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Creating Animated Opens for Live-Action TV

Karen Raugust takes a look at who is doing animated title sequences for live-action TV shows today and factors determining a producers decision to use this treatment. Includes QuickTime movie clips!

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view the clips by simply clicking the image or link.

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The stylish opening for Comedy Centrals Comic Remix is reminiscent of comic books and graffiti. See how EyeballNYC made this title sequence. © Comedy Central 2004. Courtesy of EyeballNYC.

Animated title sequences give live-action television shows a distinctive look. Who can forget the cartoon-style opens for the classic shows Bewitched (1964-1972) or I Love Lucy (1951-1957)? More recent examples featuring animated title sequences include the sitcoms The Nanny (1993-1999), Caroline in the City (1995-1999), and the first seasons of The Drew Carey Show (1995-2004), as well as The Rosie ODonnell Show (1996-2002), a daytime talk program.

Animated series feature animated opens, of course, while sports shows frequently highlight motion graphics and special effects in their title sequences. In the live-action world, most animated opens are associated with primetime sitcoms. However, producers of programming from other genres also are experimenting with creating a unique branding position through animation, particularly on cable networks.

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For example, the home-and-garden network HGTV has commissioned animated opens in different styles for several of its series, pilots and specials. Many of these title sequences have been created by broadcast design firm Primal Screen, including those for Fan-Tastic Homes, a show about home owners that decorate their living spaces around a particular theme (e.g., a Star Trek-style home for a Trekker); Thanksgiving Unstuffed, which features a cut-out animation style in its title sequence; Outer Spaces, a landscape-design show with a traditional cel-style open; The Dish on Dishes, which used cut-out animation in its title sequence; and Oh No, What Have I Done?, a program that never made it on air but had a cel-animated open in a style inspired by the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein, itself influenced by comic strips.

These types of shows, which are in the nonfiction/how-to/documentary genres, often lend themselves to a more sophisticated look than would an open for a sitcom. Its not like cartoons, says Doug Grimmett, Primal Screens creative director. Its more about illustration and style.

Another example of an animated open is one created by EyeballNYC for Comedy Centrals Comic Remix, a series that compiles highlights from stand-up comedy performances that have aired on the network. The 3D-animated open features a disk jockey and a master of ceremonies done in a colorful, graffiti-influenced comic book style; there are two versions, one with a male and one with a female DJ.

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Doug Grimmett (right) and Primal Screen considered illustration and style when designing the open for Outer Space. © 2004 Scripps Networks, Inc.

Another reason for the dearth of animated opens for live-action series is the fact that animation, when it is used, is meant to differentiate a show from its competition; if there were too many similar treatments, therefore, that advantage would be lost, according to Grimmett. For example, when The Drew Carey Show is using animation, other sitcom producers wouldnt want to do the same thing for fear of looking like copycats.

Another consideration is that an animated treatment doesnt make sense for all shows content. An animated open probably wouldnt work for Friends, Grimmett explains. Its just out of character.

Some cable networks seem to be more willing to experiment with the look of show opens than the broadcast networks, where opening sequences tend to use show footage under static titles. Bevan points out that networks such as Comedy Central and MTV have a strong channel-wide brand identification, which allows them to take more risks. They can do it just because they like it and its cool, he says.

In fact, in the case of Comic Remix, which repackages clips from past shows, a unique look was particularly important. Much of the networks imagery, especially of stand-up performances, involves similar shots of microphones, stools and brick walls, all of which would be reflected in Comic Remixs content. Theyre eager to break away from that wherever they can, says Bevan.

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The Evolution of Animated Titles

Animation and broadcast design studios rarely pitch animated opens specifically. They dont pay enough to pitch, says Grimmett. It would cost as much as the job just to get the job.

Rather, producers tend to have some sort of animated treatment in mind before approaching a broadcast design firm. Perhaps seeing a certain style on a studios reel sparks an idea. Or maybe animation simply makes sense given the content of the show, as was the case with Caroline in the City, where the main character was a cartoonist.

If your range of execution [as illustrated on a reel] is in character with the show and how [the producers] see it in the context of the market, then theyll come to you, Grimmett says. You dont go to Primal Screen because you want cel animation, you go because you want a style thats light, playful, fun and quirky.

The process of creating an animated open is usually collaborative, with the network or producer working closely with the broadcast designer or animation house to create a look that works. The Comic Remix example was somewhat unusual in that the network knew exactly what it wanted when it came to EyeballNYC. Comedy Central was looking for an animated treatment of the hand-drawn storyboards, which originally had been intended as the blueprint for a live-action open but were so well drawn they inspired the idea for animation. They were pretty tight storyboards, says Bevan. We liked the idea, because the storyboards were so good.

Compared to network IDs, promos or other broadcast design projects, animating a title sequence is creatively unique in some ways. Rather than relying on clips, as is usually the case for promotional spots for programming, an open can tell a story. Theres an opportunity to do something thats more like a narrative, says Bevan.

With the advance of technology, producers have more cost-effective options at their fingertips than ever before when it comes to selecting a title sequence style. Choices range from static titles over live-action footage, to motion graphics and special effects, to character animation. As Grimmett says, Its about finding the appropriate solution rather than about the technology.

Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).

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