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The right (toon) stuff

Beyond toon tech, on the content side, finding the right Y2kid-compliant attitude is the programmers' quest. Kidnet execs have credited the following show creators with being plugged in to kids tastes when it comes to delivering the right blend of edgy...
May 1, 2000

Beyond toon tech, on the content side, finding the right Y2kid-compliant attitude is the programmers’ quest. Kidnet execs have credited the following show creators with being plugged in to kids tastes when it comes to delivering the right blend of edgy elements-story, pacing, style and dialogue.

KidScreen asked the creators of some of the new and existing toons that were cited what kids-will-like-it development methodology is behind their shows, and what is the most crucial element in striking the right chord with kids. . .

Sheep in the Big City

Creator: Mo Willems

Premise: A show riddled with word play, this is the story of a sheep (called Sheep), who is hiding from a military organization that wants to use him as a component of a sheep-empowered ray gun. The show deals with how Sheep survives `on the lamb’ in the city-how he copes with romance, finds gainful employment and makes friends.

While Mo Willems, a director at New York-based Curious Pictures, may jokingly refer to Sheep in the Big City as a genre piece, Sheep is thematic for a lot of the stuff that Willems has done in the past. ‘He’s a loner, he’s an alien, he’s on the outside. That sense of not belonging and trying to figure out your way in the world is something that almost all of my shows have to do with,’ acknowledges Willems.

Originally pitched as a sheep who is simultaneously a superhero and Vice President of the United States, the show evolved into the satirical look at city life that it is today.

Cel animated, with a 1950s style à la Rocky and Bullwinkle (and a bit of Monty Python thrown into the mix), Willems calls Sheep in the Big City a variety show. Within each half hour, there are three chapters of the misadventures of Sheep, surrounded by sketch comedy, spoof commercials and parodies featuring narrator Victor Spokesman and some cross-over with characters General Specific and Private Public.

‘This show has what I call the 10-year rule: everything in the show has to be funny for a 10-year-old and be funny in 10 years,’ says Willems. Not wanting to date itself by referencing rock groups or movies, the toon focuses on larger cultural trends and stories that should still be amusing to that once-child when he is 19.

Willems, who used to be a writer on Sesame Street, says that the approach to the two shows is similar in that the writing exists on two levels-silly and funny for young children, but containing references and humor for the adults watching it with them.

While he obviously doesn’t think kids should be treated as outright adults, Willems does think that treating kids as individuals is paramount. As for the hardest part to get just right? ‘Having that intuitive sense that this works, that this clicks. There are a couple of things that could be done differently and this would be a colossally dreadful show. You have to have a sense of what will strike a chord and trust yourself. That’s the trickiest thing-not taking yourself too seriously,’ cautions Willems.

Fortunately for Willems, he admits to being extremely immature and being able to simply `fit the zone,’ not having to be contrived and to think in terms of `what would be funny for a 10-year-old?’

According to Linda Simensky, director of programming at Cartoon Network (which will sneak preview Sheep in the Big City on August 18 as part of their annual Cartoon Cartoon Summer before premiering it as a series in November), it was Willem’s UPA-influenced style that first caught her eye. The late ’80s/UPA look combined with the wordplay and use of puns made for a mix that Simensky thinks fits nicely on Cartoon’s air.

Pablo the Penguin

Creators: Eckart Fingberg, Udo Beissel, Sunita Struck

Premise: A gently humorous series of five-minute shorts for preschoolers about a penguin who leaves the South Pole to live in an abandoned refrigerator in Hamburg.

For a three-person, three-year-old prodco start-up in Hamburg, Germany, the key to producing shows kids like is making the most of a limited budget. To that end, Toons `n’ Tales creative director Udo Beissel says all of his company’s shows are planned from inception to reduce animation costs.

For instance, much of the physical humor in Pablo stems from modeling the penguin’s movements after Charlie Chaplin, which naturally leads to a jerky shuffle and a minimum of difficult-to-animate dialogue. ‘We have a 2-D flat style, and we go for lots of action and good poses without a lot of transition,’ says Beissel. ‘It’s definitely not Disney animation style, but it’s also not a cut-out animation style like South Park. It’s more snapping from one good pose to another without wasting time.’

When it comes to backgrounds, Beissel and Fingberg came up with an approach that’s sophisticated but simple (and cheap) to produce. Cut-and-paste collage is painted over with a limited color palette to produce a look that’s somewhere between cartoon-ish and realistic. The overall impression is that of illustrations from a European picture book come to life.

Given the five-minute length, the story lines are simple and follow the same basic formula. In each episode, Pablo encounters a new challenge in his strange new German home, overcomes it with the help of his six-year-old friend Emma, and then sends a message in a bottle back to his family in the South.

In the pilot, Pablo must cross a stretch of hot pavement without burning his sensitive penguin feet. He discovers shoes, an unheard of contraption back home. At the end of the episode, he sends a note to his relatives explaining his discovery, and the trend catches on. Soon all the penguins are wearing blocks of ice on their feet as fashion accessories.

Marie-Line Petrequin, managing director of animation and development at Germany’s Igel Media, says she likes Toons `n’ Tales animation because it’s clear, funny and ‘not overloaded.’ She adds that she likes the fact that the start-up belongs to the dwindling roster of ‘real independents,’ while at the same time, Beissel and Fingberg combined bring over 20 years of experience at Germany’s Trickompany to their projects. She sees Pablo as being of particular interest to public broadcasters.

In fact, the show was initiated in co-operation with WDR, an affiliate of German public broadcaster ARD, along with a funding committment from Paris-based co-pro partner Millimages. Beissel says the goal was to produce a show with local color for the less frenetic tastes of German preschoolers. ‘Kinderkanal and all the other German broadcasters are more interested in really sweet, soft, charming kids shows,’ says Beissel. ‘It has to be modern, but with traditional values, not just hip entertainment. I have two young kids myself, and they find the American stuff is too fast-paced.’ He cites the 1998 withdrawal of Nickelodeon from Germany as proof that German tastes are different.

Other work in development at the young company include Patsy and Aunt B. (which debuted at Cartoon Forum in 1998), Anima Baltica (a co-production with Helsinki’s Epidem Zot) and adult shows the scientists, Freaks’ Ark and Gender Skirmishes.

Generation O!

Creators: David Hale, Jim Proimus, Tim Newman

Writer: Suzanne Collins

Premise: Geared to kids ages seven to nine, Molly is an eight-year-old who achieves international stardom as the lead singer of a rock band (complete with a kangaroo drummer), while simultaneously juggling the everyday problems of your average kid.

Creator David Hale puts it like this: ‘Jim is the writer who draws, Tim is the writer who thinks, and I am the writer who hums.’ Sony Wonder VP of development Ken Olshansky helps to define that cryptogram as follows: Jim has a strong writing and conceptual background, coupled with being an artist and illustrator; Tim is very strong editorially and helps to maintain consistency in the concept, the content and the character development; and David, in addition to having a writing background, also has musical expertise.

The three co-creators presented to Sony Wonder/Sunbow what Olshansky calls a music-focused pitch that essentially wanted to fill a gap that existed in music for kids by creating well-crafted, well-produced pop songs with lyrics and ideas that speak to kids. ‘By the time a child is not even 10 years old, they are sitting with their parents watching MTV and VH1 and listening to really sophisticated music. Kids will listen to Courtney Love or Green Day and other harder-edged stuff with their parents, but the music that is produced and targeted specifically to them tends to be very content-light,’ explains Olshansky.

With Boston-based band Letters to Cleo as the musical sound of Molly and Generation O, the music component is integral to the story lines, not secondary as it has been in shows like Josie and the Pussy Cats. However, while music is front and center, there also exists the `other’ Molly. As Hale puts it: ‘Molly has millions of best-selling records and a gazillion fans and tours around the world, but she still needs 10 hours of sleep a night and has to eat her broccoli and learn her multiplication tables.’

The dual worlds, or `two distinctive opposite worlds co-existing in three-part harmony,’ as Hale describes it, is the key component to the show’s appeal for kids. Molly has both aspirational and relatable sides to her-she may at one moment be in Malibu rubbing elbows with the rock world’s elite, and then be jetting home to make her 10 p.m. bedtime the next.

To deliver on the two-worlds-colliding theme, writer Suzanne Collins was brought on-board to write the pilot script. Her role was to take the work that Hale, Newman and Proimus had done and make it more narrative, so that a writer who picked it up could figure out how they were going to write stories based on it.

The combination of Proimus’s very distinctive illustrations, Newman’s background as one of the progenitors of MTV (having directed Randy Newman, ZZ Top and Lou Reed) and Hale’s own musical history contributed equally to the look of the show as much as it did the premise. While the characters are always cel animation, components such as the title and music video sequences get an imaginative treatment with the use of film and video-taped or photographed backgrounds. Various drawing and animation styles were used to replicate the mixed-media and quick-cutting feel of music television.

The Kids’ WB!’s Donna Friedman, who picked it up for her Fraturday fall sked lineup, was particularly impressed with Collins’ writing: ‘She created the most unique, fresh voices for the characters that will really make the show stand out in the market.’

Talis and the Thousand Tasks

Creators: Roch Lener and Jonathan Peel (producers), Sacha Bubnov (design)

Premise: Talis, a porcupine knave in the time of King Arthur, must perform 1,000 tasks in Avalon before Merlin will let him join the knights of the round table. As Talis takes up the gauntlet, Gumbo the giant anteater comes crashing through Merlin’s cave and carries him through the gates of time to an American suburb late in the 21st century. Knocking on the door of the first house he sees (it happens to be named Avalon), he’s greeted by Mr. Field, who looks him up and down, then calls out to his wife, ‘Oh darling, the exchange student is here!’

Talis is a prime example of how being tapped into kids’ tastes around the world is essential to a new show’s success. In this case, the show relied on such knowledge to rescue it from an early death.

Commissioned by Austrian state broadcaster ÖRF, Talis was originally created by Austria’s Cine Cartoon four years ago, but the prodco found the show had no international legs when it went shopping for co-pro partners. With the show’s future at risk, MEDIA partner Millimages was called in two years ago to give the show a makeover.

Millimages U.K. chief executive Jonathan Peel was entrusted with coming up with a new bible and look for the show, and he says the fix literally came to him overnight. ‘The idea came as a complete flash. We were at NATPE, and we’d been talking about it on the airplane going over. That night, I woke up at about 4 a.m. and I sat there and wrote down the basic idea and went back to sleep.’

The new concept updated the ancient knights-of-the-round-table myth by transplanting Talis to a modern American suburb. In the new English version of the show, Talis, Merlin and his crew keep their British accents, but the members of the misguided porcupine’s adoptive family speak with U.S. accents. ‘We’ve given Talis a sort of 1940s prim English voice because it just sounds so old fashioned next to all of the other characters,’ says Peel. ‘It just made the whole thing funnier.’

The final piece of the puzzle was the animation style. Peel says his crew wanted a zany Eastern European look from early on, and prize-winning Kiev-based animator Sacha Bubnov fit the bill perfectly. ‘His artwork takes that classical Eastern European look to the next stage, in the way that Klasky Csupo has its own look,’ says Peel.

As well as adding a modern dimension that modern kids could relate to, the mix of British mythology, an American suburb and an Eastern European animation style made the show truly international and prompted two broadcasters, France 3 and Germany’s ZDF, to sign on about a year ago.

Nickelodeon Latin America director of programming Tatiana Rodriguez praises the show’s ‘very original story and concept’ and the strong characters, but what really grabs her is the mix of past and present. ‘It’s about a guy who comes to the present and tries to understand what is going on now by comparing everything to what he knows from the past,’ she explains. ‘For example, when he sees a train, which he’s never seen before, he imagines it’s a monster he must fight from the past-it’s the only way he can relate.’

For his part, Peel hopes the show will ride to success on the two cardinal rules of creating shows for kids: ‘One is that the graphic look has to be great, it must have its own space and not look like everything else on TV,’ he says. ‘And second, the concept must be really good for story telling. If a show doesn’t meet these two criteria, you don’t have a chance.’

Batman Beyond

Supervising producer: Alan Burnett

Writer: Bob Goodman

Premise: Taking place approximately 50 years in the future, this is the story of what happens after original Batman Bruce Wayne retires and new Batman, Terry McGuiness, steps in to take over crime-fighting duties in Gotham City. In addition to the usual challenges that ensue with fighting crime, the 17-year-old protégé also juggles a home life, high school and a girlfriend-something the old Bruce Wayne (and his invisible personal life) never dealt with.

The concept of Terry McGuiness came to light two years ago when the Kids’ WB! wanted to take Batman in a different direction and discarded the idea of featuring a younger Bruce Wayne. Rather than look to the past for its story lines, the future became both fodder and setting. ‘One of the things that we hope this show does is provide a glimpse for kids into the world in which they are heading in an entertaining way,’ says Alan Burnett, supervising producer on Batman Beyond.

Set in the near future, the show looks at how kids’ lives will change: the futuristic Gotham does not have any money, so everyone operates on credit cards (even kids); there are no more text books because everyone has their own laptop (or has hook-up access)-consequently, lockers no longer play a significant role; sports have even evolved because they take on technological aspects; and so on.

The young, futuristic Batman may be a superhero who still embodies all of the excitement and action that the word Batman has come to represent, but his youthfulness also offers a means of connection for young viewers. A superhero approaching things from a teenager’s POV, Terry McGuiness is simultaneously a very regular human who can, at times, be a little uncertain, having some learning yet to do.

Bob Goodman, a writer on the Batman Beyond series, thinks that Terry provides a real sense of empowerment, representing a kid standing up to his very scary, very grown-up world.

Goodman cites a sense of authenticity as being integral to getting kids to pay attention: ‘I think that kids can tell immediately when they are listening to grown-ups trying to sound like kids, trying to talk to kids the way that they think they need to be talked to. What we try to do is strike a chord to relay a truer experience from our own experiences of what problems were like as a kid.’ Goodman adds that he also sees that kids are getting savvier younger, and thus are quicker to see through the artificial.

According to Burnett, the general structure of a story line is at the core of what makes a show resonate with kids. ‘The structure itself is the very bare bones story, which is what happens as one thing happens after another-how the action gets bigger. Once you write down the structure, then it’s almost half the battle-the rest of the story just comes pretty easily,’ says Burnett.

Donna Friedman, director of programming at the Kids’ WB!, says that Batman Beyond is one of the highest-quality shows that exists on TV today, calling Burnett and Goodman two of the smartest people she’s ever met in the animation business. ‘The show has smart, sophisticated story-telling that really respects its audience. It combines great adventure with real heart. In Terry McGuiness, [Bob and Alan] really created a Batman for this generation of kids-a character that kids can really relate to and is relevant for kids today,’ says Friedman.

In addition to Batman Beyond, Burnett and Goodman have teamed up once more for two new Kids’ WB! shows that pick up on similar elements; one of which, The Zeta Project, stars a character who is currently featured in Batman Beyond. Burnett is supervising producer on Zeta, which features a renegade robot and a teen girl runaway, while Goodman and Liz Holzman are producers. Zeta is also part of Kids’ WB!’s Fraturday lineup. Burnett is also supervising producer on Static Shock!, Kids’ WB!’s new Saturday DC Comic-based entry featuring Static, the first animated African-American superhero.

Juanito Jones, Miniman, 240

Prodco: Cromosoma

Premise(s): Barcelona-based Cromosoma currently has three main projects on its production slate, each of which has its own unique style and premise.

In Juanito Jones, Juanito is a seven-year-old boy who thinks that he embodies the characteristics of a young Indiana Jones. Always accompanied by his bear-friend Sombra (translated to `shadow’), Juanito lives in an imaginary world in which he never loses his temper, has nerves of steel and uses his countless resources to get out of the most difficult situations.

Miniman does not star your average superhero. As his name indicates, Miniman is a little slight, and his mission is not to do battle with the typical world-threatening evil and villains, but to fight the daily situations that make young kids angry, such as losing a favorite toy. Due to his pint-sized status, muscular strength is of no use; it is his generosity, braveness and humor (along with his network of global informers) that helps him to solve the problems of kids around the world.

240 is the edgiest of the three and is an older-skewing show aimed at teens and adults. Dubbed the `First Hero of the Third Millennium,’ 240 takes a critical look at technology and society. 240 (the main character’s name, as well as his botched IQ level) is the result of a failed experiment in a human bio-engineering project in which sub-par materials were used. Much to the dismay of his adopted family, this debacle has left him with an IQ far below 240.

Both Juanito Jones and Miniman were first presented at Cartoon Forum last October, and following a successful MIPCOM `99 and NATPE 2000, both shows were sent into production. Distributor CDC United Network has inked a deal with Nickelodeon Latin America for both Miniman and Juanito Jones, which is expected to air in Q1 2001. Cromosoma’s managing director Sergi Reitg thinks that Miniman strikes a chord because of his original look and anti-hero status, while Juanito really taps into kids’ imaginations.

In the case of Juanito Jones, artistic team Ricardo Alc‡ntara and Gustavo A. Rosemffet brought the character of Juanito to Barcelona-based Cromosoma in rough form, and Alc‡ntara did the treatment once Cromosoma agreed to develop the project. According Reitg, Alc‡ntara was very excited to provide more artwork due to the sheer freedom of development that existed because of the dream world element that’s integral to the story, allowing for exotic settings. The dream world is created using a 3-D background that is rendered in 2-D to keep the image simple with soft lines.

‘Cromosoma has a good reputation in Europe because we try to adapt the artist’s creations without changing their [vision],’ says Reitg, adding that Cromosoma works with the original artist daily while they are creating the bible so that the ambiance, style and essence are recreated just as the artist imagined. For all three shows, the artists whose work on which the series were based are from the Mediterranean-an area that Reitg says is flush with talent, but largely untapped.

Ten-year-old Cromosoma, which already has success with the kids show Triplets, thinks that the most crucial element to producing successful series is to approach each one differently, avoiding formula. ‘We do not focus on a volume of half hours, so the word series means something different to us. We take care with each show to ensure that there is enough content to develop a complete world around each character; for that reason we do not produce a huge amount of episodes per year,’ explains Reitg.

As for 240, Cromosoma is hoping that this will change its image from being simply producers of classic animation. Vincent Rubio is the artist whose work has been transformed into the edgy societal satire that is 240. There is much buzz State-side (MTV is considering the project), but currently in Europe, there isn’t a broadcasting slate in existence where the critical irony would be a fit. ‘In the U.S., there are many adult animation shows in prime time, but in Europe, except for The Simpsons, this phenomenon has not yet arrived,’ says Reitg.

Both Nick Latin America director of programming Tatiana Rodriguez and Fox Kids Latin America’s director of programming Jacqueline Cantore attribute Cromosoma with being highly original and with each show looking very different from the next; Cantore calls 240 the ‘most avant-garde thing in animation today.’

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