaphors, symbols, even poetry as the credits roll.

It's a trend, television executives say, that's being driven by the increasing use of digital technology and a desire to spotlight a show's concept and brand rather than individual actors.

For Desperate Housewives, creator and executive producer Marc Cherry said he wanted to do something different than the standard "turn and look" introduction and make a larger statement "about all women throughout history."

"We weren't selling the actors so much as an idea," he said. "We hold icons of motherhood and housewives on a pedestal. My desire is to look at aspects of suburbia and the quiet desperation going on at its core," he said.

Cable has led the way in innovation. Some programs, like HBO's Carnivale, which opens with an elaborate 3-D blend of tarot cards and Depression-era film clips, are more admired for their introductory segments than for the shows themselves. While the HBO drama was ignored in series and acting categories at this year's Emmy Awards, its main title sequence won for that category.

Other segments, like the surreal and symbolic titles for Showtime's new drama Huff - a dark comedy about a psychiatrist coping with love, death and emotional crises - are packed with layers of meaning.

Boxes swim across the screen with dreamlike images - a baby, cigarette smoke, lips that change color, men in suits sitting on chairs on the beach, a faceless man in a hall. A knife cuts a tomato. A razor cuts cocaine. Shoes sit on a ledge. There's a gun, then splattered blood. Voices of men and women drift in from the distance.

The introduction to HBO's Six Feet Under juxtaposes images of the coroner's trade with symbolic images of finality and separation, all to a jaunty score by Thomas Newman.

"We say it's like a little piece of haiku that's supposed to expand the relevancy and meaning of the show that's going to follow it," said Paul Matthaeus, chief creative officer of Digital Kitchen, a Seattle-based design firm that created conceptual titles for Six Feet Under and FX's Nip/Tuck.

Given the effort involved, conceptual titles are often more artistically satisfying than profitable for the designers who create them. They cost between $50,000 and $150,000 to make and can take several months to complete.

"We never make money on them in the long run," said Matthaeus, whose firm also produces more profitable advertising. "It enables us to work in entertainment and advertising simultaneously. It's a way to keep our creative chops fresh."

Typically, arty titles show up on paid cable, where audiences seem to have more patience for the obscure or intangible.

"HBO audiences are more inclined to give shows more time. They know what HBO is up to, something deeper in life," Matthaeus says. "Channel flipping is more prevalent on some of the bigger networks, so they're very anxious to get what they see as their big assets up in front of their audiences quickly."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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