Monday, September 27, 2010

Behind the Scenes of The Electric Company

Last week ASIFA-East and the School of Visual Arts presented an outstanding evening with the creators of Sesame Workshop's The Electric Company. The show's now preparing the third season in this iteration, but it bears repeating that this is not The Electric Company many of us grown-ups watched a generation ago, nor is it a direct remake. In fact, as reconceived by executive producer Karen Fowler, PBS's VP of Children's Programming Linda Simensky, and their collaborators, the new show has a younger cast, a smarter connection to its audience (imo), and a cohesive structure that eschews sketch comedy in favor of continuous narrative and a strong reading and phonics curriculum for 6-9-year-olds. But it's also updated too: check out the new version's opening credits:

Also in attendance last Tuesday were animation producer Claire Curley, head writer Adam Peltzman, and one of the chief animators Alan Foreman. The emphasis was on the show's animation since this was an ASIFA event, which is an organization based on both coasts for animators interested in all age groups and genres; their interest in the children's television world is quite commendable (although David Levy, ASIFA-East's president, was head animator on Blue's Clues and has been involved with lots of other shows). It was cool to see a children's show examined in this way, with an emphasis on the artistry and craftsmanship of creation, although questions about curriculum and procedures in this industry also came up. Let me just go through my notes to try to capture some of the highlights.

Thanks to a conflicting meeting one hour before this one and the brilliance of the NYC public transportation system I missed Linda's opening remarks about the show's online presence and multimedia/transmedia strategy, but I got the feeling it's very thought out and very organic to the show as a whole. Television episodes are now directing viewers online with cliffhangers that can only be resolved by kids playing as avatars on the web, etc. Plus The Electric Company has always had a multimedia persona, even back in the 1970s with print material supplementing the television show.

Anyway, there are 35 episodes created in one year. They're all shot on the streets of New York, giving the show a realism not available on a set, even one as detailed as Sesame Street's. This has sometimes put off rural PBS station programmers, so the producers walk a fine line between the realism of life here in the city without making it too "scary" for viewers in Nebraska. That's not to be condescending, btw: I was impressed at how seriously Fowler took rural viewers' sensibilities. Ditto for racial issues, sexual/feminist issues, etc.

So they're 24-minute episodes, with each consisting of 15 minutes of live-action narrative and nine minutes of short-form animation. Within each show, for the curriculum, there are five new or complicated words used five times in context. Remember this is a show for 6-9-year-olds, a demographic that, I think, are a little more difficult to write for in a curricular program; they have more autonomy and more non-curricular options, aka SpongeBob, and they're more easily turned off by obvious didacticism, so kudos to Peltzman and his team for keeping it fresh and funny while working in the language lessons. Besides vocabulary (the newest element) that curriculum includes four elements of phonics per episode, connected text (visualizations and contextualizations of printed words), and the narrative element of explicit motivations for the characters, which I believe means relating to the language material, not strictly narrative material.

Interesting stat: over one-third of kids are below reading level by fourth grade. So a huge portion of the producers' motivation is to really improve these kids' lives and nip that trend in the bud, a lot like Reading Rainbow a generation ago.

Now, on the animation. Claire came in in the middle of season one, when things were in trouble for delivery to PBS. They did over eighty animations in 2008, between April and August. (That's a lot!) So she had to really reach out to a lot of artists--trying to find the best ones--with no proof of concept to show them initially. Some of the clips they showed included Jack Bowsor, a 24 parody that achieved economies of scale by always featuring the character in essentially the same situation, allowing the production company, in this case Screen Novelties in Los Angeles, to crank out a lot of shorts in record time. She also talked about how they learned to reuse elements for their Music Man shorts, featuring the voice of improvising singer Reggie Watts, who does all of these vocals himself:

After Chaire spoke about efforts like these Adam Peltzman talked about the curriculum, which I've already mentioned, and gave a case study example, really, of how the Haunted House segments developed. They started out as one small interstitial used to teach a certain phonic concept, and the characters--a bat, mummy, and wolfman who live together as roommates--were so engaging that in the current season they've become a regular part of each episode. They're great characters and they easily lend themselves to working with written text (leaving notes for each other, etc.), and they're super funny. Here's one on apostrophes that Adam showed:

All the voices were done by the same actress, whose name I missed, and the animation was (and is) done by Alan Foreman. He came on board in March 2009 and has made, I don't know, 1,200 cartoons for them or something. He took us through the process of storyboards, animatics, rough, and full animation; the majority of this work, obviously in 2D, was done on Flash with small brushing up in AfterEffects.

One interesting thing with the new episodes came from the show's research, which showed kids were confused why they had to leave the live-action segments to "go off" and watch cartoons. It's for curricular reasons, but to make it a smoother transition for viewers new shows include animated characters like the Mummy above appearing on live-action backgrounds and commenting on the live-action action of the Electric Company, then introducing an animated spot (which themselves are fewer and longer than in previous seasons). There are three of these bumpers per episode, plus all the interstitials themselves; I couldn't write down all the production statistics fast enough, but it's now something like 300 short form cartoons that have been made (besides ten games, a twenty-city live theater tour, fifty-two more episodes by the end of this year, etc.).

There was a discussion of the animated effects done over the live-action portions (all done on Maya) with new clips with LL Cool J and Jimmy Fallon, and then the floor opened up for questions. Everyone agreed time and money were their greatest constraints, but Claire made a good point that if you put your emphasis on the creative material, i.e. the show's quality, then those things won't loom out at you, they won't be bears.

The last cool thing I found out about was a documentary that was actually done before the show went into production about a girl, Priscilla Star, who became one of its stars (and actually inspired the shift from adult characters to youth characters). It's P Star Rising, and it in itself looks like a great program for doc lovers. And Priscilla's own story, from nearly illiterate to the star of a show about literacy, is a great testament to the power, if not of The Electric Company specifically, the power to change children's lives. Here's the trailer, but be aware there's a little grown-up language in it:

Friday, September 17, 2010

New Festival in San Francisco

There's already the San Francisco Bay Area International Children's Film Festival in April, but today the New York International Children's Film Festival announced the creation of a sister fest named (ready?) the New York/San Francisco International Children's Film Festival. The new festival is co-sponsored with the San Francisco Film Society; you can go to their website to find out more about the film line-up or buy tickets. The dates are September 24-26 at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema in the Financial District. In my opinion, the more kids' films screen in any market as large as San Francisco, the better, especially half a year apart.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Tiny Planets Creates Online Worlds

Tiny Planets is a wonderful British/American preschool show made by Pepper's Ghost Productions in the UK and Sesame Workshop here in New York. It depicts the planet-hopping adventures of two fuzzy aliens named Bing and Bong. In roughly the decade since its creation, it has won a BAFTA and aired in nearly two dozen territories, and though no longer in production it's continuing to spread around the world, and deservedly so--it's a great program for preschoolers. I mention all of this because I really do have a strong affection for the show and its protagonists. Both of them are mute, and that fact alone harkens back to the narrative/visual brilliance of pre-1928 films and animated characters like Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, although the humor here is entirely different.

Bing and Bong are explorers par excellence. In each five-minute episode they hop into their fuzzy couch and launch off of their planet to go explore another. Each planet is visually distinctive with different denizens; hence they offer young viewers different learning experiences, most centered around the concept of exploration, a generally scientific concept, although some episodes range into the field of social skills as well. Bing and Bong interact with planets' color, sounds, and other characteristics to introduce these concepts to preschoolers with a depth and precision that wouldn't really be as efficient in another format--i.e., with characters explaining the concepts verbally as normally happens. Like I said it works really well for preschoolers, and it's also a nice way to sell your show in foreign markets, obviously.

The show was conceived and executed long before the word "transmedia" was buzzing around every executive's lips, but its central premise leant itself marvelously to extending the story space in multimedia directions. Right off the bat, the feedback that came back to the show's producers was that kids were keen to create their own planets, presumably in creative play. But the idea that kids could actually create their own worlds online began to grow organically out of the television show. Tiny Planets always had a strong web presence and as social networking and Web 2.0 design emerged over the past few years the direction for the show's website--transforming it into an independent universe--began to take shape. The new site, or constellation of related sites really (centered around, launched this past June, and I've had an opportunity to take a good long look at it over the past few weeks through my daughter Loretta, who's become an enthusiastic player. First, though, here's a video previewing all the new features:

The central site, at least as far as Loretta's been concerned, is My Tiny Planets. This is the core of the concept I was just talking about: young players can create avatars that build, play, and interact in a really well-balanced mix of Sim-like world-building, traditional games (harking all the way back to Asteroids, which is nice for us old folks), and social networking. Security is a big issue for any juvenile social network, and the creators here took pains to make sure kids' identities would be protected. As one example, they're not allowed to create their own user names; instead they choose from among an assortment of silly names like Cute Giant, Chatty Genius, or Classy Aurora. (Though implemented as a security feature, just selecting the wackiest name has become a major treat for some kids.) And then there are no places for them to transmit personal information to other players; parents have various controls, including the ability to temporarily shut an account down; etc.

So far there are a handful of games that Loretta likes best, like "Star Buster" and "Trash Blasters" (that's the Asteroids one). She loves the fact that she has her own planet to design and cultivate, although it took us quite a while to even figure out where in the galaxy it was (tip: you can access it from your passport, go to your map and click on Protoplanet, or just fly there). That's one of the things that's being revised as the site receives feedback, but we're still hitting a few problems, like how to name our planet something besides Protoplanet. A help page with FAQs like this would be, well, helpful. And I do have a few other quibbles: when flying your spaceship around with your keyboard's arrow keys, it's counterintuitive, at least for me, to always have the Up key move your ship forward no matter which way it's facing. For folks accustomed to console game controls, it makes more sense, I would think, to push Left to go forward if your ship is facing left. Also, if you click on any of the navigational menu items on the top (What's New, Parents, etc.) it logs you out. This is the worst when you're lost in space or stuck on some planet you don't want to be on and click on "Play" thinking it will take you back to the games, but it logs you out completely. (I'll let you think it was the six-year-old who kept getting lost in space.)

Those are a couple quibbles, but I'm getting ahead of myself: in general everything else is really well-designed. We haven't yet really made any friends, so I can't comment on the efficacy of the social networking, but the virtual chat rooms (i.e. chat planets) that are set up for your space explorers to float around make it more fun than just texting your friends. The games are fun for younger players (six is around the bottom of the target demographic, making this an older-skewed property than the original show), and the planet building and networking are fun for the older players, although taking the time to gradually build Loretta's planet has already been good in teaching patience and long-term planning. (You earn points in the games that you can use to buy portions of landscapes you can install on your planet--different skies, buildings, etc. There's also an environmental curriculum as kids recycle, collect and compost waste, etc.) So Loretta's really enjoying that component the most. Right now her world is chock full of mushroom everything; I'll let you figure out which one it is.

The other sites in this community arguably relate more to the television show. The most obvious is the TV site, where you can watch all of Bing and Bong's original adventures, making it a very good page for the youngest users. There are also books, more games, and a lot of additional educational material.

I really like the multiple directions the IP can take you, offering different avenues of enrichment to kids at different developmental levels and with different interests. I mentioned that it's still developing, and I'm really pleased by one feature currently in the works, which is the Moon Zoo. Located on the My Tiny Planets page, this feature comes from a partnership with NASA and will feature real photographs taken by the Hubble Telescope; basically children can become involved with actual mapping of space, getting the first look at images as NASA categorizes and studies them. I feel that's a real step away from being a simple multimedia property and becoming a major transmedia experience. Right now it's obviously limited to Internet use, presumably at home, but I could see school science curricula being written around this, partnerships with museums and other physical locations that can become educational resources, live events like star gazing, etc. The social network set up on My Tiny Planets can begin to take on a practical element as kids share information with each other and collaborate on their work. This type of interaction with the material would probably occur with kids over ten, but even having the framework in place will be immensely fun and educational for kids as young as six. I know Loretta loves all the space material at she's seen at various science museums--she still asserts she wants to be a "space scientist" when she grows up--and just knowing that she's getting prime access to new images essentially never seen before would really thrill her, even if she's not going to make a measurable contribution to NASA's research.

Taken in whole, then, the Tiny Planets IP has positioned itself extremely well for seamless engagement across a very broad age range, from the nonverbal show and simple picture books for the smallest kids to the traditional online games and social networking for grade school kids on to the more serious science engagement that we could see emerge for older tweens young teenagers. The strong but mutable curriculum seems to be at the core of that breadth, and though there are dozens of IPs that engage really well in each of those demographics, I'm having a hard time off the top of my head thinking of one that does so across them all.

Anyway, these have been more the musings of a dad than a quick and formal review. I think the site's so in-depth that it warrants these kinds of thoughts, though, because it's really indicative of the direction social gaming and the Internet are going for kids--or at least I think so. It's a great model for those of us creating transmedia properties today, and I can't wait to see similar shows/sites/networks on other topics like music, reading, or fitness. Kudos to the Tiny Planets team!