Friday, June 8, 2012

Korra, Mao, and Ourselves

Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
- Mao Zedong

As my blogging here has tapered off over the past several months, I've resisted the urge to write anything about Avatar: The Legend of Korra. With just four episodes left in this season, though, I've just got to get some things off my chest before we hit whatever cliffhanger Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko have in store for us. With last Saturday's "When Extremes Meet," Korra's been shown the door of Republic City, and my prediction is the next three episodes will have her gain some ground against the Equalists--just look at the titles: "Out of the Past" (finally some answers about Tarrlok's, Amon's, and presumably Aang's past) and "Turning the Tides," a title that bodes well with a cool waterbending pun--before being served some cataclysmic setback akin to Azula's lightning at the end of The Last Airbender's season two. (Basic dramatic structure requires that the end of this season go badly for Korra if the second season is going to end with her victory.)

So why's the show so cool? Because it's matured, it's topical, and it's morally gray. The animation is awesome and the fighting intense, but as with the first show, The Legend of Korra's hook is how the protagonist navigates a murky moral landscape to achieve the spiritual maturation required for a physical victory. And if that was there with The Last Airbender, a kids' show which opened and closed with genocide, it's on overdrive with Korra. Which is why I believe it's not only better than Ben 10, The Clone Wars, or other competitors for the same demographic, but it's equal to Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, The Sopranos, etc. It's one of the best shows on television, period, and it's pushing kids' programming into places it's never been before.

Switching Genres: Why Republic City Matters

I'm a film guy, I suppose, so bear with me while I make some cinematic comparisons. But my thesis here, that I'd just like to talk through, is that Republic City is the most important character in Korra because (compared to The Last Airbender) it changes the theme of the show, the plot lines, and even the very genre we should classify this in. Aang and friends travelled the world, hitting every type of climate and country, plus every type of society, from the camps of the swampbenders to the majesty of Ba Sing Se. There was steam power, particularly noticeable in the Fire Nation's airships, but the main source of technology was bending-driven (the submarines and trains). The Earth Kingdom was rustic--all of the show was rustic, set in some kind of nineteenth-century Qing Dynasty. For me, it was a wuxia (wushu) film, a Mandarin-language genre featuring swordplay and weaponry as much as lush cinematography and themes of national and personal honor, love, vengeance, etc. The genre's been around for decades, but recent examples include Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Martial arts are the lingua franca of these films: he who has best mastered the martial arts--including many specific varieties particular to a specific school or clan--is the master of all his enemies. He can even master the environment, as wirework moved actors up into the tops of the bamboo forests that had so often framed battles on the ground. These warriors were also consistently the most mature and spiritually centered characters in their worlds, and it was the villain's loss of self-control that lost them their battles. This is a pretty tranquil example, with a master versus student, but watch how Chow Yun-fat holds himself, particularly after 2:09.

Isn't this airbending? Bending was Avatar's metaphor for the martial arts, which themselves are a synecdoche of a greater mastery of self-control. This was evident throughout, with characters like Iroh and, conversely, Zhao exemplifying the polar opposites of this duality (think of "The Deserter" when Aang goads Zhao into destroying his entire flotilla without ever throwing a punch himself). It was then made duly explicit in season two's episode "The Guru," an exploration of chakras and chi that had never been seen on Western television, at least that I know of.

So then we came to Republic City. The trailer came out and we saw cars, gas lamps, fedoras, and all the evidences of a twentieth-century Asian city. The show's makers said they mixed sites like Vancouver, New York, Shanghai, and Hong Kong--the same Hong Kong that was the center of Cantonese cinema--kung fu films--from the 1950s until the city rejoined China in 1997. This is where we got Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and scores of others. This was also the genre in which martial arts often met western technology, western fighting techniques. If Bruce Lee could travel to Rome or fight Kareem Abdul-Jabar, then what new threats would Korra be up against?

I thought about all of this in the month's leading up to the pilot's release, but one comparison stuck in my mind more than any other: Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China, from 1991. I think in the years leading up to the reunification, a lot of Hong Kong films were particularly interested in issues of nationality: were they Chinese or were they British? How did they join these two portions of their society and how would they change after the English left? And their films found a resonant parallel in the period of the late 19th to early 20th century, when European and American influences were first forced into their cloistered society. Western powers were unilaterally carving China up into spheres of influence, and Chinese attempts to assert its sovereignty proved ineffectual. The best known example, even if it is an incomplete reading, came in the Boxer Rebellion from 1898 to 1901, which ended with the capture of Beijing.

I promise I'm working my way back to bending, so bear it in mind as you read this pretty simplified account I just found of who the Boxers were and why they failed:

In northern Shandong province, a devastating drought was pushing people to the edge of starvation. Few people there were thinking about making peace. A secret society, known as the Fists of Righteous Harmony, attracted thousands of followers. Foreigners called members of this society "Boxers" because they practiced martial arts. The Boxers also believed that they had a magical power, and that foreign bullets could not harm them. Millions of "spirit soldiers," they said, would soon rise from the dead and join their cause.

Guns changed everything. Before, a Chinese fighter (element bender) would spend years studying martial arts under a master, gaining mastery of skills and his temperament that allowed him to dominate all rivals. Now, suddenly, foreign fighters appeared who had none of those qualities but who did wield firearms, and the scales shifted--the world was out of balance. Martial arts no longer mattered. Self-mastery no longer mattered. Power came from the barrel of a gun. It was, I presume, a hard lesson to learn. Once Upon a Time in China's protagonist Wong Fei-hung--a historical person who became a folk hero as a symbol of Chinese resistance to foreign domination (and hence the protagonist of many, many other films as well)--understands this. There is another character in the film, though, Iron Robe Yim (note the bullet-proof vest connotation), who symbolizes the Boxers and their apparent inability to grasp what was happening. He is Wong Fei-hung's equal in combat, but he loses his cool, loses the fight (one of the greatest in film history), and then loses his life when he charges head-on into a brigade of British rifles. Though he's Fei-hung's rival he's not the film's villain; he dies in his arms, whispering the lesson finally learned--too late--that fists cannot fight bullets. He's a symbol of China's moral decline in the late Qing Dynasty (and the decadence of Hong Kong's late British capitalist period?): he's reduced to an animal because he cannot bring himself into the new world brought by the European guns. (Check out this short but thorough analysis on the character.)

At the end of The Legend of Korra episode "The Revelation" an Equalist with some fancy new technology trounces the "Fabulous Bending Brothers" Mako and Bolin. He then says something like, "You benders have got to learn that there's no place for you any more." Similarly, when Amon crashes the pro-bending championship with his electric gloves, he says modern technology has put the power of a chi blocker into anyone's hand. The benders are out of date, and like the Boxers they're about to get swept aside if they can't figure out how to adapt. It's up to the viewer to decide if they even should adapt, because history, if we believe Mao Zedong's famous maxim, seems to be on Amon's side.

So when I first saw Korra's trailer I was excited by the possibility of DiMartino and Konietzko breaking out the bullets; I remember having a discussion about it with my eight-year-old, saying that would really give Korra some motivation to learn airbending, to blast the darned things out of the way. But so far no guns, and I'm no longer expecting them. Instead the show skipped straight from satomobiles and transistor radios to science fiction. The electric gloves are certainly futuristic, and Hiroshi Sato's platinum robot tanks go a little beyond modern warfare to the realm of The Terminator, Aliens, and whatever that last Hugh Jackman film was. So when I say Republic City has changed Avatar's genre, I guess I partway mean that it's taken us from wuxia to kung fu, but I also mean that it's taken us straight into sci-fi: imagine what the world will look like for the next avatar, fifteen years after Korra's death, and then for the avatar after that. When Sozin's comet returns, the firebenders just might be meeting it in their spacepods.

That's not a bad thing. It reinvigorates the Avatar world in a way I hadn't anticipated. And it diminishes the importance of bending. And because of that, it dovetails perfectly with Amon's agenda.

Who Is Amon?

That's the question all the fans online seem to keep asking. Is he that kid Zuko visited in "Zuko Alone"? Is he Jet, secretly not dead and seeking vengeance against all benders at age 90? For a while I thought it would be cool if he were Aang and Katara's non-airbending son Bumi, who was secretly not just a waterbender but a bloodbender who's now seeking to gain dominance over this enormous (bending) father figure he must have dealt with.

But I don't think who Amon is is as important as why Amon works. First of all, he's a threatening presence because of his mask. That alone was a stroke of genius, because it's so simple but it's sparked this firestorm of conjecture among fans, and that keeps bringing them back (I mean, hey, I want to unmask him as much as the next meddling kid). And it's a scary mask to boot, some really top-notch character design: I think one reason Amon works so well is the iconography of the Equalists. The chi blockers look like spidery Star Wars sandmen, not the greatest, but that red circle on Amon's mask and the sun rays on his banners evoke nothing but the Hinomaru, the circle of the sun, the symbol of Japanese nationalism and, in this context, imperialism.

I don't know enough history to give a real lesson, but I know that the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in northeast China in the 1930s was brutal and bitterly resented. I've seen Fist of Fury and other films about it and know, at least, that Bruce Lee really didn't like being told "No dogs or Chinese allowed." It was a national and ethnic disgrace. So I can imagine that the kind of regime the show creators would have Amon establish would be quite similar to how the Chinese saw the Japanese ruling them: Amon's personal fiefdom built on a foundation of blood and terror, all around a cult of personality similar to the Emperor's before World War II. The common Equalists thrive on a rhetoric of egalitarianism, but I believe--just from the character design--that Amon's intentions are nothing short of fascist.

So to me who he is doesn't matter as much as what he does and what he represents--and the same goes for Tarrlok, who's now come out of the bad guy closet (he wasn't hiding it well anyway). (And I was proud of Loretta for blurting out "He can bloodbend!" just seconds before he stood up and shut Korra down. I'd been caught off guard but the eight-year-old called it.) The flashbacks have been tantalizing and the interpretation of one astute viewer has gained a lot of online traction this week. {Please take a moment to read the analysis.} I suspect this will prove to be pretty accurate, although it may omit a few story points that will come out of the woodwork later (where's Zuko? he's the only other original character besides Katara who's both absent in the flashbacks and alive in the present), and it stops short of making the connection between Tarrlok and Amon. I don't know what that connection will be--are they, Palpatine-like, two sides of the same person (my daughter isn't phased by their having different voice actors); is Tarrlok working for Amon; is Amon working for Tarrlok; are they both just fortuitously helping each other? The only definite in my mind, prompted by an online reveal a few weeks ago that bloodbending can burst organs, is that Amon is blocking people's bending through bloodbending some region in their brain. The revelation that bloodbending can occur at any time only confirms that for me--and compare Yakone's eyes in the flashback with anyone Amon touches in the present.

And this is why I wanted to post something, even though it can't be conclusive, before tomorrow's "Out of the Past" episode. A lot of questions will get answered, I think, because Korra needs some things to go her way for a little while before things really fall apart and she gets her bending taken away or something. I'm glad she's leaving Republic City because I think it will give her a chance to escape the technology, get back into her wuxia avatar self, and make contact with Aang or some other force from the spirit world. What that will do for viewers is give us a breath from the show's urban freneticism and let us remember Aang's spiritual journey and the amount of time it took him to understand his spirituality.

And then hopefully Korra will come back to the city, team up with Dirty Harry Lin Beifong, finally reach the avatar state, lightning bend all the electricity out of those stupid robot suits, get her airbending on, and then breathbend (yeah, I said breathbend) Tarrlok and Amon right down onto their knees. That'd be cool, but what I really appreciate about the show--grudgingly so, I guess--is that it hasn't gone there, it's not just fisticuffs. Instead it let me post this on facebook the other night:

"Put my eight-year-old to bed with a discussion of organized crime, Guantanamo, habeas corpus, wiretapping, and a government's legitimate use of power against its own citizenry. That's why The Legend of Korra is such a cool show (plus bloodbending triad societies, of course)."

We really did hit on all of those issues. We live in New York and we've been to the World Trade Center site with her, so she understands a bit about the world since 2001 (she was born in 2004). But she didn't know there were people in jail who we think are dangerous but can't prove are dangerous, so we're just keeping them in jail, like how Tarrlok rounded up the nonbenders last week--she asked, "What if there really were some Equalists with them? Wouldn't that be a good reason to shut off their electricity, to keep them from using their electric gloves?" Astute, and complicated by the innocent bystander/racial profiling issue. Korra's War on Terror parallels are pretty great and, for a kids' show, pretty profound. I don't say that to be dismissive of kids' shows--obviously I'm a fan--but just to say that if your primary concern is to your own story, there's only so much you can do to bring in themes from the outside world. But I really appreciate that Tarrlok is in a position of authority, apparently in a democracy, but he's abusing it for his own ends, and that Amon, who could come off as flatly villainous as Ozai, instead says a lot of things that really make sense and jive with our notion of democracy and egalitarianism. Yes, the benders shouldn't oppress the nonbenders; yes, Tarrlok is doing it just as much as the triads; and, yes, taking someone's bending away was the glorious climax of the first series, now transformed into the ultimate threat of the second. Was what Aang did good or evil? Who "deserves" to have their bending taken away? What about the Obama administration killing most terrorists, even at least one American citizen, instead of taking them into custody? Is that any less morally ambiguous than Bush renditioning and detaining suspects in secret facilities?

Korra's not going to answer all the questions like these, but I love that the bad guys have some good ideas and the good guys are ready to use their bending to get their way, just like the bad guys say. Thinking it through to next season's conclusion, I suspect Korra is going to face a moral dilemma as intense as Aang's before he confronted the Fire Lord. If faced with a gang of bloodbenders, one could either imprison them, kill them, or take their bending away. Bloodbending was originally introduced (in the episode "The Puppetmaster") with a story about using it to escape from prison; apparently that's what was originally tried with Yakone anyway, and it didn't go so well. So scratch that. I think the current Korra wouldn't hedge too much at the prospect of killing Amon or Tarrlok, but a lot could happen between now and then, as she accesses her full avatar spirituality, to make her choose to remove that from the table. So that leaves taking their bending away as the only viable option, a beautiful dilemma for her to face given the nature of the Equalist threat throughout the show. She will be doing exactly what Amon says the benders do--using her power to force her will upon others--and what he, hypocritcally, does, by using his bending (assuming his powers stem from bloodbending) to remove others' power. She will, in other words, become Amon's moral equivalent. In order to defeat him, she will have to become him.

I tried this out on Loretta this afternoon:

Me: "Was it right for Aang to take the Fire Lord's bending away?"

Her: "Yes."

Me: "But isn't taking someone's bending away evil?"

Her: "Yes."

Me: "So is Aang evil? He took Ozai's bending away."

Her: "Yes... But no!"

Me: "So how is that different from Amon taking people's bending away, even bad guys like those triad guys? If Korra takes his bending away, will she be any better than him?"

Her: "No...I guess so...I don't know!" She grinned at the dilemma and gave up.

The paradox is so well constructed precisely because there's no right answer, something oh too rare in the world of children's television. Maybe it will prove so difficult for Korra to solve that capital punishment, a nonstarter for Aang, will enter back into the discussion--when is killing someone the higher road? (again, as with Obama's security strategy) That's heady stuff, and it's being packaged in a slick program that, like I said, also raises the bar for 2D animation and action sequences. And I haven't even started on its depiction of women or of middle-aged characters.

There are problems (Mako rings flat, the city council deserves more airtime, Asami undergoes a character transformation in five seconds that took Zuko three seasons, and Pabu and Naga, for all their good qualities, just don't have the chemistry of Momo and Appa), but overall what a show! Not only is it entertaining, I think my daughter will be a better citizen--and person--when we finish watching it. And that's the best thing you can ask for from a show.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012

I don't really know what to say about Maurice Sendak that he couldn't say better himself. Here's the New York Times obituary for a factual summary of his life, and then here he is in his own words.

Mano a mano with Stephen Colbert:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Grim Colberty Tales with Maurice Sendak Pt. 1
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Grim Colberty Tales with Maurice Sendak Pt. 2
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

From the film Last Dance:

And from the Spike Jonze/Lance Bangs documentary Tell Them Anything You Want:

And that's why, thanks to Maurice, we have cake every morning.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Robert Sherman, 1925-2012

Just saw that the legendary songwriter Robert Sherman, who influenced so many childhoods, has passed away. I've written about his music before, so maybe the most fitting thing to do is listen to some of his work. (Forgive the sing-along captions).

And the crown jewel:

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Milkshake's Kickstarter Campaign

Regular readers (you know who you are) know that I'm a big Milkshake fan. At our house they're some of our favorite music, and we're not alone: their last album, Great Day in 2009, was nominated for the best children's album Grammy. They've kept busy with some singles and a full concert tour since then, and now they're returning to the recording studio for a new full-length album called Got a Minute?. The concept's simple: make a compilation of over thirty songs that each last under two minutes. The idea sprang from a series of songs they did a few years ago for PBS KIDS, and those tracks that are already done are superb, as you can hear for yourself.

But a new album's expensive, and the band launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds. There are only a couple days left to reach the goal of a mere $14,000, so it's up to all of us who love quality children's music to pitch in. $15 gets you a pre-order of the album, so you're definitely getting your money's worth--plus helping make it available for everyone else. Please go to their Kickstarter page and spread the word as fast as you can--just a few days left!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Look at Disney's Magazines

I've reviewed a few apps in recent months and as I've been looking at ebooks and writing interactive samples myself my attention's gone back a great deal to traditional print material. It generally seems that as digital material proliferates that print will play an increasingly diminished role in the media pie--for children and adults--but I think that it's actually because of the multitude of electronic options that paper-based media will come to hold increased importance for readers. We're still an app-free household, for better or worse, but it's great to see Loretta's eyes light up whenever a National Geographic Kids magazine arrives or we take little Izzy into the library.

With that in mind I had a great time going through some of the latest issues of Disney's print magazines (or we all did, actually). The Disney magazine family includes Disney Princess, Disney/Pixar Cars, Disney Fairies, Phineas and Ferb, and Disney Junior Magazine. They're all based on pre-existing properties, obviously, a target the respective demographics of each one. While girls tend to like fairies & princesses and boys like cars (it was the only magazine Loretta had no interest in), both the Phineas and Ferb and Disney Junior magazines cater well to both genders, just like their programs on TV; for the latter magazine that's Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Jake and the Never Land Pirates, Little Einsteins, Handy Manny, Secret Agent Oso, and Jungle Junction, all of which play well to both boys and girls.

All the magazines have a good variety of material. No prose fiction, but comics, games, and activities, in different proportions, and they each have a foldout poster at the center, a really great example of something an app will never do. Disney Junior leans almost entirely toward interactive material; there are pages about matching, colors, shapes, counting, etc., as well as a board game or two. The issue I read was all about health and nutrition, so it included recipes as well. Cars and especially Phineas both have a lot of show trivia (Cars, I guess, is as much about the actual cars as Cars, I or II), and Phineas, which had the most regular typed material of all the magazines, also had "extra-curricular" material like facts about actual platypuses. Trivia is the kind of stuff die-hard fans--the kids who would subscribe to something like this--would want, and I was actually a little shocked I didn't know it all (I mean, I thought I knew every Doofenshmirtz jingle!). This issue also had a cut-out paper theater, another low-tech toy possible in a print medium that reminded me of the magazines of my childhood--and which kids can still enjoy today.

Loretta, who turned eight last month, was very into the Fairies magazine, which was centered all around the recent "Pixie Hollow Games" television special, although it had less comics than we both expected. She read all the comics it had, though, and gave a thorough look through to everything else. Just like with the retail merchandise the Princess magazine skews a little younger than the Fairies, and even though much of it was over her head my two-year-old Isabelle actually really got into this one. This magazine was animal-themed, and Izzy loved having us read the comic about when Ariel (as a human) got a horse, or when Snow White lost hers. There were puppies, fish, and other animals, and Izzy loved looking at them all--she stared at the poster of Snow White and her "woodland friends" forever, and she even did one of the cut-out activities with us.

The magazine editors aren't ignorant they're pushing a print product in a digital world. There are tie-ins to past episodes, promotions for upcoming events like Peter Pan's appearance on Jake and the Never Land Pirates, and the extension of storyworlds in lots of directions, like human Ariel getting a horse or Meap returning to visit Phineas and Ferb. What's missing are stories that originate in print and move online for exclusive gaming through a URL or QR code or something; but while maybe that's the future of integrating print and digital content, as a parent I'm more pleased to see my daughters interacting with a strictly single medium product. I want them to know what it's like to flip, rather than scroll, through a magazine, to browse something, dog-ear a page, cut things out, and store it on a shelf rather than a hard drive. These aren't just quaint practices, I don't think, but are integral to how we read and how the mind processes information. They're digital natives and I'm not worried about them not adjusting to contemporary technology, but I certainly don't think it will make them Luddites to also be familiar with--and love--print, and how things like tables of contents work. Disney may get a lot of criticism for charging subscriptions to what many may deem multi-page advertisements for its TV shows, but it's pushing to grow its magazine division at a time when dozens of children's magazines are dying, it's incorporating curriculum into its titles for younger children, its giving them a periodic surprise in their mailbox that's good for patience and maturation, and it's giving kids something tactile to read and store. For many they may be big ads, sure, but for others, like reluctant readers, the movies and shows may be their gateway into reading via these magazines--I could see the Cars mag do that quite a bit, in fact.

I guess this has turned a bit into a defense of magazines, which isn't what I had in mind. The content within the Disney magazines I've seen is really good, and I just wanted to talk a little bit about why parents should make magazines like these a priority for their kids.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

New Yorker on Children's Television

Just a note that this week's issue has a story about the current renaissance in children's TV. It's in print only, but here's the abstract. Just in time for this year's Kidscreen. Looks like it has strong nods to Wonder Pets and Phineas and Ferb, with Dora being held up as the archetype for the last decade.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The New Coviewing at the Cooney Center

Monday night Women in Children's Media and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center cosponsored an event at Sesame Workshop showcasing the center's newest study, "The New Coviewing: Designing for Learning through Joint Media Engagement." You can download a pdf of the study here--it's the center's first study published exclusively online; this not only saves trees but also allows for some cool interactive features impossible in paper. (Mac users should use Acrobat rather than Preview.)

Now last night I spent just over an hour writing what I thought was a really thorough review of the event and the report; that got deleted when I tried to post it, and I'm not able right now to rewrite the entire post. (Frustrated with google!) But the most important thing I can say is to read the actual report itself. The design guide will be an excellent resource for content creators of all stripes: it contains great, research-backed advice about how to design media that will maximize the opportunities parents have to interact with their children while using/viewing your product. Like I wrote at the very outset of this blog several years ago, smart parents will look for those opportunities anyhow, so it's savvy of producers to maximize that potential in our products.

One great example of this that I wanted to mention is the new Electric Company video game "Electric Racer." You can download this for free at the show's website. It's basically a phonics game couched stealthily in a racing game. That in and of itself is worthwhile for kids in its target 6-9 demo, but it goes further by involving parents as well. Kids man the arrow keys to steer the car while parents use the mouse to unscramble words and give their kids additional speed. It's a great example of media designed to foster collaboration and learning through "joint media engagement," or JME.

So to be brief, what are some pointers for maximizing JME? Check out the report for full discussions, but here are some bullet points:

* Make it kid-driven

* Provide multiple planes of engagement

* Ensure differentiation of roles; parents shouldn't be backseat driving the kids' task

* "Scaffold to scaffold," meaning you should make it easy to engage with immediately; parents shouldn't need a lot of prep

* Previous/Next -- build on prior experience and prepare for future experiences, within your own brand or elsewhere

* Co-creation -- like old Lego, give the kids the tools and let them build their world the way they want; allow parents the tools to collaborate but not dominate

* Fit -- make sure it fits well into daily routines, otherwise it won't get used

* Collaborate, don't compete; it's never good to pit parents against kids, at least not in educational media

Wish I had time to repeat some of the other great points. Perhaps the best lesson is for people to get in tune with what WICM is doing, either on their website or through their twitter feed (@wicmnyc), for future events and writing groups. They're a great resource and another joy of working in children's media in NYC.

NOTE: To the IT team, "Electric Racer" isn't downloading (with Safari). Any thoughts?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Inside Sesame Street

Happy new year! I've been writing on my other blog so I'm glad to have a reason to post here again, and a really good reason it is (and it's not even the upcoming BAM Kids Film Festival--though I wanted to mention that). Last night ASIFA-East and SVA hosted a panel called "Inside Sesame Street." The four panelists were Louis Mitchell, an Associate Design Director of Special Projects (more on that later); Margot Duffy, a producer of "Sesame Street English" (that too); Marcus Pauls, a producer of digital media; and Nikon Kwantu, a digital media and animation producer; it was organized and chaired by Justin Simonich.

Justin began with a quick history of the show, including a 2-3-minute television spot from 1969 announcing the show for the first time. Rowlf the dog is in charge of the whole thing, but it's Kermit who comes up with the title "Sesame Street," "because it's going to open up whole new worlds to these kids. You know, like 'Open Sesame.'" That was a gem that's apparently not online, so it was great to be able to see it.

Then we moved into a discussion of each panelist's position and recent projects. If there were any over-riding themes, the most prominent was what a wonderful opportunity it is to work for Sesame Workshop. Everyone was really enthused to be able to work with these classic characters, new media and formats, and the expectations of the brand. Louis Mitchell was particularly explanatory about how much of a dream come true it is to be working on the Street; during the day yesterday he was attending a shoot with Kevin Clash for a new Elmo project, and he talked about how fulfilling it is to be able to sit down on the most famous stoop in the world and work out production problems, or do things that naysayers claimed could never be done, like transport the Snuffy puppet for a photo shoot or introduce him into teen licensing and merchandise. That enthusiasm and optimism was probably the best part of the evening for me--I'm using its momentum to push me through all these video projects and finally get back up and running--and it's evident in this 2009 interview that Louis gave The Muppet Mindset, or in this photo (which we saw and is actually a full-body shot, taken after shipping the giant Muppet to his first L&M photo shoot).

A second theme was the protection/projection of the Sesame brand that I just mentioned. Louis does a lot of this as he vets everything from scripts to DVD covers. He does the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons and floats, and talked about how one Super Grover pose was too heroic, when in fact "he's an idiot," so he redesigned it to look more bumbling. (The original character designers, in passing him the baton years ago, emphasized that each character was created to exemplify certain preschool character traits, and the most important thing--for characterizations and curriculum--is to ensure that the characters remain true to that purpose. Grover, then, may be bumbling but he's never down on himself, he's the eternal optimist. That's what Super Grover as well as Regular Grover teaches, which may be why he was my favorite as a kid.) But with the property in so many territories and existing in so many media--print, live, interactive, etc. etc.--the brand is more than just something that concerns individual artists; it's enshrined in the culture of Sesame Workshop, with lots of levels of review to ensure that the brand--and the responsibility in implies toward parents and kids--is maintained. As Louis said, "All the new media have to connect back to the show." One department with a lot of sway there is called ER&O--Education, Research, and Outreach--and it got a lot of both wry and appreciative shout outs during the evening.

This, of course, implies the third theme of the evening, that the bureaucracy at the Street has really increased over the years. Gone are the days of carte blanche commissions to freelance animators, for instance, and any project can expect a litany of notes all the way through postproduction and even broadcast--tweaks might still be made on something that's already aired. But notes on curriculum, story, music, and other components are no strangers to children's media, and Nick, Disney, and CN probably aren't any different.

Here are some other items:

* One major project for Digital Media is the next Xbox Kinect game. Just like television was an emerging medium in 1966, so are gaming consoles today, with over 50% of American households owning one. The motion sensors of the Kinect make it ideal for preschoolers who don't have the fine motor skills to operate other devices, and Marcus Pauls talked about how they were going back and using forty years' worth of archival footage and make what was always an interactive show truly interactive, with player/viewer involvement affecting what goes on on screen. Loretta and I tried to go to a publicity event for the launch of the "Once Upon a Monster" game a few months ago but we couldn't get from her school to the venue in the pouring rain in time, so I can't really say much else about it. Here's a little trailer, though.

It's a long-term partnership with Microsoft, though, and the new game(s) are in post now; Marcus said they recently finished a seventeen-day shoot for the original content for the game, which consists of eight episodes.

* Ebooks are also a growing medium. The classic The Monster at the End of This Book just launched for handheld devices, and lots others are underway. I had a chance conversation with an editor at Sesame publishing earlier this week and she said the same thing, that ebooks are growing but they're committed to maintain print publishing as well.

* Digital Media has forty in-house employees, but it's producer-driven so they still look for outside freelance talent. You get those jobs by networking, putting out your own stuff, etc.-all the traditional methods.

* I didn't realize this, but Abby's Flying Fairy School (animated by Speakeasy in New Jersey) is actually Sesame's first transmedia project. Each episode, as seen in the middle of every Sesame Street episode, is written so that it has five points where, online, kids can enter the story and interact with it. I'll definitely be checking that out. You can do that here--so much for the rest of my work day.

* Margot Duffy's been working on a project called "Sesame Street English," which is basically a Street-based curriculum for teaching English as a second language, for 3-12-year-olds. The client is in Japan, but this could work for other territories too. Aging it up for middle schoolers was a challenge, even with Japan's increased acceptance of bright animation for older kids and adults (the program is 100% animated, I forget if with Flash or html5, all done locally here in the NY area). In fact, that leads me to a point Nikon Kwantu wanted to make, which is that

* Sesame Street is really a bastion of the New York animation (and puppetry) community. It's been here over forty years and it's kept people working. Economically, it's a major part of the filmmaking community here.

* Cookie Monster is #1 in the teen market. Mr. Snuffleupagus is #2. Who is #3?

* One thing impeding transmedia is its cost, especially since the Street's a union show. There's a push-pull effect between legacy (the term for maintaining the brand and the feeling of the show from the past 41 years) and moving into transmedia and new platforms.

* Everyone at Sesame Workshop wants to hire people with interactive experience. If you want to work with them know Flash, html5, ebooks, interactivity, etc. Stay up to date.

* Louis Mitchell has an online school for artists and creatives.

* Operating Muppets is hard. Kevin Clash and others travel to each of the 21 international coproductions (or those puppeteers come to Astoria) to train the puppeteers in the "Muppet Way." Carrol Spinney is particularly amazing: the Japanese 'Big Bird' has fainted from heat exhaustion inside his suit, and the Brazilian performer has kept a chiropractor on set because the costume is so demanding, but, as Margot pointed out, Spinney has conducted entire symphonies in character, keeping his arm up in the head the entire time. Big Bird is 8' 2", I believe they said, and that's a lot of bird. And his Oscar is pretty amazing too, of course.

* Just because you work for the Street doesn't mean to get to visit the Street. You can work there for years and never set foot on the set at Kaufman Astoria. That makes sense, but my own dream, I think, would be to stand in front of Hooper's Store and reach out and touch Oscar's trash can. Some day...

I've talked to other children's television producers who have a decidedly low opinion of Sesame Street, citing its snarkiness and its obsession with celebrity cameos, parodies of grown-up films, and asides to adult viewers--none of which enrich the experience for the intended viewers, kids. But to hear the commitment, dedication, and technical and artistic standards of each of the panelists--and all of their coworkers--shows me that Sesame Street is no dinosaur. It's been on the air this long for a reason, and it's still an excellent show with exacting standards and some of the best artists in television. My Isabelle, who's almost 2 1/2, has now largely stopped watching In the Night Garden. Instead we've added Blue's Clues to her repertoire, but her favorite program is clearly "Mumo," her name for Elmo and, by extension, the whole show. There's a reason it's her favorite: the craftsmanship shows on the air, and that's what the entire organization of Sesame Workshop exists for. Thanks to Justin Simonich, ASIFA, and the panelists for an enlightening and encouraging evening.