As of early 1999, a fresh crop of TV animation shops have been stamping their impression on kid viewers in the U.S.
Springing from the commercial and new media arenas, these producers are wooing buyers with sought-after novel looks.
A Little Curious, the first full-length series from New York-based Curious Pictures, is a showcase for the wide range of looks that animators can produce. Blending cel animation, CG, collage, cutouts and live action, each episode of the preschool program portrays the cast of everyday objects-including a ball, a mop and a piece of string-in a variety of animation techniques in short, educational films. ‘I like to describe it as a little animation film festival,’ says Steve Oakes, president and creative director of Curious Pictures. The 26 x half-hour series began airing on HBO Family in February.
This mixed-media approach is inspired by the individual styles and interests of the more than dozen directors whom Curious Pictures has come to represent in its six years of commercial work. Although Oakes dabbled in kids TV series as supervising producer of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse in 1986-87, Curious Pictures, co-founded by Oakes in 1993, began as a commercial animation shop. This spot background has helped the company move into TV. For one, says Oakes, ‘a lot of our commercial work is character-driven,’ such as ads with Captain Crunch for Quaker Oats and Cheesasaurus Rex for Kraft. ‘The commercials really let us polish those [mixed-media] skills [and] hone those instincts to pick the right way of executing a treatment.’ And the relationships established with programmers through broadcast promo work make it easier to open doors for pitching series.
The company has leveraged entrée at Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, landing development deals for TV series. HBO Family has ordered another 18 episodes of A Little Curious. Nickelodeon aired An Off-Beats Valentine’s Special, the first half-hour episode of The Off-Beats, in February. Sort of a millennial Charlie Brown, The Off-Beats began airing in 1996 within KABLAM! on Nickelodeon. The company has also produced a half-hour, mixed-media special for HBO called Smoke Alarm, which aired in 1997; created live-action and CG interactive segments for 15 episodes of Elmo’s World on Sesame Street (which launched last November); and is kicking around ideas for feature films.
Curious Pictures’ business model is evolving, says Oakes.’As we get more confident and willing to make a bigger investment upfront, we would hope that it would move away from work for hire and [to us being] more of a rights holder.’ TV production currently accounts for 30% of the company’s business, with the remainder from commercial work. The company also houses newly formed Curious Toys, which began selling its first product, a construction toy called Curious Bonz, in the U.S. in early `99.
Also drawing from its commercial roots to create a new look for kids TV programming is Toronto’s Cuppa Coffee Animation, whose Crashbox (produced with L.A.’s Planet Grande) kicked off on HBO Family in February (see ‘Let’s build a brand,’ January 1999, page 54, searchable at www.kidscreen.com).
Since opening its doors in 1993, Cuppa Coffee has tried its hand in cel, cutout, stop-motion, clay animation, mixed media and live action. This range of animation techniques and the diversity of the shop’s staff are among the strengths it brings to kids TV, says Adam Shaheen, president and executive producer. Shaheen himself has no formal animation training (he graduated from the London School of Printing with a degree in photography), and hires from ecclectic backgrounds. Some staff are traditional animators, but with a more experimental/fine arts edge, says Shaheen.
‘People think of us as experimental,’ he says of the company’s kids TV programming. ‘But it’s the way kids live-it lets them run riot with their imaginations.’ Shaheen points to the British TV he grew up with as a kid, which he says was driven by passion, as the model of the kind of unique, nonconformist programming he’d like to produce. Shaheen adds that Cuppa Coffee’s style of animation is ‘not Saturday morning [cartoons].’
Shaheen had his first taste of producing kids TV with the short The Adventures of Sam Digital for Nick in late 1997, and the opportunity to work on Crashbox with Planet Grande came along 18 months ago at just the right time for Shaheen, who was ‘going through the motions a bit’ in commercial work.
Cuppa Coffee is working on another 13 episodes of Crashbox and three interstitial
series for HBO Family: 411, 40 one-minute episodes, using 2-D clay animation, that offer kids helpful hints, and Who Knew? and Smart Mouth, both 80 x one-minute series starring characters from Crashbox (all concepts developed in-house at HBO Family under the direction of Elaine Brown, creative director, new channel development). A pilot for a preschool, reading-based series for Nick Jr. is under way, as well as a pilot for Clever Trevor, a seven-minute series for Cartoon Network. Clever Trevor is the first property written and created by Cuppa Coffee, and stars an English boy transplanted to the U.S. who drifts into daydreams that unfold on his notebook. The company is also negotiating with a major U.S. network to produce a half-hour Christmas special.
Cuppa Coffee’s business is now 85% to 90% TV production and 10% to 15% broadcast design. The TV activity allows Shaheen to be more choosy about which commercials he takes on. All series except Clever Trevor have been produced on a work-for-hire basis, and Shaheen is satisfied to continue with this business model.
Seattle, Washington-based Headbone Television enters kids TV animation from the kids software and on-line business, and its first TV projects give the impression of being simple and, at times, rough-looking animation. This look, which won its parent company, Headbone Interactive, acclaim for CD-ROMs and its Headbone Zone Web site, is one way the studio is looking to distinguish itself.
Five-year-old Headbone Interactive’s new media beginnings led to creating a digital animation process that could be adapted for broadcast-quality production, and the company opened Headbone Television in July `97.
Headbone Television landed its first TV deals in early `99 (see ‘Headbone turns to TV,’ March 1999, page 10, searchable at www.kidscreen.com). Hugo Takes a D-Tour launched on Discovery Kids last month, and Fidgetmore will begin on Fox Family Channel this spring. Headbone is looking to incorporate an on-line tie-in for both series.
This capability to create programming for TV and the Internet is what Scott Hudson, VP of product development and creative director of Headbone Interactive, considers one of the company’s advantages as a newcomer to kids TV animation. But this offering alone isn’t enough to convince buyers-it’s the look that’s catching attention, says Hudson. Each series features a fusion of live-action or photographic backgrounds with digitally animated foregrounds, creating a depth that appeals to kids, says Hudson. ‘[Headbone's style] comes through in a look that’s a lot simpler and in its immediacy,’ he says. ‘It’s the direct translation of what the artist puts on the screen.’
Headbone’s digital animation process is also ‘faster in every way,’ says Hudson. From concept to finish, Headbone can complete a shorts series in about three months. Five people do the animation, as well as the hand-drawn storyboarding. Hudson estimates that production costs are one-third of the cost of a traditional kids TV cel animation series.
Headbone owns all rights to Fidgetmore, and plans to support the Fidgetmore Web site (www.fidgetmore.com) with sponsors, which are easier to attract when you have a TV series, says Hudson. The studio also wants to bring Fidgetmore into licensing if interest picks up, and is planning to sell the show internationally. Headbone holds no equity in Hugo, but retains the first right of refusal to produce TV or on-line spin-offs of the show. Despite its ambitions for the TV series, Hudson adds that Headbone’s core is still the Web.