You can't keep a good Pinky down, so Keyframe Digital stepped in to handle the second season of Pinky Dinky Doo, and Joe Strike has the scoop.
There are two Pinky Dinky Doos. The first is a seven-year old girl with a high-octane imagination and a yen for vocabulary-expanding storytelling; the second is her show: Pinky Dinky Doo, the latest preschool hit from New York City's Cartoon Pizza. But after a well received 26-episode initial season, production shut down and its production staff went their various ways; that was it for Pinky. Or was it…?
As any parent knows, an irrepressible child never stays silent for long, and Pinky's back in a second season of 26 new episodes (which started in September and are now playing twice daily on Noggin). This time around she and her friends have a larger world to play in, thanks to a switch from Flash to CG animation. Even so, CG hasn't given Pinky a swollen head (she already sports one on occasion in the series); she's still the same high-spirited -- and two-dimensional -- cartoon star as before.
Pinky began life eight years ago in bedtime stories spun by Cartoon Pizza's Jim Jinkins for his then four-year old daughter. "It wasn't pre-meditated as a kid's show," admits Jinkins. Like the eponymous star of his first hit series Doug, Pinky simply popped out of her creator's imagination. With the help of Sesame Workshop, the magenta-haired Pinky appeared in a series of children's books before making the move into animation. "The Workshop was a beautiful partner," Jinkins beams. "They didn't overhaul it, but saw it as natural literacy project."
With Cartoon Pizza's track record in children's TV highlighted by Doug, PB&J Otter, Stanley and JoJo's Circus; Sesame Workshop knew they were making a wise choice. Some 60 to 70 people animated Pinky Dinky Doo at an in-house Flash studio put together by Cartoon Pizza in the Workshop's offices. Even though Jinkins would have liked to make "a zillion Pinky Dinky Doos," the first order was for a mere 26 half hours, 52 12-minute segments in total. TV services programming to preschool viewers generally prefer twice as many, however -- enough to keep their audience watching the series until they grow out of the target age range.
One day Jennifer Monier-Williams, Sesame's VP of Global Television Distribution, got a call from CBeebies, the BBC's early childhood multiplatform service and one of the major players in launching Pinky Dinky Doo. "They said if there was interest [in a second season] they would come in; they were such big partners in the first go-round, you can't ignore that."
The complex process of getting everybody back on board and financing a second season began. ("I was full of anxiety when this happened," Monier-Williams admits.) Negotiations for a second season dragged on for a year-and-a-half while the window in which the shows needed to be produced was rapidly closing. Broadcasters were demanding a delivery date before they would commit to a series, one early enough so that the first season would still be on the air or fresh in their viewers' memories.
Cartoon Pizza brought a new player into the equation, a company they had been working with on other projects: Abrams Gentile Ent. (AGE). With such production partners as Sunbow, Gaumont and Saban on previous animated series, AGE was no stranger to children's entertainment. Company co-founder Anthony Gentile came up with a season two budget, along with a big chunk of said budget in exchange for licensing and merchandising rights -- and a promise to meet the Workshop's delivery dates. He had a particular company in mind to do the job: Keyframe Digital Prods., a Canadian pre-visual, vfx and animation studio.
"We'd done so much work with Abrams Gentile," says Keyframe's Darren Cranford, director of the 26 new episodes. "We're used to doing TV shows and turning around effects shots in a short time frame. They pitched us to Cartoon Pizza, who said, 'Let's see what they can do.'"
While Keyframe had animated an all-CG movie, several direct-to-video projects and a slew of commercials, they had yet to tackle an entire series. "It wasn't quite like jumping into the deep end," Cranford reflects. "Well, maybe like jumping into the deep end with floaters on." Clint Green, Keyframe's producer on the series, points out that the company has "quite a repertoire of animation behind us. So is it throwing us in the deep end in terms of a series? Yes, but in terms of animation, no; we knew exactly how we wanted to accomplish this. We've developed pipelines to get TV series effects work done, so we knew what we needed to do to make it work."
Season two of Pinky needed to be animated quickly, and, according to Cranford, Flash just wouldn't do. "We've used Flash here before, but on a project this size it's just too slow in terms of being able to move things about. You have to go down levels just to move an arm, then up to another level to move the elbow, then you have to redo the keyframes and tell it what kind of move you want to make. It's not a very artist-friendly system. We wanted to do some things we'd been experimenting with here."
Keyframe came up with an Autodesk 3ds Max-based production model for a CG version of Pinky. "We wanted something more rig based that would let an artist choose whether to use forward or inverse kinematics and lock their [characters'] feet to ground easily. When you rig a character it takes things to a whole other level; you can change costumes but keep animation, have a general character who you dress up with different skin, hair or sweaters and create a crowd of people. And you can put them in a 3D environment that your camera flies through like a pop-up book."
Keyframe did a quick test and showed it to Cartoon Pizza. The company liked what it saw, as did the people at CBeebies. "The first note we got from the BBC was: 'We love the new look,'" recollects Cranford. "That made it an easy sell for Sesame Workshop." But the biggest hurdle may have been the Jinkins family's "kitchen table focus group," where, according to Jinkins, his son saw the test and pronounced it "both cool and great."
"We had to do it our way" to get the episodes completed on schedule, says Green, "while keeping the visual style similar for the existing audience. We introduced the new look into the show very slowly. The characters still look 95% like they did in the first season, but we've added slight visual pluses in the way the camera moves through shots and more 3D elements in the background. We can have Pinky do things that would've been a lot more difficult in Flash."
When the virtual camera moves laterally through the scene, it creates what Green refers to as "parallax scrolling" -- a multiplane look that gives shots extra depth and the pop-up book effect Cranford describes. "The characters are still flat," Cranford adds. "We try not to rotate the camera around them, but have it go left or right or push through them. No matter which way it goes they'll always be facing camera.
"The beauty of all this is our pipeline our technical directors wrote at the beginning of production. It organized all the maps and created all the directories; we had automatic file check-in and check-out so no one could overwrite anyone else's files. New iterations were automatically labeled 'version 2' and the previous one dropped into an archive. The artists didn't have to worry about where to save things, all of that was done for them. All they had to do was concentrate on the animation. It sped the process up tremendously."
The no-hassles pipeline let Keyframe bring on and train new people with the greatest of ease, sometimes taking recent animation school graduates and putting them to work within two weeks. "We hired a woman who had only worked on paper [doing hand-drawn animation]. The only thing had to show her was where to find files, and make sure she ran time frames on bottom of her screen. Everything else was 'connect the arm and move it where you want. If you want new hand, look at the [onscreen] window;' we literally had a window full of hands she could choose from -- that's how easy we made the pipeline.
"To give you idea just how easy it was, we had a 'bring your kids to work day.' Darren brought his ninth grader son and his friend here. By the time they left, they were actually animating. It wasn't good animation, but they were able to understand the system."
For Monier-Williams, season two of Pinky Dinky Doo is "gorgeous, absolutely stunning. The show has always been a photo-imagery/animation mix, but this brings it a little deeper. Now the hardwood floors don't just have a 3D look, but you can see the wood grain in the floor and the sheen on it. When Pinky dances, she's not just moving right or left, she actually swings her hips and bends her knees. It's a much more fluid and richer look." The new look (together with a revamped website) has boosted the show's popularity; Monier-Williams speculates "we might wake up one day and all of a sudden we're producing season three" before quickly adding "but right now that's not in the cards."
Did the "beat the clock" pace of production and the R&D of developing the pipeline blow the season two budget into the stratosphere? According to Cranford, the reverse was true. "It boils down to how fast you can get them out and how few people you have on your labor force. By the end of the show, we had two teams of eight animators and we were putting out one show every 10 days."
Finished shots went into a queue for overnight rendering, followed by a morning screening of 'dailies.' Because the backgrounds in Pinky were for the most part two-dimensional artwork, computers that normally had to digest large amounts of geometry to create 3D images could render some shots in less than a second a frame.
"We shaved approximately three months off the production versus season one," Cranford boasts. "Cartoon Pizza had over 60 people working in Flash for three months longer than we were in production. We had a total of 30 people including management. Our overall budget was under $200,000 Canadian per episode. The Canadian dollar was 20% higher [than the U.S. dollar] at beginning of the deal. The week we started production it went 20 points below and didn't go back up until the week we finished -- it was like a bowl with us in the middle. We were never told the budget for season one but they had three months of additional labor to pay for." (Monier-Williams says the budgets for the two seasons were "almost the same. We had some greater efficiencies [in the second season] because the characters were already developed and the research already done, so there wasn't as much upfront investment in the second season.")
"This hadn't been done before, it was certainly something different," Cranford sums up. "The beauty of this is this is our pipeline. We can do other 2D series with it and it will work just as fine. They may not all fit in as easily as Pinky Dinky Doo did, but doing 2D like this is certainly the way to go."
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.