Creators Kelli Bixler and Drew Hodges discuss Season 2 of their Annie and Daytime Emmy Award-winning stop-motion animated kid’s series.
The wiggly caterpillar and cute blue fox are back – Season 2 Episodes 1-6 of Bix Pix Entertainment’s award-winning animated series Tumble Leaf drop today on Amazon Prime. A colorful and funny preschool series that garnered Annie, Daytime Emmy and Parents’ Choice awards for their inaugural season, Tumble Leaf mixes a bit of science, a bit of playful fun and a heap of beautiful, skillfully crafted stop-motion animation into a series of nature-filled adventures that have been a hit both with critics and audiences.
I recently spoke with series executive producers / show creators Kelli Bixler and Drew Hodges about what’s in store for Season 2 as well as the challenges they face wrangling a big stop-motion production on a TV show schedule and budget.
Dan Sarto: The show’s first season was a big hit both with critics and audiences. You guys won an Annie Award and Daytime Creative Emmy Award. The series is funny and smart, with a vibrant visual design style. And it’s done in stop-motion, which is such a wonderfully vivid and engaging story-telling animation technique. It’s also a difficult medium to master, especially working on tight TV series budgets and schedule.
Kelli Bixler: It makes us feel really happy that stop-motion is back again, at least for all of the studio owners and artists working in the medium. We love the fact that there is work in stop-motion again. It's incredibly exciting and justifying.
DS: Your show does such a good job mixing narrative and design to teach young kids in an amusing but engaging way that doesn’t talk down to them. Was it always your plan to use stop-motion, or were other techniques considered initially?
KB: Well Bix Pix Entertainment does stop-motion, period. This was always going to be a stop-motion show.
Drew Hodges: I'm a stop-motion animator. The joy of course in animation is to try and create a real world. I don’t know CG or hand-drawn very much, but I'm sure people who work in those mediums think similarly - they want to build the most realistic believable world they can using the tools they know.
For us, being able to utilize real things and real textures and in some ways try to push the limits is very rewarding. There are certainly limits to stop-motion, but we love trying to fight against them and see what serendipitous good things come from that fight. We sort of ignore the challenges of stop-motion. Yes, we can do water and yes, we can do all the things that we would love to do and hopefully, all those textures come together to help tell a story. We are sort of telling scientific referencing stories. We have to deal with the physics of light and optics and mirrors and capture, in-camera, as much of that as possible.
So, our scientific principles have to line up. If we are doing a show about mirrors, we have to figure out exactly how mirrors work. The tricks and things the characters are dealing with have to work. We have to have confidence in the lessons we're getting across.
KB: Actually, it's like art imitates life, or life imitates art. To answer your question more thematically, "Why this is unlike a lot of other shows that are out there," it's because we want to do something we would want to watch ourselves. That's the case with everything we do. We remember when we were four, five and six and it's a magical time. That's how we got into it.
DS: So what can we expect to see in the new season?
DH: A lot more of everything. In Season 1, we hinted at a few different possibilities of where the world could go. We’ll be dealing with things like mirrors and a bigger balloon boat. There's a bigger sense of adventure this season. We know so much more about the world and are able to explore all sorts of new places and add bigger set pieces like waterfalls. But, we’ll also focus on small things too, with more relatable moments.
We looked at Season 1 and found what the best parts of those episodes were. We want to push the sets and scope of things bigger, but also have little, realistic moments like looking at a little beetle or looking under a rock. Hopefully, those are both there and well showcased.
KB: We’ve also developed the characters a little bit. In Season 1, we were just getting to know our characters and putting them into various situations. Season 2 gave us an opportunity to say, “Oh, OK, we know a little bit more about Hedge now, so let's do a Hedge story” where it goes into a new direction.
DS: So how many episodes in the first Amazon batch release?
KB: They give us 13 episodes, each which are two 11 minute episodes put together. Episodes 1-6, which are 12 individual stories, launch December 11th. Amazon usually gives us between 14-16 months from start to finish to produce all 13 episodes. Episodes 7-13 will be released sometime mid-next year.
DS: So from a storytelling standpoint, how do you marry teaching and entertainment together so well? It’s not easy. Do you use some sort of special sauce or mystical powers?
DH: Well [laughing] I think one of the surprising things is just how difficult that is. For us, because play is such a big part of our curriculum, that gives us a lot of opportunities. Once we have an idea we want to get across, we start to narrow it down. We come up with the story first, then think of the object that will best go with that story. It all starts to shape the science that goes with it. If it's a mirror, let’s say, we're talking about reflection or being able to pass light from one mirror to another. There are so many things you can talk about with each object. We pick a few and then the story sort of coalesces around those. The pieces fit within that - all we need is the characters to solve a problem and have fun doing it. As long as the characters are having fun.
Once it becomes a little game or an activity that the kids can do, hopefully, in the best of times, they don’t notice that we're sending this carefully crafted idea so they can think, at the end, "Oh, I figured something out. If I do this and this then I can help solve a problem." But ultimately, we just try to make sure, no matter what we're doing, that there's got to be something funny in there.
KB: It's about fun. If the character is having a good time, then hopefully the audience will as well.
DS: From a production standpoint, can you reuse some of the sets and props across episodes, or do you have to build most things from scratch for each and every new story?
DH: Stop-motion is a bit of a destructive process to begin with. We're always drilling through sets. So there's a life to these things no matter what. But we certainly start from how we can change something we already have just a little bit to use it on something new.
For good or bad, we also have a big imagination and keep pushing that into the world we’re building. It’s like, “Aw, man, this story would be told best if we just create this new environment.” Even though at the end of last season we didn't have that many reusable sets, we certainly had many things that were constantly re-clad, rebuilt and re-purposed. Tumble Leaf itself is an endless world. We're not sure if it's an island and it's constantly shifting, so there isn't the “post office” or other normal locations we rely on. Luckily we get to create new environments that help tell the story.
KB: We do reuse things where possible. Something that was just a little path becomes something else, because it has greenery or terrain. A mountain can become a cliff for example.
DH: I think it would be fun to look closely at the episodes to see the results of some of that. “Hey, wait a minute, wasn't that thing from that other story? It's just got more moss on it now.”
DS: All told, how big a crew do you have?
KB: At our biggest, we approach the 70s. I think we got to 81 at some point this season. We do it in stages. Our storyboard team comes on first and then the post department is the last one to go. But I would say total is between 50-80 people.
DS: How many animators in that group? How much concurrent animation is being created?
KB: At any given time, we have between 12-18 animators, just depending on the schedule. We shoot roughly 5-7 episodes at a time.
DH: It's about 20 stages.
KB: It's a constant puzzle to schedule.
DH: Yeah, it's a lot.
DS: Are you doing any CG set extensions, any visual effects here and there for water or to remove rigs?
DH: Yeah. Definitely. Almost every shot has rigs in it, because we try to push the animation beyond normal stop-motion. There is a lot of rig removal. We try to do as much in-camera as possible. Usually, we reserve visual effects for things like smoke or dust, enhancements mostly. We've done a bit of CG water, but recently we've been doing almost all in-camera water. Even the waterfall you'll see in one of these first 6 episodes is all in-camera. We do all motion-control lighting effects.
DS: What about using replacement facial parts. How are you handling the eye, nose and mouth movements?
DH: All of the mouths use replacement parts. They're hand sculpted. I think each character has 12-20 different facial expressions. They're just magnetized - we put them on one at a time. The eyes are little plastic disks that sit on top of the face, so those have to be manipulated by hand. Same thing with eyebrows and eyelids. The mouths are the fastest things to pop on and off, but everything else has to be manipulated by the animator.
DS: Are you using any 3D printing for any replacement parts or props?
DH: Yeah, this season we’ve integrated some rapid 3D printing, mostly for props, although we did just do our first miniature versions of the puppets. We scanned them in and we're trying production with the printers. They’re just coming off the line now.
KB: It's great.
DH: Having that [technology] at our disposal has really helped increase the level of detail and speed with which we can produce things.
DS: So overall, what have been the biggest challenges on this show?
DH: For me, because we’re doing so many different episodes at the same time, it's making sure we maintain the right level of energy on the stages for every single shot, every single day. It all ends up translating into the footage. Making sure that the crew is happy and enthused and we're getting every spontaneous idea that we can get that we haven’t thought of before. It's never done until, well, until it has to be done. Making sure that everyone is always spontaneous and ready to give it their all.
KB: It's such a challenge, keeping the quality of work high while dealing with the timeline of a schedule and the matter-a-fact budget. It's always tricky, we're always pushing it. But it's a great problem to have [laughs].
DS: So, when all is said and done, what’s the most rewarding part of working on this show?
KB: When it all comes together. We show footage every week and sometimes people bring their kids in. They’re watching it for the first time. They have no context, but they'll laugh at it, they'll call out to the screen, even watching something in such raw form. You see that and say, “That’s why we're doing this."
DH: Because it's for kids, seeing our work enjoyed beyond these four walls is the most fun.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.