A Case Study in Pitching Moo: 'Wilbur'

Bringing a new series to air for preschool children is never childs play. Janet Hetherington chats with Cathy Chilco about how Wilbur, a show featuring a little calf who loves books, moooved up the pitching post to be a top pick of the CBC and Discovery Kids.

Introducing Wilbur. All Wilbur images © Mercury Filmworks.

Cathy Chilco, exec producer and creative consultant at Chilco Prods., Vancouver, knows childrens programming. Chilco previously served as vp/exec producer of International Production at Sesame Workshop in New York, where she championed new productions of Sesame Street in many countries, including Egypt, South Africa, China, Russia and the Japan Prize-awarded Israeli/Palestinian co-production.

Chilco is also known for the hundreds of live-action and animated programs she has produced and directed, many of which have been honored with awards, as well as her script development ability (Silver Lining Productions in New York, Nickelodeon). Recent shows include the Gemini-winning Suzuki Speaks a CGI production starring Canadian environmental guru David Suzuki as well as The Life & Times of Umberto Menghi, and development for Goldie Hawns Bright Light Foundation.

So when Chilco got a phone call about a new character an adorable little calf named Wilbur who uses music and stories to engage preschoolers she immediately saw the potential in the barnyard bovine.

Wilbur is the conceptual brainchild of three entrepreneurial moms from California EKA Productions Jill Luedtke, Tracey Hornbuckle and Kim Anton. The character first appeared in a series of educational videos, self-distributed since the late 1990s, including Wilbur Sings the Classics and Wilbur Visits the Farm.

I got a phone call in 2003 from EKA in San Diego about the series, Chilco recalls. They were looking for a Canadian producer with experience in preschool and my name had been given to them by a writer I had worked with in New York City. I had been vp/exec producer of international productions at Sesame Workshop in NYC for five years. We hit it off right away and they asked me to head up the production in Canada.

Shadowmation Sensation

Chilco felt animation would be key element in the new Wilbur series, which would focus on literacy for the very young, and contacted Clint Eland, president of Ottawas Mercury Filmworks. As it turned out, Eland had an exciting technique to offer that fit perfectly with Chilcos vision Mitchell Kriegmans patented Shadowmation process.

When I first approached Clint Eland with regard to the animated parts of Wilbur, I found out that he had recently formed a company with Mitchell Kriegman, creator of Shadowmation, to do Shadowmation projects in Canada. Once I saw the demo of the technique, I was sold on that approach, Chilco says.

Shadowmation utilizes realtime virtual sets and bun raku style team puppetry, integrating live action animatronic characters and computer-generated animation in real time, high-definition virtual environments. The process combines the advantages of animatronics, the expressiveness of live performance, and the freedom and range of computer animation with a distinctive and compelling immersive visual quality. Shadowmation has previously been used in series including Disneys Bear in the Big Blue House and PBS upcoming Its a Big, Big World.

In order to make Wilbur a reality, Chilco Productions partnered with Mercury Filmworks to produce Wilbur as Wilbur Entertainment Canada Inc.

In the new series, Wilbur engages in sing-alongs and Moooves it and Shakes it to his colorful, well-read collection of books while his barnyard buddies gather around to hear him tell a story that just might help them solve their particular dilemma of the day. When Wilbur reads a book, the story jumps to life literally. From the moment he reads, Once upon a time... children are transported inside the book where Wilburs barnyard friends become characters in the 2-D animated storybook segment.

Live-action was always envisioned a part of Wilbur, Chilco says. It is important to see real kids in their own environments at home, playing in parks etc. This is very empowering for kids to see and hear themselves reflected.

Cathy Chilco.

Pitching the Broadcasters

Chilco began making decisions as to which broadcasters to approach. I felt that the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) would be perfect, because I knew they had a commitment to preschool, but also I knew they were looking for something that had a special look, Chilco says.

There were some visual materials of the animated characters developed in Canada prior to my involvement, she continues. I used those and the Shadowmation demo to sell the show to CBC. They knew my work well, and that helped too. I had been producer/director for CBC in Toronto and Vancouver for many years.

Chilco also had other broadcasting prospects in sight. Clint and I met with Discovery Kids in New York and clinched the deal with them, she says. EKA had a development deal with DCI, but that meeting in NY convinced DCI that we were the team to make the production happen.

However, every pitch has its own course and speed. Its harder and harder for broadcasters to commit to series, so they move cautiously, Chilco comments. CBC was unusually fast in their decision to take the series. DCI took longer. Overall, its finalizing the business deals that takes an exceptionally long time. Also, theres more and more competition not only from original production, but from the wealth of acquisitions that are available for much less money than original production.

Perseverance and passion are fundamental to getting a new show off the ground. We are creating a brand new series from the ground up. This takes a lot of time, Chilco says. This is also a fairly new audience, younger than the usual preschool audience, and aiming at two- to four-year-olds has its challenges.

Finding the right people takes time the writing team each has to be researched carefully and then a team of people who have preschool experience, are funny, are good to work with, have time this doesnt come together easily, Chilco continues. Its the same for all other aspects puppet builders, puppeteers, animators, technical people, etc. The rewards are that we have a really solid team. The EKA gals are wonderful, our broadcasters are committed and put a lot of time into the series, and our education advisors are so valuable. We have a great producer in Marianne Culbert and she is putting together a solid team.

The show is directed by Wayne Moss (Big Comfy Couch, Under the Umbrella Tree and Sesame Park) under supervising producer Marianne Culbert (Maurice Sendak's Little Bear, Max and Ruby, Maggie & the Ferocious Beast) while production executives for CBC and Discovery Kids are Lynn Oldershaw (CBC), Amy Sprecher (Discovery Kids), and Erin Wanner (Discovery Kids).

Wilburs long hike to TV is not unlike many other productions.

Opportunity Knocks

Bumps in the road may lead to other opportunities. We were at the point of signing with another distributor, but at the last moment that fell apart because of their internal changes, Chilco says. We recently signed with CBC International for TV sales in the rest of the world they will now do those sales initial reaction at MIPCOM in October was very positive to Wilbur. CBC International Sales is the program sales division of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio-Canada, distributing programming to more than one hundred countries worldwide through its office in Toronto.

Wilbur is currently in production with live-action segments shot in Toronto and animation produced at Mercurys Ottawa animation studio. Each of the 52 11-minute episodes (packaged as 26 half hours) is comprised of Shadowmation, live-action, and 2D animated segments. The modular presentation format allows for a unique level of broadcast flexibility.

Beginning in spring 2006, the series will air every weekday morning on CBC in Canada, and on the READY! SET! LEARN! block on Discovery Kids Channel and TLC in the U.S., and Discovery Kids Latin America.

CBC International Sales is representing television distribution for the series in all territories except the U.S. and Latin America, which are managed by Discovery Kids. Wilbur will be dubbed into different languages, Chilco says. The next market will be NAPTE in the spring. Kidscreen Summit is also a good festival for kids programming.

While Chilco is working on several other projects with promise, Wilbur remains her main concern. My time is 100% devoted to that little calf! she declares.

If any one of us had any idea of the amount of time required to make this series, perhaps we would have said mmmm, maybe not, Chilco muses. But here we are, and we keep making the commitment to get this series to air, in spite of the many blocks on the road. We want kids all over the world to be excited about stories, books and the power of their own imaginations. I know from my years with Sesame Street, that children feel the energy we have put into the work it comes through the screen they feel that they must be special and they must have value if all of these people have put so much energy into this endeavor.

Thats what gives me hope and strength to keep going, Chilco says. Wilbur will make a difference to kids and their families, and I want to be part of making that happen.

Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.

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