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:

Friday, November 7, 2008

Cabbage Patch Kids at 30--and 25

I suppose that I must frankly admit that my wife, not I, should really be writing this post. I was unaware of Cabbage Patch Kids on the occasion of their initial mass-production launch in 1983 (they were available only at one location in Georgia from 1978-1981) and I only gained that knowledge gradually and unwillingly--as a boy in the 1980s, if it wasn't G.I. Joe or Transformers, I didn't really want to play with it. 

But putting my childhood gender bias out of the way, I can say that these dolls have had a long and fruitful history, and they're now making something of a resurgence, partly because of the anniversary they're celebrating this year. I listed it as a dual anniversary because Xavier Roberts created the original cloth dolls in 1978, making them actually thirty years old, but the toy firm Coleco began their mass production in 1983; as far as the official festivities are concerned, that is the year that matters. To celebrate, the toy firm Play Along, which is a division of Jakks Pacific, has recreated the original line of dolls from their initial release. There's a commemorative line of clothing from Completely Independent Distribution, and other consumer items on offer. 

The dolls' wikipedia page has a good history of their production and reception. The official Cabbage Patch Kid website has a plethora of information as well, including dolls for sale and a page devoted to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the toys' marketing (which features several news stories about events and celebrations).

Finally, here is a video from CBS News about one collector feting the anniversary:

Thursday, November 6, 2008

ZeFronk Cooks Up One Hot Dog

My original plan to post once or twice a week has been shattered, and I’m still finding that there’s much too much for me to write about to be able to get to it all, a case in point being all the great new shows that have been premiering for the past two months. But lest I miss the next big thing, it’s called Tasty Time with ZeFronk and it’s premiering on Playhouse Disney this Saturday morning at 6:25 a.m. (as this blog by the production company OddBot says, that’s “just in time for breakfast.”)

Tasty Time with ZeFronk is an animated cooking show with the titular chef, a French Dachshund, (voiced by veteran voice actor Rob Paulsen) and his not-so-helpful feline neighbor (voiced by Mark Hamill, who it turns out has done quite an immense amount of voice work himself, besides his wonderful guest appearance on The Simpsons about a decade ago). The show’s an interstitial, with about a five-minute running time per episode, but it looks to be one of the funniest new programs on the docket, with an emphasis on wordplay (you’ve got a Wiener dog in the kitchen, after all, whose very name is a French-accented pun), and, I hope, slapstick, though that’s entirely a Swedish Chef-influenced wish.

The curriculum is nutrition of course, and the show is included in a programming block that will include similarly themed episodes of Disney shows. Tasty Time will prove a welcome addition to Playhouse Disney’s lineup, particularly as it squares up against to Noggin's Cooking for Kids with Luis, an excellent live-action Australian cooking interstitial; while these two programs are ostensibly competing, it looks to me like they're sufficiently different to serve as very good complements to each other. ZeFronk is, as mentioned, produced by OddBot Inc., a Los Angeles-based animation production company.

Here is an article from Animation Magazine. And here is the show's official page on Playhouse Disney, with videos and recipes that will update as the show proceeds.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Women (and Girls) in Children's Television

I would like to thank Joceline Christie and commend her editors at KidScreen for their recent three-part series on gender in children’s television. The series summarizes research done by Dr. Maya Gotz.

Part One talks about the preponderance of male characters and the subservient roles into which female characters are often placed.

Part Two discusses girl viewers and how they interact with what they’re presented on television.

Part Three is about boys as viewers and the role of violence in boys’ programming, as opposed to girls’. All three of these installments are fairly short and able to be read in a single, short sitting.

About two weeks ago I asked Loretta who her favorite Sesame Street Muppet was, and I was quite pleasantly surprised when she said Zoe--who wasn’t an option when I was growing up--precisely because, Loretta said, “she is a cute little girl just like me.” Zoe is the show's first regular female monster Muppet and, as far as I know, its second regular female character, after Prairie Dawn from the original, or perhaps second, season; both are shown above with puppeteer Fran Brill. By comparison, this month Mother Jones ran an interview (which is apparently not online) with Toy Story scribe Joss Whedon wherein he points out that nary a Pixar film as yet has featured a female protagonist; he himself was tortured over how to write the character of Little Bo Peep (he is also the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other kick-butt feminist characters). So thank goodness for the Zoes, the Buffies, the Angelina Ballerinas, and the Kimpossibles out there.

Similarly, though there is always more to do I have already been amazed by many of the individual women who have worked in children’s television (compare the prevalence of their accomplishments with the much more male-centric world of adult television or feature films), including but not limited to Joan Ganz Cooney (cofounder of CTW and creator of Sesame Street), Sheryl Leach (creator of Barney), Angela Santomero (Blue’s Clues), Kay Wilson-Stallings (head of production at Nick Preschool), Anne Wood (head of Ragdoll and creator of Teletubbies), Jennifer Oxley (director of Little Bill and Wonder Pets), and on and on. If the gender imbalance is to be erased in children’s television productions, it will be in large part thanks to women like these (though I hope a guy like me may get to play too).

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Fraggle Rock Rocks

Whether you like McCain or Obama, there is great news today for every American who loves Fraggle Rock. HIT Entertainment (which began life as the oversees arms of Jim Henson Productions--“HIT” means “Henson International Television”--but separated from its parent firm, retaining the rights to the Fraggles, around 1990) and Lionsgate Entertainment, HIT's DVD distributor since May, are together releasing the complete series on DVD. It’s entitled The Fraggle Rock Complete Series Collection and it includes every episode ever created. The original series ran for five seasons from 1983 to 1987; this means there are ninety-six episodes, which makes this quite a collection. Here is HIT Entertainment’s press release from Muppet Central. Astute readers will notice mention of an upcoming Fraggle Rock feature film, which is good news indeed.

For those who may not have heard of HIT previously, they’re best known today for their preschool television series, including some of the field’s most popular and best-produced titles, like Angelina Ballerina, Bob the Builder, Thomas & Friends, Barney, and host of other characters on both sides of the Atlantic. There’s a new Angelina coming soon and a host of other great things afoot; I’m glad that the Fraggles, the show that more or less started it all, haven’t been lost in the mix. Here’s a taste of what the box set has in store:

Monday, November 3, 2008

Dora Saves the Snow Princess

Tonight is the television premiere of Dora the Explorer’s latest film, an hour-long special named Dora Saves the Snow Princess. The DVD has been available since September 30, accompanied by a mountain of licensing material including some pretty fun-looking videogames for the Wii and the PS2, plus the fruit snacks I mentioned the other day.

The sixty-minute running time makes it, I believe, Dora’s longest production to date.
I’ve been a fan of previous specials--with pirates, Swiper in a bottle, Sleeping Boots, and so forth--and have high expectations for this as well. Though it’s fairly well known that Dora the Explorer itself was created at the beginning of the millennium by Valerie Walsh, Chris Gifford, and Eric Weiner, we don’t always--or often--give credit to those folks behind individual productions. So I would like to provide full credits for this film, but all I could find was that amazon lists the directors as Sherie Pollack, George S. Chialtas, and Arnie Wong. Pollack (amazon; imdb) has done an immense amount of work on previous Dora’s, including the episode “Meet Diego” that introduced that character, as well, evidently, as some on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse for Playhouse Disney. I saw the “Diego” episode and many more eps that were done under Pollack’s direction and, not surprisingly, found them all top-notch. George Chialtas (amazon; imdb) looks to have done an equal amount of Dora directorial work; both he and Pollack have worked in other positions in other animation departments, including on The Simpsons. Wong (amazon; imdb) has also directed extensively for Dora as well as CatDog, with credits as an animator stretching back into the early 70s.

Dora Saves the Snow Princess is set to become another extended-length Dora classic.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Josh Selig Is Blogging for KidScreen

The magazine KidScreen is well known within the children's television industry--it's the industry journal, akin to Variety or the Hollywood Reporter for adult fare, with a daily email newsletter and a monthly magazine with longer features. Josh Selig is also well known: he's a multiple Emmy winner for his writing work on Sesame Street, and for the past several years at his own firm Little Airplane Productions he's been responsible for shows like Oobi, Piper O'Possum, Go Baby!, 3rd and Bird!, and, of course, The Wonder Pets!, which is consistently one the three top-ranked children's shows on the air. 

So the good news announced this week is that the two have joined forces. Every Saturday Josh will be blogging about goings-on in the children's television industry. That's excellent for professionals, those wanting to break into the profession, and even for parents looking for some insight into what goes on behind the shows their children watch. The blog is called Planet Preschool and is available here. Thanks to Josh for being willing to provide this service; he now joins the growing ranks of blogging kids' television producers; one of my other favorites is the group blog at Channel Frederator

I met Josh this past summer and have corresponded a bit since then, and can vouch that he is thoughtful and respectful, particularly about two very important areas: 1) children and their importance and capacity to understand, and 2) all preschool television, including that of his competitors. It looks like a great combination has just been made.