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‘City Island’: Aaron Augenblick’s Most Autobiographical Project Yet

After more than 2 decades in adult animation, the director pays homage to impactful shows like ‘Sesame Street’ in his first kids’ series; featuring civics lessons involving a diverse citizenry of trees, cars, and buildings, each with its own name and personality, the show debuts 10 new episodes on January 23.

Over the course of 24 years, animator, producer, and director Aaron Augenblick has carried the torch for adult animation, helping to transform an industry that, for most of the 20th century, was mostly geared toward kids. But after spending the entirety of his career building Augenblick Studios, developing gritty and dark animated comedies with Comedy Central, Adult Swim, and Netflix, Augenblick has pivoted his focus. 

Just last year, collaborating with Ugly Americans executive producer Daniel Powell, Augenblick started Future Brain Media with a focus on “bringing a unique perspective and aesthetic to the children’s media landscape.” Currently, Future Brain’s main project is producing a 2D animated PBS KIDS series, City Island, whose first 10 episodes are available on, with 10 new episodes airing Monday, January 23. 

“I started my studio right out of college,” says Augenblick of his Brooklyn-based Augenblick Studios. “So, after two decades, I came to a point where I said, ‘Okay, I've done this for a while, and I know how to do this. What are the places that I haven't been yet?’ I happened to be talking to Daniel Powell, who greenlit my first show, Golden Age. I've known Dan for a long time, and we were chatting about the things that we would want to do, and we both, at the same time, said, ‘Something for kids.’ Both of us had companies that focused on adult entertainment, and we wanted to try something fresh and new.”

Augenblick and Powell got together in a room with a small group of their favorite creators and began to brainstorm ideas about a city, filled with anthropomorphic characters inspired by Sesame Street and Fleischer cartoons. The three-minute shorts, with animation direction from Katie Wendt and art direction from renowned cartoonist Gemma Correll, features a civics curriculum to highlight topics like cooperation and conflict resolution. The series is set in a thriving metropolis that includes local organizations, government institutions, and a diverse citizenry where every car, tree, and building has a name, voice, personality, and back story.

“I've always loved living in cities, and I've never really gotten to animate one, even though it's a giant influence on me,” says Augenblick, who says kids’ series like Sesame Street were a main guidepost for the team. “Originally, the idea was that there would be a human kid that either fell asleep and woke up in City Island or ran away and ended up there, kind of like Where the Wild Things Are. But, pretty quickly, the least interesting part of the show was the human. All anyone wanted to talk about was these crazy living objects.”

He continues, “And somebody said, ‘What if, what if there was no human?’ And I was like, ‘Then, the city itself could be the show, and the main character could be this little lightbulb with big ideas. We could name him Watt.’ And that was the beginning of City Island. That’s how fast it came together.”

The show’s music is composed by Tunde Adebimpe, actor and lead singer for Brooklyn band, TV on the Radio. Tunde is also an animator who Augenblick met while the composer was doing stop-motion animation for Celebrity Death Match and while Augenblick was working on the show Daria

“He’s a genius,” notes Augenblick. “Basically, I left MTV to start my studio and he left MTV to become a rockstar.”

Despite the vast amounts of adult animation characters Augenblick has developed for both personal and collaborative projects through his Brooklyn studio, he says that it’s the curious little lightbulb Watt who is “the most autobiographical character I've ever created.”

“Whenever I wonder, ‘What would Watt do?’ in any given situation, all I have to do is remember myself when I was eight, because I was exactly like Watt,” shares Augenblick. “I was very excited about everything. I had all kinds of crazy schemes. I loved playing around with my friends. And most of the time, my ambition was way bigger than my knowledge. Which lends to really exciting adventures. But it also causes a lot of stumbles along the way. And that's essentially what the show is about, wanting to do things and wanting to learn and wanting to go on adventures and wanting to help, but not necessarily knowing how to do that yet.”

Augenblick’s goal is that young audiences will learn about this kind of critical decision-making and community building along with Watt when they are watching the show and see themselves and their friends in these animated characters, even if they are kites, bikes, paper bags, lamps, markers, and baseball caps.

“When I was in kindergarten, the teacher gave an assignment that everyone had to draw a portrait of their family,” remembers Augenblick. “When my mom came to pick me up, the teacher said to her, ‘I'd love for you to see this portrait that Aaron did of the family.’ She looked at it, and it was my mom, my dad, me, my brother, and Bugs Bunny. I truly believed Bugs Bunny was actually a part of our family. And I think that's such an exciting idea, that kids can feel such a friendship towards cartoon characters. I'm just so happy that Watt and his friends could possibly be one of those characters for someone else.”

The whole show pays homage to the kids’ series Augenblick and his team grew up with, including the abstract stylings of cartoons from UPA (United Productions of America), active from the 1940s through the 1970s and known for the Mister Magoo TV series, as well as the organized and colorful chaos of Richard Scarry’s Busytown

“I was always one of those kids that liked complicated things and Richard Scarry would have these pages where you're seeing a whole street–a car over there, a building there, a manhole this way, and a construction site down the way–and I would just stare at those images,” Augenblick muses. “I was so obsessed with that. And to this day, you can see it in our Augenblick Studios’ cartoons.”

From their animated Superbowl commercials for app Expensify, to personal projects like The Adventures of Drunky and short film segment, “The Ten – Lying Rhino” from David Wain’s animated feature, The Ten, wide city shots and sequences packing as many characters into a scene as possible have been a signature of Augenblick’s adult animation for years. Now, they get the chance to immerse kids in their marvelously detailed and busy animated world.

“That might be the design direction I've most consistently used in the 24 years my studio has been around,” notes Augenblick. “You don't want anything too organized because then it gets boring. And you don't want anything too chaotic because then it's overwhelming. But people like Richard Scarry, and shows like Sesame Street, have always been really good at finding that sweet spot, where you can have a lot of information and be immersed in the world but where it’s organized enough that it feels comfortable. That's always been our goal.”

While reflecting on the many influences melded together to create, as Augenblick puts it, the “shiny new thing” that became City Island, the animator notes that Sesame Street was not only perhaps the biggest influence on their kids’ series, but also likely the biggest influence on his childhood. 

I'm an art school kid and a movie lover, so I've watched countless movies; everything from animated films to foreign films and documentaries, thrillers and horror,” he says. “I love everything. But, looking over my life, I can't imagine there was a more important thing that I've ever watched than Sesame Street. I watched it at such a formative age and had never seen anything like it. It was so funny and so visually exciting, and I swear you could trace almost everything I've ever made creatively back to Sesame Street in some way.”

And while Augenblick knows the profound influence his studio has had on creating a new understanding of adult animation, he’s excited to embrace the important, weighty responsibility of creating animation that can inform and impact the rest of a child’s life. 

“It’s a big responsibility,” he acknowledges. “This being my first kids’ series that I've ever created and showrun, that was a new experience, carrying the responsibility of a very young person seeing this and this being their first exposure to all these kinds of ideas and themes. It was something that I was very mindful of.”

That mindfulness was one of the reasons PBS KIDS–which launched the new branding (previously PTV) the same year as Augenblick Studios–was the perfect fit for City Island. Featuring TV programming like Dragon Tales, Between the Lions, Anne of Green Gables, and Sesame Street, their focus has been on series designed for improving the literacy, math, and social-emotional skills of children ages three to nine. 

“Everything they do is very meaningful,” says Augenblick. “They're not out to just make sugary cereal. It's important to them that everything they do is both entertaining and worthwhile. So, what they brought [to the project] was incomparable.”

As a kid from the late Generation X period (1965 to 1980) who grew up watching animated shows from the “60s Golden Age” to the “90s Renaissance” and “2000s Revival,” Augenblick believes many of today’s animators have one foot in the world of adult animation and one foot in the realm of kids programming. Why? To provide animation for adults that grew up with animation as a primary entertainment influence, while also providing a new generation with influential shows they will take with them into adulthood.  

“We’re all made up of our influences and the things that we've enjoyed over the years, and so much of what made me who I am today was animation,” says Augenblick. “And the majority of animation you see is kids’ animation. You're always going to grow up on kids’ cartoons and Disney movies. I used to read a ton of comic strips from ‘Peanuts’ to ‘Garfield.’ All that stuff stays in your brain somewhere, because the brain is an amazing place that seems to be a limitless archive.”

He continues, “So the fact that you grew up on all that stuff, you can't help but have that as a part of your visual language. And, for a lot of my career, it was using that to parody either cartoons or politics, like with Wonder Showzen. With City Island, it was interesting to use the same influences, from Disney to Looney Tunes to UPA to Richard Scarry to Sesame Street but use them in a more direct and sincere homage.”

Along with sincere, City Island, in true Augenblick fashion, aims to be as funny and visually dynamic as possible. And one of the upcoming new episodes, “Pets,” is a favorite of Augenblick’s.

“It focuses on Watt volunteering at a pet shelter, where he has to take care of a shy little pug, whose design is a can of seltzer,” says Augenblick. “We named him Fizz. It may be the purely cutest episode we’ve done.”

For those who haven’t seen the series yet, Augenblick recommends the musical episode “Celebration.” It’s a New Year's episode that features no dialogue but celebrates the skills of the show’s animators. The episode is made up of many long, continuous shots with minimal cut-aways and maximum wide-shot city views. Viewers would have to pause each sequence for several minutes at a time to catch all the details inputted into each frame. 

“I tried to apply all of our techniques that we've honed over the years,” says Augenblick. “It's rare in animation that you can have such an undiluted vision, especially with the visuals. [City Island] really is the vision of Gemma and her approach to cartoons, in addition to my sensibility with storytelling. We're not limited by real perspective. So, we can do those big, giant flat shots of the city, where you can see so many characters, and they're all relatively the same size, and you can see the buildings and the windows and the cars and the people, and it's a really nice way for us to be able to approach the show to get that type of organized chaos.”

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at