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They Get Double Takes Creating Looks for TV

January 09, 2006|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

When executive producer Vivian Cannon was putting the finishing touches on tonight's new ABC comedy "Emily's Reasons Why Not," she was unsure how to forecast the quirkiness of the show in its crucial opening titles.

So Cannon and her colleagues turned to Lynda and Ellen Kahn, two Emmy-award-winning designers (who happen to be sisters) who make their livings creating graphics, logos and titles for TV. The Kahns studied the sitcom, which is about a self-help book editor played by Heather Graham, and created a collage-like opening sequence that did the trick.

"They figured out how to tell the story of the show in 20 seconds," Cannon said. She had only one problem with the Kahns. "I always had a hard time remembering which one we had met."

Her confusion is understandable. The 53-year-old sisters, whose company is called TwinArt, are identical twins. They are also leaders in the field of broadcast design, a discipline that is enjoying a renaissance in Los Angeles.

Thanks to the emergence of lower-cost technologies that make video graphics more affordable, combined with a surge in demand for those graphics in both new and old media, hundreds of small firms have opened their doors in the last 10 years, most of them in Los Angeles and New York, according to the Broadcast Designers' Assn.

To cut through the clutter, TV shows today don't just need good acting and good writing -- they need a good look. That's what the Kahns are all about.

In recent years, they've used avant-garde graphics, unusual typefaces and lively animation to help set the tone for such shows as "Arrested Development," "Dharma & Greg" and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." They've also directed commercials for such clients as Coca-Cola Co. and Nabisco. Ellen Kahn cut her teeth as segment director on the 1980s children's show "Pee-wee's Playhouse."

When the Romance Classics Channel transformed into WE, or the Women's Entertainment network, in 2001, designing its signature red, gold and orange logo was just the beginning of TwinArt's involvement. The sisters also crafted opening sequences for such shows as "Tune Up Your Man," and directed a series of promotional spots featuring Susan Sarandon and Vanessa Williams talking about the importance of "me time."

"They were integral in the development of the look and feel of WE," said Stuart Selig, senior vice president of on-air promotion and branding for Rainbow Media Holdings, which also owns AMC, Independent Film Channel and Fuse. "Their work is really playful and evocative."

In most other businesses, the fact that the Kahns were born 10 minutes apart would be merely a footnote. But in their business, in which creating a memorable impression is the name of the game, the Kahns know better than anyone how their resemblance sets them apart.

At TwinArt, they've set out to create their own unusual brand: interchangeable designers who bring a two-heads-are-better-than-one approach to problem solving.

Although the two rarely are in the same room together -- Lynda is based in Los Angeles, Ellen in New York -- the pair collaborate on accounts and each prides herself on being able to pick up where the other left off.

The twins aren't shy about promoting their similarity. In TwinArt's marketing materials, they are pictured in matching black cashmere sweaters, their hair curled in the same "That Girl" flip as worn by the show's star, Marlo Thomas. Each wears a gold chain around her neck from which hangs a three-digit area code: 212 for Ellen and 213 for Lynda.

"A lot of times the clients get a kick out of the fact that we can switch off for each other," Ellen said. "We don't have specialties. We both really do have the same skill sets. We trade off."

On "Emily's Reasons," for example, the sisters spent four months on the opening titles. They culled hundreds of photos of Graham to capture her various moods. Then, they designed an animation sequence set against the pages of a manuscript that Graham's character might have edited.

To make the sequence look like a real manuscript, Ellen intentionally included typographical errors and asked a book editor friend to mark it up. When Graham is shown daydreaming about the men in her life, those characters are represented by paper-doll-like cutouts that appear to have been torn from the manuscript's pages.

Ellen took the lead on "Emily's Reasons," but when she went on vacation Lynda stepped in, meeting with the show's creators at Sony Pictures Television.

TwinArt is a small shop, with annual sales of less than $5 million and six full-time employees (including the Kahns). Lynda works out of her West Hollywood apartment, while Ellen has offices on Varick Street in Manhattan.

In some sense, the Kahns have worked together all their lives. While growing up on Long Island in New York, the children of an insurance agent and a computer technician put on puppet shows and other productions for their parents and friends.

"We used to collaborate in a way that's so similar to what we do right now," Lynda said.

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