Archive for November, 2013


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What do you hear from parents and kids who’ve seen you play the Grinch? Are they scared of him or do they pretty much get the joke?

“It’s up to two factors – the text has to tell a story that even the youngest kids can understand, and the production crew and the actors must deliver an atmosphere and a performance that finds the central message and communicates it. So with that in mind, we all know the Grinch is a grumpy guy, he frowns, he sings about being annoyed with Christmas. But kids know he is broken in some way. They see his silly behaviors, and they understand that the Grinch isn’t scary, he’s sad.

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It’s a fine line, but Dr. Seuss created a character with real emotions, it all started with his book and the values in it. The book was a reaction to the way Christmas was changing after World War Two – the commercialization of the holiday, the emphasis on material things. We dress up the story with music and dancing and a lot of silly fun. But the foundation was set in stone many years ago.”

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Now you’re playing a role that kids will remember forever.

“It’s what helps get me on stage sometimes three or four times a day. Our first director, Jack O’Brien, encouraged us to remember that we are telling a simple, honest story to a new generation of kids. For many of them, it will be their first experience in a large theatre, seeing a big production. So not only will they carry a Christmas memory with them, in many cases they’ll take away a larger-than-life experience that might encourage them to go see live theatre throughout their lives.”

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Two of your signature roles, Robbie Rotten and the Grinch, have you wearing a lot of makeup, yet you are able to communicate emotion to the audience. How do you use your body to do that?

“It’s the same old story, it’s not about the makeup. That’s just the cherry on top. As an actor, makeup is just one of your tools, like dancing ability or a nice singing voice. Audiences watch an actor’s eyes, that’s where we’re able to get a message across. And kids do that too, they watch an adult’s eyes to see where they stand, in the home or in the classroom. And kids in the audience, they know when something isn’t real or authentic. No amount of makeup will fool a kid. Kids are the most difficult and also the most rewarding audience. They keep performers honest.”

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You’ve become known for your physical comedy, much like Charlie Chaplin. Have you studied him?

“Oh yes. My university thesis was on Charlie Chaplin and his art. One of the stories that really touched me the reason he created the character of the Tramp, it was a key to so many things he did later. When Chaplin was a boy, his mother was sick and his father had to find work far away. Charlie and his brother Sid would play, but when they got hungry, there was no food. So Charlie and Sid would sit in the alley behind a neighborhood bakery. They couldn’t afford to buy bread so they would just close their eyes and smell the freshly baked breads and pastries. They would imagine that they were eating it, and for a short while, they felt full! They could go back and play with their friends until they felt hungry again, then it was back to the alley to imagine some more delicious food. That’s the power of imagination, and the power of Charlie’s connection to who he was before he found fame. People at their most basic. And so you show your imagination on stage – if you do it properly it’s like doing research on the human condition. How far can we go here?”

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Obviously you’re very comfortable on stage. Do you manipulate your performances to match what’s going on with the audience? Do you get a sense of where they’re at and then use that to guide you?

“What goes on between an actor and the audience, at its best, is a dialogue. Sometimes you watch an actor on stage and somehow the performance isn’t getting through. The fourth wall is not only closed, it’s soundproofed. That’s because the actor isn’t connecting with the living and breathing human beings in the room with him. The audience feels the distance and they react accordingly.”

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As an actor, you have to fire up your sensors at 100 percent all the time. You have to be in touch with all those heartbeats in the audience, connect with them. Sometimes during the Grinch performances, a child will shout out something. And I’ll turn right around, look them in the eye and respond to them. They light up like a Christmas tree – the Grinch talked to me!”

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Do you see yourself as a role model, since many of your roles are geared toward children?

“I’m sure I am to some kids, but it’s the characters I play, they’re really the point, not me personally. I work to be a good role model to my own kids, that’s what parents do. But my public life is about the characters I play, and what kids can take away from those performances.”

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Tell us about your anti-bully project.

“I’ve always been interested in promoting the anti-bullying effort, and my organization, Regnbogabörn, has found many successes. Recently we started a web site, which is sort of like TED.com. It’s called Lectures.is, and we present speakers who deliver helpful messages, no longer than seventeen minutes, on a wide range of topics that will help parents, teachers and victims of bullying. The web site is designed to give people more information about various conditions like ADHD, Asberger’s, and others, so that we can recognize our differences and understand them. We think that will help to decrease bullying to some degree.”

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How do you feel about the state of live theatre these days?

“It means so much to me, this work we do. You know, every time there’s a recession, the first thing that goes on the budget chopping block is the arts. People question why we should pay for something we don’t need. It’s just people playing around, indulging themselves.

But I ask: can we not afford beauty? Is something that elevates our lives, raises our awareness, increases our humanity, is that worth preserving? One member of the Icelandic Parliament put it very well, I thought. He said those who think that money gives you all the wealth in life, they’re actually quite poor. And I agree with that.”

 * For tickets and more information about Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! see: http://www.grinchmusical.com/buy-tickets

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Back in 1939, when Bob Kane and Bill Finger created the Batman character, no one could have anticipated the global phenomenon it would become. Comic books, TV shows, cartoons, movies – they have been a staple of kids’ lives for over 70 years. The movies alone have become a billion-dollar industry, with everyone from George Clooney to Christian Bale to Ben Affleck donning the cowl.

But something truly incredible happened this week, you may have seen the news article or watched the video. A young boy from San Francisco, in remission from leukemia, was granted his heart’s desire from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Five-year old Miles Scott’s wish was to battle bad guys with Batman – and the city of San Francisco came through with an amazing display of generosity – and melodrama.

Patricia Wilson, of the Foundation, arranged to have Miles save the city, now transformed into Gotham City, alongside his caped hero. Hundreds of people volunteered to help, and many more turned out to cheer Miles on as he swooped from one dilemma to the next, saving damsels and arresting villains.

The pictures tell the story: a little boy’s wish came true, thanks to some incredibly good people, and a cartoon that was created a lifetime ago. 

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Becky Fisher works as an independent education consultant for various organizations including Edutopia, EdSurge, and Drawp. She loves building things that promote creativity and believes that education technology should be cultivating a generation of passionate learners. Becky has a master’s degree in education from Harvard University and currently resides in San Francisco.

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Can you describe the mission of Edutopia?

“The mission of Edutopia is to improve the overall K-12 learning process for all stakeholders. We want to be a place where teachers, administrators, parents, and community members can come together and both learn and talk about education. Edutopia has a rich community, which makes it very unique. Anyone can ask questions and receive advice, bloggers receive multiple responses to their posts, and teachers have a wide array of resources at their fingertips. It’s a great blend of learning, sharing, and community building.”

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What role does entertaining kids have in the world of education? Have kids grown up being entertained so much that they have a hard time learning without that component?

“Learning should always be entertaining. This is a huge problem in education because traditional learning and school have always had a reputation for being “boring”. But growing up, and I bet many people can relate, my most effective teachers made material come to life in an engaging and entertaining way. As a teacher I tried my best to uphold this methodology.

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These days there is more emphasis placed on making learning fun, entertaining, and interactive. Somehow, these adjectives have become synonymous with technology and gamification, but we often forget that the path of the learning entertainment industry, sometimes referred to as ‘edutainment’, was originally forged by the groundbreaking show in Sesame Street. Back when TV was the only method of entertainment and edutainment, and Sesame Street was one of the only sources of learning in the media, there was little worry about the effect it had on children in the classroom.”

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Now that students can access learning and games on multiple devices, that worry has increased significantly. Will students have a hard time learning in the classroom without the presences of “edutainment”? Do students need an iPad to be able to focus? Has this type of entertainment increased the presence of ADD? Without the proper research, these questions are hard to answer.

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I argue that the increase in available learning technologies is a good thing. Maybe the way we entertain children has changed, but children have always craved this type of learning. Learning should be playful, fun, and exciting, no matter its form. Ultimately, it’s a teacher’s job to deliver the material in an interesting and relevant way. There’s no denying that students can learn without iPads, videos, or gamifying lesson plans. However, these things are not necessary to ignite wonder within a child. At it’s core, learning should always strive to be entertaining, no matter what form it takes.”

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What can kids learn from multimedia storytelling?

“Storytelling is arguably the most important skill that one will acquire in their lifetime. And multimedia storytelling is especially significant because it allows for stories to be relayed in whatever form the teller is most comfortable with. In our modern age, everyone needs to be able to tell a story. From resumes, to TED talks, to concerts, to coding, storytelling is a ubiquitous part of our lives, and the ability to tell a complete, relatable, and coherent story is an important life skill.

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Kids are currently consuming media at a higher rate than any previous generation, and the content creation that is occurring is by far the most exciting. Kids as young as 4 or 5 can create videos, cartoons, code, and more, and there is a growing emphasis on this culture of creation. With proper education kids can not only create content, but generate effective and educational material that is consumed by others. In the future, I predict that personal YouTube channels are going to tell as much about a person as their Facebook Page, with content collected over years of making.

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Multimedia storytelling teaches kids that they can be who they are and express themselves in a medium that they are most comfortable with. It empowers youth to share their voice, whether through dance, music, abstract art, photography, writing, doodling, poetry, cooking, or any other medium through which a story can be told (and there are many). If a student wants to compose an etude or an R&B song to share their story, shouldn’t that be as relevant as a story that can be read from a book? In this way, multimedia storytelling can open up a world of creation to students who identify with any means of expression.”

Since kids are growing up immersed in technology, often by themselves playing a game or a hand-held device, is the future of learning headed toward a solo school experience?

“Education and learning throughout your lifetime is a holistic experience. It does not happen at one time, in one place, or with one person. Nor, will it ever. Therefore, I do not believe that the future of learning will ever be a solo school experience. However, I do believe that the way students learn in schools is changing and the classroom of the future looks very different from the classroom of today, though there are glimpses of it in the present.

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A ‘one size fits all’ education is no longer relevant. Students learn at different paces, in different ways, and it is our job as educators and education influencers to be sure all students’ needs are being met. I believe that a blended learning model is the future of classroom learning. This model assesses each child in all subjects and allows teachers to meet each student where they are. Blended learning allows students to learn at their own pace through a variety of methods include online and offline, in-class instruction and tablet learning. Peer-to-peer learning can also be a strength in this type of classroom. The flexibility in this methodology is intended to reach every student and give him or her the greatest chance for success.

There are many different classroom techniques that are currently seeing lots of success, including project-based learning, game-based learning, flipped classrooms, and even the old-fashioned chalk-and-talk (in some circumstances). Though I believe the future of classroom learning will be vary from school to school, the blended learning model can be applied to a variety of schools from public to private, large to small, and urban to rural. No matter where you are from, there will always be students with differing needs and abilities. Though I can’t picture the future of learning headed towards a solo school experience, our current path indicates that learning will be much more individualized.

How can music play a role in a child’s’ education?

“Music, along with the rest of the arts, is crucial to a well-rounded education. Just as multimedia storytelling is arguably the most important skill to learn, the arts are arguably the most important way for students to find and channel their voice. Although kids should always learn that it’s okay to fail, the arts provide a safe space in which to do so.

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When I taught music I used a Hungarian methodology called The Kodály Method. Essentially, it uses games and folk songs to teach students how to read, sing, and play music. My goal was to teach music as a language and have all students fluent by grade 5. Ultimately, I wanted to teach music as a hard skill that could be used in the future when they sign up for their college choir or play in a band. But in practice, the take-away is much deeper than that. Students took ownership of their work and pride in their creative failures and successes. I learned many things from my students, but the most important lesson was how the arts help develop soft skills like empathy, creativity, teamwork, confidence, and responsibility. These skills build character and provide the tools for students to transform into who they want to be.”

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Bússi Sigurðsson is at the producing helm of one of TV’s premiere brands – LazyTown. He oversees several hundred dedicated production staff members, ensuring that thousands of moving parts somehow come together to create the hyper-kinetic series.

Where does your core responsibility lie in producing a show for kids?  

 “Making sure that we remain true to the core concept of bettering the lives of children. A show like LazyTown has a special responsibility. We’re an entertainment property for sure, but we’re more than that. We’ve asked parents to believe in us as a safe, responsible partner in helping to educate their kids about healthy choices. That’s something that every one of us feels, from the show’s creator to the newest employees who join us. It’s a personal mission for all of us.”

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How do you balance the needs of budget and schedule with the creative content of the show? 

 “It’s not easy. If we had our preference, we’d probably like to take a few weeks to create every episode. They’re simply that complicated, on a production level. We have established a certain look and feel that audiences have come to expect, and we don’t want to lower our standards, regardless of budgetary and schedule restraints. We have a first-rate team who can come up with a solution to any problem that arises, and often the most creative answers come when we’re in a pinch and we need a way to reach the goal line. We love big ideas, we love telling larger-than-life stories – but we also want to be good partners with Turner, bearing in mind that this is, after all, a business.”

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What is your proudest achievement in the entertainment industry?

 “Lazytown is the top – it is hands-down the premiere project of my professional life. I´m really proud of being a part of this fantastic show with such a great message. And the team is the best I’ve worked with.”

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There are so many platforms that present kids’ TV shows – laptops, Ipads, etc. Do you take these things into consideration when producing a show?

 “Yes we do – especially here in Iceland, where we’re all pretty mad for new technology. But a good story is still the key. The show has elements that can be tailored to different platform needs. but it’s not our main concern. That said, we are always trying to think ahead, to anticipate where the entertainment industry is headed. We produce live theater shows, apps, music CDs, talking books, and many others. LazyTown is a brand that really lends itself to multiple platforms. But again, without a good story, well told, we’d be lost. We place enormous emphasis on our story development – and we have gone nearly fifty drafts of some scripts, in an effort to make sure they are just right.”

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You work on shows that are seen all around the world. Does that ever seem incredible to you, or is it all just part of the industry now?

 “It’s something that a kid growing up in Iceland would never really imagine. This is a small market, and despite the fact that there are world-class production facilities and exceptionally-trained professionals, LazyTown’s penetration into the global market has exceeded anything I could have imagined.”

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What are your biggest surprises about producing a globally-viewed show?

 “Having such an active fan base in all age groups. Our fans are incredibly loyal, they start online forums about the show, they are in contact with us here, they incorporate our healthy message into their own lives. It’s hard to imagine another show that both kids and parents willingly accept into their homes on this level.”

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Do you get many chances to exhale and say, “That’s a perfect show,” or do you always feel that there’s something else that needs to be done?

 “We haven’t done the perfect show yet and not sure we ever will. You can always do better, there’s almost always another detail, another edit, another special effect you wish you could have time for. Part of being a producer of a show like this is learning that, at some point, I have to make the call to send the product out the door. We have partners and obligations, and in order to continue to keep making these shows, we will always honor our commitments.”

 A favorite kids’ show from your childhood?

 “Felix the Cat” really early on but then “Tom & Jerry.” I still love them!”

 

 

Industry Insider Interview: Hey Arnold’s Craig Bartlett

You studied painting in Europe as a young man – it sounds romantic and epic. Obviously you moved in a different direction, but was that time of your life an important part of what you’ve done since? 

“It was! I remember confessing to my sculpture teacher in Portland that I was afraid if I went away for a year to go to Italy, I might lose touch with my classmates at the art school. He laughed and said that I was doing something way more important than any of those friendships: I was going to Italy to get my mind blown and I would never be the same. Those friendships would still be in Portland when I got back, or they wouldn’t – it didn’t matter at all. He was right, of course! I think about those days in Italy, where I turned 21, all the time. Whenever I talk at colleges, I tell students to take a year and travel, and not to worry about how relevant it is to their studies – it’s way more important to just get out of our little bubble and see something different! And of course Italy was unbelievably beautiful and amazing”

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When you returned to the US, you worked with Will Vinton, the famous stop-motion director. Stop-motion is such a precise and painstaking art form; how did you like the actual creative part of that discipline? Do you feel that, given an opportunity, you could have remained in stop motion for your entire career? Is it something you’d care to revisit some day?

“What a great first job out of school (if you don’t count all the crappy jobs I did to make money before Will hired me). It was a complete filmmaking apprenticeship. You’re right, there’s nothing like stop-motion animation. It’s really meditative. I loved it, and I think I learned to multi-task in those days. I might have stayed with stop-motion it if I didn’t move to LA. There was just so much 2D going on here, I had to get into it.”

 

At the time the stop-motion Mark Twain film was released, the Vinton studio was at its peak, and the project received a lot of attention. Have you seen it lately, and do you feel it holds up?

“I remember really enjoying it the last time I saw it. To me, it’s a trip down memory lane. The film’s storyline is episodic, with short stories contained within the larger frame. It evokes really vivid memories of our little group making all those bits, in different parts of Will’s studio, which was a little cube of space attached to a Victorian house and a barbershop. I made some great friends there. I’m still in touch with them. Watching my own stop-motion animation, I have a kind of visceral response, as if those days and weeks in Portland are still somewhere in my cellular memory.”

 

What was your role on Return to Oz? How was it to be an integral part of such a legendary property?

“I animated a few segments – the Nome Spy that appears on rocks and rock walls and then goes down underground to report to the Nome King. It was great to work on that project, because I’m an Oz fan (the 1939 movie and the books), but I was afraid from the start that the film was doomed to not succeed at the box office, because everyone has such a deep connection to the 1939 version, and there was no way a film made in the ‘80s could have the same vibe (and director Walter Murch actually wanted to call back the earlier turn-of-the-century vibe of the books). So it was perceived as dark and kind of joyless, even though I thought it was really good. But Walter is a brilliant guy and I was already a fan – he’d done the sound and picture editing for “American Graffiti” and “Apocalypse Now” so when he came to Portland I always tried to ask him stuff about his career.”

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You moved from fantasy to a kind of madness, with Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Were you part of the in-house team of creators when you made the Penny films? What was the atmosphere like within that inner circle?

“I worked with the other animation units (the ant farm, the fridge, the mouse hole dinosaur family) and we were kind of marginalized, set up in a warehouse workspace far from the Hollywood studio where the live action part was shot. So I didn’t feel like I was in the creative inner circle. But I had a lot of freedom and autonomy making Penny, so I was fine with it. It was one of the most fun jobs ever. In my small way I was really proud to be part of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” which I think was a great and absolutely unique show. There’s been nothing like it on TV since.”

 

Hey Arnold! seems like it was on a fast train from initial pitch to pickup to first airing. That was a decent leap of faith on the part of the Nick execs – was that due to your powers of persuasion or the charm of the property?

“Ha, all the above! Actually to me it seemed to take forever. But I think those mid-90s were a particularly good time to launch an animated series and find an audience. We were set to deliver the first episodes by end of ’95, but Nick held them till October ’96 because they had the idea to use “Hey Arnold!” as the opener of their new prime time initiative. So they actually sat on that whole first season and let us build up a stockpile of episodes. It made me feel like they had great confidence in the series. Our VP Herb Scannell said we didn’t have to worry about killing ‘em right out of the gate, that we had time to find an audience, but it turns out that when “Hey Arnold!” finally premiered, it got really good numbers and everyone felt satisfied that they had made the right moves.”

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The music in Arnold was tremendously important to the stories; how closely did you work with the composer, and would any of those tracks ever be released publicly?

 “Jim Lang was already a friend before we started “Hey Arnold!” But that Arnold pilot was the beginning of a long, fruitful relationship between us. He is a great musician, and it was always fun to spot an episode with him, tell him about the emotions that I would like to feel, and know that Jim would come back in a couple weeks with something amazing. I still play Arnold music to work to or when I drive around, and I think how lucky I was to have my own composer, making tunes that would always be personal and meaningful to me. Plus, he can be really funny and funky! Some of our tunes were released by Nickelodeon on collections. Nick should put out a strictly Arnold compilation though.”

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Hey Arnold almost seemed Dickensian at times. The stories were rooted in some of the most realistic emotions ever seen in a kid’s show. Was that a conscious move, to stake out that territory?

 “Thanks for the Dickens shout out! He’s one of my favorites. Yes, I wanted to find our own edge that would make us different from the other cartoon shows, and it turns out that our edge was emotions. We had real kids doing the voices, which already gives you a kind of emotional authenticity. No one can play a kid like an actual kid. And the leads were so strong, especially Francesca Smith, who played Helga, that the actors and the writers made a kind of feedback loop of creativity, and together we workshopped the characters into deeper and darker territory. I got a lot of support from Nickelodeon – they responded to the emotional authenticity as well. They liked the realistic kid emotions and the bluesy-jazzy soundtrack.”

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 Who/What/Where is Snee-Oosh?

 “Good question! I spent my teenage years living on Snee-Oosh beach in Laconner, Washington. It’s on the Swinomish Indian Reservation, in the north end of Puget Sound. “Snee-Oosh” in Swinomish means “beach facing westward.” When I started “Hey Arnold!” I needed to start a loan-out corporation, so I named it after my childhood home.”

 

Your work with Bob Rogers and BRC – creating films for World’s Fairs and theme parks – they seem larger than life in scope. Do you have to do more, visually, in a compacted amount of time in order to hold the audience’s attention?

 “Yes, all the projects that I did for Bob Rogers are “special venue films.” They come out of world’s fairs, which would be built to last for six months and then be taken down, but Bob has been focusing on more permanent venues in recent years. The venue itself is always different than a regular theater. It’s more of a complete experience, and that includes the architecture, lighting and sound design, and the visuals. And the running time for the shows is shorter – people in these special venues are on their feet more – so it’s more packed with details than a regular film experience.”

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Dinosaurs and trains – two of the most popular boy concepts known to the entertainment industry. I guess the question is, what took them so long!

“Ha! I thought of “Dinosaur Train” probably in 1992, when Mathias was 3.  I’d watch him playing with piles of trains and piles of dinosaurs. I told my wife, “If I made a cartoon show about dinosaurs on a train, I’d have all the 4-year-olds at hello.” And then I pitched it off and on for about 15 years – Nick Jr. passed on it, Cartoon Network passed on it, Disney Jr. passed on it. Finally my friend Linda Simensky moved to PBS and then she picked it up. The whole 15 years, I was worried that someone else would do it! It just seemed so… inevitable. Thank God it’s finally on the air and I can take credit for it.”

Industry Insider Interview: Television Executive Richard Rowe

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Richard Rowe joined Turner Broadcasting in 2002 after completing 2 years media production at the university of Surrey, and 2 years of media and information at the University of Brighton. He was hired into the CNUK programming team where he was responsible for putting together the UK schedules for CN, Boomerang and Toonami. In 2004 he moved into Acquisitions and Development as a coordinator, where his main duties were to assist on co-productions and acquisition deals. In 2006 he took the role of Acquisitions Executive and later Acquisitions manager for EMEA, where his role focused on executing deals and commissioning local content alongside the VP of Acquisitions. Recently he has taken the role of Director of Acquisitions and Original Series, covering all content pitches within EMEA. During his time at Turner, he has been heavily involved with the launch of the UK preschool channel, Cartoonito, as well as spending 3months in our Hong Kong HQ, gaining a greater understanding of the Asian market.

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By now you must have heard thousands of pitches for new shows. What is it that makes one stand head and shoulders over another?

“I think there are 3 things that can make a pitch really stand out.  (in no particular order)

1- If a pitcher knows the story/idea inside out and can look you in the eye through the pitch you know that they truly believe in the idea.  Whether it’s a producer/creator/sales person if they don’t believe in the show 100%, then why would anyone else?

2- The pitcher should have a good understanding of the needs of who they are pitching to.  Know what’s on the schedule, know what the top shows are, and have an idea where the show being pitched would fit in.  A good tip is to put yourself in the shoes of the buyer.

3 – Pitch something that is so wonderfully original that any broadcaster would seriously have to think twice about missing out on it.” 

 

You spent time in Asia, exploring the television market there. Are there cultural differences that must be addressed, or do you find that children are pretty much the same everywhere?

 “There are certainly big cultural differences.  We see it not just with Asia and Europe, but within those markets too.  England and France are 20 miles apart but thousands apart culturally.  In Asia one of my colleagues gave me a ‘crash course’ in cultural differences and said that ‘if a show has a dragon in, then it will work in South East Asia, if it has a snake, then it will work in India’!’ So for sure, we need to be aware of cultural differences, but the success of a number of kids programmes show that there are also many underlying similarities with children around the globe.  Programmes with strong visual comedy like Mr Bean, Spongebob or The Amazing World of Gumball will work anywhere.  I also think that strong preschool properties have a good chance of global success because children are a lot less developed and less exposed to culture at this age.  Live action shows can be harder because of dubbing and casting issues, but Disney have showed that global live action success is possible.  Finally I think it’s important to state that certain cultural issues can quite literally not be addressed for certain parts of the world.  Peppa Pig is one of the best kids shows of all time, yet will almost certainly struggle in Muslim countries.  The funniest example I ever encountered was Fireman Sam apparently would never work in Turkey because being a fireman is not a respected profession in that country!!”

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In the motion picture industry, they rely heavily on franchises, with conceivably ready-made audiences. Is there a corollary within the world of childrens’ TV with popular book series? Is it easier to launch a show on network that has a built-in fan base, or does that make your job that much more difficult, meeting expectations?

 

“Launching shows that have a built in fan base is normally a positive in the kids business.  It takes some of the risk out of making the decision, and creatively you have less to worry about because so much is already known about the characters.  The challenge PAN regional broadcasters have with Book properties is that very often books are only popular in certain markets.  Books like Tintin and Asterix were huge in UK and France but relatively unknown elsewhere.  Other challenges with book properties can be working with the authors, and in some cases meeting expectations of the fan base too.  Live action tends to be the medium that most ‘upsets’ the fans if a show doesn’t live up to the book.  We see this a lot with movies, and the same can be said of a few kids TV shows.  Animation is a little easier, especially with superhero comics but it’s not exempt from those problems.” 

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It seems that each new show that comes along pushes the envelope in terms of style and animation – we now have CGI, stop motion, green screen, etc. Will simple hand-drawn animation ever make a comeback? Has it simply become too expensive?

 

“With any business, price and time are hugely important.  Whilst the animation industry will not be exempt from those pressures, you could argue that because it is also a creative industry, that anything is possible.  I don’t think we’ll see hand drawn animation making a grand comeback unless people can speed it up and be competitive on price.  However it should always have a place…  Lupus Film did a wonderful job on the Snowman and Snowdog and I know it got a very large audience on Channel 4.  However i think it took nearly 2 years to make a 24min film…and that is probably why a wholesale comeback is unlikely.” 

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Have you become aware of any fan fiction based on your shows? If so, what do you think of the phenomenon of kids writing their own versions of popular TV fare?

“I’ve not seen any first hand experience of kids writing their own versions of our shows, to be honest.  We did sometimes run competitions for kids to draw and write about characters that they’d like to see in their favourite shows and then animate the best one into an episode.  Some of those were exceptionally creative.”

 

Do you watch TV in your off time, or have you had enough by the end of the day?

“I actually watch more TV at home than I do at work!  I absolutely love TV, way more than movies, and continue to prove my mother wrong who told me that watching too much as a kid was bad for me!  I probably take it to an extreme as I will even watch Netflix on my phone in bed before I go to sleep!  When you have shows out there as good as Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire, Band of Brothers, 24, Prison Break, Arrested Development, South Park, Seinfeld, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Sopranos, Walking Dead, Dexter, Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Office, All the BBC Nature Programmes, The Premier League, The NFL, The PGA Tour…plus many more and throw movies on top…how could you not want to see all of them!  I have a big smile on my face just thinking about it !”

 

 

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Before creating Cogno, Stuart developed educational and fun products for families by publishing a parenting magazine and other content-based pieces for young families who purchase 12-15 million McDonald’s Happy Meals every week. He orchestrated integrated promotions for the 11,000-restaurant McDonald’s system, one of which was publicly recognized by the First Lady and by the Secretary of Education. He negotiated national media and marketing agreements with Fortune 500 Companies including General Motors, McDonald’s, and Procter & Gamble, as well as with the Department of Education, the U.S. Postal Service and not-for-profit agencies.  He has consulted in marketing, business strategy and branding for organizations such as Clear Channel Communications, and led a consulting team to reform the U.S. Postal Service’s strategy and branding for its primary online presence,

 

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Years of effort have gone into the creation of Cogno – would you say it represents the essential ideas you’d like to offer readers? Or have you only scratched the surface?

I think the stories and games accomplish the central mission as they stand, because the mission is to inspire kids to think critically and imaginatively. Every product we created hopefully delivered on this. But, in terms of the “world” of Cogno… the depth of plot, the richness of the characters, and all the future possibilities, we’ve only scratched the surface of that potential. In a sense, I consider the characters and stories the engine, because they are what engage children and make them want to come back again and again. So the engine has a lot of miles left on it, but it will always drive a vehicle that embodies the mission.

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Do you consider Cogno an entertainment property that teaches or a teaching property that entertains?

Definitely the former. I made a decision at the outset that I wanted Cogno to be a household name. I wanted children to think about Cogno as fondly as they think about Star Wars or Harry Potter. To do that, it needs to be entertaining first. Only if it entertains and engages are we allowed to tickle their brains into action. Plenty of products need to lead with education, but they require a more captive audience to ever be more than a niche success.

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What are the greatest challenges in bringing a property like Cogno to market?

Two things: Distribution of product, and the chicken/egg of success and licensing. Distribution is increasingly difficult without tie-in to an existing property (TV, book, etc.). So for a property that aspires to be its own multimedia brand, it’s a daily battle to get distribution. The key is to lead with a product or two that are strong enough to sell themselves, or to have big money to splash a first success. We led with a $30 board game. We should have led with books or a $10-29 game. We spent two much time on a product with a non-mass price point, and slogged it out in specialty stores and with independent reps. Second, there is the chicken/egg: Our plan is to license the IP for various categories, and we worked to create reach to customers and enough sales to break through the barrier to our first licensee. The 2009 downturn made licensing even tougher than it already was. If I started over I would have started with books/stories, built a following, then licensed the books to a publisher (or today, perhaps self-publish), and look to license the characters for a TV show. Let games follow later.

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You’ve meticulously planned and executed so much material for Cogno – do you see the adventures continuing?

Absolutely. Fortunately our purpose and mission are more timely than ever. Stimulating kids to use their imagination and even to love science is a great and growing need. And as evidenced by the Marvel Comics movies, Harry Potter, etc…. character brands are still huge and powerful vehicles. Every time someone involved in the creative or entertainment world sees Cogno, it piques their interest. We will have partners create new products in the categories of books or mobile apps, likely, and hopefully give Cogno a new start. All the IP was hibernated and is ready for re-animation someday!

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When you first got the idea for Cogno, did you have any idea that, years later, you would still be developing material and markets for it?

While developing of the first board game prototype, I envisioned the multi-media character brand vision. I worked in consumer branded products for young families, so I knew how big these things can be. I tried to close my eyes to the immense hurdles farther down the road and took it step by step. Sometimes I wish I had failed faster and redirected the marketing away from games at retail sooner, but I love that we’ve built this crazy-big foundation of content, products and characters. It hurt me financially but the experience was like nothing else! So, I guess I hoped I would be doing it the rest of my life and be sitting at my version of Skywalker Ranch, deciding which license to grant next … and more importantly, have impacted and inspired millions of kids to use their noggins and in the process, rebrand science for the next generation. I haven’t yet given up that dream.

 

 

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