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:

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