Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Barbie in Baltimore

I was down in Baltimore last week, before Christmas, to meet up with my in-laws and see the sights around the Inner Harbor. We hit both the famed National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center, both of which were extremely kid friendly, the latter perhaps even to a fault. Kudos, however, to the fantastic hands-on exhibits, the friendly staff willing to explain paleontology or chemistry to a four-year-old, and the cogent presentation we saw on liquid nitrogen--Loretta learned it's really cold. Loretta was already wanting to be a scientist when she grows up (and a ballerina), and these two venues sealed the deal.

We did not get to Geppi's Entertainment Museum, although it's just a few blocks away, and we therefore failed to see the vintage Barbie exhibit being held there. Loretta has a few Barbies and likes them well enough, but I'm slightly wary of encouraging further fanaticism in her. For those who want to walk down memory lane themselves (Barbie is turning fifty in 2009) or whose children would like to observe toys behind glass rather than play with them directly (which I don't mean sarcastically--there is a virtue to observation), then this could be a good reason to visit what is otherwise generally a grown-up's museum. (I see there are half-price Tuesdays and Thursdays, part of my problem being there on a weekend.) For further information, here's an article from the Examiner, another institution whose building I saw right there in the neighborhood. 

Monday, December 29, 2008

Eartha Kitt

Singer, actress, and legendary siren Eartha Kitt died on Christmas of colon cancer at age 81. She was a star of stage and screen whose career spanned Parisian cabaret, musical albums, Broadway shows, films, and television. Here's the New York Times obituary. I'm mentioning in a children's media blog because of her work in recent years as the evil yet sultry voice of Yzma in Disney's film The Emperor's New Groove and the television spin-off The Emperor's New School, as well as work on shows like Frederator's My Life as a Teenage Robot and of course as Catwoman in the original Batman. This short tribute has some videos of a range of her work, and here's some of her delicious Disney work (for which she won consecutive Daytime Emmys in 2007 and 2008):

Speaking in the original 2000 film:

And singing in the television show, including her trademark rolled Rrrrrr's (besides being the original catwoman she spoke seven languages, I believe):

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Tailor of Gloucester

Here is one last Christmas film favorite, The Tailor of Gloucester from the Beatrix Potter story. Happy Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Two Christmas Film Selections

I realize that the day is nearly upon us so it’s too late to give a list of my favorite children’s Christmas shows, but I’d still like to throw in two cents or so about a couple that stand out in my mind. I’ll mostly thereafter be taking off the rest of the week-happy Christmas, everyone!

A Charlie Brown Christmas

This has been a classic since it first aired in 1965, so I don’t suspect that many readers have not seen, let alone heard of, this one. I still wanted to mention it, though, because it consistently ranks as my favorite Christmas film, for kids or adults. This was the first of a great many Peanuts films, all created by Bill Melendez (for a bit of background on him you can look at this entry I posted when he passed away a few months ago), and it is in my estimation the best. There are aesthetic reasons for this--I think it was the freshest, as the creators were just figuring things out like what each character’s voice should sound like (a tricky job when converting a strip to animation; see Garfield and Dilbert for other examples of varying degrees of success), what the animation should look like (a bit freer and more transgressive, to my eye, than it later became when budgets went down), and, perhaps most importantly, the music--Vince Guaraldi’s score, with its vamp on his now-standard “Linus and Lucy,” is much looser and improvisational than the music became in later installations.

But above all of these qualities is the film’s theological stance. Christmas, it seems, has a tendency to be diluted in seasonal films and television specials. I’m all for Santa Claus and fully support the non-Christian trappings that come with the holiday as long as they’re put into proper perspective (especially for children) and made subservient to focusing on the birth and life of Christ, which is the point of the holiday regardless of its origins. So A Charlie Brown Christmas is remarkable--even radical--in how it achieves that focus within the milieu of childhood concerns, formal traditions like holiday decorations, and even, or especially, Charlie Brown’s quasiagnostic search for the true meaning of Christmas within that setting. His quest is not that unusual for the genre, but Linus’s response is. We don’t expect Linus to actually give him the true meaning of Christmas, not the real one that you discuss with your family, Bibles open, on Christmas Eve with the television turned firmly off. But that’s exactly what he does: give it to you, and, thankfully, your children, straight up without any cinematic flourishes or, worse, theological hedging. I’ve often thought of this film in terms of director Paul Schrader’s doctoral dissertation Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (1972), which, in short, posits that the most effective way to reveal the transcendent in motion pictures is to create a setting of pared down sparsity--think of the nonexistent pageant, Charlie Brown’s ennui and especially his shabby Christmas tree--and then insert a moment of abundance without any mundane explanation--that, in this case, is Linus’s recitation of Luke 2. What makes this film particularly striking, even in comparison with the masterpieces analyzed by Schrader (Dreyer’s Ordet, for instance, is one of my all-time favorite films), is the fact that the abundance is delivered through a particularly sparse means and consists of nothing more than the words of the King James Version. It speaks to the inimitable power of the scriptures, I think, as the ultimate source of the revelation of the divine save for a direct revelation itself. Using the scriptures in this way is one of the most powerful means available for motion pictures to approach the divine, but it must be couched in an appropriate narrative structure, as with Charlie Brown, to not come off as pedantic or, on the other hand, saccharine.

Robbie the Reindeer

I shan’t say as much about the three Robbie the Reindeer films (only the first two of which I’ve seen), by England’s Comic Relief in conjunction with the BBC. These films will work well with older children but not so much the under-six crowd, I suspect (last year at three Loretta was mystified and quickly bored). For anyone who wants to tickle their dry British wit, however, they're incredible fun, if not exactly too festive. To summarize the series, Robbie is Rudolph's unlucky son--unlucky because how do you live up to the stature of a father like that--who comes to join Santa's reindeer team, only to encounter his father's former nemesis, the maniacal Blitzen (making him a villain is pure genius). The three films are Robbie the Reindeer in Hooves of Fire (1999), a Chariots of Fire spoof centering around the Reindeer Games, Robbie the Reindeer in Legend of the Lost Tribe (2002), which involves that old Christmas standby of vikings named Magnus, and Robbie the Reindeer in Close Encounters of the Herd Kind (2007), which of course is a sci-fi spoof. 

The first two films are available in the US on a single DVD. Be sure to select the British voices before playing the films. The American cast, featuring Ben Stiller and Britney Spears, does an admirable job of dubbing over the British version, but the freshness is lost. It's an entirely different task to record your performance for a cartoon that has yet to be animated than to record your voice exactly over the timing of a previous performer and still try to sound fresh and genuine; those who perform the latter task inevitably suffer artistically. So there is that to consider, plus the authenticity of the original performances and the fact the script was written for British voices. This, by the way, is why one should always read subtitles rather than listen to a dubbed film. Both versions thankfully retain Steve Coogan's fantastic performance as Blitzen, because even in America our villains should always be British. 

Even if you miss it this Christmas season, Robbie is sufficiently accessible all year round.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Chris Gall

Illustrator Chris Gall was featured on the cover of the last SCBWI Bulletin (which I’ve obviously been reading quite a bit) and I thought I’d share some thoughts on composition from the incumbent interview. When asked what the most essential elements in an illustration are Gall responds that foremost is content--if the content in and of itself is not interesting then the illustration is going to be unsuccessful regardless of technique. Second to that, though, and nearly as critical, is composition:

“Bad composition leads your eye all over the place; you don’t know where to look first. But in a good composition there’s no fat. There’s nothing missing, and there’s nothing that needs to be taken away.”

I try to think of this whenever I’m drawing (on my own--not professionally), but I almost never think of it when I’m looking at someone else’s art, particularly in a picture book. How much more, then, would we appreciate an illustrator’s work if we remained a bit more conscious of it while moving through a picture book, even if reading to a child? I haven’t tried this, but at a point you could even start talking about it with the child. Angles and vectors and sight lines and perspective and all of those wonderful elements--you don’t have to understand them very technically, I don’t expect, to introduce them to a three- to five-year-old.

Turning our attention to Gall’s art, he says that he draws in pencil on tracing paper. Those sketches get engraved onto a piece of Claybord which then is scanned into his computer as vector art. The combination of etching and vector- rather than pixel-based art explains the strong lines in his work (or so I would think, as a hobbyist). The colors are therefore all added in Illustrator (not Photoshop), never with actual paint any more. Here's one I like:

The results have a very solid presence, with a bold but nuanced palate--this isn't an exact parallel, but it makes me think somewhat of a Roy Lichtenstein for kids. The best resource on his work is his own website, which features a biography and list of published works. To really get into pictures, the ispot has a great gallery of his work, for adults as well as kids.

His newest book is There’s Nothing to Do on Mars . (Here's a quick review.) Stay tuned for the book Dinotrucks--what little boy wouldn’t want to cross trucks and dinosaurs, after all-coming out next spring. 

Monday, December 15, 2008

Children's Literature in Mongolia

I’m pleased to return, at least in an ad hoc form, to my erstwhile series on Asian children’s literature. I know very little about the state of literature in Mongolia, but thanks to the November/December SCBWI Bulletin I have learned of two bright talents in that country.

Jamba Dashdondog is a prolific children’s author and advocate. After the fall of communism in 1990 he outfitted an oxcart as a mobile children’s library and personally began driving it--he later upgraded to a van--to Mongolia’s remote villages in an effort to bring books to children who otherwise would not have any. The SCBWI notice is about an autobiographical article he is going to publish in an upcoming issue of Cricket magazine, but according to this article from last summer Dashdondog has already published fifty children’s books and sixty books of poetry. This more complete biographical sketch gives much more detail, and here is a pdf of a speech of his. This pdf of an article by Mongolia’s President Natsag Bagabandi pays honor to Dashdondog and his work within the context of discussing what Mongolian children read (a healthy mix of both indigenous and foreign books, which reflects what I found when I gave a presentation on Mongolian cinema as an undergraduate student). The SCBWI article also noted that Dashdondog has been named a finalist for the Astrid Lindgren Award.

The other noted author was poet O. Sundui. I was able to find less information about him online, but his children’s poem “When the Sun Eats with Its Golden Rays” will be published in English in an upcoming issue of Highlights Magazine.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mickey Mouse at 80 - Part 2

Mickey Mouse is eighty years old, as I mentioned last week, and in the United States a piece of intellectual property has historically entered the public domain before that time. So how is it, then, that Mickey Mouse remains copyrighted by the Walt Disney Company? It’s actually a long and complicated trail, and I haven’t had time this week to give it full diligence, but I wanted to at least bring it up in the context of this blog because it effects not only Mickey Mouse but Casper the Ghost, Bugs Bunny, Alice in Wonderland, Thumbelina, and on and on and on, eventually effecting basically everything. A century from now we’ll be discussing the public use of Harry Potter, Barbie, and on and on. The legal matters of children’s media may not be the first thing parents get really enthused about, but they’re things that we have to think about nonetheless.

So the case with Mickey Mouse is that he was created and presented to the public by the fall of 1928. With a seventy-five year copyright under American law (for works by a corporate author), Mickey as a character was scheduled to enter the public domain in 2003. I’m redacting incredibly here, but as that date approached the Disney company worked very hard to help pass legislation that would extend that; the official name of the legislation was the Copyright Term Extension Act, but it is very often known as the Sonny Bono Act and even pejoratively as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.” It extended the copyright for works by a corporate author to 120, rather than 75, years.

I’m no Disney-phobe, as many of my posts have demonstrated, and I personally do not begrudge the company for seeking to maintain legal control over their most valuable property (and please note that the trademark on Mickey Mouse is an entirely different issue than the copyright). So I’m not trying to editorialize either way, to condemn or praise. Instead, what I will do now is provide some links to online articles that discuss this in greater detail.

Here is the actual law itself as made available by the Library of Congress. Here is the Wikipedia summary.

This 1999 article from Wired magazine talks about the law’s extension into books and other media. And here’s a 1999 ASU student paper opposing the bill.

The law passed in 1997, but then the plot thickened when a group of plaintiffs, mentioned in the Wired article, challenged it all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was upheld. Here’s an article by Chris Sprigman analyzing the case as it went through the appeals process. Here’s an interview from the time with two of the plaintiffs.

For those for whom this is truly gripping, there is a lot more information available just by googling “mickey mouse copyright” or the name or nicknames of the act.

Now, even after the Sonny Bono Act went into effect and was upheld by the Supreme Court, there remained a little confusion about whether Mickey, at least in his original incarnation, was ever properly copyrighted in the first place. This article from the L.A. Times last August goes into pretty good detail about that subplot, and here’s a short commentary on it from The Disney Blog.

In summary, don't bet on Mickey entering public domain anytime soon. What we should hope for, rather, is that Disney itself keeps using him in innovative and entertaining ways. Like I said last week, I think extending him into curriculum-derived preschool television is a great step in that direction, and there are plenty of other avenues to take the character for older audiences. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Some African-American YA Lit

I apologize for having left off literature so much in recent posts and promise a great deal more to come in December and January. Each issue of the SCBWI Bulletin contains notices of new publications, authors' and illustrators' websites, and so forth. I always try to browse through the websites, and here are two that caught my eye in the last issue (Nov./Dec. '08). 

Allison Whittenberg is an author, poet, and playwright who I believe is based in Philadelphia. Her two young adult novels thus far include Sweet Thang (2005) and Life is Fine (March 2008). Her website includes events, excerpts, and contact information. Here's a quick review of Sweet Thang by Cynthia Leitich Smith. And here's an interview Whittenberg did in February with The Brown Bookshelf

Jean Alicia Elster is a former attorney who has done both middle-grade fiction and the children's book series "Joe Joe in the City," which at present numbers four works. Her latest novel is Who's Jim Hines?, about a boy growing up in 1935 Detroit. It hit stores this past July 31. Her website has a great deal of material about herself, her writing style, and her books, well worth a look. 

It's great that so many presses are serving so many racial, ethnic, and religious markets today, and I hope they're achieving a strong crossover the way preschool shows like Ni Hao Kai-lan and Little Bill are doing. Judged purely on their literary merits, of course, it looks like both Whittenberg's and Elster's work is well worth checking out. 

Monday, December 8, 2008

Tuck and Tchaikovsky

I just wanted to write a note that The Wonder Pets' first Christmas special--"The Wonder Pets Save the Nutcracker"--will be airing tonight at 8pm. More information, including the lyrics to sing along with Tchaikovsky, are available at Nick Jr.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Mickey Mouse at 80 - Part 1

With this entry we reach—I think—the culmination of my Anniversary Fridays for 2008, even I’m perfectly aware today’s Saturday. (I had a short film in a little film festival last night in the LDS meetinghouse on the Upper East Side, and hence did not find time to write.) There are a few anniversaries I’m just letting pass by—Target Entertainment Group is ten, as are the Tweenies and, most notably, Harry Potter (about whom I’m afraid I just have too little to say to be useful)—but I tried to save the best for last. Mickey Mouse—often billed as the most recognized personality on the planet—was after all the one to give me the inspiration for the series in the first place.

Mickey Mouse made his debut on May 15, 1928 in the animated short Plane Crazy, although he jumped to stardom on November 18 with his third film, Steamboat Willie. (I've also heard that the first two films were not released until after Willie, something I'll have to verify.) The reason this was so much bigger a phenomenon was that it was Disney’s first cartoon with a synchronized soundtrack. (It’s often billed as the first cartoon with a synchronized soundtrack, which is not true any more than the claim that Snow White was the first animated feature film, although it was obviously on the cusp.) After years of hard knocks in Kansas City and L.A., Walt Disney finally got his first lucky break with the timing of Steamboat Willie just a year after The Jazz Singer; his luck wouldn’t always hold up but recurred every once in a while with his forays into color films, feature films, live action, theme parks, and television. “Give me lucky generals,” Napoleon said.

So this is Plane Crazy, although a soundtrack has been added. Animation humor is often extremely topical, and the direct inspiration here was Charles Lindbergh.

Now there are lots of creation stories and creation myths about Mickey Mouse, and while my purpose with this post is to pay tribute, not give a history, I should say that I don’t ascribe to the idea that Walt used to have a little rodent visitor who would scamper around his drawing board in Kansas City that later inspired him to single-handedly create Mickey. No, the reality’s probably a bit more mundane, but I don’t think it reduces the Mickey Mouse ethos at all to say that he came from the pen of Disney’s partner Ub Iwerks, or that he was largely a knock off of the pairs’ earlier character Oswald the Rabbit (seen here) just with rouder ears.

So when Disney lost the rights to Oswald to their distributor, Iwerks, with Disney’s feedback, came up with Mickey. I actually think it more remarkable that two artists were able to create such a durable character under intense time and fiscal pressure than if he were to just burst fully formed, Athena-like, from Walt’s imagination. Mickey’s strong character is a testament to Disney’s and Iwerks’ ingenuity. After Steamboat Willie the rest became history, though some films were better than others and there were still rough spots over the decades. The character also went through an immense visual evolution, from his initial black face appearance through various eyeballs to the CGI incarnation we have today on The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. As a character he switched from the role of imp to caregiver, the straight man to Donald and Goofy, Chip and Dale, or whoever else. I think things would have been very interesting if he had remained somewhat as bad a boy as he started out (a feat that Bugs Bunny managed to perform), but such a role just never would have worked in the Disney cosmology as it solidified. And we have some genuine gems of charitable behavior, like Mickey’s Orphans and his treatment of Pluto in general, that never would have occurred otherwise.

So rather than writing on and on, I thought I’d throw together a chronological highlight reel, starting with film number two, The Gallopin’ Gaucho:

And here, in all its synchronized glory, is Steamboat Willie, which takes its name from the Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill, Jr. (one of the greatest comedies ever made—everyone should watch it, with their kids).

The Plow Boy from 1929:

A pattern is emerging, of course, which basically is: Mickey executes gags, mostly musical, in different milieu. Funny enough and well done, this formula eventually called for new characters. Here’s Pluto’s first appearance, in 1930’s The Chain Gang, although his role is far from Mickey's best friend (he chases him after a jail break) and he wouldn’t be named for several more films. Pegleg Pete was already an established villain, as we’ve seen.

I really like this early stuff but obviously can’t put every Mickey film ever made, so let me jump straight to 1935 with what is possibly my favorite Mickey cartoon, The Band Concert. It’s a Donald Duck film as much as Mickey’s (notice the aforementioned role reversal), but I just love it for its music, the blending of the William Tell Overture with “Turkey in the Straw” (something I first paid attention to at the behest of BYU film instructor Dean Duncan; check out his book on film music):

Since this is a children’s media blog, I also remember laughing and laughing at Kevin Funk’s house when I was kid watching Mickey’s Trailer, from 1938:

Then with another facelift--an eyeball change, really--Mickey was ready for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence in Fantasia. This has often been disparaged, among other reasons for how it mickey mouses Paul Dukas’s music, ironically, but I still think it a magnificent sequence and was very glad to see it retained in Fantasia 2000. Loretta’s never seen this, I don’t think, but I’ve used it very profitably as a bedtime story, although I only know the tale from this version rather than from Goethe’s original.

Now, I’m going to forego discussions of marketing, watches, live shows, rip offs, etc. Here, however, is an original opening from The Mickey Mouse Club. Those ears have become as recognizable an icon as the McDonald’s arches or any other logo, including Disney’s own.

And here’s an example of what kids are watching today on the CGI Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, which still features a role call as per the live action original:

Notice how the curricular and interactive elements of recent children’s television has influenced the content. This may not have the sophistication of The Band Concert, but it’s perfect for preschoolers:

Happy birthday, Mickey, and thanks to everyone at Playhouse Disney who’s keeping the character relevant for a new generation. Next week—I hope—I’ll continue the Mickey celebrations with a few thoughts on what it means when your cartoon mouse passes the age of copyright.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Aquabats Get Drawn (Not Quartered)

So if Shrek can go live, then the Aquabats can certainly go...cartoony. I saw this portion of a pilot for The Aquabats! Supershow! about a week ago but got to watch it again last night. The pilot premiered in San Diego during the summer, as explained by Yo! Gabba! Gabba! producer Jon Berrett. For those not hip to the Aquabats themselves, that's the name of a musical group that's been central to the Californian ska scene for about a decade. You definitely need to check out their website. Here we can see the caped crusaders at work:

Here's how they describe themselves, on their site's Bio page: 

"Here come The Aquabats! The first all-crime fighting all-surfing rock supergroup in history! Traveling the highways and by-ways of the land in their trusty super customized Winnebego tour vehicle, The Aquabats look to become a legitimate rock n' roll sensation while doing good for all mankind. Meanwhile, as the powers of evil seek to upset the balance of happiness in the world, The Aquabats find themselves on a never-ending quest to right wrongs, destroy boredom and seek justice for all! Especially the kids!"

And here's how the gurus of Wikipedia describe them:

"The Aquabats (often written as The Aquabats!) are an American rock band formed in 1994 in Huntington Beach, California and currently recording for Nitro Records. They have released four full-length studio albums and have toured internationally. They are best known for their mythology, in which they claim to be superheroes on a quest to save the world from evil through music. As a part of this mythology the band members have adopted superhero pseudonyms and dress in matching costumes. Their eclectic live show often includes onstage "battles" with costumed foes, and the band has built up an elaborate and ever-changing backstory of their origins and adventures, along with a roster of allies and enemies. The group's lineup has fluctuated significantly throughout their career, with founding members The MC Bat Commander and Crash McLarson as regular fixtures. Jimmy the Robot has also remained a longtime member, having joined the band in 1997. The Aquabats' early work was heavily rooted in the third wave of ska music, with touches of surf and punk rock. Over the years their music shifted towards more synthesizer-based rock with a new wave influence. Their current style blends elements of rock and roll, pop-punk, ska, and synthpop."

The group has long been popular with youth, perhaps in a They Might Be Giants kind of way, an asset that has payed off immensely as band founder Christian Jacobs (above) recently co-created Yo! Gabba! Gabba!, the hippest, most musical show on kids' television (although I'm a big fan of Jack's Big Music Show, for instance, you've got to admit that Muno is hard to beat, like a cyclops Tinky Winky with rhythm). 

So, it's exciting to learn that the Aquabats are becoming animated for children's television. I don't know any business details about if it's been picked up, by whom, etc., but this portion of the pilot is fantastic, aimed at the grade school/ironic postmodern-Voltron crowd. The finished show, as Berrett indicated, will be a mix of live action, music, and animation. I liked how, like in The Monkees, a song is worked into the action here, but not only is it evidently composed specifically for this script, the whole animated milieu in which it takes place tends to remind me more of George Dunning's Yellow Submarine, my favorite animated musical of all time. (The similarity is in the wierdness, not necessarily the specific visuals.)

Anyway, with all that preamble, here it is, although for the full aspect ratio you evidently need to view it here. Let's hope that by next year you can catch it on the Cartoon Network or a similar venue.

Here's the group's most recent YouTube search results.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

An Interview with Jennifer Oxley

Jennifer Oxley, seen here front and center at the 16th Annual Environmental Media Awards (where she won for the Wonder Pets episode "Save the Tree"), is one of children's television's top directors. Her best known work has been for Little Airplane Productions, where she's headed up The Wonder Pets and the British show 3rd & Bird, and, before that, for the fantastic Nick Jr. show Little Bill. Her experience, however, has ranged far and wide beyond just those productions.

That's why I was excited a few weeks ago to run across this interview that Oxley did just over a year ago with Steve Fritz. It's brief, but she talks about luminaries like John Canemaker, Josh Selig, and, most revealingly to me, Bill Cosby.

Monday, December 1, 2008

It's Still the Economy...

Carol just told me that consumer spending on Black Friday turned out to be at least a little better than the dismal projections they were making before Thanksgiving, but today's stocks show (as if we needed it) that we're definitely in this for the long haul.

So just before the holiday there were a series of articles about kids and the economy. I saw the first in the New York Times, an article by Stephanie Rosenbloom about how mothers in particular will be going without this Christmas season in order to still get decent presents for their kids. This may sound like what lots of us have been doing for years, but on a macro level it's bad for retailers because Christmas traditionally sees a huge spike in women's apparel sales that most likely won't be happening this year, despite what happens to toy sales. 

Then I got home and saw two items in my inbox. KidScreen not only featured the Times article but also the results of a survey by Nodes Research that shows 84% of tweens and teens are worried about the economy. 

Finally, that same day the wonderful email newsletter Kids Off the Couch featured an article entitled "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow . . . Won't It?" which essentially gives advice on how to add economics to the traditional birds and bees that parents teach their children. And there are lots of films and books and media, if we stop and think about it, that can lend a hand in doing so. We recently saw Rob Marshall's Annie, the film featured in the article, and thought it relatively saccharine but certainly uplifting, and well done for a television budget (Carol and I came to it after both Chicago and Memoirs of Geisha, and though the choreography and visuals weren't as strong as on those later films it was still pretty much great). 

But that's a digression. The point is that hard times are here and there are plenty of resources for parents, from Dickens to King Kong, to help them talk to their kids.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Shrek Lives

This is Brian d'Arcy James, on a good night.  He has taken up Mike Myer's mantle as the Scottish ogre originated by William Steig but made immensely more popular by the likes of Jeffrey Katzenberg at Dreamworks. It's now been seven years since the first Shrek hit theaters, launching Dreamworks' animation into global prominence, and it's only fitting they leverage the property to compete with Disney at their newest battleground: Broadway, the street on which this local blogging correspondent lives. 

Not being entirely a Broadway musical-type guy (in three years, total, in New York, all I've seen as yet is Baz Luhrmann's La Boheme, an opera), I haven't been following the details of this production closely. It's spent the last several months in Seattle and began previews here at The Broadway Theatre on November 8. The official opening night will be December 14, with a projected run through May 31. So parents coming through town in that time frame have that alternative to add to Mary Poppins and The Little Mermaid. Non-parents are admitted as well.

The book and lyrics were written by David Lindsay-Abaire with the music by Jeanine Tesori. Direction is by Jason Moore, choreography by Josh Prince. I recall that Rob Ashford spent some time consulting with them in Seattle.

The show's website is thoroughly informative, with video, interviews, etc., etc., as well as tickets. Here's a review from Seattle by Misha Berson and another by Gianni Truzzi. Here's the notice on it from Playbill, a guide to all things Broadway. 

Finally, attention all Johnny and the Sprites fans! Although that show had a lamentably short production run you can catch its human star John Tartaglia in the role of Pinocchio. Given his work on Johnny and, before that, on Broadway's Avenue Q and Sesame Street, the fact that he is now playing a puppet must be one of the most ironic career moves in the history, but with that said he does seem remarkably fit for the part. As opening night approaches may he and all others break a leg.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Good Nights on Sprout

Today PBS KIDS joined with the Pajama Program to launch the Great Sprout Tuck-In. Here’s a three-minute video, the second half featuring Nina (Michele Lepe) from The Good Night Show, to explain.

The prosocial nature of the program dovetails nicely into The Good Night Show’s mandate, which as I see it is to provide a stable routine for children to end their day. This is especially important for those children whose parents do not provide such stability or routine, and the donation of pajamas is an obvious extension of the program into children’s actual physical environment. I think it safe to say that while more kids will be watching The Good Night Show than receiving pajama donations, the latter group will be much more benefited than they would by merely watching TV. And with the current economy being the current economy, need for things like pajamas and books will only rise in coming months.

There is obviously information available on the Sprout website as well as that of the Pajama Program, which is a (year-round) 501(c)3 located here in New York City. Kudos to all those involved from both organizations, and best of luck!

Thinking about The Good Night Show also made me think about the Jim Henson Company. Although I recently wrote about Sid the Science Kid, there’s still more to discuss, as the gang in Los Angeles has been excessively busy of late. Their newest show, even newer than Sid, is an interstitial coproduced with 4Kids Entertainment here in New York called The Pajanimals that airs, appropriately, as part of The Good Night Show block. This isn’t quite Bananas in Pyjamas, though, as it’s a bit more calming, akin to The Good Night Show’s purpose I was just discussing (i.e. the curriculum is “Go to bed.”) (and I don’t mean that too flippantly: there are pediatric sleep therapists working on the show). Still, there is other active learning going on beyond just how to brush one’s teeth. More than that, for me as a lifelong Muppets fan it’s nice to see the Creature Workshop working with actual puppets of any description. I’m amazed at the innovations behind Sid, but there’s still some Walter Benjamin deep inside me who likes to see the puppeteers working with actual puppets (although I should say I definitely think there’s room for all types of puppet work, the more the merrier). Here's how these ones look:

At any rate, the Jim Henson website indicates that they only produced ten three-minute spots, so I hope PBS KIDS sees fit to order more. You can also learn about the show from a series of Muppet News Flashes (from April, June, and September). Though there’s some repetition, here’s a longer news release from all three companies.

Finally, here’s a fantastic video from that last release that contains a couple minutes of clips and then a couple minutes of interviews with the show’s developers, including the aforementioned Jennifer Waldburger and Jill Spivack of Sleepy Planet.

In closing let me say that Sprout’s head of programming Andrew Beecham came to the Little Airplane Academy I attended this summer and described the emphasis the station wants to put on its packaging shows like The Good Night Show and The Sunnyside Up Show. I see these as Sprout’s competitive advantage; the quality of preschool programming is the best it’s ever been since Sesame Street launched in 1969, and that’s across the board at Nick, PBS, Disney, and all the other stations globally. Where Sprout has a niche, therefore, is in the interactivity, the live broadcasts, and the thematic groupings of their programs in these time-of-day-appropriate broadcasting blocks. Pajanimals is a further step in this direction, and I’m excited to see what else Sprout has store.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Lego Minifigures at 30

It was August 25, 1978 that the Danish Lego company first jazzed up their building blocks by including a little yellow man. They had been in development for at least four years, however: it was this year that they reached their final form.

There is a great amount of history and trivia on Lego’s website–such as that there are three times as many Lego men as there are people in China—and here’s another blog from Wired magazine. For the truly obsessed there’s a photographic timeline. There’s always Wikipedia, but my favorite is the Minifig Generator, where you can mix and match to create your own minifigures (almost like the real thing!).

Of course, without Minifigures there really wouldn’t be any point to phenomena like YouTube either, as Lego men are really the site’s raison d’etre, if you ask me. Since I’m equally into Chaplin, Lang, Murnau, et al as Indiana Jones, here are a couple of my personal favorites. Enjoy!



Accordingly, by the way, this page on the website The Bioscope is one of my favorite pages on the entire web. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


In case you haven't heard, Disney's newest animated feature, the (3-D) CGI canine road movie Bolt, opens wide this weekend. I admit I haven't been following its production closely, but here's a short article about it from the Calgary Herald, including a brief discussion of the 3-D elements.

Here's the official trailer:

And here's an extended clip:

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Inside Elmo's World

I'm working on a spec script of Elmo's World, so it's been on the brain a bit. (Above is an image from the segment on "Eyes.") I thought I'd therefore just share a few online resources for parents interested in the origin and production of the segment. As in all things Sesame Street, there is a great deal of research that has gone into it. 

There is the Muppet Wiki page.

And the corresponding list of episodes (with full summaries and images).

And here's an article by Natalie Walker Whitlock, echoing some of the sentiments from the book G Is for Growing

Loretta is pretty excited that we're going to have an Elmo marathon tonight. I think I am too.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Eric Carle and Bill Martin Jr. Videos

Here are some quick and breezy videos of authors Eric Carle and Bill Martin, Jr. Carle doesn't talk much about his craft in these particular spots, but it's still fun to get a bit of insight into his character. To make up for that I'm including the interview segment with Martin as he discusses the genesis of his collaboration with Carle, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, which was instrumental in launching Carle's career. Martin passed away in 2004, while Carle is still thankfully very very much with us. 

Also, I want a hat like this.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Garfield at 30

It’s time for another Anniversary Friday, despite it being Saturday (got a little busy yesterday). I’m pretty sure Garfield qualifies as children’s literature; I for one read it every day as a child. Cartoonist Jim Davis first published a Garfield strip on June 19, 1978, looking like this:

Here are some other views of the cat early on:

Lots more vintage strips are available here.

And in later years Garfield came to look like this:

Then eventually he made his transition to full motion video, in seven seasons of the Saturday morning cartoon Garfield and Friends:

And then CGI, in not one but two feature films, with Bill Murray taking over Garfield’s voice work from the inimitably deadpan Lorenzo Music:

Here are some web resources: First of all there’s Garfield’s official site itself. There’s always Wikipedia, for both Garfield and Jim Davis (seen here).

Speaking of whom, here’s a short interview with Davis from before the release of the second film. Here’s an insanely in-depth analysis by David Malki, alias the Comic Strip Doctor, which is actually incredibly interesting.

And finally, what would Garfield be—for the grown-ups, at least—in this day and age without Dan Walsh’s brilliant website Garfield Minus Garfield? An existential tour de force that was recently singled out by Rolling Stone as one of the symbols of modern humor, the site/strip has excised Garfield to leave poor Jon Arbuckle alone, sometimes pathetic, and often profound, a symbol of isolation and ennui. Jim Davis wisely gave the project his blessing, and the whole concept has given new life to Garfield as he enters his fourth decade. Here are some examples:

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Toot and Puddle

Just wanted to write a quick note that the television version of Holly Hobbie's Toot and Puddle books will be coming to Noggin this Sunday at 7 p.m. Eastern Time. Here's the show's website, including lots of short streaming videos to give you a taste of it. The show's produced by National Geographic and as such the curriculum, not surprisingly, relates to geography and social sciences--exploring new places, travel, different cultures, etc. I've been reading the books since I heard about the show a few months ago and they're delightful. Two years ago Nick aired a Christmas special, apparently as a sort of high-profile pilot episode, which is already on DVD. I've seen portions of it, though not all (and I read the book it was based on), and the characters and animation look fantastic. I must say in this era of proliferating CGI how nice it is to see something done in 2-D. Kudos to the animation studio that produced such rich cel work and to the producers at National Geographic and Nick Preschool that gave them the license and money to do it. My DVR is already set.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Kids' Television in Ethiopia

Shane Etzenhouser is a midwesterner who is now living in Ethiopia and producing the country's first and only children's show, Tsehai Loves Learning, with his wife. I met Shane in July at the Little Airplane Academy in New York City and was able to watch a segment of the program; it was simple, elegant, and, in an episode dealing with a parents' death from AIDS, touching. The show had just won the Prix Jeunesse International Next Generation Prize in Munich, and I was able to see it courtesy of David Kleeman, who had brought along a sampling of programs from that event.

So I was pleased to learn last week that Shane had won the prestigious Japan Prize 2008 International Contest for Educational Media. I therefore planned to write a nice long entry about the show this week, but Josh Selig beat me to it. Last Saturday he posted an interview with Shane at his blog Planet Preschool, which is well worth the reading.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Science Behind Sid the Science Kid

For the past two months PBS has been treating us to the next wave of computer animation, without most viewers having the slightest idea. The show is Sid the Science Kid , and it’s produced by the Jim Henson Company. We’ve had digital puppetry on shows like The Wonder Pets and 3rd and Bird, we’ve had motion capture on a legion of feature films and shows like The Backyardigans, and we’ve had instantaneous digitally rendered backgrounds on Lazy Town. Where the Henson folks have now pressed ahead is in the instant rendering of motion captured animated characters/puppets. What that means in lay terms is that there are live performers filming on a set, but the recording is producing animated characters, right there in real time. This allows for improvisation, multiple takes, new angles, and other perks that usually are not the domain of the animated film. (This is not the Henson Company’s first foray into CGI animation, by the way, as they are responsible for the new television adaptation of Frances and the short film The Tortoise and the Hare.)

In the November issue Popular Science Gregory Mone interviewed Brian Henson. The interview is unfortunately not online, but here are some notes I took:

Brian Henson said, "I went through a spell in my teenage years where I absolutely was going to be an astrophysicist." That scientific bent says a great deal about why he participated in creating this new show.

They say "it brings an innovative mix of motion-capture technology and digital animation to the television world." 
"Typically, digital TV 'toons are computer-generated, because motion-capture-based animation takes too long to produce, but Henson's technology saves months of production time. It also allows for more lifelike scenes. The real-time rendering lets the puppeteers improvise and play off one another, creating a less scripted feel. As a result, Sid is visually crisp, but with interactions that can be just as nuanced as real life."

Henson says that typically Americans don't think about teaching science until 4th grade, but his curriculum developers stress we have to get to kids before age seven.

The show, like other science shows, is designed to teach kids to explore and become comfortable with the scientific method (as opposed to the rote memorization of scientific facts).

Answering a question on how they control characters, Henson said: "Two puppeteers control one character. A motion-capture arena outfitted with cameras and tracking devices records the movements of the puppeteer controlling the body and transfers those movements to the skeleton of the animated character. Then another puppeteer controls the head, face and voice of the character using a system initially developed for animatronics." ... "We came up with the idea in the mid-1990s, but we had to wait for processors to get cheap and fast enough. Creating an animation engine that can generate 24 frames per second with no delay so that a puppeteer can perform and see what the character is doing on the screen in real time was really difficult."

The result: "Sid is much more like the Muppets, where things can get a little wilder and sloppy. That's part of what's fun. ... With this technology, they [our puppeteers] can ad lib, they can improvise, which is a kind of energy that you don't see in animation because animation is normally carefully plotted."

"With our technique, the computer's not allowed to move anything. Anything that moves has either been moved by a performer or by a camera operator."

Similar information can be found in this Minneapolis Star-Tribune article and this post from the Muppet Newsflash blog. Here is the technical explanation from the Jim Henson Creature Workshop.

Dancer and actress Misty Rosas plays Sid's body. She’s seen here in her mocap suit, featuring four-foot feet that frankly remind me of the Teletubby costumes. Puppeteer Drew Massey is Sid's voice and face; he uses an animatronic glove to manipulate the face in real time (like having your hand in a puppet's face).

Here are a few more pictures of the puppeteers in action. And here is the show’s official PBS webpage.

Here’s another look at how they did it:

And here’s an example of the result:

Monday, November 10, 2008

CBBC's New Website

The CBBC is launching a new website today for British kids who want to anonymously discuss troublesome issues in their lives. It's apparently not available in the U.S., but you can read all about it here, here, and here.

It's a Flash-based site that creates animated characters to represent child users. The resulting combination of documentary audio (recorded by the children) and animated visual is strongly reminiscent of Aardman's Creature Comforts, and it represents another great step in animated documentary (which to my knowledge seems to be a mostly British phenomenon). Here's a sample video: