Unique animation

KidScreen asked programmers to name animated series that have `The Look' it takes to attract kids in 2000 and beyond. The shows cited represent the kind of innovative approaches broadcasters believe can break through the clutter....
May 1, 2000

KidScreen asked programmers to name animated series that have `The Look’ it takes to attract kids in 2000 and beyond. The shows cited represent the kind of innovative approaches broadcasters believe can break through the clutter.

The following close-ups chronicle how a few of these visually unique programs came to be by exploring the creative evolution with the shows’ producers and finding out what elements caught the programmer’s eye-why this show works for them and why it will appeal to kids.

Prodco: Babelfish

Show: Sting the Vegetarian Mosquito

Sting, a vegetarian mosquito with an oversized nose and permanent sunglasses, is rejected by his own kind for his veggie preference and adopted by the Marzipaners, a society of sugar-consuming hybrids who work the word `yum’ into every sentence. Joined by his friends, bumblebee Sydney B. and discarded droid Harry, Sting travels the globe in an effort to rescue the Marzipaners from the evil Deadpak Choker and his mosquito mercenaries.

In an Australian rainforest shooting a documentary, Miles Roston and Sarah Lambert, producers/directors at New York-based Babelfish Productions, were wishing that there was such a thing as a vegetarian mosquito as they were being eaten alive by the carnivorous variety. Thus the idea of Sting was born. Upon arriving home and commencing writing, Lambert enlisted the help of her eight-year-old nephew, who assisted in deciding on what characteristics a vegetarian mosquito would have. Ultimately, they made him an outcast because he was different, and gave him an exaggerated nose and eyes to help out when searching for food.

The resulting show uses a mixture of 2-D and 3-D animation, as well as live-action footage and backgrounds that are reality-based, but have taken on a painted and often distorted look that Lambert likens to a Van Gogh style. ‘We wanted to create something that would blend live action with this other world, and we wanted this Marzipan island to be incredibly fanciful. We’d always been fans of the old Monty Python animation styles, and wanted to mix 2-D and 3-D together to give a kind of painted quality to the world,’ she explains. Roston adds that CGI can often have a cold look to it, and they wanted to create a warm and colorful world. Fellow Babelfish partner/animator Huck Hur was brought on-board, and Lambert credits Hur with much of the show’s look due to his background in both animation and painting.

Because Babelfish has extensive documentary experience, it was able to use previously shot footage in its network pitch pilot. Going forward, new footage will have to be used because of the different approaches of the two mediums. In docs, humans are often at the center of the frame, but for the animated show, Babelfish will shoot people off to the side to make room for the animated characters.

While Sting will expose kids to different parts of the world they may not have previously seen, this is not an outright educational show that takes a didactic tone to impart information. ‘It’s learning through osmosis,’ says Lambert. ‘We didn’t want to do a good-for-you TV show. We wanted to do something that was fun and had strong adventure in different parts of the world so that kids would actually get exposed to different cultures and see different things. They’ll pick things up without even knowing it.’

In addition to France Animation, Babelfish is wrapping negotiations with a final co-pro partner on the project and is also working through broadcast deals with delivery dates of summer and fall 2001.

Jacqueline Cantore, director of programming for Fox Kids Latin America, likes the manipulated faces of the Marzipan species and the colorful candy world in which they live, adding that the live-action portion gives it an added edge to appeal to kids. ‘This is mixed media, but it goes beyond that because the adventures around the world are like postcard images, bringing kids to places like Italy, Argentina and Mexico,’ says Cantore.

Prodco: Cuppa Coffee

Product: Trevor!

The show revolves around the wild imagination of one child, Trevor, who frequently drifts off in class, causing the objects around him to go through various transformations. In math class, a compass turns into a spaceship, erasers are suddenly cowboys rubbing out everything in sight, and the rulers `rule’ the universe. Trevor must even battle his way through the `brussel sprouts belt’ as he and his compass spaceship fly through the universe.

Trevor! was conceived around the idea of mixing cel and stop-motion animation. It is based on the artwork of New York-based illustrator David Goldin, whose style revolves around transforming actual objects-whether they be calculators, socks, or ticket stubs-into illustrations in which the objects become the body of the character, with `cartoony’ arms and legs added.

Cuppa Coffee founder Adam Shaheen liked the idea of a junior Walter Mitty approach. ‘All kids have vast imaginations, and I don’t think TV shows, for the most part, tap into that. Trevor! promotes thinking and imagining-when you switch the TV off, it encourages you to go and create your own weird little universe,’ says Shaheen.

Goldin worked with Cuppa Coffee to create the character design, and director Marek Colek was brought in to work with the artist on taking his style and building a bigger universe out of it; thus the story accompanying Goldin’s artwork was woven into a wild, animated look.

Trevor’s `real’ world starts in 2-D cel animation, then segues into a 2-D/3-D combo for the `imagined’ world-created by shooting stop-motion elements and combining them with cel-with each ep ultimately ending back up in the 2-D world. While the background world that was created by Colek was very symbiotic with Goldin’s vision, the most challenging part was combining the 2-D and 3-D worlds, due simply to all the hours spent compositing. ‘It was very fiddly and complex in terms of the number of layers. Everybody who has looked at it has gone, `You’re absolutely mad-you couldn’t possibly do that if it went to series,” says Shaheen.

At this point, Trevor! is a short that is set to debut next month on Cartoon Network (June 23), and Shaheen says that if it does segue into a series, Cuppa will definitely have to structure things differently, likely with the cel animation going to the Pacific Rim as opposed to Canada. ‘What we did was establish a design and a feel that anyone could replicate, though not everyone could put it together in terms of combining the 2-D and 3-D stuff in the way that we did. Some of the stuff would go out of house and then come back to be put together the `Cuppa Way’. Whatever that is,’ jokes Shaheen.

Cartoon Network director of programming Linda Simensky, already a big fan of Goldin’s work before being pitched Trevor!, likes that the short takes viewers in a down-the-rabbit-hole kind of direction. ‘Going into someone’s head and seeing their alternative universe is sort of a mainstay of indie animation, but in this alternative universe, they go into an Alice in Wonderland-type story more than anything, which I thought seemed smart, clever and different from what was out there; that added the extra twist I was looking for,’ says Simensky. While Trevor! may seem unusual for Cartoon Network in terms of its series, Simensky maintains it is not that unusual-looking for the net’s sked, which offers quite a mixture. ‘I felt it was a little bit of an experiment for me, but it ended up working really well for the network,’ says Simensky.

Prodco: Mainframe

Show: Weird-Ohs

Two friends, Digger and Eddie, are looking to achieve everything teen boys want: success, girls and a way to get out of school. Their schemes are always foiled due, in large part, to poor planning, but also because of Digger’s sister Portia, who sees the lunacy of their ways, yet ultimately gets caught up in their schemes-exacerbating things even more. Weird-Ohs is based on a toy model line of monsters and race cars from the ’60s that Mainframe recreated in 3-D using keyframe animation with a squash-and-stretch approach. ‘We tried to capture the frenetic pace and look that you saw in the traditional Looney Tunes cartoons-where the characters stretch off the screen and the eyes bug out; all these strange things and the crazy pacing we brought into

3-D,’ says Dan DiDio, VP of creative affairs at Mainframe.

The prodco felt it was important to preserve the spirit of the of the original toy line that was created during the hot rod and motorcycle culture, so there is a retro feel in its design-looking like something that could be set in either the ’60s or the ’90s. According to DiDio: ‘We worked the hot rod culture into everything-the diner had car references throughout, the mail boxes were on car mufflers, and the street lights were racing lights.’

While DiDio was at ABC in `94/’95, he had Weird-Ohs on his development slate as a straight 2-D show because the technology did not yet exist to make it into a computer-generated property. Once DiDio moved over to Mainframe, the company decided to hold onto the show until the technology caught up to what the team wanted to do with it.

Weird-Ohs represents yet another visually distinct show in Mainframe’s portfolio. DiDio feels that this distinctiveness protects Mainframe from being pigeon-holed: ‘A lot of houses use motion capture, and your strengths and weaknesses are in the motion capture-you are as good as your performing artist. Our strength is in our animators, the ones who are able to animate the people’s faces or the movement,’ he says. Mainframe’s goal is not to make something look as realistic as possible-after all, it’s animation not live action-but to create something that has a cartoon feel and moves in a unique style, thus propelling the medium forward rather than stopping at the limitations that real life presents. In fact, Mainframe pushed its own tech limitations and created new software to accomplish its vision of Weird-Ohs. The studio plans to take this same technology and roll it out into other new series.

‘The CGI style of animation had really never been applied to that comedy, squash-and-stretch style of animation, and the color palette was just great,’ says Joel Andryc, executive VP of children’s programming and development at Fox Family Channel and Fox Kids Network. ‘What Mainframe did in terms of the look of the show was fantastic.’

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