Margie Cohn and Dave Smith discuss their new 2D comedy talk show series for kids featuring the iconic characters now available on Netflix.
As highlighted by last month’s earnings announcement, DreamWorks Animation’s television production efforts are beginning to positively impact the studio’s bottom line. A key part of their current TV programming effort is a strategic partnership with Netflix, the online streaming entertainment platform, with whom they hope to reach a new generation of binge watching youngsters and parents with bulk episode releases of series such as DinoTrux and most recently, The Mr. Peabody & Sherman Show. Dawn of the Croods is set for Netflix release this coming December 24.
Moving in a completely different visual and creative direction from the studio’s 2014 Mr. Peabody & Sherman animated feature, the new series, released in an initial block of 13x23 minute episodes, finds our intrepid dog and his boy hosting their own TV variety show. Produced in 2D in collaboration with Vancouver animation studio DHX, the show within a show mixes time travel adventures with talk show sendups, all broadcast from a set within our heroes’ swanky Templeton Tower penthouse.
I recently had a chance to chat with DreamWorks head of television Margie Cohn and the show’s executive producer David Smith, who talked about their new show as well as the studio’s recent push into binge watching streaming animation kid’s television.
Dan Sarto: With the launch of The Mr. Peabody & Sherman Show on Netflix, it seems DreamWorks continues to push into TV animation with shows derived from the studio’s feature film properties.
Margie Cohn: I think that is definitely part of the initial strategy. When we pick properties, we look for things that have legs, where we can tell lots of stories. Then we look for people who are passionate about those stories, because that's of paramount importance if we're going to have to a great show. Dave [Smith] had a take on Peabody and Sherman that felt like an animation lover’s take, and it felt like a really good way to continue with the property.
DSarto: Mr. Peabody and Sherman have always been “smart” characters. They’ve always gone back in time to visit “real” historical characters and help them solve “real” problems in a humorous way. How do you bring that sensibility to a new kid’s audience?
David Smith: Well, the Jay Ward sensibility, tone, sophistication and wit with his original writing, no one can top that. He was a genius and his peers were geniuses. He never talked down to kids, and he never specifically tried to push away kids from his viewing audience either. We’re taking that as a stepping off point. That's really all we can do - just enjoy what we do, what makes us laugh, what makes the child inside of us laugh, what makes the adult inside of us laugh, and hope all age groups get to enjoy this together. That's really our goal. It's kind of just natural to us. I hope we're smart, I hope we're stupid, I hope we're all of it. I want to be highbrow and lowbrow all at the same time because lowbrow can work for adults as well. You just want to enjoy jokes. History is full of incredible intelligence and innovation. Our hope is to lampoon it with a sophisticated eye. I hope we're as smart as Jay Ward, that's all I can say.
MC: Dave is really delivering on two levels because none of them [the historical events] are true even though they’re notarized. Each time travel adventure is notarized by a notary public in the show, verifying that it is true. But if you know who the person [the historical figure in the episode] is you see the little seeds [of truth] that have been left in that parents will enjoy. The kids who are our audience, they don't learn world history until they're in high school usually. We hope to peak their interest - maybe they'll go and Google things. The way the characters are presented is funny and very relatable. Parents will be laughing for one reason, and kids will be laughing for another.
DSmith: The name of the historical figure is accurate, the time and place is accurate. The achievement that needs to get done is all true. It's the journey to get there which is one hundred percent lampooned and fabricated.
DSarto: I’m sure you started from a big list of historical figures. How did you whittle it down to the ones used in the first set of episodes?
DSmith: It just came down to what made us laugh. Of course we had a huge list, but I don't think there was any real process to it.
MC: There are also issues of public domain.
DSmith: That’s true. We can't work with people of historical influence past 1915. There were a few small exceptions. We were able to use Winston Churchill and people in public offices. But in general, the historical figure has to have passed away before 1915. Beyond that, the list is endless. Thank you, History. Whatever makes us laugh.
DSarto: The new show is part variety show and part traveling back in history. The original TV show it’s based on is over 50 years old. What is it about this property that you think will most resonate with a brand new audience?
DSmith: I just think the fact that there is time travel in general [is appealing to kids]. That's already a done deal for me. To be able to go back in time and also to bring history into the present in this variety show format, I really hope that both aspects of this show are going to resonate and impact people’s minds, imaginations and hearts. The ingredients are just perfect for me. That's why we came up with the concept in the first place because those are all the ingredients that I loved as a kid and I love as an adult. I hope that both kids and adults love it now.
MC: Also, the guys really dug deeper into the relationship between Mr. Peabody and Sherman, which is at the core of the series. It's kind of an unusual father and son relationship, but it's great, and it's very relatable.
DSarto: How are you handling production? How much are you doing at DreamWorks and who are you working with to handle the bulk of the animation production itself?
DSmith: We are a board driven show. We do it super old-school, which I love. The pre-production is done in the states. We work with writers to create an outline. Then the outline goes to the board artists. From there it's pitched to the crew - we try to make people laugh, we try to make sure the story is clear, we work with DreamWorks, and we all have a good time. Then the design, the record, the animatic editing, that kind of stuff is all done in Los Angeles.
DHX in Vancouver then takes those puzzle pieces and does the animation production. I love working with DHX. We don't just send over note sheets along with the materials. We personally walk through every single episode with DHX animators, artists and technicians. They really bring their talent and skill to the table.
They aren’t just assembling the puzzle pieces. They explore different character animation, lighting and painting. It’s really an incredible collaboration between DreamWorks LA and DHX in Vancouver.
DSarto: How long did it take to get these first 13 episodes produced?
DSmith: A year and a half.
MC: One of the interesting things is with the speed of delivery, where we want to have these all out at the same time, and where we didn't do a pilot per se. The first few episodes drew a little bit of blood from people. Ultimately, knowing we were continuing to produce a full 13 episodes infused the team with energy. We weren't stopping and waiting for 8,000 people to have an opinion before we could continue. There was momentum that culminated in some really great content.
DSarto: Launching a block of shows all at once for binge watching on a streaming platform provides a new way for kids to consume an animated TV show. What are you looking for with regards to judging the show’s overall success? Traditional TV has always been measured with a set of metrics that aren’t applicable to online streaming. With this show, what metrics are you're looking for, and how are you measuring success?
MC: This is a new frontier. We've had product out in the streaming world since December of 2013. We premiered with five episodes and now we have a hundred and something out there. I don’t think we know what true success looks like yet. So far it's about the zeitgeist. There's a lot of talk and buzz about shows on social media. We get feedback from our friends and our families. We're starting to have retailers ask us when are we making product. There are going to be a whole bunch of ways to measure success, but I can't say we know what all those predictors are right now. It is a brave new world, and we are producing the only kid’s original animated series on Netflix. Kids have to learn that new model as well. I think it's becoming more and more a part of their lifestyle habit but it's all so new. But I can't give you a black and white answer. It's still a work in progress.
DSarto: What were the biggest creative challenges you faced in bringing this show to Netflix?
DSmith: To be honest, it's been the smoothest, most joyful experience in my 22 years in the animation business. Knock on wood. I'm not kidding.
DSarto: How many times have you answered that question like that [laughs]?
DSmith: [Laughs] This is the only time I've been able to give that answer. The support from DreamWorks has been unprecedented. The incredible team formed both in Los Angeles and in Vancouver is the best. I'm not just paying lip service here. I have never been a part of a show that has been produced so collaboratively without ego. I can't wait to go to work every day. Honestly, there haven’t been any creative or technical hurdles.
DSarto: Then your work here is done [laughs]. How has this experience differed from work producing linear TV programming?
DSmith: Like Margie said, this is a new frontier. The only thing that is strange to me is that we produced 13 half-hours and no one saw any of them [until they were released online]. The very first episode was made so long ago. Normally, two weeks later it would be on TV and then we would already have a reaction. That is the weirdest thing. But other than that it's kind of business as usual on the creative side.
MC: With linear TV you might not get the reaction you want. It feels like you have to wait for the rating, then you've already been criticized and people are trying to impact the tail end of what you're working on because "Boys didn't watch that day," or, "Girls didn't watch." That's part of the liberation of this way of producing. Anyone who wants can go in there and stream and it's all counted as good. We can't say, "We're losing boys, we're losing girls." We have no idea.
DSarto: It's a different metric.
DSmith: It's an honor to be a part of it. That's all I can say. I've never felt more lucky in my life, in my career.
MC: David's very modest. But it's really an innovative format for an animated show, this live variety show interspersed with time travel. For a kids show, that's pretty cool.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
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