When networks air pilots for test groups, they show everything except the show theme song and title. On a practical level, these bits add cost to a show that never reach air. More importantly, however, preview audiences hate them.
WINER (executive producer): They’ve actually discovered test audiences judge the title quite harshly. It hasn’t been normalized for them through advertising.
Therefore, filming a title sequence takes on special significance to a cast.
BURRELL (Phil Dunphy): We’re filming this because it’s going to be on the air. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s hard to believe sometimes when you’ve spent as much time unemployed as we all have and don as many auditions, literally thousands, as we have, that you’re filming title credits. You’re pinching yourself, at least I was.
For Modern Family’s title sequence, executive producer Morton turned to Shine. Shine has designed titles and graphics for many TV shows and feature films, including The Goldbergs, Fresh off the Boat, Pitch Perfect, and La La Land.
MICHAEL RILEY (creative director at Shine): Jeff said he liked the idea of doing something with frames, but he wasn’t really specific about what should be.
LEVITAN (cocreator): There was an HP commercial at the time where they did these cool things with frames where the image would become a frame. I thought that was really cool. I think that family photos and frames are very family-ish.
A 2009 half-hour comedy ran twenty-four minutes (today it’s closer to twenty-two). Because of such time limitations, the producers wanted to keep the title sequence concise.
LLOYD (cocreator): Honestly, we thought we’re doing a series where we have to service eleven characters. We’d probably rather have those extra twenty seconds to start our storytelling.
Shine pitched a handful of ideas revolving around the interconnection of families.
RILEY (creative director): When I talk at design schools, I bring Modern Family. It’s where the only good idea in our presentation was the one we ended up doing. We had one storyboard that was a timeline of families. We started with imagery of cavemen and Neanderthals and then went through history with different families. We had another with a 3-D blue house. As you moved around the house, in each window we found different family members. Then you pulled back and the house became a box that contained the typography that said Modern Family. We had a concept that was a family tree with leaves falling. We pull back and it said Modern Family in the middle of an engraved tree. We had a paper cutout of a family that looked like the Dunphy family. Then it closed up. When it opened again, it was a silhouette of the entire family. Think about that. It’s saying the Dunphys are at the center of the family. I think it’s a terrible idea. We presented a montage of overlapping family frames and one in which we animated the characters using ’60s-style animation. That’s because in Back to You, Steve and Chris did an animated character-driven title sequence. We thought that might be appealing to them.
The producers opted for the family frames. Then they figured out how to use them.
RILEY (creative director): I think our original storyboard had a smooth transition into the main title and then out of it, but they ultimately decided that they’d like a moment of silence. Steve wanted to have something that started off really energetic with a beat over the cold opening so that when you got into the main title, you were on this ride. The beginning of act 1 is a new chapter, so let’s have a moment of clarity.
FERGUSON (Mitchell Pritchett): Now, when we get to that place where we know something’s going to be in the freeze-frame of that opening, sometimes as a cast we’ll sing it.
WINER (executive producer): I wanted to shoot exteriors because so much of the show is shot inside. I thought it’s a nice opportunity to remind everyone what the exterior of each environment looks like and to associate each family with their house.
The houses reside in different locations in LA, including Cheviot Hills and Brentwood. A tight shooting schedule led to a guerrilla filmmaking style.
RILEY (creative director): Jeff [Morton] would call a few hours before and say, “Hey, I think we’re going to get a window to go shoot at Mitch and Cam’s house. Could you please be there at 11:15?” So we’d show up and be the first ones there and wonder, are we in the right place?” Then a truck would speed over. They’d roll the dolly off the back and in fifteen minutes they’d have the camera up and hair and makeup there. Then Mitch and Cam would come in a car. We literally had twenty minutes to get the shot. Every house was the same way.
Each family takes a beat to settle themselves when on-camera.
RILEY (creative director): Jason said he thought it would be funny for the actors to be primping. He wanted to add a little energy and get the moment of capturing a Sears family portrait moment where everyone’s trying to make themselves look good.
The last exterior, at the Pritchetts’, cuts to the final shot: the entirely situated together over a white background. In the center, Winter and Hyland hold a frame containing each family shot, one inside the er. They flip the frame over to reveal the Modern Family logo inside.
RILEY (creative director): I didn’t want to cut to a logo. I thought there was value in having those kids flip to it. You have to do something interesting to reveal the mark.
WINTER (Alex Dunphy): It was cool to be the one that got to flip the frame. It’s still cool. I was a little stressed out about the green screen situation. There’s nothing in the frame. What if it’s lopsided? Am I going to flip it a weird way? What if I get fired based off this frame? Actors being extremely dramatic. That’s something we occasionally do.
HYLAND (Haley Dunphy): I feel like they had Ariel and I flip it a lot. And it’s like the wrong angle. We were at that time very different heights. That made it harder than it should have been.
BURRELL (Phil Dunphy): I felt stressed out for the kids because they were really little at the time, and they were being asked to flip that thing on time in the right spot. Meanwhile, seven-year-olds are driving tractors on farms all over America, but still for some reason, I was feeling stressed for them.
GOULD (Luke Dunphy): Over the years, we’ve had to go back and re-create that because the kids have aged so much. I get a little anxiety when we have to redo it. It takes so long. It’s genuinely stressful. One time, I got slapped with the frame by Ariel.
WINTER (Alex Dunphy): Nolan did get whacked. It was mildly entertaining.
Riley chose a Modern Family title graphic that only uses lowercase letters.
RILEY (creative director): That was a thing with a lot of typography back then. Making the first letter a capital suggested an importance to those two words that typographically gave the voice of the font some gravitas that seemed inappropriate. To me, modern family seems like part of a pull quote from an article about a modern family rather than this is the modern family.
Next came the theme music, courtesy of musician and composer Gabriel Mann, whom Winer knew from some of his early directing experiences.
GABRIEL MANN (musician/composer): It was challenging because you really want to make a statement in a short amount of time. You used to have all the time in the world and could tell a story like Gilligan’s Island. Now it’s not like that anymore. I’ve done some at three, five, and seven seconds. They’re like a miniature statement. In retrospect, twelve seconds was a luxury.
Two camps formed over the type of music to use.
MORTON (executive producer): I wanted to use a piece from composer Dan Licht, who had scored many things for me over the years.
LLOYD (cocreator): I wanted something punchy and short. I like the Will and Grace theme. It’s very bouncy music and seems energetic. The challenge is to get it all into eight to twelve seconds.
MANN (musician/composer): Jason said, “Why don’t you make something that’s like a big band?” So I went to the studio and went for it. I had a great trumpet player and teacher, Tom Marino. I played the piano. Once we got closer to the real thing, I used a drummer and bass player. I did the vocals. A traditional shout chorus in an old-school big band has all the guys in the band doing some “hey” or “yeah” or whatever they do. I divided the music by the frame of the different families. There’s four phrases and an ending. It was very interconnected. It beats you over the head with the energy and fun.
MORTON (executive producer): Dan’s had a more memorable theme. Gabriel’s was all big energy. The reactions split equally among the decision-makers. Ultimately, we couldn’t really break the tie, so we had Stephen [McPherson] weigh in. He chose Gabriel’s because he liked its in-your-face energy.
Not everybody agreed with the decision, although they accepted it.
LEVITAN (cocreator): I never loved the main title song, to tell you the truth. I wanted one that maybe had a little bit more warmth to it. It’s nothing against Gabriel because many people loved it. It didn’t feel like our show to me, but it is after all these years.
MANN (musician/composer): Steve came over to the studio, and I did dozens of versions of a more heartwarming direction with many different iterations like the heartwarming cues at the end of the show I do, these acoustic and bass organic instrumentations. At some point, I think he gave up because everyone else was sold on the other thing.
LEVITAN (cocreator): Music is so mercurial. Sometimes a theme hits you with, “Wow, that’s amazing.” The first time I heard the Mad Men theme, I thought. “That’s great.” That’s what I was looking for. At the end of the day, you have to land on something, and this was by far the best thing we had.
MORTON (executive producer): Gabriel did a great job. It was the right decision. I’m a movie music and big TV theme fan. I get swayed by that type of thing. My late father-in-law was a big-time trumpet player who played in MGM musicals. He was involved with some of the great Hollywood music. I remember him saying that he went to a scoring session for Jaws. When John Williams had them do the badum, ba-dum on a musical level, it was very simple. All the musicians quietly laughed. Forty-five years later, it’s one of the most iconic pieces in movie history. The Modern Family theme goes hand in hand with the show.