How do you capture the essence of a new product—one with no tangible benefits beyond entertainment—in 30 seconds? That's what Digital Kitchen (DK) does when it creates an opening title sequence for a TV show. The Seattle firm, headed by CEO and chief creative officer Paul Matthaeus (above) earned an Emmy nomination—its seventh—for the opening of Fox's medical drama House. Here's how DK created it.
>> House executive producer Bryan Singer—who directed the films X-Men and The Usual Suspects—liked DK's work and hired its team to work on the show.
>> DK's creative team was given a rough cut of the pilot. The producers wanted the sequence to start with the title character, played by Hugh Laurie. "He's like the Antichrist of Patch Adams," says Matthaeus. "A gifted medical Sherlock Holmes who gets no thrill or buzz out of helping people. So our challenge was, 'Where's the humanity here?' "
>> "Generally what we do is we start looking for devices that can be visual metaphors," says Matthaeus. "We looked at the classical imagery of early 20th-century medical texts, which evokes the feel of forensic pathology." DK then hit upon the device of making 3-D objects from the 2-D images, mirroring how Dr. House tells his students to look at cases multidimensionally.
>> One solution involved projecting imagery inside a hospital room, suggesting both the inner humanity of these seemingly sterile spaces and the inner workings of Dr. House's mind. The producers rejected this approach, but Matthaeus has no hard feelings: "They understand the show on levels we don't, so they know what best represents it. We try to come up with multiple right answers, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses."
>> The show's one-word title presented a typographic challenge, especially since the word "House" could easily suggest a home-improvement show. DK decided to start with an H in a box, evoking both the highway-sign symbol for hospital and the hydrogen entry on the Periodic Table of Elements, and creating an instant logo. This brand-savvy approach reflects DK's client list: 70% of the company's work involves advertising, not entertainment.
>> Inevitably, clients will try to mix and match ideas from separate solutions. In this case, the producers rejected one storyboard but liked a particular aspect of it: the idea of showing veins. "They're tracing a path, like Dr. House following a set of clues," explains Matthaeus. So the vein metaphor replaced some nature imagery that DK had originally planned to use.
>> When you have only half a minute to work with, every second counts. When the producers asked DK to include a few shots of Princeton, New Jersey, where the show is set, DK resisted. It hadn't thought the town was an important character, but the producers insisted. So it added some aerial footage.
>> DK eventually added small touches like a woodblock click in time to the sequence's music, evoking Dr. House's walking cane. The finished sequence (viewable at www.d-kitchen.com) has a fluid quality, as if the viewer is being drawn into the show's bloodstream. There are even little bits of floating particulate matter, like platelets. The show has been a critical and ratings hit for Fox, with several Emmy nominations besides Digital Kitchen's.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.