AS is no doubt inevitable for a show with a 38-year pedigree, an awful lot has changed on Sesame Street since it first hit the airwaves in ’69. Did you know, for example, that Oscar the Grouch was originally orange? And that Elmo started off his career as a Muppet extra filling out crowd scenes?
But despite the creative evolution the series has experienced over the years, one thing that hasn’t changed is its need for new shorts. And since the Street’s producers rely on outside animators and filmmakers to generate the lion’s share of this content, it’s still a great platform for up-and-coming talent and established artists who want to push the envelope in animation.
In fact, animators who started out doing work for the show include Will Vinton (who contributed three shorts about a singing ball of clay named Cecille) and Rugrats creator Arlene klasky (she ponied up a segment called ‘Up-Down Baby’ based on her experiences as a stay-at-home mom with a newborn who always wanted to be picked up and put down). And when Pixar was training its staff in CGI to prep for producing the world’s first all-CGI feature film, Toy Story, they cut their teeth on a series of Sesame Street shorts called ‘Luxo Jr.’
Executive producer Carol-Lyn Parente is quick to note the show regularly works with a stable of favorite studios, meaning that new talent has to really impress in order to get a commission. But having said that, the Workshop team goes above and beyond the efforts of most production houses to suss out emerging filmmakers, attending animation fests, keeping an eye on other production landscapes for inspiring work, and even doing outreach at the college level.
Senior creative consultant Arlene Sherman spearheads a fellowship program at CalArts in which a group of animation students develop and pitch short concepts based on the show’s educational goals. Once the ideas are approved, the students work up 30-second pieces just like actual commissioned animators. And if the work cuts through, the Workshop will acquire it for broadcast.
But regardless of who’s looking to land a commission, the starting point is the same for everyone: curriculum, curriculum, curriculum. As each season heads into development, the Sesame Street team attends a seminar where early educators tell them what the learning needs of the target demo are, and how to best deliver these lessons with impact.
At the 2007 session, which took place in March ’06, the stratification of vocabulary development was pinpointed as a pressing problem in the U.S. ‘The advisors brought in some scary statistics on the vocabularies of kids from low-income and middle-income families,’ says Parente. She explains that there’s a huge gap between these groups as they head into kindergarten because of factors like parents who work multiple jobs having little time for reading with their children, and the limited availability of outlets for purchasing reading material in low-income neighborhoods.
In April, Sesame’s writing staff will begin laying out scripts for the 26-ep season that touch on all the components of the vocab curriculum. The not-for-profit show has a very limited budget, so once the team has identified which subtopics the shorts need to address, Parente and her team will start off by mining the Workshop’s back catalogue for anything relevant that isn’t too dated. At one point, she says, there were nearly 400 hour-long reels in the library, and a lot of the stuff still has educational value.
Commissions will fill out the remaining holes in the show schedule, with the team greenlighting between 25 and 30 original shorts each season. As commissioning producer, it falls to Crystal Whaley to work with staple contributors such as New York’s Cartoon Pizza and Magnetic Dreams out of Nashville, Tennessee. But on top of that, she scours the market for ready-made shorts that fit the learning bill, as well as sifting through mountains of cold pitches that come in for the show. Although it’s rare for one of these ideas to make it onto the air, says Parente, ‘you never know where you’re going to find a diamond in the rough, so we try to keep our options open across the board.’
The team aims for an even balance between live-action and toon shorts, but the scale often tips in animation’s favor because it’s a medium that allows the producers to present a different look than they’re able to achieve with the show’s other components.
Shorts shouldn’t be any longer than a minute and a half in length, and they should be very visual. ‘One ringer is music, which is really important to us as we put the whole hour together,’ says Parente. ‘And anytime you can create strong characters, that will open up opportunity for short narrative stories.’ The team is always on the lookout for innovative styles in animation, as well as concepts that approach what for Sesame Street may be same-old cognitive subjects from a different angle.
In terms of deal structure, the Workshop pays a buy-out fee for properties it commissions in all territories and media because shorts tend to feed into the company’s international Sesame Street co-productions. Since they don’t pay a huge amount of money, the team works closely with its artists to minimize as much back-and-forthing as possible. On average, Sesame Street shorts take two to three months to move from original pitch to delivery.
Looking ahead to 2008, the show will shift gears slightly to focus on the literacy of math, meaning everyday estimations and calculations that we don’t even tend to recognize as math, like eyeballing an object to figure out whether it will fit into a certain-sized box.