Saturday, February 28, 2009

Guinness' Top Video Game

My wife will be pleased to hear that her favorite video game, Nintendo's Super Mario Kart, was ranked this week as the most influential console game of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records. I'm not a big-time gamer but their list of titles is indeed interesting. You can see it here

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Kids' Films in New York

It is that time of year again, the time when New York City parents wish they had more time in the day--especially Saturdays--to take their kids to all the great cinematic venues around town. The city frequently has cinematic gems showing for kids at some venue or other, but now we're in for the double treat of the New York International Children's Film Festival at five locations in Manhattan and the BAMkids Film Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Above is a shot from Dave Pryor's three-minute film Alien for Christmas showing at BAM.) Both are literally world-class events, so you can't go wrong with either. The NYICFF provides showings over the course of several weeks, primarily weekends, from this Friday through March 15, so it's very nice if you're not available this week, for instance, or if you want to catch more than one screening. Inversely, the BAM event is concentrated in one place and one time, this weekend: you can take the kids for an immersive day of cinematic experience, with music, food, face painting, and other kid-friendly activities; it's a partner of the Chicago International Children's Film Festival, one of the top kids' film fests in the world. Both NYICFF and BAMkids have shorts, features, live-action, and 2D (cel, Flash, etc.), 3D CGI, and stop-motion animation. 

Mommy Poppins is a very good blog on kid-friendly events in the city, and this is what she has to say about NYICFF and BAMkids. I myself don't have much else to add except to urge all parents to go. These fests are both around a decade old, prices are reasonable (especially by festival standards), and they represent some of the best that a resurgent New York has to offer families, with the types of productions for children of all ages that you just can't get on television or Netflix. If nothing else it's worth it for the American premiere of the much anticipated new Wallace and Gromit film, A Matter of Loaf and Death, which premiered on British television this past Christmas season.  

Monday, February 23, 2009

Curious George Box Set

It is my understanding that Curious George is the top-rated preschool television show on the air in the United States, including all time slots and cable, network, and public television stations. It's a production of WGBH in Boston and can in a way be considered the foremost program from one of the country's top producers of children's television. The good news is that two weeks ago PBS/Universal Studios released a box set of four previously released DVDs, totaling 420 minutes of material. The included titles are Zoo Night and Other Animal Stories, Plays in the Snow and Other Awesome Activities, Takes a Job and More Monkey Business, and Rocket Ride and Other Adventures. The show has a really strong science curriculum and has maintained much of the charm of the original books--the charm is slightly different, I admit, particularly as the modern George is a bit less of a rapscallion, but it is definitely charming nonetheless. And that is true for parents familiar with the original and kids encountering George for the first time; in fact, a reverse introduction is completely possible, going from the series back to the original Rey books. 

The best news is the box set's price, which at the moment is $34 on amazon. For thirty-two episodes that's not bad at all.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Disney XD Has Launched

Friday the 13th may not seem like an auspicious date on which to launch a new network, but bad luck didn't seem to be in the cards for Disney, at least not initially. If you have not heard, the House of Mouse has retooled its channel Toon Disney into something more specifically boy-oriented (since the Disney Channel already receives a high percentage of girl viewership) and more rooted in live-action series. Though the latter may just be a trend, there's no denying that tween and teen boy viewers are a major demographic with a lot of economic pull that isn't always fully tapped in television, i.e. I'm guessing a lot of them are playing video games, like I was at that age. Hence the launch of Disney XD, a station geared specifically for this demographic that is beginning with what is essentially a tent-pole show based on a fictitious action video game: Aaron Stone. I've been catching the commercials during my many recent Phineas and Ferbathons. Here's the longest:

And at least in its opening weekend the show did not disappoint, as these articles by TVWeek and KidScreen attest (financially, at least--I haven't looked at reviews or viewer comments). But the viewers were there. Now I suppose we'll sit back and see how this series plays out and what other shows will be appearing. Being nostalgic I would like to think that there's room for old cartoons somewhere on there, be it Mickey Mouse shorts from the 40s or old episodes of Rescue Rangers, which I used to watch religiously around age ten. I'm dubious about that, though, and am content to see what new shows Disney can cook up in the wake of Kim Possible and to compete with the likes of Cartoon Network and shows like Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which I believe has been renewed for a second season over there at Turner. If, as I heard more than once at the KidScreen Summit, boys over eight are being underserved by television, I don't think it will stay that way for long.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

More on Dora for Post-Preschoolers

A few months ago I posted a note about the folks at Viacom/Paramount/Nickelodeon thinking about updating Dora the Explorer's image to market to older girls, a huge market. Though there are no visuals yet--the style guide hasn't been released--today KidScreen alerted us about developments for the tween Dora. I told Loretta about it after preschool and she was incredibly excited. She hasn't really watched Dora for over a year and I think this would give her reason to get back into it. I'm glad to hear the Spanish curriculum will remain, presumably with a slight increase to account for the older kids' improved abilities. Here's the story, by Emily Claire Afan.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

KidScreen Summit 2009

So it was a wild and crazy week--or three weeks, rather, counting all the time spent before this year's KidScreen Summit contacting delegates and setting up meetings (and now I'm faced with the daunting task writing more scripts and following up; so of course I'm blogging instead). I recognize that my own preparation pales in comparison with those who organized and staged the event, so my thanks go out to them. The entire proceedings were enormously educational and beneficial.

For those, particularly parents, who are unfamiliar with KidScreen, it's the professional/trade organization for the children's television and film industry. The motto is "About reaching children through entertainment." It's based in Toronto, a major hub in the children's media industry, and includes corporations and independent content producers like myself throughout the world, though one does not join but rather merely subscribes to services. Two of these major services are journalistic, as they produce a daily online newsletter with the latest business information concerning kid's media, from toy deals to new shows to mergers to how Woolworth's fall is effecting British retail. The coverage includes an equal amount of original reporting and accumulated articles from other sources, and I am amazed at the amount of material they manage to cover day-in, day-out. The other service is KidScreen Magazine, a monthly print publication that covers much of the same material with longer and more in-depth articles, a portion of which are also run online.

Each February in New York KidScreen sponsors a summit or conference, and this year there were roughly a thousand delegates from all over the world. This is where many of the connections in children's television happen: pitches, coproduction deals, hirings, licensing agreements, etc., and of course just the more low key but arguably more important business of simple networking. That is essentially where I, a freelance writer, came in, meeting with people and presenting myself and my writing/production experience.

The first thing to praise about KidScreen Summit is therefore the sheer number of attendees, giving people access to a range of people that would never be possible working on their own. That was for me the greatest benefit. I had enough meetings scheduled--nearly hourly every day for three days--that I was able to attend only a handful of conference sessions (a plethora of classes and workshops are also on offer). Of these the most beneficial were the small-scale thirty-minute sessions with industry personnel, designed to let them discuss their companies, production slate, and the state of the industry, which thanks to the recession is more volatile--and interesting--than ever in recent memory. The three sessions I attended--for WGBH, PBS Kids, and the CBBC--were fantastic, yielding an in-depth view into the workings of three of the most important production companies and broadcasters in children's television, as well as important connections with the presenters themselves and fellow attendees. 

So where is children's television going in the face of the recession? As one fellow delegate described it, that was the elephant in the room at all times. There was plenty of optimism to go around, and plenty of talent and enthusiasm, but is there enough money? Well, yes and no. There has never been enough money for every potential producer to create and air their programs. This year there is even less, but the vetting procedure is still generally the same: potential shows are culled and cultivated from a broader range of material. Judging from the delegates with whom I spoke, there will still be plenty of new items in production in the next few years. The individual budgets may be less, but new programs will still see the light of a sound stage in 2009 and 10. Nobody said anything like, "I'd like to use your writing but just can't afford new scripts right now." Rather, I'm hard at work following up with dozens of companies that are interested in new writing talent, and if my little experience can serve as a microcosm/prognosis for the entire industry, then that means that there's enough afoot to keep things afloat. There are great shows already green lit and on the way, and there are others that are just around that corner. In fact, of equal concern in the sessions I attended was the effect of digital media, DVRs and online distribution and interactivity and show blogs and virtual worlds and so forth. Children's television has weathered tough economic times before, but the advent of the Internet presents the greatest paradigm shift in children's entertainment since the spread of television itself after World War II. It's the Internet, not the belt-tightening, that is causing producers and distributors to rethink their entire approach to children's media.

What other tidbits did I come across? Lots of good shows in the works just awaiting a bit of that cold hard cash (I won't name names at this point). Most exciting was that more than one company is increasing its curriculum content for over 6's (shows that at present are represented by things like WordGirl and Cyberchase). The biggest gap on the air today is there in the 5-8 range, so look for that to be filled, on both sides of the Atlantic. The environment and sustainability are growing as curricular issues, but I heard a lot about the basics like math and science as well as other hot topics like nutrition/health and cultural relations; I'm quite excited and hopeful to be involved with a preschool show in this latter category that will teach a few words from different languages each episode. Not enough to gain the familiarity of a Handy Manny or Ni Hao Kai-lan, but something that will expose kids to a broader range than is possible with those single-language shows--the point being cultural awareness, not necessarily linguistic ability.

I'm just ruminating on this as I write, but perhaps the best part about my first KidScreen was meeting so many people whose work I've admired for so many years, whether I knew their names or not, people like Brigid Sullivan, Patricia Lavoie, David Levy, Kay Benbow, Andrew Brenner, Francis Fitzpatrick, Leo Nielsen, Adina Pitt, Linda Simensky, Betsy Oliphant, and so many others. A lot of these people will hopefully be commenting on the summit over on Josh Selig's KidScreen-sponsored blog Planet Preschool. I'll be checking back on that posting regularly. 

Monday, February 9, 2009

Inside the Pop-Up Studio

In the fairly new book Minders of Make Believe Leonard Marcus includes a history of the Victorian origins of pop-up books. The form has had an amazingly rich history, with great masterpieces for every tawdry throw-away piece. I had my eyes reopened to the possibilities about six years ago in a thrift shop in New York City when amongst the secondhand furniture Carol and I stumbled upon Robert Sabuda's pop-up of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. We were only trying to get pregnant at that point but we bought it up and it is now one of Loretta's favorite books. It's not uncommon to walk past her room and see her sitting on the floor, holding up the (paper) green spectacles while gazing at the Emerald City.

We've gone through a series of his other versions of classics such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Jungle Book. His Winter's Tale, though original, nearly inspired me to specialize in pop-ups and do Shakespearean plays, Cervantes, and similar tales in lavish pop-up form. 

So thanks to the work of people like Sabuda I dare say pop-up books have entered a modern renaissance (see the video I posted a couple weeks ago). So today I'd like to just share a story and video by Gwynne Watkins and Paul Barman from the 4th in which they feature Sabuda and his partner Matthew Reinhart. The video, by Paul Barman, is essentially a tour of one of their new titles on fairies (plus the Oz cyclone Loretta likes to spin so much). It's brief but extremely engaging--as the new genre of online book trailers goes--and even begs a longer film of up to ten or fifteen minutes to really trace the evolution of one of their books from concept to release (note to Sabuda and Reinhart: Call me!).

Hope you enjoy both the article/interview and the video, which are here. Of course there is an official Robert Sabuda website as well, and Amazon obviously has their books for sale. Lastly, there are more vids on YouTube. Here's a sample of a presentation of theirs:

As a housekeeping note, I'll be off until next Monday as I'm at the KidScreen Summit. See you then (or there!).

Friday, February 6, 2009

Hans Beck, 1929-2009

Hans Beck was the German inventor of the Playmobil figurines and for many years the head of research and development for that company. He died near Lake Constance last Friday and the New York Times ran his obituary today and here's a shorter one from the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Also, leave it up to Wired to write a little tribute.

Video tributes are already up on YouTube, including this one:

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Coraline in 3D

I've been a fan of Henry Selick since The Nightmare Before Christmas, which was the first film I drove to see after getting my license back in 1993 (I remember it well). I've been "working" on a paper on James and the Giant Peach since 2002, and I'm extremely happy to see Selick working his magic again with Coraline, which opens wide tomorrow. 

Selick works in the tradition of George Pal, with small armatures for characters' bodies and interchangeable facial expressions for the heads; they're small pieces for different eye shapes, mouth shapes (visemes), etc. And within that field Selick is indisputably the master; he's indisputably America's answer to Peter Lord and the Aardman folks--though they're working in a slightly different medium--and he has for all practical purposes surpassed the work of Pal himself. But Selick's upped the ante this time--why not?--by not only retaining his method in an age of increasing CGI (Thomas the Train and Bob the Builder, for instance), but by deciding to make Coraline the first 3D stop-motion film ever made. I'm not enough of a historian to verify that this claim is absolutely true (claims to being first are often complicated, padded, or patently false, as in Snow White's claim to be the first animated feature when it was really something like the thirteenth). But that's a tangent: I'm giving Selick the benefit of the doubt--I certainly don't know any 3D stop-motion films--and I'm looking forward to seeing this in theaters. The draw is such, in fact, that I will overlook New York City's exorbitant admission fees and make Coraline the first film I've gone and paid to see since Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower over two years ago. 

I therefore wish I knew more about the photography. I was pleased this morning to see that the film is on the cover of this month's American Cinematographer, but I didn't have time to read it today and it's not yet up on their website (and not all AC articles are posted online). The DP is Pete Kozachik, ASC, who's been with Selick since the beginning. (He also shot Tim Burton's Corpse Bride.) Not having more info, I suppose I'll try to find some out and post more on it soon, but suffice it to say that stereoscopic photography is trickier than supposed--it's not just setting up two cameras a few inches apart--and stop-motion photography is also, an exercise is methodological precision that no live-action filmmaker would like to even consider. Combining the two processes would be nothing short of groundbreaking and herculean. Even though it's February I hope the Academy members still remember this fact come next January--wouldn't it be great to have an animated film nominated for cinematography? (Though like Nightmare, I suspect an effects nomination is more likely, if anything.)

Here are some reviews of and resources for the film:

 The official site, where the first thing I did was watch a pixellated mustache. Very cool web design.

And now the trailer:

And a clip:

Just a note to parents, to keep the littlest kids away. I guess I'm conservative in this way, but even Rolling Stone said it'll scare them <blank> (i.e. "quite a lot"). This one's for the bigger kids and, why not, the grown ups themselves.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Hans Christian Andersen in the Original

Happy Groundhog Day, everybody! This post is a continuation of my recent thoughts about adapting H. C. Andersen to film and video. Today I’m taking the opposite view, exploring the virtues of reading Andersen in his original language (or at least the English translation thereof).

I can think of numerous reasons to read Andersen in the original, but I’ll limit myself to just a few. Before doing so, though, I should mention that last year I read the Wordsworth Classics version by an anonymous translator. Within a week of finishing it I was visiting a friend’s apartment and saw the Literary Classics deluxe edition.

I immediately grew jealous because the deluxe edition had stories I hadn’t read, and it was handsome and hefty, both desirable qualities for bibliophiles. That said, its large size and weight would not really lend it to reading on the subway, at the park, or in Starbucks, so I while I still recommend it as a coffee table item, or for your child’s stay-at-home library, for reading convenience on the go one of those pocket-sized editions is the way to go, and much cheaper.

But the difference in size actually highlights the first reason to read Andersen in the original, and that is his incredible prolificness. He wrote at least 159 children’s fairy tales, in addition to his many travelogues and works for adults. Of those perhaps two-dozen are in the standard repertoire of picture book, television, theater, and film adaptations, leaving a vast array of tales available only by reading Andersen himself. A corpus that large will admittedly contain its lows along with its highs, but the latter are surprisingly frequent.

Some tales seem surprisingly potent for adaptation but, to my knowledge, have not been frequently remade. Top among these are “Great Claus and Little Claus” (one of my favorites, although there’s some violence not appropriate for the youngest youngsters), “The Snow Queen,” “The Bronze Boar,” “The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf,” “The Tinder Box,” “Psyche,” “The Wild Swans,” and, frankly, many others. On the other hand, there are many stories have apparently not been adapted precisely because they would be impossible to adapt—it’s the comparative advantage argument again, this time in favor of literature. There are, for instance, a surprising number of stories about the inner lives of inanimate objects: how would one visually depict “The Bottle Neck” (about the adventures of . . . a bottle neck) or the second episode in “Olé Lukoié, the Sandman,” in which the furniture has the following conversation:

“They all talked about themselves except the spittoon, which was silent and much annoyed that they were all so vain, as only to talk about themselves, and to pay no attention to him, standing so modestly in the corner and allowing himself to be spat upon.”

The filmmaker who dares attempt this scene with no narration has a steep hill to climb.

Similar difficulties arise in other stories featuring a great amount of interior monologue or narrative editorializing, such as in “The Snail and the Rose-bush,” a polemical dialogue between the titular characters that contrasts the egotistical hubris of the former with the generous humility of the latter. There are also pictorial tableaus, like “A Picture from the Ramparts” and “What the Moon Saw,” that have very little narrative but a great deal of poetic descriptions which are quite beautiful to read.

And that, in fact, brings me to the second, much more important, reason to read Hans Christian Andersen, which is that he is a world-class writer. This, in fact, essentially encompasses all the other reasons to read him.

The plain simple fact is that while most people are familiar with at least some of Andersen’s tales this familiarity has come entirely through retellings and adaptations. They simply never have read the originals. The attitude is akin to how we also encounter Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Rumplestiltskin, or other fairy tales of the Grimm/Perrault variety. Cinderella, the most-told fairy tale in the world, has so many distinct versions that it would be insane to try to recount them all, particularly to your child (I suppose librarians and folklorists have their own motivations). You can, however, delve into many of them and come up with a rich and rewarding experience. If the Grimms tell the tale one way, Perrault another, Russian folklore another, and Rocky and Bullwinkle yet another, then we come away the wiser and happier for it. These myths and legends are ancient, have no definitive original version, and therefore have an inherent mutability that makes them ideal for retellings and adjustments—that, after all, is how they have lasted and flourished through the ages.

Not so Andersen. He first published a collection of children’s stories in 1835. To put that in perspective, it is the same year in which Tocqueville published Democracy in America, in which Melbourne was founded, in which Darwin journeyed on the HMS Beagle, in which Texas declared independence from Mexico, and in which the first railroad was laid in continental Europe. Andrew Jackson was President of the United States. This is not ancient history; it is over 130 years after Perrault published Tales of Mother Goose and even a full generation after the Grimms. This is the Industrial Revolution and the birth of the modern era. If we deem it proper to still read Charles Dickens, the Brontes, Victor Hugo, William Wordsworth, Lewis Carroll, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, or a legion of other contemporaries in their original prose, then surely we can afford the same respect to Andersen, even though his stories were for children. Ironically, it is precisely because his tales have proven so universal that his writing has been so little read and enjoyed. His stories, while timeless, occasionally do benefit from being grounded in his own historical period.

If “The Little Match Girl,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and “The Little Mermaid” therefore are beautiful in their retellings and adaptations, they are equally so in their original forms. To partake of them exclusively through adaptations would be equivalent to listening to Beethoven, Brahms, or Schumann always through re-orchestrations—or ring tones—rather than in their original forms. Andersen’s language is piquant or beautiful, depending on the topic at hand, and deserves a similar hearing.

Take for example this, from the aforementioned “Olé Lukoié.” Olé, the Sandman, has put a little boy to sleep, and the boy begins to dream about his crooked letters in his copybook. The capital letters admonish the little boy’s small, squiggled letters to better imitate them:

“‘See, this is how you ought to hold yourselves!’ said the headlines, ‘so-to one side with a brisk flourish!’

“‘Oh, we should like nothing better,’ said Hialmar’s letters, ‘but we can’t, we are so crooked!’

“‘Then you shall have a dose of medicine,’ said Olé Lukoié.

“‘Oh, no!’ they cried, and then they stood up as stiffly as possible.”

Adaptations of “The Ugly Duckling” are generally sentimental, which is appropriate (admittedly, Andersen’s unbridled sentimentality is on full view in this piece), but in doing so they lose some of Andersen’s biting wit. Midway through, the duckling reaches “a poor little cottage; it was such a miserable hovel that it could not make up its mind which way to fall even, and so it remained standing.” There he takes up residence with a chicken, a cat, and an old lady hoping for duck eggs from the newcomer. The hen can lay eggs, and the cat can arch his back, purr, and emit sparks when his fur is stroked the wrong way. Andersen has a wonderful time with them as self-righteous simpletons:

“The cat was the master of the house and the hen the mistress, and they always spoke of ‘we and the world’, for they thought that they represented the half of the world, and that quite the better half.

“The duckling thought there might be two opinions on the subject, but the hen would not hear of it.

“‘Can you lay eggs?’ she asked.


“‘Will you have the goodness to hold your tongue then!’

“And the cat said, ‘Can you arch your back, purr, or give off sparks?’


“‘Then you had better keep your opinions to yourself when people of sense are speaking!’”

Later the duckling wants to go float on the water and is told to “lay some eggs or take to purring, and you will get over it.”

There is not only humor but frequent irony in Andersen’s work, often where you would not expect it if you’ve only seen or read adaptations. “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” for instance, is incredibly comic in its treatment of the soldier’s equanimity and stamina (he is, after all, made of tin). The running gag throughout the story is that the soldier never moves, never speaks, never does anything. The complete antithesis of the Aristotelean/Hollywood hero, the soldier is used by Andersen precisely as a send-up of traditional narrative forms, something easy to do when your protagonist is inanimate. The result is often hilarious, as when the soldier is knocked out of the window:

“It was a terrific descent, and he landed at last, with his leg in the air, and rested on his cap, with his bayonet fixed between two paving stones. The maidservant and the little boy ran down at once to look for him; but although they almost trod on him, they could not see him. Had the soldier only called out ‘here I am,’ they would easily have found him, but he did not think it proper to shout when he was in uniform.”

And so it goes, steadfast and immovable even until the moment he is melting in the fire. Stoic, maybe, but ironic certainly.

Probably the biggest--and most welcome--surprise for me in reading through Andersen’s works was “The Princess and the Pea,” and it came precisely in the same vein as “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” Far from being another fairy tale itself, the entire piece is a satire of the fairy tale genre. In one short and biting story Andersen is holding the mirror up to Perrault, the Grimms, and even his own life’s work. Only a true princess, after all, would be so soft and delicate as to be bruised black and blue from a pea under twenty mattresses and twenty feather pillows. Anyone with tougher skin does not qualify for inclusion in the make-believe land of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and all the others.

There are, of course, good adaptations of this story as well: the Faerie Tale Theatre version with Liza Minnelli and a glorious pop-up book by Chris Demarest and Sarah Aronson spring to mind. They are variations on a theme, but they cannot take the place of the original. Part of their strength, of course, stems from the fact that they are not trying to.

In fact, having read Hans Christian Andersen’s original stories, we can return to multiple versions and adaptations such as these to see strengths and weaknesses, like revisiting an old recipe or jazz standard covered by artists as divergent as Billy Holiday and Ornette Coleman. In concert, such an extended diet of Andersen can do wonders for both adults and kids.