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.

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