Joe Strike talks with the artists at Little Airplane about the preparations, launch and soaring ratings for their Nick Jr. series, The Wonder Pets!
South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan is a mixture of many things: a destination for tourists in search of 19th century New York history... a lunch and after-work gathering spot for nearby Wall Streeters... and, somewhat unexpectedly, the neighborhood where one of TV's most intriguing animated preschool series is created.
The production company known as Little Airplane is a recent arrival to the Seaport. Launched in 1999 by former Little Bill head writer Josh Selig, Little Airplane gave up its Tribeca digs at the beginning of the year for their new home a block away from the waterfront.
The more squeamish visitor must brave the posters for a "Bodies," a pseudo-scientific display of skinless, freeze-dried and semi-dissected corpses just across the street to find the company. Climb a flight of stairs and you're inside two adjoining 19th century buildings that have been gutted and joined together to create a huge open space. The buildings' floors are slightly offset from each other and linked via half-flights of stairs; with its mix of exposed brick and polished wood floors it looks like a dream loft from a Hollywood movie, but it's home to the Nick Jr. series The Wonder Pets!
The wide-open, walls-free architecture is a reflection of how Wonder Pets! is created. After a successful first season (according to Nickelodeon, it's the number-one preschool series on commercial TV), the show's creators have eliminated the separate departments that used to work on all the episodes in favor of independent "production pods."
"There are three pods," explains Jennifer Oxley, Little Airplane's creative director. "Each one is a team of people: storyboard artists, designers, animators and editors, with an associate producer overseeing the process. Every aspect of production is in that pod. The storyboard artist and the designer who will eventually be doing the characters can hear the writer's pitch and take part in the conversation going on around that story. It makes for much better communication and work flow."
The pods are named for the show's three animal stars: guinea pig Linny, duckling Ming-Ming and turtle Tuck. Each episode follows the trio as they jump into their homemade airplane, fly out of their preschool home and come to the aid of a baby animal to the tune of an original music score.
The show's concept originated with its creator and exec producer Josh Selig and grew out of a pair of interstitials produced for Nickelodeon. The original shorts followed Linny out of her cage as she adventured into outer space and under the sea. Little Airplane's previous efforts (including Oobi! for Noggin and Playhouse Disney's Go Baby!) had all been live-action, but Selig wanted to try a different approach for Linny, one that came to be known as "photo puppetry."
"The idea was appealing to me because I wanted [the interstitials] to have a reality to it," says Selig. "Cartoon animals can do special things, but it's very familiar, so many great shows do that. The idea of taking photos of real pets that can do these amazing things felt more special to me. I didn't know how to get there but I really liked the idea. That's where Jennifer came in and sorted out the style, the look of the whole show."
Oxley took the idea and ran with it. "Once Josh came to me with idea of using photos, I started to think, 'How am I going to do this?' First we photographed a guinea pig and got every position we could think of for animation -- a full turnaround, different hand positions and so on." The animal took direction like a pro. "This baby guinea pig just let us move him around, almost stop motion-style. He was the sweetest, nicest guinea pig in the world, which comes through onscreen."
Oxley's experience in video-based preschool shows goes back to Blue's Clues and her work there as an After Effects artist. "I was one of the animators who kicked off the show, I worked on it for three years. Then I got hired on to direct Little Bill, which used After Effects, but in a different way. We used a lot of drawn animation and did our compositing, also some puppeting in After Effects. Then I came on board here. All three shows look different, but they all used After Effects."
Each production pod consists of between 17 and 20 people, with outside designers or animators occasionally tapped for more complex episodes. Photo puppetry begins with "real photos we cut up and break down almost like paper dolls, so that we can move them in the computer," says Oxley. "We also create backgrounds that are photo-real, but in layers that we can move around." 'Team Linny's lead designer Alexandria Fogerty adds that "we also enhance them with color and lighting to make them more kid-friendly -- a place they'd like to be." On her computer screen a dull-looking barnyard is now bright and colorful and a grayish wood fence has turned a deep, rich brown. The background, assembled from any number of photographs has taken on a storybook feel, but one that is still anchored in reality. The pictures come from stock sources -- Corbis and the like -- while toys, fabric textures and other items are photographed in-house to provide the designers with all the imagery they need to build the Wonder Pets' world.
The storybook look is driven by an esthetic known at Little Airplane as "cuteification" and begins with the animals' heads and eyes enlarged to give them a more child-like appearance. Working in Photoshop, the designers also create the various facial expressions (eye winks, mouth positions, happy or sad looks, etc.) that the After Effects animators will work with later. Photoshop tools are used to soften the images' edges to avoid a hard-edged cut-out look and mold the animals' expressions. "We start with photos of animals that are cute but not super-cute," Fogerty offers. "We had a show with ants and we managed to find a way to make them cute and not scary." Ants aren't the only bugs that have been 'cuteified' at Little Airplane: in an upcoming episode the Wonder Pets rescue a quartet of Liverpool-accented beetles from, yes, a yellow submarine. (The rescued beetles show their gratitude by singing a familiar-sounding tune called "Kelp!")
The show's storyboard artists work on Wacom Cintiq tablets that allow them to draw directly into the computer. "It's more efficient than drawing and scanning," notes storyboarder Jose Velasco. "If you want to do some revisions it's very simple to do some loose line drawings on top of what you already have, just to see if things work or not. It's a real advantage to draw very fast. We still doodle ideas on paper, though."
A detailed animatic is built in Flash and assembled in Final Cut Pro to a final voice and piano scratch track. Once complete, the animatic is used as playback reference for an orchestral recording session performed in-house at Little Airplane. Unlike most shows that string together music cues, an original top to bottom score is composed and performed for every episode. With wall-to-wall music and almost all the dialog sung rather than spoken, Wonder Pets! resembles a mini-operetta as much a pre-school TV series. Between Broadway musicals, classical concerts, commercial and pop music recording sessions, New York has an unbeatable talent pool of musicians and composers -- and Little Airplane has dipped more than a toe into the pool.
Jeffrey Lesser, the series' music producer has a slew of Grammy Awards to his credit and has worked with talents from Barbra Streisand to Lou Reed. "We use the best musicians in New York City, which has the best musicians in the world," Lesser boasts during a recording session at Little Airplane. Inside the small, L-shaped studio a dozen players are being conducted by Larry Hochman, the show's lead composer. Hochman, noted for his work on Monty Python's Spamalot and Fiddler on the Roof created the show's theme and the Pets' trademark "What's gonna work? Teamwork!" song that begins each episode's adventure.
On the monitor, rough sketches of a beachfront amusement park appear as the orchestra plays a few bars of an old-fashioned ragtime melody. "We do an entire episode in one three hour session," Lesser explains. "Right now we've stopped at bar 57, but we'll be taking the episode to its end -- bar 433. It's always a little bit slow at the start, the first hour is always spent trouble-shooting -- checking the chart, making notes, adjusting the arrangement.
"The music beats line up to where the piano is. We have a click track to keep everything locked completely - if we have a little hit where Ming-Ming waves her hat, that's going to land on the same place with the flute as it is on the piano. We do the score in small pieces, as much as we can get -- anywhere from 10 to 25 seconds' worth. Then at the end we do one complete take and play the entire episode nonstop. That's the really fun one -- sometimes it has best feel, it goes for the heart."
The music being performed this day is the work of stage composer Michael John LaChiusa, who never thought he'd be working on a children's' TV series. "Jeffrey called and invited me to write an episode, which I resisted, I said no. He called back, I said no again. I finally gave in and after doing a few episodes I became enamored of working with Jeffrey and the process here.
"This is one of the healthiest work environments I've ever been involved in. I've been exposed to Hollywood, the TV business -- I'm adverse to it because I come from theater background. It's a whole different ballgame here. It's a very family-oriented thing. There's a lot of theatricality in how they put shows the shows together that appealed to me -- I understood their language.
"I do the words and music -- I musicalize the scripts they give me. Very rarely do I have to adjust it. They're very conscientious about how they want things to rhyme and audience they're geared for. My stuff is pretty sophisticated in the theater, so I don't know if they'd want my rhymes. The process enlightened me a lot about how to be simple and uncomplicated but at same time having something that sticks in your ear. You rely on old classics to paste your ideas on. At same time there's a lot of room to be innovative and fresh. You have to be, to keep kids interested, especially preschool audiences."
Once mixed, the full score replaces the scratch track, and shot by shot the finished After Effects scenes replace the Flash animation, until the episode -- assembled on Final Cut Pro -- is complete.
"It's really a special process," says Selig. "The fact that we're able to do it all in-house is very rare. Everything from the writing and research to the animation is done under this roof. It gives us a level of control that we wouldn't normally have. There are times when we've shown an episode to our friends at Nickelodeon and they've had suggestions for a scene; we've been able to re-animate it in a matter of days and get them a new DVD. It's very hard to do that when you're dependent on a lot other studios in other countries."
Animating cut-out artwork has been done before, but never with Little Airplane's panache. "The only [examples of the style] I'd seen before were really choppy," reflects Oxley. "They looked like real people or animals but they didn't move like real ones. I kind of combined reality with the traditions of squash and stretch, the things you think of in real animation. It has a reality but still feels fun and special." Both Oxley and Selig are quick to reject any comparisons to South Park, another animated series employing a cut-out esthetic. "Personally don't see the connection," Oxley says flat-out. "South Park isn't photo-based, their character designs are simplistic. The only similarity is that they're cut-outs." Selig adds that the South Park animators "seem to pride themselves on the choppy motion of their characters. With our characters, especially with Ming-Ming, there's a real grace to her. In her flight and the dance sequences we do, there's an elegance to the movement."
Forty 11-minute segments were produced for The Wonder Pets!' first season, which premiered last March. Another 40 are now in production at Little House for a second, yet to be scheduled season. In the meantime the show is celebrating its anniversary with Save the Wonder Pets!, a half hour special airing Monday April 23rd in the show's usual 11 a.m. timeslot. This time the shoe is on the other foot (or paw or flipper, as the case may be) when the trio find themselves trapped, Pinocchio-style inside a whale and must depend on their underwater friends to rescue them.
Like all Nick Jr. shows, an educational curriculum underlies the Pets' adventures. "We focus on teamwork and problem solving," says Selig. "We work closely with Dr. Laura Brown who reminds us if we reach area where kids can't follow plot or if a joke's over their heads. We have someone to check us if we go too far. That's really our challenge here, to make creative work we're proud of as artists that kids will respond to.
"I wouldn't say it's difficult -- it's what we know best. It's always a challenge because as adults we have stories we want to tell, songs we want to write. We have to find ways to do it so children will really respond. We do that by knowing the vocabulary of early childhood.
"When I pitched the interstitials I didn't know what it was going to be -- I wanted to call it The Super Singing Power Pets. The nature of pitching is sometimes you don't know where it's going to go. In this case it led us to animation and to Jennifer. Since then that's been the bulk of our work. We're the only place that does what we do and that's really a credit to Jennifer." Unseen by Selig, Oxley makes an "aw, go on" gesture as Selig does indeed continue. "She's bought animation to the company and created a whole new style in the process. Now we're seeing that style appear elsewhere. She's really impacted what you see on TV these days and I think that'll trickle over into the film area."
Family-oriented theatrical features, both animated and live-action, are in Little Airplane's long-range game plan. Currently however, they're sharing their expertise with the world via the "Little Airplane Academy," a three-day workshop for hopeful producers of preschool fare. "We do it once or twice a year," Selig explains. "We've gotten a lot of requests from people who wanted advice on their show ideas, their bibles. We really couldn't help them all and didn't want to charge our consultant rate. Instead, we set up a program where we cover everything we do -- character design, research, business affairs, music. It gives people an overview of what goes into making a great preschool show."
In the meantime, the Wonder Pets! are flying high, and Little Airplane is in the midst of producing their ongoing adventures. Will the guinea pig, duckling and turtle run out of baby animals to save? Jennifer Oxley isn't worried. "We can always make some up if we have to. There's an endless number of predicaments for them to get into."
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.