Showrunner and executive producer Tone Thyne talks about his charming new animated preschool series, based on the ‘Sago Mini World’ app, which features Harvey the floppy-eared dog and models optimism, kindness, and gratitude, now streaming on Apple TV+.
Like the show’s colorful, yet texture-free 2D animation, the theme behind Tone Thyne’s new series, Sago Mini Friends, now airing on Apple TV+, may seem simple, but it belies concepts with potential for powerful impact. As to the show’s foundational concept of “gratitude,” the executive producer and showrunner hopes that this simple, yet sincere subject inspires not only its current viewers, but creates a positive ripple effect that shapes future generations as well.
Produced by Daytime Emmy Award-nominated Spin Master Entertainment and animated by 9 Story Media Group’s Emmy Award-winning studio, Brown Bag Films, the Sago Mini Friends series is based on the characters and designs featured in the award-winning Sago Mini World app, developed by Sago Mini, a subsidiary of Toca Boca, the No. 1 mobile-first kids brand in the App Store.
Sago Mini Friends - executive produced by Thyne, (Wonder Pets!), along with Paw Patrol’s Jennifer Dodge and Ronnen Harary, as well as Esme & Roy’s Dustin Ferrer - features a floppy-eared dog named Harvey and his best friends Jinja the cat, Jack the rabbit, and Robin the bird. Along with a unique cast of residents as colorful as their own whimsical world, the four friends play, explore, imagine, and celebrate daily in their joyful town of Sagoville. In each episode, Harvey and all his friends express their true thankfulness for all things, big and small, through optimism, kindness, preschool-friendly humor and original songs.
There’s certainly a lot of fun and flare, but the concept of gratitude still centers the series, so much so that the team hired Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky - a professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside and an expert in the science of happiness - to serve as a “gratitude expert” on the show. Dr. Lyubomirsky joined the team via Apple TV+’s changemakers initiative, where the network and noted educators have committed to creating enriching TV series for children.
AWN talked with Thyne about how Sago Mini World captured his eye for a television series, why gratitude was such an important concept to embed into the show, and what sets this series apart from other musical preschool series released over the last few years.
First, check out one of the show’s fun music videos:
Victoria Davis: What was it about the Sago Mini game that attracted you to make it into a TV series?
Tone Thyne: Spin Master has adored watching young fans gleefully interacting for hours with the playful community of characters featured in the Sago Mini app. The boundless fun that preschoolers experience when actively embarking on silly, fantastical adventures has always been a joyful inspiration to us. The winning elements that we celebrate in the app are the same ingredients we strive to include in each and every broadcast series.
Our sincere hope is that Sago Mini Friends will be a natural continuation of the Sago Mini app, sparking creativity, inspiring imaginative play, and offering an added gentle guiding principle of gratitude to our young viewers.
VD: How does this show set itself apart from other preschool kids’ animation out there?
TT: Each whimsical episode takes inspiration from daily scenarios in life or play familiar to our young viewers then promptly turns that scenario on its ear. Leaf pools, mustache finders, thankful trees, and singing a lullaby to a loaf of bread are entirely commonplace in Sagoville. The overarching theme of gratitude sprinkled delicately into every playful story is a meaningful component that parents, caretakers, and young viewers will discover to be unique and refreshing.
VD: Why focus on the concept of gratitude?
TT: Gratitude is one of the many beautiful expressions of kindness. As children’s content creators, we have the honor of shaping adults of tomorrow that preschool viewers will be inspired to become. Our hope in making a show centering on gratitude is that children will emulate our characters. They will grow up appreciating the big and little things in their lives and go out of their way to be kind to one another. That kindness will be infectious, and our world will be a better place as a result. The opportunity to make that kind of impact in the world is a gift I cherish daily.
VD: What went into the design decisions for this series? What were your goals for the look of the show?
TT: The colorful Sago Mini app showcases such an engaging simplicity bursting with visual charm. Our extremely talented partners at Brown Bag Films and I were vigilant about paying homage to the app’s signature look and winning visual style. We carefully steered clear of reflections, shadows and depths of field that could even hint at a 3D technique.
The crisp simplicity of both the character and background art emulates a bygone style of flat 2D animation while giving the show a fresh, striking look. Harvey and friends were able to run, jump, roller-skate, sip tea with turkeys, and dance to the tune emitted from a musical shoe thanks to Brown Bag’s expert use of Toon Boom’s 2D Harmony program.
VD: Why was it important to have this series look like the original game? What did you want to change? What did you want to add?
TT: We know that many of our young viewers have spent hours and hours with the beautifully designed Sago Mini characters featured in the Sago Mini app. Our beloved Harvey, Jack, Jinja, Robin, and the whole Sagoville community are already best friends with our viewers. As such, we strove to stay true to the existing visual style. An immediate one-to-one familiarity was always a creative priority.
Having said that, some minor modifications were made for animation. In the app, the characters have button eyes. We’ve adjusted them for animation in a way that allows the characters to express more effectively. And, most notably, the characters in the app vocalize by way of cute, non-verbal sounds; however, the same characters in the show speak (and sing) in full sentences thanks to a brilliant cast of child actors playing our young characters, and hilarious adults in the roles of the grown-ups in town.
VD: You’ve also added original music to this Sago universe.
TT: Each 22-minute episode of Sago Mini Friends consists of two consistently hilarious 10-minute episodes with a catchy two-minute music video in the creamy Oreo center. The main star of the series is the signature upbeat music written by the enormously talented Paul Buckley. I dare any human alive to watch an episode and not end up humming the signature “Thank You” song that wraps up each episode.
VD: Why was Brown Bag Films the right choice for animating this project?
TT: Effective visual storytelling for a 3-5-year-old audience is an art form unlike any other. Young viewers need to be guided through the action on screen. They require constant context and clear representation of the subject matter. Pacing should be swift enough to be engaging, yet slow enough to allow preschoolers to keep up. Apart from Brown Bag Film’s impeccable track record for creating best-in-class animation, they are behind several of the industry’s most effective preschool series [such as Doc McStuffins and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood].
VD: Were there any big production challenges? What was the hardest aspect of bringing this show to life?
TT: Ask this question of anyone who has created any content in the last two years, and they’ll give you the same answer. COVID-19. Production is always an unpredictable rapscallion but trying to follow a predetermined production pipeline amidst a global pandemic offered a new kind of challenge that rivaled any other. Luckily, we have the advantage of technology that allowed virtual writer rooms, director approvals, and a team of artists vigilantly working from their home stations.
Current digital tools allowed our production flow to continue to flow. Our partners at Vapor Music were nothing short of super-heroic in the way they finagled remote voiceover recordings. The construction of the makeshift pillow forts that our actors built in their home closets to record dialogue for the series could be fodder for an entire show of its own.
VD: What do you hope audiences take away from watching Sago Mini Friends? How do you hope it impacts viewers?
TT: The show features an adorable cast of lovable characters representing a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and species and the playful stories will delight viewers of any age. In addition to inspiring the principles of joy and gratitude for the citizens of tomorrow, we hope our show will be a ray of sunshine - or a bright and colorful rainbow spewed out of a singing unicorn’s horn - for our viewers.
As a natural extension of the Sago Mini app, we wish for Sago Mini Friends to playfully spark imagination and emulate the five important “Cs” showcased in the app: Curiosity, Creativity, Communication, Collaboration, and Creative problem-solving.