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Bix Pix Brings Great ‘Form’ to Apple TV+’s ‘Shape Island’ Kids’ Series

The Emmy and Annie Award-winning animation studio behind 'Tumble Leaf' helps creators Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen embrace the charm and limitation of stop-motion on their ‘Shapes’ book trilogy adaptation; the show, now streaming, follows Serious Square, Intrepid Circle, and Tricky Triangle’s silly adventures as the trio searches for answers and builds on their friendship.

Based on Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s best-selling trilogy of “Shapes” picture books, Apple TV+’s new stop-motion kids’ series, Shape Island, follows Serious Square, Intrepid Circle, and Tricky Triangle on silly adventures as they dig up some fun, search for answers, and build on their friendship - all while learning how to navigate each other’s differences. The show hits the streamer this past Friday, January 20.

Barnett and Klassen always envisioned their “Shapes” trilogy as ripe for development into a children’s series. Although packaged in simple shapes, the books’ characters are complex, with the stories offering a glimpse into their shared history, though only moments, in much larger lives.

Series development meant more expansive storytelling opportunities; the writing duo produced three scripts for three episodes while showcasing the versatility of the characters. Then, they compiled a show bible in which they included not only the “stuff” about the characters and visual rules for the show but also encapsulated their philosophy of telling stories to kids.

“We wanted every episode to be driven by our trio’s authentic personalities—as opposed to determined by a conventional plot, theme, or a lesson,” explains Barnett. “There are no good guys or bad guys in our show, and any character can be right or wrong, depending on the episode (and the viewer’s perspective). That approach requires a strong sense of who these characters really are.”

Once the series was underway, head writer Ryan Pequin stepped in to oversee the script writing. He immediately synced with the authors’ visions and understood what they were trying to accomplish.

At the first writers’ summit, Barnett describes a definite shift “in the room” when they evolved from pitching stories from what he refers to as “an outside-in approach—stories about a theme or lesson” to “an inside-out approach” with the team sharing vivid childhood memories, victories, embarrassments, and injustices.

“There’s wisdom and meaning in those stories we’re still thinking about from when we were kids, the stuff we still haven’t gotten over decades later,” he reflects.

Barnett said that in the series, like in the books, the storytelling had to start with a respect for children’s intellects, sharing, “the biggest sin in children’s storytelling is to give a simple answer to a kid’s complex question…. Also, it had to be really funny.”

Stop-motion was selected for the book adaption, Klassen shares, because “we knew we wanted the show to exist in three dimensions, as opposed to being flat. These characters, once you do make them three-dimensional, should feel toy-ish and small. If they felt bigger—say, person-sized—it gets a little weird, and you start to wonder what they actually are. When they look small, you kind of stop wondering that.”

Noting the book’s illustrations were simple to keep kids involved and make them feel like they could also draw these characters or places, Klassen says, “We wanted the show to feel like that -- simple, not out of reach, with sand and blocks and felt, materials kids recognize and could see their way to using.”

Embracing stop-motion’s limitations and charm,  Emmy and Annie Award winning animation studio Bix Pix Entertainment (Tumble Leaf) came on board to bring the writer’s ideas to fruition. Though they fielded the writing team’s visions without limitation, the stop-motion studio’s animation team brought the knowledge of what would and wouldn’t work best in the medium. “I’m picturing the pained smiles at Bix Pix as we breezily asserted our firm grasp of what was reasonable to ask a stop-motion studio to execute,” muses Barnett. “It’s a testament to Drew’s [Bix Pix Entertainment animator Drew Hodges] flexibility -- and the skill of the entire crew.” He adds, “Bix Pix never said, ‘We can’t do that,’ and executed some very wild ideas with finesse.”

The design of the book’s characters was intentionally neutral, explains Klassen, adding, “ We knew we wanted kind of an atmospheric approach to the lighting and the visual mood of the show, and the clearer and simpler the characters are, both in silhouette and in their expressions, the more we thought there would be license to obscure them a bit with light or weather, etc. without losing them in a shot.”

With no villains in the stories - only heroes - neutrality was important. All the characters make mistakes, so by portraying them as basic shapes with a relative lack of complexity, the viewers’ allegiances can shift fluidly, depending on the story or episode.

“Square’s house and his furniture etc., are made of cubes, and the approach is simple and slightly textured,” Klassen continues. “Triangle lives in a pyramid, etc., but outside of that, we also wanted naturalism. Forests and rougher mountains and things, to help the island feel interesting and unpredictable, though never perilous.”

As for the actual animation, despite the characters graphical simplicity, their design required complex engineering and 3D printing. In addition, the props were also modeled and printed using SLA printers, helping maintain consistency with the smaller scale of the puppets.

“We modeled thin interchangeable panels that fit together precisely on an inner core structure using full color PolyJet and FDM printed parts,” explains Hodges. “By swapping panels, the puppets could grow arms and change expressions while maintaining a consistent watercolor texture inspired from the illustrated books the series is based on. Each puppet kit had nearly 100 different panels.”

The Bix Pix team set out to design a world that felt cozy, warm, and richly textured while staying simple, to keep the focus on the characters' faces and their emotions.

“Nature was rendered with cut paper ivy, died sawdust and glittering sand,” elaborated Hodges. “Everything is painted with multiple layers of texture to feel like a painting comes to life. Once we had this visual language, we were able to quickly mix and match elements like building blocks to keep the adventures moving to new places.”

He continues, “The puppets required the longest period of R&D as their designs broke nearly every rule of stop-motion puppetry. The resulting puppets also required new animation approaches.”

To keep the graphic design simple, the puppets had no knees and a limited number of ball and socket joints that made up the armatures. Square and Triangle had legs, but no feet or toes, and Circle always floated.

Hodges adds, “Ultimately, we found that these simplifications allowed us to create more complex and detailed performances by not getting distracted by a lot of secondary motion and normal human mechanics.”

Deciding to do in-camera HDR capture created photographic challenges, shares Hodge. “During early look development, we found that in-camera HDR images produced much greater, subtle detail and enhanced the painterly textures in our characters and world. Our team developed a completely new workflow for processing the multiple different exposures of each animated frame and creating HDR merged footage that defines the unique look of the series.”

Hodges goes on to note that computer-controlled motorized projectors created the lighting effects, with programmable RGB LED tubes illuminating the skies, allowing for mood changes without needing to change lamps or gels.

“Those skies were then replaced or enhanced in post, but the ambient spill light carried through for more seamless compositions,” he adds. “Effects like rain, water, and snow are built by VFX artists from practical elements like falling glass beads.”

According to Barnett, the project's biggest challenge was creating something that engages the audience. “Kids are the keenest, most thoughtful, most attentive audience you can have, and making stories worthy of their attention is the first and biggest challenge.”

Debbie Diamond Sarto's picture

Debbie Diamond Sarto is news editor at Animation World Network.